Tag: jude law

Vox Lux

Vox Lux (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who take the film at face value would likely scratch their heads in confusion. Because, in a way, it is an exercise of extremes: the story opens with a terrifying school shooting in 1999, continues on as an intimate portrait of a fourteen-year-old who has no idea that she is about to become an international pop star, then it has the courage to jump seventeen years into the future and focus on a woman who is so broken, so commodified, we observe her concert performance and feel incredibly sad for her. We watch the main character first as a girl who could have gone on to become a respected—and respectable—artist, fully in control of her career and destiny, but instead she became a puppet in an industry that doesn’t really value her as a person or what she can offer. It values the money that she generates from her concerts, her album sales, her controversial image. In some ways, the picture is an unflinching look at modern celebrity. It made me thankful I am not under the scrutiny of the public eye. But “Vox Lux” is more than that.

Writer-director Brady Corbet creates a character study for the thoughtful viewer who appreciates irony. I enjoyed his approach of laying out pieces that may initially come across as too strange or awkward to be able to fit together (mass shootings, pop idols) and somehow, almost by sorcery, by the end of the tale these fragments make sense only when, or if, the audience manages to connect emotionally with each segment. Employing strong images, music—score and soundtrack—that demands attention, and pointed dialogue, it cannot be denied there is great confidence propelling the work. It is all the more impressive that it is only Corbet’s second feature; I very much look forward to what else he can offer. Even the presentation of the opening credits is inspired.

Natalie Portman plays the thirty-one-year-old Celeste. She is required to sing and dance, to be in control of ridiculous costumes, to wear heavy cosmetics and emote in every second of every frame. She must communicate that Celeste is a tragic figure and yet one who may not necessarily deserve our pity because, after all, she put herself in her current situation—drugs, booze, surrounding herself with toxic people but distancing herself from those who genuinely love and care for her—despite being a survivor of a school shooting. Without relying on obvious or tired tropes, I appreciated that the film is clear: One can be a victim of an event but the victim can choose not to feel victimized for the rest of her life.

At the same time, there is humor in the performance; Portman’s histrionics are best seen to be believed. As seasoned performers do, she milks every millisecond when the camera gets a glance of her face since each tiny opening is a chance to enrich the portrayal. I could tell she had put a lot of thought into the woman she is playing. Still, though, the melodrama fits the story being told and the character being explored. Celeste’s physical outer wounds may have healed, but in a way the real Celeste is suspended in time, in that particularly horrifying day. It is a wonderful performance, one Portman should be proud of, especially given the caliber or her already colorful filmography.

I admired the material’s willingness to take risks. First is in the casting of teen Celeste and Albertine, Celeste’s teenage daughter. Both are played by Raffey Cassidy which is genius because we get introduced to her version of Celeste first and then later as the protagonist’s daughter who is yearning for a true connection. By casting one actor for both roles, seeing the same face causes a ripple effect of implications, the sadness of the story all the more amplified. Second is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, particularly in how interiors of hotels, makeup stations, and backstages are captured so realistically. When it makes an uncommon pivot to images of landscapes, for example, it is like a slap in the face, a reminder of what’s important in truly being alive.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A third of the way through the picture, I couldn’t help but feel like an important ingredient is sorely lacking. The war between Kree and Skrulls is propelled with a high enough level of excitement, the special and visual effects are strong, and there is intrigue in how the events unfolding in 1995 may tie into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) eventually putting together Earth’s mightiest superheroes. The problem becomes tantalizingly clear when the picture hits its first important dramatic note. Given Brie Larson’s track record of independent dramas, she is most powerful as a performer when the scene is quiet and the camera is still—almost the polar opposite of an action film.

This does not mean Larson does not belong in the picture. In fact, I enjoyed her interpretation of Captain Marvel, who comes to know herself as Vers, a soldier of the Kree Empire, but has fragmented human memories as Carol Danvers. Despite a potentially confusing exposition, Larson has a way of making us care for our heroine not just as a superhero but also as a woman who feels incomplete due to being in the dark when it comes to her very own identity. Notice that for the first forty minutes or so, it is a challenge to invest emotionally into the material because there are far too many attempts at making jokes but not enough convincing dramatic gravity. It would have been such a breath of fresh air if “Captain Marvel,” written for the screen by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, had been a character drama first and an action picture second. Of course, this more inspired avenue would not rake in the big bucks.

Still, this Marvel outing is entertaining enough. I liked how chase scenes on Earth during the mid-90s are photographed and directed almost exactly as similar movies within the genre at the time—clichés included. There is a wonderful chemistry between Larson and Jackson which is necessary because their characters must forge a convincing friendship from the moment they meet at a payphone next to a Blockbuster video store until one of them must leave and travel to another galaxy. (The story’s timeline is about twenty to thirty five hours.) Danvers and Fury share a handful of amusing moments but not once do these come across as forced as bad buddy comedies.

Like many superhero films, this one, too, suffers from a lack of a strong villain with complex motivations. Observe that once Captain Marvel is able to reach her full potential, her enemies, including the main antagonist, are simply thrown about like rag dolls. Because they are no longer a threat, the bright colors, the bubbly soundtrack, and the acrobatics are reduced to an exercise of futility. I was bored by them and I was reminded of what I disliked immensely from “Wonder Woman”—we are handed action with not much context or purpose. It can feel like a waste of time.

Perhaps the most curious relationship is between Danvers and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Both were Air Force pilots and their few but valuable interactions suggest a deep history. The two sitting down and having a conversation can be more entertaining than the big, loud, and ostentatious action pieces. The reason is because, with the former, we know precisely what is at stake. There are times when it is easy to forget that we love or admire our superheroes not because of what they can do but rather who they are despite their powers or abilities, when they are unmasked, vulnerable, one of us.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person. — Tom Ripley

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a visually alluring, thematically complex, and airtight thriller that dares to put a heart inside of a monster—or at least an impression of a warm, beating thing that resembles an organ, a representation of what separates us from savages. It tells the story of a young man named Tom Ripley, a part-time pianist whose talent lies in impersonating people, preferably those born into money because he covets a luxurious lifestyle. Mistaken for a Princeton alumnus after a performance, a shipping tycoon (James Rebhorn) requests for Tom to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from Italy. Considering that all expenses are paid for, in addition to monetary reward if he were to complete the assignment, Tom quickly seizes the opportunity.

It is admirable that the screenplay does not rely on merely showing Tom as a killer. Doing so prevents the material from being reduced to another suspense-thriller or horror cliché. Instead, it pushes the envelope a bit further by daring to pull the viewer into considering the way Tom perceives himself as a poor, working-class nobody forcing himself to walk in the shoes of someone else, at times literally, that he perceives to be somebody, one who is loved, regarded, important. What results is an electrifying character study with tragic elements, mainly from the perspective of our antihero, until we realize that we have grown to care for a person whose very gift is deception. Tom has played us in addition to those around him. I applaud its courageous ending.

Casting Matt Damon to wear the skin of the charming and manipulative title character is a fruitful decision. Relying on boyish good looks is not enough for this role. Notice the performer’s control of varying levels of magnetism which is almost always directly tethered to how another person might be exploited for Tom’s benefit despite a veil of camaraderie or friendship. The screenplay supports the performer by being smart enough to blur the line between these ideas. It makes us question whether a sociopath like Tom is actually capable of forming genuine social contracts with others or whether people exist simply to either aid or prevent him from reaching his goals. And because Damon is excels at projecting minute emotions, especially feelings of hurt and betrayal, when the camera is up close, we end up empathizing with him even though we know that the character isn’t capable of empathy.

Supporting characters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, Sergio Rubini) are not mere lambs lining up to be slaughtered. They have distinct personalities, points of view, and lives to live. As they move in and out of the story, something about them is always changed the next time we encounter them. This creates an exciting experience because not only do we need to evaluate Tom whose motivations are consistently elusive, we, too, need to assess those around him based on what knowledges or suspicions they’ve acquired off-screen considering the fact that these characters share social circles. Making the characters intelligent, vivid, and life-like not only breathes a freshness to the film. It also provides genuine challenges for the main character. Tom must adapt. And sometimes it is actually amusing to see him squirm and trip over the details of his deceit. We wonder at which point his lies are going to catch up to him.

Tense at the right moments and surprisingly clever just when we are convinced the jig is up, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” offers a fascinating look at how a specific mind functions. While there is beauty and decadence behind exotic locales the characters see and experience, there is a darkness here that the material is willing to explore without relying on mere violence in order to induce dread or horror. Sometimes a friendly smile held too long is most telling.

Black Sea

Black Sea (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Robinson (Jude Law) is let go from his job despite having been with the company for more than a decade. Hoping to provide for his young son, Robinson accepts a job from a mysterious financial backer which involves searching for a German U-boat located ninety meters from the surface of the Black Sea, supposedly containing two tons of gold—worth at least eighty million dollars. Robinson’s condition: Half of the men in the submarine will be British and the other half Russian. Each one gets equal pay after the backer gets his share.

Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin Macdonald, “Black Sea” starts off promisingly because it is able to lay out its protagonist’s motivation leading up to his decision to take on a near-impossible task. However, once the characters are inside the submarine, the mystery and intrigue dissipate. Instead, there is a lot of arguing between the British and the Russians—which is not compelling because someone is either wrong or right. There is little gray and so the picture is reduced to a bore.

We learn close to nothing about the men in the submarine. Out of them all, I could name up to about three, if that, because the screenplay never gives each one a chance to say or do something important. I was reduced to assigning them names like “The One with the Beard” or “The Corpulent Russian Guy Who Grunts.” Although the material tries to tell a human story, especially when it tries to introduce the idea that the rich tend to prey upon the poor, the attempt is fleeting, marginal, and weak. The drama is not there to keep the film tense or at least superficially interesting.

The moments of danger lack a sense of urgency. Eventually, three characters end up in the dark waters with cliffs separating life and death. It is strange to watch because the camera seems stuck on having the camera about two to three feet away from the characters—five feet at most. Thus, we do not really get a sense of the danger and how insignificant the men are compared to the utter darkness surrounding them. The lack of perspective hinders the picture from becoming suspenseful or thrilling.

Although Law delivers a pretty good performance, so versatile when delivering strength and despair, the writing is so shallow and transparent that we can easily tell who will die or be killed next about two or three scenes prior to the fact. As a result, we go through the by-the-numbers dialogue and passively wait for an event that we know is going to happen soon. One gets the impression that this is a nervous filmmaker’s first-time foray into helming a dramatic suspense-thriller—not at all the case because this picture is from a filmmaker who made “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland.”

“Black Sea” has very few redeeming qualities and so it is not worth sitting through two hours. The director’s cut of the excellent “Das Boot,” also taking place in a confined space, is three hours and thirty minutes long and that picture feels short compared to this one. Why? Because “Das Boot” commands what “Black Sea” lacks: a genuine sense of claustrophobia because every piece of item within the vessel looks and feels real, fascinating characters who are forced to make complicated choices, and their actions have such large rippling effects that we are exhausted—in a good way—by the trials they go through. My advice: Discover or revisit “Das Boot” instead.

Side Effects

Side Effects (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

A day after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison, Emily (Rooney Mara) decides to crash her car onto a brick wall. While at the hospital, she, relatively unscathed, is approached by a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law). Instead of hospitalizing Emily for an obvious suicide attempt, they make a deal: twice a week they are to meet and work on her depression. At first, she is prescribed SSRIs, an antidepressant, but it makes her physically sick. Word has it that a better, newer drug called Ablixa works wonders so she requests to be put on it. Initially, the drug works: she is happier, her sex drive is back, and it is easier for her to tackle every day tasks. However, the drug does not seem to be as miraculous as it is shown on the TV commercials.

At least the picture begins with a genuine air of intrigue. Events that leave up to Emily’s request to take the magical Ablixa are rooted in reality. There is something scary and true about people hearing about a certain pill from a friend of a friend’s and then deciding from there that she, too, wants to be on that drug without doing much research about it. I enjoyed that the director, Steven Soderbergh, not once shows us that Emily is capable of going to Google to learn more about the drug. This an important piece of the puzzle.

To complement Emily’s constant state of gloom, a foggy, yellow-orange color is largely utilized in the first half. It is so heavy, I noticed that its tone had an impact on me. I began to feel lethargic–but not bored–and anxious. Partner this technique with many close-ups of a woman who is suffering in the mind and body, it is easy to believe that the protagonist is depressed, that she really does need an antidepressant, a powerful one, to help her to function normally. If we do not believe in her state of affliction, the rest feels like playing dress up.

However, the events that transpire in the second half are less rooted in reality, a compilation of uninspired typical thriller elements. We are subjected to one twist after another. I suppose those who have not seen very many thrillers will find it “brilliant.” After all, not much time is given for us to digest a reversal prior to the next one. But to me, it is simply trying too hard to appear smarter than it really is. After the second or third twist, I did not care about the story any longer. Instead, I anticipated the next curveball, wondering if I could outsmart it. And I did. So I suppose it is, in a way, predictable.

The performances are solid all around. I especially enjoyed Law’s performance as a doctor who means well. There is an arrogance to Dr. Banks that the actor highlights only slightly, but it is there. Combined with his eventual state of desperation and fear of losing everything he has worked so hard to attain, we end up questioning his true motives. Meanwhile, Mara holds her own. At this point, I am used to seeing her playing mysterious characters so that spell she casts has become a product of diminishing returns. But it is Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily’s former psychiatrist, who piqued my interest most. She portrays her character like a wall, so cold and difficult to read.

Written by Scott Z. Burns, “Side Effects” might have been a better movie if its tone had adapted to its mood. The first half is serious and curious while the second half is devious and, in its core, silly. There is a heavy-handed self-seriousness throughout. As a result, only half of it works. We are not welcomed into taking pleasure from the delivery of the supposedly powerful left hooks.

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law), also known as the Boogeyman, decides that it is time for children to start believing in him again. The last time his power had reached an unfathomable zenith was during the Dark Ages when everyone lived in fear. His resurgence, however, involves destroying children’s hopes and dreams which in turn fuel the powers of North (Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher), Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman. If children stop believing in them, the Guardians will cease to exist. To help them fight Pitch, the mysterious Man in the Moon appoints a new Guardian: Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the spirit of winter who hopes to recall the memory of his past life.

Based on the book series by William Joyce, “Rise of the Guardians” offers plenty of material to be enjoyed by both children and adults. Although the characters are based on fictional figures but are nonetheless a part of our cultures, the material is more child-like than childish, infusing a sense of wonder and genuine emotions in its story rather than resting on running evanescent and shallow gags.

Part of the fun is that our archetypes of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy are turned inside out. Because the way they look are so different from what we normally expect, the screenplay is one step ahead in engaging us. For example, we do not expect Santa Claus to have tattoos or the Easter Bunny to be a six-footer, tough-talking, boomerang-wielding warrior.

Their personalities, too, are turned upside down. Not all of them are immediately likable. Not all of them even get the chance to speak. I was impressed that the Sandman does not get a chance to utter a word and yet he is given so much personality. Throughout the course of the film, we learn to like some of the Guardians a little more since our first impression.

I found it difficult to find fault with its style of animation. Since it is has plenty of action sequences, the texture of the movements feel swift even if a character only walks from Point A to Point B. This fluidity allows the film to truly shine, for instance, when the Guardians use their superpowers to stop Pitch from executing his master plan.

But the picture is not only strong during the hyperkinetic action. The facial expressions of the characters perfectly match the emotions behind the voices. In terms of voice acting, Law excels in exuding real menace. The way Pitch slithers and goes on about his devious intentions correspond to the sliminess in Law’s voiceover.

There is a little boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) who is intent on holding onto the belief that the Guardians are real. Though cute, this is the weakest strand because the script at times verges on sentimentality. Perhaps the intention is to make the human element as simple as possible so that it will be more accessible to children. Either way, it did not work for me completely. The material is more enjoyable when it focuses on the dynamics among the Guardians and the clever little jokes aimed at them or each other.

Directed by Peter Ramsey, despite its sugary shortcomings, “Rise of the Guardians” is visually arresting and offers a story worth telling. Almost everything about it is delightful. It is difficult to imagine a child not dropping what he or she is doing and paying attention to it because there is so much energy behind the battles as well as during times when characters are required to speak.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Newspapers pegged anarchists as responsible for the recent bombings in Europe. Everyone was nervous that the bombings would eventually spin out of control and war among European nations would ensue. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) suspected foul play, believing that someone smarter and more cunning was behind the terrorist attacks. When not flirting with the beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a contract purloiner of all things important, Holmes served as a friendly thorn on Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) side, attempting to convince his friend that getting married was tantamount to a lifelong enslavement. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, was a movie so intent to impress, it almost won me over despite its clunky plot and distracting–although at times impressive–technical gadgetry. What prevented me from being fully immersed in the film was catching myself sitting passively waiting for something really interesting to happen. Although twists and turns were abound, each successive surprise suffered from diminishing returns. At one point I wondered what other type of tricks it had, if any, in its bag. There were two well-executed scenes that matched the material’s ambition. First, the train scene in which Holmes and Dr. Watson had to escape from assassins sent by Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) wielded a certain level of suspense mixed with glee. Of course, given that the train had a lot of small spaces, the script capitalized on the weird sexual chemistry between the duo–some angles taken from typical pornographic positions–which I found hilarious. Second, the chase scene through the woods as Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortuneteller, evaded bullets, cannonballs, and rockets was quite inspired. I found it a standout because the slow motion highlighted the artistry of the action scene instead of merely bombarding the audience with quick cuts. It was interesting to see certain images like how a bullet scraped a tree and how loamy soil fell onto the characters after a cannonball hit the ground with great force. The scene was a nice change from boring hand-to-hand combat where choppy editing met a vague semblance of martial arts. Why wasn’t uninterrupted physical combat shown more often? Furthermore, the flashback scenes were as ineffective as the sequences where Holmes weighed how a battle would play out. By allowing us to see what would or could happen next before it actually happened, the filmmakers left no tension for us to bathe in. Both the flashbacks and fast-forwards were not used as astutely–in this case, far from sparingly–it should have in order to increase the drama. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the biggest problem that “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” suffered from was although it had a lot of fun on the outside, it needed to work on real emotions so the audiences would be more invested in whatever was going on. Since it failed to inject gravity into more serious moments, when a key character died, for instance, it felt like a mere plot convenience than a genuine loss of a character some of us have grown to like.