Tag: lili taylor


Eli (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Ciarán Foy’s “Eli” is yet another substandard horror film with little on its mind other than to deliver a big twist during the final fifteen minutes. The journey toward the destination is slow, interminable, and peppered with scares that rarely land on target. For a story that unfolds in an estate in the middle of the country—perfect for a haunted house movie—there is no intrigue, just clichés that pile on top of one another until the viewer is compelled to no longer care.

It begins with a curious medical case about a boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) who began to exhibit signs of an unnamed autoimmune disorder four years prior. When exposed to the environment, red spots appear on his skin aggressively and so he is forced to live in a bubble. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) found a new hope: Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), an immunologist who plans to employ viral gene therapy to repair the boy’s defective genes.

Although a mysterious premise, the science aspect of the picture is almost immediately thrown out the window from the moment the desperate family steps inside the palatial home. It does not help that the immunologist and her nurses are written as villains in the most obvious way possible: stern-faced, cold, impersonal, robotic. It does not provide the audience a chance to decide for themselves whether or not to trust the poker-faced trio. You see, the reason is because every decision must serve the rug to be pulled from right underneath our feet. If the screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing really cared about engaging the audience, it would have been willing to entertain possibilities.

The middle portion drags to the point of futility. Every time day turns into night, you can bet that Eli would have a nightmare, get up from the bed, and explore the creepy facility. Sometimes he encounters ghostly figures that breathe on windowpanes, a few of them whisper clues, and one or two reveal themselves, CGI and all. It is formulaic, exhausting, and not at all scary. There is a lack of patience during the buildup and so the would-be payoffs are not at all impactful. Shotwell is quite convincing at looking terrified, but we do not believe the emotions on his face because there is nothing special about the craft propelling such encounters.

As for the drama between a desperate mother and seemingly cold father, I found it to be recycled fluff. There is a scene early in the picture which shows the family’s financial struggle due to the boy’s rising medical costs. However, this fact—this reality—is never brought up again. I think the movie could have used more searing honesty. It is common knowledge that family members tend to fight among one another when money is tight. People get desperate not knowing how to pay for rent or how to pay for the next meal. Pretty much everybody can relate or empathize with this. However, the movie would rather focus on parents fighting because one has lied, or has kept a secret, or some vanilla reason. Be direct. Deliver raw drama.

Admittedly, the twist is quite smart. I did not see it coming. But a good twist—even a great one—is not worth a recommendation when everything else around it is uninspired, from the unsubtle dialogue, forgettable set decor, down to a resolution that hints at a possible sequel should the movie become a success. It is pessimistic filmmaking.


Leatherface (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A tidal wave of exasperation washed over me as I endured “Leatherface,” supposedly a horror film but more like a copy and paste of scenes from the most generic and uninspired of the genre released within the last fifteen years. Being the first film in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise which features only the name of one of the most recognizable villains in slasher picture history, one would be inclined to believe that screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood might have something interesting to say about the mind of a serial murderer who later wears his victims’ faces. Instead, we are provided an interminable hostage scenario so ludicrous that anybody with half a brain would scream at the characters to run with every easy opportunity to escape. Natural selection is not at play here.

It is a shame because two great character actors, often underrated, signed up for the project. Lili Taylor plays Verna, mother of the boy who would become the titular character. Meanwhile, Stephen Dorff portrays Hartman, a cop seeking vengeance against Verna’s family because her children killed his daughter. Both manage to create characters from nothing; they may be one-dimensional because the script lacks common sense, intelligence, and a genuine understanding of human psychology and behavior, but the parents command strong personalities. It is a missed opportunity that these two do not share more scenes because their clashes contain a semblance of substance.

Part of the would-be intrigue is guessing which teenager would become Leatherface. Because the boy was taken away from his mother at an early age and been given a new name while in a mental institution, it is mentioned that he might not even know who he is. There are three candidates: kind-hearted Jackson (Sam Strike), mute and corpulent Bud (Sam Coleman), and budding criminal Ike (James Bloor). It is not at all a challenge to guess correctly when the viewer comes to understand the mean-spirited nature of the project.

Yes, horror films can be the opposite. I argue that great ones are not rotten inside. In fact, a lot of them are hopeful because evil is almost always weakened or extinguished, at the very least defeated that day so the characters can have the opportunity to live their lives. Here, however, it is one ugly, barbaric death scene after another. Bags of flesh being slashed, beaten to a pulp, and decapitated tend to dull the senses not only due to the fact that they are terribly executed but they are also increasingly boring. Deaths do not have impact because every person we encounter is a caricature.

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, “Leatherface” is a limp origin story, empty of surprises, empty emotionally, and certainly one that drags. While there are moments of inspiration, directly tethered to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, particularly one that takes place in the woods at night as blue, almost alien-esque light penetrates through the trees, these are not enough to elevate moldy, rotting scraps into something marginally edible.

Girls Town

Girls Town (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

It was supposed to be just another Friday, an exam during second period. But the teacher walks into her classroom with terrible news: one of the students, Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis), has killed herself. It is a surprise to everybody, including Nikki’s best friends, Angela (Bruklin Harris), Patti (Lili Taylor), and Emma (Anna Grace), because it seemed as though everything was going well for Nikki. She was even supposed to attend Princeton next year.

I suppose one can choose to digest Jim McKay’s “Girls Town” as a “feminist” film. After all, it involves three young women taking revenge on men who do or has done them wrong. But I choose not to view the picture through that lens. In fact, it was only after I had seen it that the pattern became clear: I was too involved in the lives of Nikki’s friends and how the death of someone they love has changed the way they choose to live their lives.

Though released in the mid-nineties, aside from the clothing, it has not aged a day. I have met and know people who talk and carry themselves exactly like Patti, Emma, and Angela. Listening to them talk about silly things and subjects of particular importance is like being inside their circle of friends. Yet at the same time we come to understand why some of their peers judge them for being losers or troublemakers. These girls are not exactly angels.

But each of them has a kindness that is endearing. They are present for one another when one needs a laugh or a shoulder to lean on when things get to be too much. The screenplay juggles the rough edges of the characters with enough surprising moments of vulnerability that we grow attached to them eventually. What is exciting and fresh, however, is despite the problems that arise in the girls’ lives, they are always going to school.

These are not dumb girls who bully people for the sake of nothing. These are smart girls just being themselves. These are young women who are aware that they have a future which means they have something to look forward to and maybe even fight for.

The dynamics of the friendship is captured beautifully. Though each of the girls has a distinct personality, the acting is so fluid that it does not feel as though the script is forcing performances out of the actors. It does not rely on quirks to make the subjects believable. Instead, the film concerns itself on allowing us to have a taste of how Emma, Angela, and Patti are like when together as well as when they are alone with only their thoughts.

“Girls Town” is about substance. Though set in an urban milieu, not once do we see a gun or someone being shot. There are no drug dealers here. No one is sent to jail. There is violence. There are fights—between friends, family, strangers—but they occur to make a point. But then there is also peace. Together, these women find away to move on—not completely but just enough so that we feel they are all going to be all right.


Dogfight (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) and his Marine friends (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield) are going to be shipped off to Vietnam the next morning, so they figure they deserve to have some fun. After some deliberation, they decide to play a game called “dogfight” in which each player is required to put in fifty dollars in the pot, look for the ugliest girl he can find in San Francisco, and ask her if she wants to go to a party. There, the winner, one who brings the homeliest girl as a date, is to be announced. Birdlace chooses Rose (Lili Taylor), a waitress at her mom’s cafe and an aspiring folk singer.

There is something genuinely sweet, without having to result to sentimentality, about “Dogfight,” written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca. With such a mean-spirited premise, on the level of cruelty of Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” it is most surprising that, slowly, the picture unfolds into a sophisticated romance between two unlikely people: Birdlace, generous in uttering a curse word after every other sentence, and Rose, an opinionated young woman who welcomes love–but not desperate to find it.

The picture has familiar elements, but the writer puts a realistic spin on the events. To spare Rose from humiliation, Birdlace tells his date that maybe they should not attend the party he mentioned earlier, that they should do something spontaneous and go somewhere else to have fun. In most movies of similar breed, it is often that the protagonist realizes that his action is wrong only after the deed has been done. Here, since his change of heart happens earlier than what most of us come to expect, we are allowed to clearly see the point in which his conscience comes knocking hard. While putting lipstick on Rose’s lips, purposefully doing a terrible job to make her appear uglier, something inside Birdlace clicks: applying lipstick on a person is not like spraying graffiti on a wall.

A wall does not have feelings but people do. It occurs to the Marine that perhaps waitress is worth getting to know beyond her physicality. When she inevitably discovers the truth, she is, understandably, outraged. But the screenplay does not get stuck in showing or communicating to us that Birdlace is sorry. Instead, the focus is on what it means to be a young people willing to make a connection, to forge a friendship that will last, and to love the person in spite of and especially his flaws. And with love comes forgiveness. People forgive, some more easily than others, and the film is loyal to that perspective. We may not be ready to forgive Birdlace for participating in the game but Rose is.

During one beautiful night in 1963 San Francisco, Birdlace and Rose go out to dinner and do things that potential couples normally do: tease, flirt, laugh, kiss, and maybe even argue about politics. Their date, a rewarding experience for both, is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Birdlace’ buddies participating in all sorts of activities like getting tattoos of bees, a symbol of their camaraderie, and receiving fellatios from a prostitute in a movie theater. The screenplay does the unexpected once again. Instead of treating the trio with condescension since they neither seem to exhibit remorse toward the women they lured nor are they punished for their actions, the film spends time on the essence of the bonding among the three Marines. There is a sadness to it because it is very possible that not all of them will make it back. They have reason to be scared and acting out is a way of coping.

“Dogfight” avoids glamorous trappings about men meeting women before heading off to war. It is interested in the nuances between the said and unsaid, genuine and forced smiles. It utilizes silence to say a lot–loudly, proudly and clearly through Phoenix and Taylor’s charming and vulnerable eyes–about how being open-minded might lead to self-discovery and human connections one would not have otherwise if one opted to remain within one’s bubble.

The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Horror movies do not get the laudation they deserve because a good number of them are shockingly bad and thrice more settle for just being mediocre. Great horror is very difficult to achieve so many filmmakers in the genre often end up relying on blood and violence to generate would-be scares. It feels as if there is a collective act of surrender in giving the audience something to be excited about.

It is surprising then that once in a blue moon a horror picture comes along and surprises because it is ambitious, confident, and smart about what it hopes to accomplish. Right from the opening scene, we get a sense that “The Conjuring,” directed by James Wan, is a different breed: behind it is an eye that is conscious of the nuts and bolts of what makes horror movies so fun to watch. A pair of nurses who believe that a doll is able to move on its own should be funny. And it is–for a split second. Utilizing well-placed pauses between dialogue, a heavy silence as the camera scans a room, and an awareness of what should be shown (and when), it sets up very familiar scenes in ways that can be appreciated.

The freaky Annabelle doll is only the scent of a delectable meal. After the Perron family moves into a farmhouse in Rhode Island, strange events start to occur. Carolyn (Lili Taylor) finds bruises all over her body but is unaware how she gets them. April (Kyla Deaver) picks up a music box next to a lake and begins to have an imaginary friend. Meanwhike, as Christine (Joey King) sleeps, something grabs her leg and tries to pull her off the bed. Details like creaky doors, isolated smell of rotten meat, and clocks stopping at exactly 3:07 in the morning go a long way because we care about the family.

The first hour is exemplary because each scene is a focused escalation from bizarre to horrifying. The key is going for the jugular without rushing for the jolt. Instead, a situation builds up slowly, interestingly without false alarms, and then suddenly until a saturation point. As we observe the Perrons being tortured by the paranormal entities, it begins to feel like we are a tenant living in one of the rooms and wondering what the hell we got ourselves into. The director is aware that what he is playing with is not new and so it is all the more important to provide a personal touch with each encounter.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson playing paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, respectively, do a respectable work embodying a couple who has been in the job for so long. And so it is a disappointment that the writers, Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes, end up making the case somewhat more interesting than the demonologists. Ed and Lorraine get a subplot about their daughter and an exorcism that has gone awry, merely functioning as footnotes in the big picture. I felt like I knew the Perron case well but not the couple examining it.

When the film gets showy, especially during the final twenty minutes, it loses a degree of its power. Images of objects floating in the air and furnitures being thrown by an invisible force are just too far–and standard–from the moody aura it has created for itself. Since it falters to remain true to its identity all the way through, it is short of being exceptional.

“The Conjuring” is a step in the right direction for the genre. It shows that with the right material, talent, and enthusiasm behind the lens horror movies made in the twenty-first century can be very good, can be taken seriously, and can be accessible even for those who are not generally fans of scary movies.

But is it one to be remembered? I’m optimistic.