The Last Days of Disco (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who work in the same publishing house in Manhattan. At night, they often go to an exclusive disco club with hopes of meeting bachelors who might provide them romance. Although Alice and Charlotte are constantly around one another, one might argue they are not exactly good friends. You see, when men enter the equation, the foundation of their tenuous relationship is almost always stretched and bent near the breaking point. And yet somehow they think they need each other so their fights do not last for long.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the great contrast that “The Last Days of Disco” offers is between the vibrant music that is disco—so full of energy, life, and rhythm—and the young New Yorkers who are very intelligent but whose lives have flatlined. Although one can claim that the characters, or the archetypes they represent, are being satirized, one might also argue that the writer-director loves his subjects on some level because there is always a level of complexity to each of them. They are never treated solely as punchlines of a joke or a situation gone bad.
It does not mean any of them have to be likable. In fact, there is only one I found myself being able to sympathize with. The central characters, Charlotte and Alice, are snobs on different levels even if their personalities are almost polar opposites. Sevigny does a good job in making a quiet girl seductive. I enjoyed the scenes where Sevigny allows Alice to slink across the room to get a man’s attention, accompanied by her sultry bedroom eyes, but at the same time it is almost like the character is trying too hard in order to hide the fact that she is not very confident. Beckinsale, on the other hand, plays an aggressive character. Charlotte is the more confident half. She represents that girl who is so popular but the more one spends time with her, one wonders if she really has any true friends.
Most fascinating is the character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) whom Des (Chris Eigeman) often labels as a loon for having had a mental breakdown when the two were in college. Their relationship is interesting because just about every time Des says something even remotely derogatory, whether it be a name or an implication that Josh does not deserve to have the jobs he often gets, there is an undercurrent of envy. One of the most hysterical lines in the film is Des claiming that perhaps the reason why he is so happy is because he is not envious of anyone. It is a funny scene because we know better: We have grown to know him better than himself.
The romance between Josh and Alice is downplayed—but I was not entirely convinced such is the most appropriate avenue. Arguably, they are the two characters who are the best fit for one another. Perhaps a bit of genuine sweetness to penetrate the otherwise sour and sardonic tone might have made the movie feel more alive. But then the film is less about romance and more about how a certain era is romanticized.
“The Last Days of Disco” entertains through dry humor and private thoughts often being expressed in one’s attempt to become the center of attention. I did not like most of the characters, but I found myself always anticipating what they might say next. The group discussion about the underlying meanings embedded in the film “Lady and the Tramp” is most hypnotic. They talk about big ideas but they remain sitting on the couch, just waiting for time to pass.
The Disappointments Room (2016)
★ / ★★★★
The problem with an unreliable protagonist in psychological horror pictures is that the writing requires a certain finesse in addition to the seamless ability of putting on screen one’s understanding of abnormal psychology so that the viewers buy into the plight of the main character deeply and thoroughly rather than constantly being reminded of the possibility that the events we see on screen may or may not be happening. This trope is far too often used in horror films, but it is almost always never effective. Living up to its title, “The Disappointments Room,” written by D.J. Caruso and Wentworth Miller, is no exception.
The film begins like any other pedestrian horror movie. After a tragedy, a family (Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Duncan Joiner) moves to the country in order to start anew. Coming from the city, Dana and David are able to purchase a rather spacious home, a fixer-upper, with many rooms and a deep history. Waking up from a nightmare during their first nights, Dana ends up exploring the attic and comes across a room not depicted on the plans. She looks through the keyhole and sees a window—she recognizes that it is the same window that, when seen from the outside, yellow light emanates from from time to time… even though no one is supposed to be there.
Despite a creepy-looking house, the filmmakers never bother to get the audience acquainted with the space. So, whenever a character must run from one room to another, sometimes from one floor to the other, we have no idea about the geography of the place and whether it would take some time to be able to rescue a loved one from an unknown force. Also, notice how each room is almost always lighted the same way. There is a blandness to the look of each room when it should be the opposite. The best haunted house movies tend to take advantage of the shadows created by moonlight, the creepy paintings left by prior owners, the leak coming from the roof as a stormy night unfolds.
The acting is like rotten wood. Beckinsale appears to have one emotion, whether it be her character meeting her new neighbors or when she believes that an apparition is about to kill her son. In between such extremes, Beckinsale must play a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her face—still one note. How can we believe that Dana is possibly losing her grip on reality when the performer is unable to emote the necessary complex emotions? Raido is not any better although he almost gets away with it since he has only one role to play: an increasingly concerned husband. Sometimes a horror film manages to have good actors despite an awful screenplay. Both are equally egregious here.
Directed by D.J. Caruso, “The Disappointments Room” even fails to offer one good scare. This is because it is not a patient film. There is no build-up, only a series of nightmares that almost always end up with a sudden loud noise. That’s not scary, that’s lazy. I found this picture to be insulting to the intelligence in almost every single way.
★★ / ★★★★
Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) was supposed to deliver ten pounds of cocaine to Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), a sleazy drug addict who was more connected than he seemed, but the young man threw the package overboard because U.S. Customs were closing in. While Andy and his friend were sent to the hospital due to the failed delivery, someone had to pay Tim hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. Kate (Kate Beckinsale), Andy’s sister, was married to Chris (Mark Wahlberg), who happened to be involved in the smuggling business before he decided to live a straight life with his wife and two sons. Feeling that his family would never be safe as long as the debt remained unpaid, he volunteered for one last job. “Contraband,” based on the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, was most enjoyable when we were given a chance to watch Chris attempt to wiggle out of increasingly difficult situations, but the picture’s pace came to an uncomfortable halt every time the focus was not on the man desperate to keep his family safe. Specifically, when Kate and Chris spoke on the phone to check in on each other’s safety and say the requisite “I love yous,” nothing much was left for the imagination. It became so repetitive that during the phone conversations, I began to think of alternatives. It didn’t help that Kate was a typical damsel-in-distress which made the character boring. Perhaps the film would have been far more involving if Chris and the audience had no idea of the specific happenings at home. Maybe if Chris were to receive a text message, a picture message, or a voicemail once in a while, it would’ve been acceptable. In my experience, while out at sea, getting a proper signal could be a hassle. Upon his inevitable return, the people who he thought could be trusted–who may or may not turn out otherwise–would come as a genuine surprise for him and for us. I liked the action sequences because the protagonist was more complicated than a man who could handle a gun. While he was more than capable of wielding such a dangerous weapon, we instead saw him using his hands a lot. For instance, altering the ship’s machinery while on the way to Panama, using a vacuum to keep the ship’s captain (J.K. Simmons) off his back, and carrying important objects from one place to another before time ran out and an official saw what was really going on. Wahlberg was interesting in the role not because he was given complex material to wrestle with but because he injected humanity into Chris. I was amused that he used different voices when talking to his wife and children, his friends, his enemies, and those who were downright being stupid. The script could’ve used more of that playfulness. There was one very good exchange where Andy told Chris that he should stop pretending that he didn’t enjoy being back to smuggling. It was surprising that Chris was so open to admit that it held a certain level of excitement for him. The admission was important because when things got tough, the way in which the protagonist solved problems was believable; we felt that he really did have experience in something like this before, that deep down perhaps he was even enjoying the process. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, “Contraband,” a remake of Óskar Jónasson’s “Reykjavik-Rotterdams,” showed potential that it might have worked as an action-thriller with a convincing character arc. Unfortunately, much of the exploration had to be watered down for easy denouements, like how far people were willing to go for drugs and money and their impending comeuppance.
Underworld: Awakening (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After humans discovered that vampires and werewolves walked the planet, they performed a mass cleansing of the abnormal. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire, was eventually captured by a drug company called Antigen, led by Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea), and experimented on her, while frozen, for twelve years. Their goal was to create a drug that could help authorities recognize the so-called infected. When she woke up, vampires and werewolves, though still at war with each other, were forced underground and had depleted in number. Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, the way in which “Underworld: Awakening” began felt cheap. The narration and synopsis of what happened in its predecessors felt completely unnecessary. Instead of a movie, I felt like I was watching an introduction to a video game: you want to fast forward but it’s part of the whole package so you sit there and take it. My problem was it didn’t really try to make me care about the war among humans, lycans, and vampires. However, I found the action sequences very entertaining because they had a sense of humor. When Selene tried to escape from Antigen, she had complete disregard for the humans. She shot limbs, sliced throats, and cracked bones like it was nobody’s business. She didn’t crack a smile. I didn’t even notice her blink. What mattered was getting out and finding her boyfriend, Michael (Scott Speedman), the only vampire-werewolf hybrid in existence. Or so she thought. Eventually, Selene found a girl named Eve (India Eisley) who was supposedly her daughter. I began to have more questions and not all of them were answered or even addressed. For instance, though it was obvious, through snarling and looking morose, that the vampire and werewolf communities were against commingling of race, if Selene finally found Michael, what would it mean for the two camps? Did the plan involve Selene and Michael making a lot of babies so that, when the time came, werewolves and vampires would have no choice but to accept one another? Or did the plan simply involve the couple and their daughter, once reunited, hiding from the world and living happily ever after? Admittedly, I gave up trying to figure out motivations which wasn’t difficult to do when action scenes were thrown at the audience’s faces every ten minutes or so. I was very entertained by the scene where Selene, David (Theo James), a vampire with great bone structure, and Eve drove a van in the middle of a city while trying to escape from three lower-level–but still scary–werewolves. I found it amusing that although the werewolves jumped on top of one vehicle to another, the human drivers didn’t seem at all perturbed that a hairy beast was on the roof and, at times, blocked their vision. One would expect more car crashes considering how stupid people really are while behind the wheel. I was also tickled by watching Selene being thrown like a rag doll by a giant werewolf (Kris Holden-Reid). “Underworld: Awakening” was like eating popcorn: it’s salty, buttery goodness on the outside but the inside is all air. That doesn’t make it any less delicious.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite his doctor’s recommendation against traveling, Frank (Robert De Niro) decided to go on a road trip across America when his thirtysomething children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) made last-minute cancellations to come visit over the holidays. Frank wanted to reconnect with his kids due to the recent death of his wife. Also, he felt lonely being by himself at home. “Everybody’s Fine” had an interesting premise but it ultimately left me wanting more. Since Frank’s children had vastly different personalities and temperaments, I thought that each visit would reflect a change of tone. Unfortunately, it remained mind-numbingly one-note. It was depressing because the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with their father which were reflected in their phone conversations when Frank was on the train, the bus, and the plane. Although he was somewhat welcomed with smiles and hugs, the emotions felt fake because we knew what they really thought about the surprise visit. It was like watching a guide called “How Not to Treat Your Parents When They Get Old and You Have Your Own Life.” It would have been refreshing if two of them didn’t want him over but at least one genuinely did without question. One visit could have been strange, the other really funny, and the last quite cantankerous. Big shifts in tone could have signified that the material wasn’t afraid to take risks. So what if everything doesn’t quite fit together? Just keep the audiences interested. There were some mildly comedic scenes like when Frank was portrayed as being out of touch with recent technology and his unawareness that the heavy bag he’d been carrying had a handle and wheels which could have made his life easier. There were also some touching scenes such as when we finally realized that there were some truth in Frank’s high expectations of his children and why they felt distant toward him for years. Nevertheless, I still disagreed with the way they treated their father as if he was a child. Protecting someone doesn’t always equal keeping them in the dark especially when the person had a right to know what was happening. The writing could have used some work. The scene I found most awkward and uncomfortable to sit through was the fantasy scene involving Frank sharing a meal with his children, played by actual kids, and secrets were revealed. Some of the divulged information could be surmised from Frank’s visit but some were simply out of nowhere. That scene felt cheesy, forced, and it diminished the little dramatic pull it had going for it. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, “Everybody’s Fine” had a great cast, with some effective acting from De Niro, but it made far too many missteps because of a weak script. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected during the more serious revelations.
★ / ★★★★
Kate Beckinsale stars as U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko whose job was to keep the people safe in a research facility in Antarctica. But she soon found herself in a case full of deceit after stumbling upon the first murder of the continent. With the aid of another man from the government (Gabriel Macht), they tried to get answers to questions such as the identity of the murderer and what were the contents of the box that the Russian plane carried. This picture was a prime example where the music did all the work in portraying tension instead of letting the images speak for themselves. I just really dislike it when I’m all too often aware of the music and nothing particularly interesting is happening on screen. For me, the music should be a suppplement of the visual experience and almost always not the driving force. In this movie, they used music to trick the audiences that something exciting was happening, when in reality, we were watching something really dull. In fact, we could barely see anything half of the time because of the quick cuts and the thick blizzard. During the so-called climax of the movie, I felt dizzy and frustrated because I could not tell who was who or if the protaginist was winning. For a murder mystery, this movie lacked tension and worse, a lack of urgency. I felt like the writers, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, had so many ideas but they couldn’t focus those ideas or eliminate the ones that just did not make sense. As for the so-called twists, I saw them coming from a mile away because the looks that certain characters gave were so obvious. I felt like it did not even try to mask (pun intended) the identity (or identities) of the antagonists. I thought the setting of the movie was great; I really felt like I was Antarctica. But that was the only thing I liked about it. The movie felt like it ran for more than two hours (it was actually around an hour and forty) and I was just exhausted after watching it. “Whiteout,” directed by Dominic Sena, was based on a graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber and maybe it should have stayed that way. Somewhere in the middle, I really hoped that it was going to be an alien movie–somewhere along the lines of “The Thing.” Unlike “Whiteout,” that movie knows how to keep the viewers engaged with big rewards every fifteen minutes or so. Instead, I advise someone to watch “The Thing” or the extremely well-made documentary by Werner Herzog called “Encounters at the End of the World.”