Tag: jennifer jason leigh

Amityville: The Awakening


Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror film with a standard premise of a family moving into a murder house, a standard execution of hauntings occurring at night, and a standard resolution in which nothing new is discovered or resolved. One gets the impression that writer-director Franck Khalfoun has never helmed a project in which horror, suspense, and thrills must be juggled in order to create a semblance of entertainment. Considering that he has “P2” and “Maniac” under his belt prior to this film, it is apparent he has learned nothing from them. The stench of mediocrity can be swallowed in every square inch of this lame horror outing.

The Amityville murder is a fascinating case because what had occurred in 112 Ocean Avenue was so horrific, the paranormal was employed to try to make sense of what had happened there. But the picture is not interested, not even slightly curious, in putting a new spin on a familiar territory. While it is somewhat fresh that the characters are aware that horror movies have been inspired by the house they now live in, the self-awareness is not matched by an intelligent or clever script. Due to boredom, I wondered how someone like Wes Craven might have carved the screenplay like a pumpkin so that the viewer can taste a distinct flavor on three fronts: the real-life murder, the current story being told in connection to the previous pictures, and as an exercise of the horror genre.

One of its many awful mistakes is treating the heroine, Belle (Bella Thorne), like an object to be desired rather than one to empathize with. Although Thorne is not the most versatile performer, it is not her fault that the person in charge behind the camera is adamant on making her look beautiful, always sporting cosmetics, unblemished, even when the character is supposed to be having the harshest days of living in an extremely stressful environment. Paranormal occurrences is one thing. Her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becoming increasingly obsessed with her twin brother (Cameron Monaghan) waking up from his two-year vegetative state is another beast entirely. There is even room for genuine human drama here but Khalfoun could not be bothered to strive a little more.

Another critical misstep is the lack of genuine horror. The rising action is mainly composed of nightmares and hallucinations which carry minimal consequences. Even putting this miscalculation aside, when one takes a closer look at the approach, experienced viewers are likely to see the jolts from a mile away. For instance, a scene almost always begins in a dark room and Belle feels compelled to investigate a noise in another darker room. Of course there is going to be a punchline—which is almost always an overused jump scare. The writer-director’s lack of creativity and inspiration gets exhausting after a while. What is his goal of making a pointless movie like this?

“Amityville: The Awakening” is dead on arrival, an iteration to be completely forgotten after several days—a well-earned sentence for being so ordinary that it dissolves in the mind the moment its images are processed in the brain. I would say that at least it is only approximately eighty-five minutes long but, thinking more about it, it is eighty-five minutes too long.

White Boy Rick


White Boy Rick (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

One might expect that telling the story of Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr., the youngest FBI informant in history at fourteen years of age who later became a drug dealer, would be compelling, but the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller chooses to traverse the standard tracks of a biographical drama. What results is a marginally interesting story—precisely because of the subject’s age and as a caucasian in a mostly black neighborhood—but with such generic rhythm and beat, it becomes apparent a third of the way through that the same story could have been told better, smarter, and more forcefully by writers who dare to turn the genre’s format inside out and upside down. Like the subject himself, the film is a waste of potential.

The central performances is the film’s greatest asset. Richie Merritt has a bright future ahead of him should he choose to continue playing roles that have meat on them as he does here. As White Boy Rick, he is convincing as a desperate young man who is so sick of being poor that he convinces himself that the only way to get out of it is to sell drugs—make money fast and all problems would flitter away. Supporting Merrit is Matthew McConaughey who plays Rick’s blue-collar father, under the magnifying glass of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane) for selling illegal firearms, who dreams of opening a video store someday.

When Merritt and McConaughey are front and center together, they prove to share great chemistry; they are convincing as father and son who are drowning and desperate to get out of the water. At the same time, they recognize that they are not the only ones in mortal danger. There is the cocaine-addicted sister and daughter (Bel Powley) who refuses to come home. I wished that the screenplay had honed in on the father-son relationship because there are a few scenes in the second hour that are so powerful, the viewer is likely to ponder about his or her relationship with his or her parents, regardless of one’s current standing. In a way, the writers have two tasks—one obvious and the other more subtle: to tell Rick’s story, specifically as an informant and a dealer, and to communicate the universality of parent-child relationships.

Less intriguing is the telling of Rick’s ascent toward the inner circle of a local drug dealer (YG). Although it appears that Rick has forged friendships within the group, it holds no importance for the audience when he refers to them as people with whom he cares about. The reason is because not one is developed, particularly Boo, not even on a skeletal level. It is strange because Boo is supposed be the subject’s best friend. The friend is portrayed by RJ Cyler who is no stranger when it comes to creating characters who are easy to care for or be curious about. The screenplay, too, relies too often on black stereotypes; would it have been too much to present some exceptions?

In the middle of “White Boy Rick,” directed by Yann Demange, is supposed to be a story of an injustice—a juvenile (although not in Michigan, one of only four states in the United States where seventeen-year-olds are tried as adults for criminal offenses) with whom the FBI took advantage of. Yet, curiously, the film invokes minimal outrage. Although vintage cars, poverty mixed with ennui, and the hopelessness of mid-1980s Detroit are alive, the drama is undercooked.

Annihilation


Annihilation (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based upon the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, offers a handful of images so bizarre, so intriguing, so horrifying that they stun the viewers into silence with mouth agape. This is the picture at its most powerful because it dares the viewer to look at the images closely; to examine their layers, colors, and textures; to imagine how they work on cellular and molecular levels; and to be terrorized by them. It is rare when sci-fi and horror collide to form a near-perfect fit. However, it falls just short of its maximum potential.

Debris from outer space hits a lighthouse. A strange translucent veil forms around the beacon and proceeds to expand its borders. There is fear that soon it will envelop nearby towns and cities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as The Shimmer and it is their goal to understand its cause and nature. Military personnel sent inside its growing borders to gather information have never returned… with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the partner of Johns Hopkins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Hoping to find answers regarding her partner’s disappearance for over a year, Lena, a former soldier, volunteers to go inside The Shimmer with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). They are not prepared for what they are about to discover.

Garland has a way of commanding the story in such a way that we are immediately placed in the middle of it. It is admirable how he is confident enough as writer-director to allow the audience to orient themselves and ask many questions. For some reason, many filmmakers within as well as outside the sci-fi genre are afraid to make the viewers feel uncomfortable or frustrated early on and so exposition—a whole lot of it to the point where at times the story never gets a chance to take off—is often utilized as bridge between introduction and action. Here, however, it is assumed that the people watching are intelligent, patient, and curious. The film is efficient with its time.

I admired the material most when the journey through The Shimmer screeches to a halt in order for us to have a chance to take a closer look at an organism. An alligator is not just an alligator, nor a bear just a bear. We note of the plants and flowers, where they are growing, and how, what is strange about them. We even get to appreciate molds growing on surfaces nearby carcasses. Human body parts are also fair game. And abandoned cameras almost always contain a horrifying recording. You learn to prepare yourself eventually. You take a deep breath and look. But then just as quickly you realize one cannot be prepared for these kind of nightmarish images. I was tickled by how disturbed I felt.

Although the film is not about characters but about generating visceral reactions, I felt as though a camaraderie amongst the explorers is nearly nonexistent. The characters do not need to be friends, but the performers do need to share strong chemistry. Note how the actors come across somewhat detached from one another and so the dialogue shared among them, especially when they are supposed to be connecting when personal histories are broached, lack a special punch. However, an argument can be made that the volunteers are so terrified that perhaps the sense of detachment is purposeful, that it is required they focus on their own selves and their own survival.

But without excuse is a weak final five minutes. Especially problematic for me is the would-be daring final shot that is supposed to incite questions. I could not and did not buy into it because such an approach is generic, so common in pedestrian sci-fi films. While it is not required that we get precise answers, and I prefer that we don’t, it is essential that we walk out of the story not feeling cheated. I felt cheated because the final image, despite the wealth of images the material has presented up to this point, is entirely unoriginal.

Anomalisa


Anomalisa (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Although the medium is animation, “Anomalisa,” directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is not for children but for adults who’ve lived. There is a consistent tinge of sadness to the picture as it briefly but specifically tackles a variety of thoughts and emotions, from one feeling trapped and helpless in a cycle of gloom to a rhapsodic encounter with a potential new partner. Its most adult trait, however, is it avoids pandering to the audience. It is up to us to interpret images like a character’s face coming off and why all of the characters, despite gender, have the same voice.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a published author who carries the weight of his mundane life on his shoulders. His unhappiness is apparent, he is short-tempered, tired, and he finds it difficult to make a meaningful connection. However, when he meets a fan named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) during a business trip, he feels there is something about her that is extraordinary. Perhaps being with her will eliminate the rut that has stuck to him like gum. He is even willing to give up his wife and child waiting for him at home in order to achieve that elusive happiness.

Even though the picture revolves around a character undergoing a crisis, it is often very funny in a dry way. Such a feat is already difficult to accomplish in live-action movies, so to pull it off—and to do it well—in the medium of stop-motion animation makes it all the more impressive. Essentially, these puppets must capture the most human qualities a person can have. Otherwise, everything just looks and feels forced or fake. The script, the voice actors, and the animators are able to form a successful synergy to create convincing situations and relatable, flawed, accessible characters.

Notice the sparing use of close-ups. When utilized, it is often effective because there is always life from behind the eyes. Thus, when a character talks about her insecurities, like being ugly, not feeling smart enough, being too meek or shy, we feel as though these are confessions of a person rather than of a stop-motion puppet or character.

Further, because we relate to her as a person, we cannot help but think about her positive qualities: she is warm, she is approachable, and she seems incapable of becoming someone else even if she tries. We understand exactly why the protagonist is drawn to her warmth, her light. We consider that perhaps they really are a great fit.

Kaufman’s screenplay also touches upon isolation and, perhaps most importantly, personal responsibility. The material is daring because there are suggestions found throughout that we, as individuals, are responsible for our own happiness, that achieving contentment requires hard work at times, not forgetting to check in with oneself every day, and learning to come to terms with the past and realizing that the past does not dictate the present or the future. “Anomalisa” is a film that inspires us to look at the art on screen and reflect the images from within. One way or another, it strikes a chord.

The Hateful Eight


The Hateful Eight (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Hateful Eight,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is not for the type of audience who would rather watch elaborate chase sequences or skyscrapers blow up every fifteen to twenty minutes—whether it is on mute or otherwise. It is, however, for the most part, for viewers who prefer to listen to extended dialogues as closely possible as lines uttered reveal—sometimes small, at times significant but almost always telling—traits of the individual, colorful characters that show up on screen.

The picture runs for about three hours and it is divided into six meticulously crafted chapters. After the fourth chapter, therein lies a sudden shift it tone and pacing—as if it were once a man in a drunken stupor suddenly jolting himself into full awareness and ready to sprint to the finish line. But one should not make the mistake of labeling the first four chapters as “boring.” Such a criticism, in this case, is most superficial—arguably to be an egregious error.

The first hour and a half is an exploration of who the characters are despite our first impressions. The more we get to know them, the likelier it is for us to care about what would happen to them eventually as the story drills deeper into the western mythos of justice, vengeance, and the roles people play as well as the archetypes fellowmen assign onto others in order to further define one’s self-perceived status. There is a level of intelligence, wit, and creative brazenness here that is not seen enough in movies of today.

As far as plot goes, it is very simple to follow. A man known around post-Civil War Wyoming as “The Hangman,” whose real name is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), has captured a murderous criminal named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There is bounty of ten thousand dollars—dead or alive—on her head and John Ruth is escorting her to a place called Red Rock to collect the sizable reward. Some say it is far easier to kill the criminal—that way, there is no chance that she will end up killing her captor instead—but according to the stories, once one is captured by The Hangman, he or she must hang. Though their trajectory is clear as day, they are forced to take refuge in a haberdashery due to an approaching blizzard.

Listen to the dialogue closely as the characters talk about race, make jokes, and tell stories that may or may not be true. (The story of a man’s final wish is likely to leave the viewer stirred.) Under the same roof are highly dangerous folks with volatile personalities. This being a Tarantino film, we know already that somebody is going to go off eventually. Thus, suspense is embedded into the marrow of the situation. As the figures begin to question and challenge one another’s beliefs, opinions, and values, we attempt to guess which one will break first. I did not guess correctly who would go for his gun first—and I was most elated by such an unpredictability.

While a slew of criticisms are likely to label the picture as slow—which is not entirely without validity—some movies, like this one, demand that it be as slow as molasses. In my opinion, we are meant to be absorbed as fully as possible into this world. The more subsumed we are into its overall universe with respect to the varying perception of each character, the more we are able to recognize the criticism the writer-director wishes to make—sometimes inadvertently—about how we relate (or fail to relate) to one another today. Yes, it has something to do with race relations, too.

As I watched “The Hateful Eight,” filled with very strong performances particularly by Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, I felt as though I was watching a work of a filmmaker who is not afraid to achieve his vision. Anybody is entitled to have their opinion of the film, but one cannot take away the fact that Tarantino made and presented his work the way he intended it to be. Others should aspire to follow.

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.

Short Cuts


Short Cuts (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This three-hour film is more personal than epic. Directed by Robert Altman, this mosaic of people who are living in Los Angeles is truly one of the best pictures of the 1990’s. I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to connect disparate characters which involve multiple storylines but this is the finest example of that kind of subgenre. What I love about it is that it doesn’t try to forcefully connect the characters; each transition and twist of fate happens in an organic way to the point where I can actually picture it happening in real life. I also liked the fact that it doesn’t try to tell a story about how one person changes for the better after going through a hardship. Instead, the film’s aim is to simply show who these characters are and how they respond to certain challenges that come knocking on their doors. I was involved in each storyline but the three that stood out for me was the bit about Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison’s son, Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine’s slowly crumbling marriage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn’s unexpressed frustrations. Other stories that focus on Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Annie Ross are interesting as well but those are more the peripheral storylines that serve to support the picture’s bigger themes. Despite it’s three-hour running time, I wanted to know more about these quirky characters. Even though their lives are painfully normal, enough strangeness happen to such lives that makes them completely believable. If one is a fan of movies involving intersecting lives, this is definitely the one to watch. I was expecting this film to be like “Paris, je t’aime” in order to prepare for the release of “New York, I Love You” (which I’m beyond excited for) but I got something so much more astute and rewarding.