Tag: laura dern

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

Inland Empire


Inland Empire (2006)
★ / ★★★★

When the movie ended, I felt thankful—thankful that the torment was finally over.

An old woman (Grace Zabriskie) visits an actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who is waiting for a phone call from her agent. For some strange reason, the visitor is not only aware of the role that Nikki is hoping to get, she appears to have prior knowledge that Nikki has in fact booked the job. The film is called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” and although the actress and her co-star (Justin Theroux) are led to believe that it is an original work, the director (Jeremy Irons) confesses later on that it is actually based on a Polish gypsy folktale and the story is said to be cursed. A prior film that attempted to tell the story was unfinished because the two leads ended up dead.

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Inland Empire” is very well-acted by Dern and the scenes between Dern and Theroux are fiery-good, sometimes sexy, but I found the picture’s dream-like approach to be so pretentious that a potentially fascinating story ends up overshadowed by the technique. The subplots are a drag and whenever Dern is not front and center, I lost interest completely.

It is weird for the sake of being weird. Do not believe anybody who claims to have the answer as to how scenes involving people in rabbit suits relate to the main plot. The writer-director tries so very hard to be mysterious that for a second I was convinced he is actually turning his work into a parody—which would have been a more interesting avenue given his reputation for creating movies that are insular.

Its attempts to surprise, shock, or scare do not work. One of the reasons is due to a lack of buildup. The most common approach is a character entering a dark room and either one of two things will almost always happen: a sudden, bright flashing light fills the space or a cacophony of sounds blast their way through the speakers. I suppose Lynch is trying to replicate dreams but if one were to really think about it, dreams do not have loud or shrill noises. There is no bright flashing light meant to surprise or scare. We begin to realize we are in a dream state when we notice the small but incorrect details.

A technique that works is the camera’s tendency to be real close on the performer’s faces to the point where it is real unflattering at times. It makes otherwise beautiful or interesting faces look bizarre. Couple such images with elliptical dialogue, a specific mood is created—that something strange may be brewing.

The picture’s saving grace is Dern, a consummate performer. She has a special talent in controlling her face so she seems capable of delivering just about any emotion required in a scene. She knows how to change her expression in small ways—often within a shot—and so we are convinced that her character always has something going on in her mind. Lastly, she knows how to utilize her limbs in such a way that they often create interesting angles. We are convinced that the character she plays has been in more than a handful of films. So when she receives news that she has gotten the job, not only is it not a surprise, it is likely to be well-deserved.

“Inland Empire” starts with a certain level of intrigue, mostly due to the conversation between the old woman and the actress, but it devolves into lurid mumbo jumbo. After three hours of near-total confusion, one just feels thankful that the experience is over. Credit to Lynch for being ambitious but that is not enough. The work must actually be, in the least, not incomprehensible.

The Fault in Our Stars


The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has a pair of lungs that is not very good at being lungs. Her thyroid cancer, diagnosed when she was thirteen, has spread downward over time so liquid tends to accumulate in her breathing organ. Thus, she is required to haul around an oxygen tank that will enable her to inhale and exhale with ease.

Attending a support group for cancer patients, one she insists on not attending but does so anyway in order to make her parents feel better, Hazel meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma survivor. The cancer was once in his right leg so the doctors decided it had to go in order to save his life. The two have no idea of the love—one that goes beyond cute and romance—that they are about to share.

Based on the acclaimed novel by John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars” is, for the most part, an effective drama about teenagers who have or have had cancer. There is an honesty to the picture that is absent in many other movies that feature characters afflicted by the devastating disease which makes it head and shoulders above films of its type. Pair the quality screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber with a relevant topic—a young person dealing with one’s mortality—and what results is a work with a high level of pathos while elegantly balancing romance, tragedy, and comedy.

The lead performance is outstanding. When I heard news that Woodley would be playing Hazel, I knew she would be perfect for the role because in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” she has shown that she is not a one-dimensional performer. I feel she has very sad eyes. The longer the camera stares at them, sadder moments are amplified while lighter moments create a fascinating, magnetic contradiction. We always wonder what Hazel is thinking which is exactly the point because even though she may not admit to it verbally, she is afraid to die. In one important scene, she describes herself as a grenade. In some ways, she is.

I wish I can say the same about Elgort. Gifted with angelic good looks, the actor tries to embody the very charismatic Gus and match Woodley’s natural intensity, but he consistently comes up short by comparison. Notice that in some scenes, his character has a limp; in others, it is absent completely.

Some missteps are less elementary. When certain lines are better delivered by relishing every moment, he tends to rush which gives the impression that he is nervous. Perhaps he was intimidated by his more experienced co-star, I do not know for sure, but there are times when he took me out of the moment instead of further getting me into it. Still, Woodley and Elgort do share believable chemistry.

It shows a taste of how scary and ugly cancer can be while still being mindful of its target audience. Keep in mind that the picture is not a documentary about how it is really like for a person to have cancer, but there are enough details to keep one engaged. For instance, it gives us an idea of a routine a cancer patient might have—constant doctor visits, the amount of pills to be consumed three times a day, attending support group, always being watched closely—and how the disease can dig its claws suddenly and let go, for the time being, just as abruptly.

For the most part, its approach is to focus on the emotional struggles of its characters. Best exemplified is the relationship between Hazel and her mother (Laura Dern). Although Elgort is not able to match Woodley’s subtleties, Dern hits the right spot every single time. There are moments when I wished that the story would focus more on the fears shared between a mother and her child.

Dern proves to be a great conduit. She allows those who have never been a parent to feel some of her character’s struggle of being a mother who wants to cherish every moment with her daughter just in case the good days are numbered while at the same time allowing Hazel to live her life the way she wants it. And that means giving her daughter some space, some freedom.

Directed by Josh Boone, “The Fault in Our Stars” is appropriately titled because less discerning eyes can go into it and be convinced that its flaws are negligible, that it is so-called perfect just the way it is—and that is all right. But in my eyes, even though I enjoyed the picture as a whole, there are enough miscalculations to draw a difference between a truly engrossing experience every step of the way and that of a work which requires a bit more fire and polishing in order to set a standard.

The Master


The Master (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran, struggles to find his place after the war. Dipsomania as baggage, he is unable to keep a job: first as a portrait photographer then as a cabbage farmer. After another night of binge drinking, he ends up on a yacht rented by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a mysterious philosophical movement called The Cause, for the duration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd feels a deep connection with Freddie almost immediately, insisting that they had met prior but cannot remember the exact circumstances, so he invites the barely functioning alcoholic to join the group.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” keeps us wondering what exactly is going on, but it is ultimately a frustrating experience to endure because its content and execution are both so oblique, they never reach the synergy that is necessary for us to have a firm grip on the characters and their own definitions of reality. What could have been an analysis of two extremes–one a slave to his affliction, the other a slave to his delusion–ends up becoming an arrhythmic dance around the fire. It showcases two fiery performances but the hullabaloos are as empty as a drum.

Phoenix and Hoffman feed off each other’s energies. What Freddie and Dodd have is explored via a master-follower relationship as well as a father-son relationship though to a lighter degree. Even fainter is a homosexual undertone. The most memorable scenes involve their characters simply sitting across from one another and ascertaining what the other can offer. Despite Freddie’s alcoholism and Dodd’s charlatanism, not once do we forget that they are intelligent men, so often lost in their own thoughts, with something big to lose and equally momentous to gain. The push and pull between them, as well as the forces around them, makes a compelling watch even though the camera at times cannot stay still when the decibels of the men’s voices reach another level of intensity.

Freddie captured my interest because he reminded me of an abused dog my family adopted when I was a kid. This dog barked and snarled every time someone was near. She would be quiet only when she saw food about to be delivered to her bowl. We had this dog for three or four years and not once did I feel comfortable approaching her or calling her name. I pet her head about twice or thrice and even then I reached out my hand with the most reluctance. Freddie is the same: he has so much anger and personal demons that it is almost impossible to like him. He is fascinating as a specimen but getting close to him is a willful act of setting one’s self up for certain disappointment. I never loved that dog. I disliked having her as a part of a family so much, I thought about maybe “accidentally” leaving the gates open so she would be tempted to run in the street and never come back.

The screenplay is not mindful of its gaps in time. Instead of being in the moment, part of our attention is dedicated to determining how much time has passed since Event C now that Event M is happening. For instance, Freddie has fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Doris (Madisen Beaty) before he is sent to war. Some years later, he returns to a reality that we have long come to expect. This romantic strand is a would-be reminder that the protagonist, though hardened, is neither incapable of feeling nor unwilling to open up. For a film with such ambition, it comes off pedestrian. The yearning feels phony and stale. There is a glaring lack of momentum in the unspooling of the events. It is exhausting to sit through.

At least “The Master” gets into some detail about The Cause’s methods and ideologies, from the hypnotherapy sessions designed to recall one’s memories in his or her past lives to believing that the world has existed for trillions of years. Its 1950 milieu is also very convincing, its wide shots accompanied by sparse but memorable score by Jonny Greenwood. However, as hard as I tried, I could not connect with it fully. It tells us a lot but at the same time it does not. I do not like puzzles that are puzzling for the sake of puzzlement.

Little Fockers


Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★

It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.

Blue Velvet


Blue Velvet (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★

The film started off when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) found an ear in the field during his return to hometown after his father became ill. The protagonist then took the ear to a detective (George Dickerson) and fell in love with his daughter (Laura Dern). The daughter shared some of the information she heard from her father’s office to Jeffrey and the two began spying on a mysterious singer (Isabella Rossellini) that might be involved in murder. Written and directed by David Lynch, being familiar with some of his work, I expected “Blue Velvet” to be strange, fascinating and visceral, but I did not expect to like it because I think his films sometimes feel too mysterious to the point where it’s difficult for me to connect with the reality of the happenings on screen. So I was surprised when I found myself warming up to the characters because they had clearly defined sets of moral codes despite their weird fetishisms and strange reactions to certain revelations. Lynch’s masterful use of tone (and changing it when necessary at the most perfect intervals) reflected the characters’ mindsets when they anticipated something bad about to happen and when they actually faced their biggest fear such as getting caught in the act of doing something illegal or immoral. But what I admired most about “Blue Velvet” was not its philosophical ideas or implications about what was real and what wasn’t. What I admired most was the acting from three fronts: MacLachlan’s, Rossellini’s, and Dennis Hopper’s as the villanous Frank Booth. MacLachlan had this natural child-like charm about him but I felt as though he always kept a secret because of his shifty eyes and the way he would put himself in dangerous situations for the sake of curiosity. Rossellini was as seductive as she was difficult to read. She reminded me of those femme fatales in noir pictures of the 1940s; I couldn’t take my eyes off her because she exuded an aura of sensuality and danger. As for Hopper, he was the spice of the picture. He was absolutely insane, sadistic, menacing–and I loved him for it. He was so dynamic and just when I thought I knew what he would do next, he managed to surprise. I can understand that “Blue Velvet” may be difficult to swallow because it directly tackled polarizing figures (such as Dern being the girl-next-door and Hopper being the evil figure) without giving the audiences answers that were certain. I always talk about looking for a light at the end of the tunnel for the characters when it comes to movies that are dark and uncompromising. But even the light that I experienced in the end of this picture made me feel very uncomfortable. It was hopeful on the outside but I felt like the joke was on me for wanting to buy it. It was a weird feeling but I thought it was the perfect way to end such an enigmatic experience.

Jurassic Park


Jurassic Park (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Jurassic Park” was one of my favorite movies when I was about seven years old and it still remains a guilty pleasure of mine. (And I’m guessing my love for this film will be passed on to my kids.) Based on the novel by Michael Crichton and directed by the great Steven Spielberg, this film made me experience every emotion that there was to experience in (smart) summer blockbusters and creature-feature movies: heart-pounding thrills, suspense embedded in silences, funny one-liners, and astute script supported by storytelling that inspires true wonder.

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) wanted to open a new theme park that was full of dinosaurs and everything else from that specific time period. But in order for the park to get a green light to open, he must get the approval of outside parties: a mathematician who loves to talk about the chaos theory (Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm) and two dinosaur experts who are opposites but undoubtedly share great chemistry (Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant and Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler). Other characters included Hammond’s grandchildren (Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards), a greedy computer expert who made a deal with another research group to smuggle DNA outside of Jurassic Park (Wayne Knight), another computer expert who likes structure and discipline (Samuel L. Jackson), a dinosaur hunter (Bob Peck), and a lawyer who values money over safety (Martin Ferrero). Although none of the characters were fully explored, I did not think that was too big of a problem because each of them contributed something to the picture, such as being dinosaur bait for our entertainment. And who really wants character development when one can look at how ferocious and fatal dinosaurs can be?

I admired this picture’s ability to balance. With its two-hour running time, I noticed that the first half served to explain how the scientists were able to replicate (with slight but crucial modifications) extinct creatures and the second half focused on the many brutal ways of getting hunted. As a Biological Sciences major, I liked the fact that it offered an explanation that made sense with regards to how the scientists acquired the dinosaurs’ DNA. Moreover, I also liked that it mentioned that acquiring the DNA would not be sufficient. That is, there were missing gaps in the DNA that had to be solved in order to commence the process of DNA replication and eventually cloning entire organisms. As for the chase sequences, I found that once it started it never lets go until the final three minutes. There were definitely a plethora of highlights in the second half but I’m only going to mention some. The kitchen scene that haunted me when I was younger was even more thrilling than I thought. When I was seven, I remember being able to identify with those kids because I thought that if I were in their situation, I wouldn’t want to get eaten by those hungry velociraptors either. Not that I’m older, I still could identify with them but on a different level: I didn’t want them to get hurt because they are smart, funny and energetic kids. Another highlight was the first appearance of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex and how the water vibrated as it moved closer to the characters. I’ve seen the impact of vibration reference in a plethora of films that came after “Jurassic Park” so I think it’s safe to say that that scene is pretty much embedded in the collective media unconscious. And it rightly deserves to be because of Spielberg’s great execution by building suspense and eventually delivering the thrills.

The special and visual effects must be given applause. I’ve seen a number of movies surrounding 1993 and nothing even comes close to this film’s magic. Back in 1993, it must have been that much more impressive. Nowadays, if one was to watch this movie, one would find out that some effects were noticably computerized. Given that, while the two sequels greatly improved on the effects, neither comes close to the original’s sense of wonder and tension. For me, it goes to show that a movie can have the best special and visual effects in the world but if there’s not enough story and heart, it’s essentially weak as a whole. Last but certainly not least, I liked that it managed to tackle ethical questions of building such a park. I was glad that the whole “playing God” issue/religion was acknowledged but it eventually focused on defying nature without thinking of the consequences first. Goldblum’s character provided much of the ethical questions and I was always interested with what he had to say. And really, his questions are still relevant today because of all the technological advancements our generation are acquiring.

“Jurassic Park” is truly one of the best summer blockbuster popcorn flick ever made. By the time the credits started rolling, despite the death and terror that happened in the park, I still wished we had one just like it in real life so I could visit. If I were to describe this movie in the fewest words possible it would be “A Landmark.”