Bird Box (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Bird Box” is an unsettling horror-thriller with a solid budget and yet it is not spent on CGI to parade creatures that, when seen, inspires the onlooker to commit suicide. Instead, it is spent on hiring strong performers who are capable of underlining the dramatic gravity of this specific story and delivering the necessary emotions at a drop of a hat. It is also spent on showcasing mass chaos where vehicles crash onto one another, people being set on fire, and other gruesome ways to die. The creature or entity remains invisible throughout the film’s running time but they remain to be a threat. It is the antithesis of M. Night Shyamalan’s dreadful “The Happening,” another film with an invisible enemy, because there is convincing humanity at the core of it.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman. There is a literal bird box and a metaphorical bird box. In the literal bird box, birds go crazy when the mysterious entity is around. In the metaphorical bird box, a house, people panic and make jaw-dropping mistakes—on purpose or by accident—when, too, the creature is nearby. Mistakes cost lives and we are reminded of this fact nearly every step of the way.
We experience the story through Sandra Bullock who plays the pregnant Malorie. After a terrible car accident, she ends up in a house with a group of strangers (John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, to name a few) with many opinions of what they should do next given that help is unlikely to come to them. Those familiar with survival, post-apocalyptic stories already know that they must perish before she does. It is all a matter of order. Still, there is the tension because director Susanne Bier takes enough moments to humanize big personalities. It requires a confident juggling act. Even the pessimist (Malkovich) is given a short but precious opportunity to connect with our protagonist in a meaningful way.
Another layer of complication is the current timeline in which Malorie must make her way down a dangerous river with two children in tow. All three must wear blindfolds because one glance at the creature means certain death. Events inside the house occurred five years prior to the desperate trip downriver. And yet both timelines are engaging in different ways. For instance, the horror inside the house is a slow burn, really highlighting the conflict among the cast of survivors. The horror out in the wilderness is immediate and even gut-wrenching at times. Because the material is so unforgiving, we believe eventually that not all three may live before the end credits.
The picture’s weakness is its insistence on pushing smaller personalities to the side. A case can be made that it is necessary given the time constraints of the medium. Perhaps it is better off as a mini-series so that every character can get the spotlight. In the middle of it, I wondered more than once whether the overall work might have been stronger if certain
characters were omitted for the sake of flow and truly streamlining the dynamics of the survivors in the house. For instance, Danielle Macdonald plays a pregnant woman named Olympia, but unlike her counterpart with child, she is less strong in mind, spirit, and physicality. This fact is acknowledged between them, but I would have appreciated more depth in their friendship. Perhaps having less characters could have paved the way for further exploration of this important relationship.
Still, “Bird Box” offers consistent mid- to high-level entertainment. In less intelligent and risk-taking hands, it could very well have turned into a bore less than halfway through. We have all seen horror films where characters end up being stuck in a house because of some killer or creature, and many of them ending up truly awful. This one moves forward at a good pace. Dull moments are uncommon but almost always carried by capable performances.
Red 2 (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Though Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are attempting to live a life of normalcy by playing everything safe, both of them are not exactly happy with where their relationship is heading. Sarah wants a bit of adventure and Frank has not killed anybody in months. It is most opportune that Marvin (John Malkovich) appears at a Costco aisle and informs Frank that an international ruckus is about to occur. It involves Nightingale, a project they had been involved in back in ’79. Sarah is thrilled to join the elite CIA operatives but Frank would rather have her stay in a safe house.
Based on the screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber, “Red 2” accomplishes very little despite its characters gallivanting across the world while being hunted by assassins. While it retains some of the charm of the predecessor, the story needs to be cleaned up a bit. Perhaps it would have been better if one less city was visited or two supporting characters were written out. Make room for more or extended friendly banters or show more serious moments to suggest there is something more to the characters than being good at wielding weapons. Since it fails to go behind its skeletal framework, the twists and turns end up disorganized and unfocused rather than being genuinely surprising.
The revolving doors of several characters’ loyalties grate the nerves. Since it occurs too often, every time our protagonists are pushed to a corner, it becomes near impossible to feel like they are in any sort of real danger. While light entertainment is the film’s main purpose, changing the tone once in a while would have done it good—especially since it is a sequel and many of us already know what to expect. Its unwillingness to take a risk or try something new is a problem.
I still adored watching Helen Mirren fire guns and beat men into unconsciousness. She does it with so much verve and charisma. She commits to the character without being cartoonish. The right decision would have been to give her character, Victoria, and Ivan (Brian Cox) more substance. The older couple could have been an interesting contrast to Sarah and Frank—which feels too much like two teenagers falling in love or what they consider to be love. We get only a glimpse of the potential sounding board and it is played too cute.
The chases are visually stimulating but standard as a whole. On foot, guns are used too often but there is an entertaining sequence involving Frank being stuck in a file room. Though using a gun from an enemy becomes available eventually, he becomes resourceful in disarming those who wish to capture him.
“Red 2” is an unnecessary but harmless sequel. It offers nothing special but it is nice to see seasoned performers clearly enjoying themselves. Anthony Hopkins, playing a patient in a mental institution, stands out because he does not create a character around the lightness of the material. Bailey has his share of quirks but he is not defined by them.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Peter Berg’s telling of the largest offshore oil spill in United States history translates into a compelling watch because sentimentality is kept at a minimum, it offers just the right amount of disaster movie elements without sacrificing realism and intelligence, and the director makes a smart choice in spending some time to allow the viewers to understand, and appreciate, what the disparate jobs in the oil rig entail.
We get the impression that we are simply watching people respond to a terrifying, life or death situation. Although there are numerous acts of heroism once the oil rig begins to fall apart, humanism is highlighted behind and despite such actions. The picture makes a point in the first half that these are men and women who have and must have strong professional relationships even though they pull one another’s leg from time to time. Thus, when someone’s life is in danger, it is not about simply saving a stranger. It’s about saving one’s friends who also have lives outside of what they do at sea.
Special and visual effects are highly convincing to the point where it is difficult to discern between, for instance, what is actual fire versus one produced using a computer. One of the standout scenes involves Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Drill Crew Floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) making their way to the other side of the rig in order to shut down a certain mechanism with the hope of avoiding to risk more lives. The seizure-like shaking of the ground they can barely stand on, the blasts of fire seemingly wanting to engulf their bodies whole, and the metallic debris falling all around them work together to create top-notch suspense, thrills, and engagement.
A director who does not understand how to helm an action film might have turned such a sequence, and others like it, into an incomprehensible mess where camera shaking is gravely mistaken as a proper substitute for timing and execution. Berg has an eye for framing movement—the characters in relation to the objects around them—and so our eyes always tend to focus on what we should be paying attention to, thereby avoiding confusion and, worse, headaches. It is easy to take for granted moviemakers who understand how to control nearly every element in seemingly pandemonium-packed action scenes.
But the best scenes, arguably, are the ones that simply take place in a room and there is a war between ideas. Kurt Russell, playing Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell, and John Malkovich, portraying BP Executive Donald Vidrine, have a solid handle on the dialogue. Nearly every look, body movement, and intonation of words are purposeful. So when the two men clash on how to proceed with their jobs, it is quite enthralling. Sure, we are supposed to take the side of Harrell, but we believe that Vidrine is convinced that what he knows, and therefore the path of action he wishes to take, is right. The script treats everyone as intelligent and so we wish to know what they have to say and why they think that way.
“Deepwater Horizon” is not for viewers must see an action sequence every ten to fifteen minutes. The movie, however, is for those who want to see a realistic interpretation of what did or might have happened during that tragic night on April 20, 2010 that could have been avoided altogether if greed had not gotten in the way of following protocol, if corporate monetary gains weren’t valued over human lives.
★★★ / ★★★★
After her mother passed away, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes charge of her father’s farm because he is suffering from late-stage dementia. As it turns out, the land is on the verge of bankruptcy and, after going through some papers, she figures that it can be saved if she and her team—Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), her father’s confidante, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the horse trainer, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), the caretaker, and Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), the jockey—made enough money from horse-racing. Penny’s knowledge about the business is limited, to say the least, but she is determined to learn and beat the odds.
Written by Mike Rich and directed by Randall Wallace, I did not expect to be moved by “Secretariat” because horse-racing is a sport that does not interest me whatsoever. However, the film finds a way to make it interesting by focusing on the individuals who choose to go after a rarity in the horse-racing business and breaking all sorts of records in the process. The big one involves winning the Triple Crown in which a colt must win first place in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
It is a picture about dreams with important messages to impart, especially for young adults, regarding great successes and how they are almost always never acquired by simply taking a straight path. Penny being a woman in the racing business in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s provides some cheeky amusement. Despite the discrimination she experiences, not once are we asked to feel bad or sorry for her. I liked that she can hold her own against men with condescending remarks and the fact that she still holds her head up high even when situations seem hopeless. The pluckiness that Lane infuses in her character is effervescent. The best scenes consist of Penny going up against men who are as stubborn as herself. Men are angry when they find they cannot hold her down.
The picture, however, could have used less scenes of her looking glamorously sad when she is by herself and more scenes of how her new unexpected career causes a strain on her relationship with her family. Her husband (Dylan Walsh) feels like she is never home enough. And when she is home, she keeps going on about the Secretariat and the financial troubles of the farm. Meanwhile, her kids are quickly growing up. The material relies too much on superficial images to convey that conflict.
Furthermore, the filmmakers should have shown more interactions between Penny and Secretariat even if they are nondescript. I did not get a full sense that the two share a strong bond, so when Penny gives her horse a look of understanding prior to a big race late in the story, I found it somewhat laughable and corny. If it weren’t for the exquisitely crafted and perfectly placed score, the cheesiness would not have been as well hidden.
Based on a true story, “Secretariat” strikes a balance between grace and intensity. It just needs to be more clear about what makes Penny and Secretariat champions, as partners, despite trophies and public recognition.
★★★ / ★★★★
Retired agent of the CIA, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) began to flirt with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) over the phone. The pair seemed to make a genuine connection. But when assassins came sneaking into Frank’s home, after disarming them with relative ease, he had no choice but to meet Sarah in person because he believed that they were after her, too. Reluctant at first, she eventually realized that maybe this was the kind of excitement and danger she needed–feelings she only encountered in books she so often enjoyed reading. “Red,” which was actually an acronymn for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” was a slick action picture that made the smart decision to not reveal its aces too early in the game. Frank and Sarah traveled across America but we, like the dynamic duo, didn’t exactly know why they were being hunted by the CIA which was led by a young agent with a blind ambition and a nice haircut (Karl Urban). The action sequences offered nothing particularly new but they were inspired because the filmmakers and the actors injected a certain hyperkinetic energy to such scenes. I noticed that during the intense violence, the film would often cut to Parker’s brilliantly executed bewildered and sometimes utterly confused expressions. She may not be able to fight but she was charming and we always knew why she was perfect for Frank. We were supposed to relate to her because she represented ordinary folks plucked from the mundane and thrown into extraordinary events. The film benefited from strong and very colorful, to say the least, supporting characters. John Malkovich was excellent as the paranoid former agent with a penchant for hilarious sneak attacks. Morgan Freeman was sublime as the gentle aging man but could easily kill men half his age when pushed to a corner. Helen Mirren was fantastic as the British lady who enjoyed overkill. I’m used to seeing her play roles where she had to be soft and elegant so it was refreshing to see her wield gigantic machine guns. They had individual spark but the real magic was in their interactions. However, the weakest part of the film was how the revelation of the mystery was handled in the end. Questions involving the hit list and the cover-up were answered, but it wasn’t perfectly clear how that was related to a certain politician. The last-minute twist about the identity of the real “big bad” felt forced and unnecessary. Nevertheless, “Red,” directed by Robert Schwentke, was highly enjoyable because it had a balance of suspense, action, comedy, and wit. Similar movies with a younger cast fall on the wayside because the actors either lacked chemistry or the filmmmakers attempted to do too much. Those movies could learn a thing or two from here.
Gardens of the Night (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Gardens of the Night” was about a little girl (Ryan Simpkins) who was kidnapped by an older man (Tom Arnold) and a younger guy (Kevin Zegers) on her way from school. In the hands of the sick duo who was running an underground business involving sex and children, the little girl met a boy (Jermaine Scooter Smith) who became her friend for life. Years later, the little girl along with the little boy (now by played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross, respectively) grew up in the streets stealing, doing drugs and prostituting themselves. In a shelter, Jacobs was adviced by a counselor (John Malkovich) to seek her parents. “Gardens of the Night” started off well because the whole experience involving the two guys’ insidious methods of kidnapping a child was so visceral, it almost felt wrong that I was watching the event unfold. I really felt like I was in the car with the kidnappers and in the room with the kids; no matter how much I wanted to help the children escape, there was nothing I could do about it. But when the focus shifted to the whole prostitution and living in squalor angle, it wasn’t as powerful because I didn’t feel like the main character wanted to make her life better. I felt like she had a defeatist attitude despite her longtime friend (who’s in the same situation as her) offering alternative ways of leading their lives. And since I didn’t feel that strength inside of her, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I was in the beginning. Although the film tried to tackle the issue of redemption with another girl that was about to sell her body for sex, it was so one-dimensional and I could see how it woulld turn out right from the moment that specific character was introduced. I did like, however, the scenes when Jacobs finally decided to see her parents again. However, her reaction to the whole thing angered me because I felt like she had this sense of entitlement–that nobody was supposed to move on despite her absence. I get that the movie was trying to comment on the connection between a child and her parents being no longer there but with such a dark material, the way it unfolded felt heavy-handed instead of natural. It’s as if Damian Harris, the writer and director, did not want anybody to experience a happiness that the lead character so rightfully deserved. “Gardens of the Night” certainly had potential but the second half could have used a little bit more work in terms of pacing and staying true to that poor little girl who was picked up by two strangers on her way home.
★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those first American films I saw when I was about six or seven years old. Even though I had little understanding of the English language back then, I found myself mesmerized with what was happening on screen. Directed by Frank Marshall, “Alive” was about a group of survivors, led by Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado and Josh Hamilton as Robert Canessa, whose plane had crashed in the Andes mountains back in 1972. Not only did they have to deal with the plane crash and the death of their mates and loved ones, they had to deal with starvation, plunging temperatures due to the weather, avalanche, and eventually finding a way out because the rescue teams had given up looking for survivors. Revisiting this picture after thirteen years after I’ve seen it for the first time, the images were that much more haunting and their journey that much more unbelievably brave. Their willingness to survive to the point where pretty much all of them decided that they would eat human flesh was so touching. It definitely made me think what lengths I would go to if I were put their situations. But I liked the fact that cannibalism was not the focus on this film because it was so much more than that. Instead of being a movie about people who got stuck in the mountains and cannibalism, it was a movie about how much the human body can withstand and how willpower can push us to our extreme limits and beyond. I found this to be a very moving tale and at times I couldn’t believe the trials that the survivors had to go through. My only minor complaint about the film was that I would have liked to see the real survivors get interviewed instead of John Malkovich (as great as an actor he is). I think the movie would have been that much more personal if the actual people recounted what had happened to them. If I had not rewatched this movie again, I would have easily labeled it as “that one movie where the plane crash survivors ate each other.” But now I know better and I consider it a dishonor to those who survived to label the film merely as that. This is a harrowing and haunting picture but there were definitely signs of uplift and hope which highlight the human spirit.
Great Buck Howard, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Sean McGinly, “The Great Buck Howard” stars John Malkovich as a magician/mentalist who desperately clings on to the remaining celebrity he has left from his best years of performance. Forced to work on small venues, he one day hires Troy (Colin Hanks), a twentysomething who recently drops out of law school to pursue his dream to be a writer, as Buck Howard’s very own errand boy. I have to be honest and say that I did not expect much from this movie. However, twenty minutes into it, I was really into it because it had a certain insight about the struggles of a person who wishes to break out of the expectations of his parents (in this case, Troy’s dad was played by Colin’s real-life father, Tom Hanks) and follow his true passion. I guess it was easy for me to relate to it because my graduation from the university is just right around the corner. It also had some insight when it comes to satirizing celebrity life. This picture had a plethora of cameos to offer such as Regis Philbin, Conan O’Brien, George Takei, Jon Stuart, and many more. At first I thought Buck was just a washed-up sham who claimed to have known and met all the celebrities he mentioned and that it was only a matter of time until we get to know who he really was. When in fact, the story unfolded in the opposite direction. It had a bona fide sense of humor even though Malkovich’s character was vain and at times quite poisonous with his words. I also enjoyed the romantic angle between Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt. I did not think that the two would have chemistry but, surprisingly enough, they did and the whole thing was magic (pun intended). I also never thought that Colin ever looked like his dad but when Colin and Blunt were on screen, I noticed certain quirky body movements and intonations in Colin’s voice that truly reminded me of his father. In under ninety minutes, this film managed to entertain and surprise me in many ways so I’m giving it a solid recommendation. Lastly, one should not miss Malkovich being brave enough to take his character to the extreme yet not lose heart so that we can ultimately root for him to succeed.
Burn After Reading (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s something profound in this picture but Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, failed to eliminate the distracting elements that dragged this movie down. What I love about “Burn After Reading” is its clear thesis: characters mistaking other characters’ identities and intentions, resulting in one big mess on top of another. It’s really too bad because this film is full of talented actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and J.K. Simmons. McDormand really steps up to the plate whenever she’s asked to play an extremely quirky character. The last time I’ve seen her this good was in “Fargo.” Another stand-out is Pitt, as McDormand’s co-worker and partner in crime. Both of them gave this film a much-needed life and humor. I wanted to see more of them as the movie progressed but we get scene after scene of Clooney messing around Swinton–physically and psychologically. To be honest, it made me look back on “Michael Clayton,” when the two of them are at their prime. In this movie, they are pretty one-dimensional; when the occupation of one of them was revealed near the end, it felt all too forced, as if the Coen brothers were trying to milk the irony. Malkovich is another character that could’ve been explored more (I love his random over-the-top outbursts) but he’s only portrayed as an angry guy who was fired from his job and lost everything. I love dark comedies because there’s a certain smugness to them that other people won’t understand no matter how many times they see the film, but this one felt way too into itself. But, really, in the overall scope of things, this isn’t necessarily a bad follow-up of “No Country for Old Men.” The style is there; it’s just that it could’ve been edgier and more involving.
★★★ / ★★★★
Angelina Jolie should at least be nominated for an Oscar because she held this film together. I couldn’t take my eyes off her to the point where I noticed every spasm on her face every time there’s a revelation or when she feels cornered by pretty much every authority figure she encounters. Clint Eastwood did another great job with taking his audience to a specific moment in time and make us believe that that universe is both beautiful and tragic. However, I don’t think this is his best film due to the problems in its pacing. Toward the last twenty minutes, there were scenes that could’ve been endings but ultimately weren’t. Even though the additional scenes added some sort of closure with the characters and its audiences, a masterful work would’ve felt natural instead of forced. Aside from Jolie, other great performances include John Malkovich as the reverend who fights against the corrupt ways of the LAPD and Jeffrey Donovan who refuses to listen to Jolie’s claims that the child who the LAPD returned to her was not her son. Amy Ryan also did a great job as Jolie’s friend in the psychiatric unit. Even though she did not have many scenes, she’s memorable because she did the best she could with everything she was given. As for the story, it’s very engaging especially when Jolie gathers evidence that the child who was returned to her was not her real son. I have to admit that I did get teary-eyed during various moments in the picture because I really did feel Jolie’s plight; it felt like the odds are against her but somehow she still summons the strength to fight back. I also admired the film’s theme of attempting to find the evasive truth–how the truth cannot be fully achieved because “truth” sometimes relies on the perspective of other people. The question of when the right time fight and the right time to let go is also explored in an insightful manner which could’ve been a disaster in less experienced hands. With a little bit more focus on the story and a better pacing, this could’ve turned out to be a masterpiece. That said, I’m giving this an enthusiastic recommendation because of the strong performances and touching story based on what really happened to Christine Collins and her son back in 1928.