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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a woman who worked at the Kerr-McGree nuclear plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. Eventually becoming very vocal about the company’s unsafe policies, practices, and downright illegal activities, she inevitably becomes the target of not only the higher-ups but also her co-workers who are afraid that if the truth came out, the plant would be forced to shut down, thereby losing their jobs.
I admired the picture’s willingness to abstain from a typical arc involving a whistleblower and what might inevitably happen to her. I had no idea what was going on in the first half—a compliment—because the scenes do not appear to be building up to a climax—at least not in an obvious manner. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen seems to be more concerned about letting the audience into the mindset of a small town and allowing us to get a feel of Karen’s life: how she feels about her job and being miles away from her children, how she relates or is unable to relate to some of her co-workers, the dynamics of her friendship with her lesbian roommate (Cher) and lover (Kurt Russell).
Pay close attention to scenes that show Karen simply being a part of her workplace. While we get to see a good chunk of her personality there, it leaves enough room for us to notice that maybe she is neglecting to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation. The cake scene which takes place in a specific work area is telling. So is an early sequence in the lunch or break room where she takes food from other people. How does she know that they are clean?
Having experience working in a lab and dealing with radiation, I tend to notice every bit of detail, from what Karen is touching to what she is doing to protect herself—and others—from the long-term effects of plutonium exposure. And yet at the same time, the film does a good job in allowing us to understand that Karen may not know that she is being careless at times. After all, radiation safety is not instinctual. It involves considering things that are not easily seen. Maybe the workers at the plant are not well-trained.
The pictures offers one of the more chilling endings I have seen in some time. It is horrific and sad, certainly, but I was impressed with its elegance. Emphasis is not on the violence but in the aftermath, the still unresolved questions. It ends with mystery without pretension. Because of this, we think about the character and her mission rather than what has, what has not, or what has possibly happened to her.
Streep is such a consummate performer that watching her in slow motion makes me smile. I loved the scene where Karen must say farewell to her boyfriend temporarily. Karen does not want to let him go and so Streep, standing next to his car (Drew is a car mechanic—the car is an obvious representation of him), allows her hand to slide off the vehicle as it drives away. Choosing to inject such a small moment that may have been easily overlooked and inspiring us to extract significance out of it separates Streep from her fellow performers.
“Silkwood” is for absolutely for those who like to observe without having to be told where to look or what to think. One example is the relationship among Karen, Drew, and Dolly. During the first half, I did not know exactly what to make of what they have. I had my suspicions and so I looked for clues. The answer becomes clear soon enough but the fact that I had to question and revise means the characters are not cardboard cutouts but real people who have real thoughts, pains, and yearnings.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
An interesting hybrid of western and horror, “Bone Tomahawk” is a work that requires a whole lot of patience, a pinch of rumination, and a healthy dose appreciation for the small but calculated elements dispersed throughout its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. Those craving for a film that is willing and unafraid to take risks are likely to welcome what it offers.
Notice how it takes its time. It is almost an hour into the picture when the plot is finally propelled to the forward direction and so for a while it makes us wonder where the story is supposed to go. We are given possibilities. Because the picture is a western, we expect a typical clash between the Indians and the white men. Instead, the material consistently strives to deliver more than what is expected. In some ways, it reminded me of a classic literature—the manner in which writer-director S. Craig Zahler lays the foundation so meticulously that payoffs are highly likely to prove fruitful. (And they do.)
The plot involves a rescue mission spearheaded by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). He is accompanied by a “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), an educated man (Matthew Fox), a cripple (Patrick Wilson) whose wife is abducted. But the journey is not what the film is about. It is about the discovery of who these men are while facing their mortality. We learn of their pasts, their fears, their hopes, who they loved, and what they wish to accomplish once the rescue is over. Not all of them will see the end of the rescue.
The dialogue has color. Although a western and the words uttered are western-like, the attitude and the flavor of the various deliveries command a certain ironic-lite anachronism. Comedic exchanges tend to sprout out of nowhere and they are even bittersweet at times. It almost gives the impression that these men are aware, or have accepted the possibility, that they are walking toward certain death. Are they driven by revenge, honor, duty, curiosity? As the travelers push themselves to exhaustion, they open up, and eventually we are able to gauge their sense of morality and hypothesize what really made them choose to partake in this rescue mission. Perhaps they feel a need to rescue themselves.
Beautifully shot and well-acted, one can make a case that “Bone Tomahawk” is a case study of the male ego and what is expected of masculinity. Note that the women characters stay in the home, they are healers—even the female cave dwellers are blinded, crippled, their main function to get impregnated and deliver new life successfully. Most importantly, however, the film is an entertaining, highly watchable experiment that delivers potent thrills.
Hateful Eight, The (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.
Thing, The (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.