Tag: mia wasikowska

Maps to the Stars


Maps to the Stars (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) makes a trip from Jupiter, Florida to Los Angeles, California because it has been seven years since she had seen her family—the very people she tried to set on fire. Her goal is to make amends but she is unsure whether enough time has passed for them to be able to forgive. In the meantime, she gets a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress with many connections and even more personal demons, including a history of drug abuse.

“Maps to the Stars,” based on the screenplay by Bruce Wagner, is not the sharpest biting satirical film about Hollywood culture but it does command highly watchable performances across the board. There are plenty of familiar faces, from Robert Pattison as a limousine driver to Carrie Fisher playing a version of herself, and just about each one, no matter how brief they appear on screen, intrigues. Looking at the material from a big picture point of view, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. The bad, erratic, and self-destructive behaviors are present but there is no soul. At one point one cannot help but wonder, “What’s the point?”

Not surprisingly, Moore is the standout performer. Although Havana is not the lead character, Moore plays Havana as larger-than-life but tragic. In one scene she is despicable, but the succeeding scene makes us wonder that maybe there is more to her than pills, guilt, and a past she is unable to run away from. The best scenes involve Havana wanting to get a part so badly—a role that her late mother played many years ago—that she comes across as on the brink of breaking down. So people around her tiptoe. She, too, is in self-denial; she thinks she’s a bright star but in actuality, maybe she needs to focus on getting into the right frame of mind to be able to handle holding down a job.

I did not expect to feel sympathy toward a child actor who is a complete jerk to everyone he encounters—even to young fans who just want a simple autograph. Thirteen-year-old Benjie (Evan Bird) already has a history of drug abuse and he is trying to keep clean—not because he wants to necessarily but in order to keep a role that his mother (Olivia Williams) thinks he should hold onto. I wondered at times about the kind of future Benjie might have given he continues traveling in the same self-destructive track.

Looking at their rather palatial home, one must wonder why the mother insists that he remain in show business. Is it for his future or is it a way for her to compensate on what she feels she is lacking, a missed opportunity when she was young? Of course, in a movie like this, which follows expected beats in terms of story arc, the answer is somewhat obvious.

Directed by David Cronenberg, “Maps to the Stars” shows the ugly side of being in the Hollywood machine: the vanity, the histrionics, the exploitation, the loneliness of living in spacious home but there is no joy or laughter in it. There is a sadness here that the picture seems almost afraid to touch, afraid of delivering more dimension to cynicism. I get the point that it aims to make but cynicism must be paired with something else—preferably contrasting elements—or else the film ends up being a one-note critique.

Piercing


Piercing (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Pesce’s bizarre dark comedy-thriller “Piercing” is a work that exists solely to test the patience. Its premise exhibits some promise: a man who wishes to murder his infant child books a hotel, goes on a business trip, and concocts a plan to kill a prostitute instead. However, both the writing and execution do not function on a high enough level and so what results is a project that barely passes as student film. And, yes, it is yet another one of those movies that demonizes S&M for the sake of shock value. I was nauseated by its desperation to provide twists rather than to tell a good story that just happens to have twists.

Christopher Abbott is one of the most underrated actors working today and there are moments when he elevates the subpar screenplay almost singlehandedly. He is a great communicator using only his eyes. Even a blink—when it is used and how long it lasts—is calculated. Observe closely as Reed looks at his baby and contemplates stabbing her. Instead of turning his eyes blank, as he would during some moments he shares with the prostitute he hires later (Mia Wasikowska), there is humanity present as the man—the father—wrestles against the monster that is consuming him slowly but surely. On occasion, Abbott makes a number of fresh choices under the weight of a limited screenplay; at times I wanted to scream at the movie for not committing hard enough—at the very least around the level of its lead.

Particularly annoying are the so-called teases. I found them to be unfunny and not the least bit entertaining. For instance, just when a character is about to get seriously hurt or maimed, the weapon is withdrawn and the person in power walks away as if to gloat. This trick is utilized so often that eventually we stop buying into the possibility that the situation would turn grim. As a thriller with some horror elements, particularly with a handful of its hallucinatory imagery, the diminishing returns proves deadly in terms of tension-building as well as providing a requisite catharsis. In the middle of it, I wondered how the director can expect for the audience to take his project seriously when he himself is not able to do the same.

Reed is shown to exhibit signs of a mental illness such as hearing voices that aren’t there and experiencing visual hallucinations. Coupled with these are quick flashbacks of an extremely traumatic childhood that likely contributed in sending his mental state over the edge. Neither the images nor the approach in tackling the subject of mental illness in relation to how such factors might impact behavior are particularly inspired. In fact, we are provided recycled clichés that executed much stronger and with more intent in other movies.

Skip “Piercing” and watch Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” instead. The latter picture expertly shows how laughter can be transformed into gasps of horror at a drop of a hat. We detest the Patrick Bateman character but we are enamored and fascinated by him, his mind, his lifestyle. He is such a curious subject that there comes a point where we do not wish for him to be captured by the authorities. We crave to explore the next layer of his deranged mind. By comparison, we wish for “Piercing” to be over far sooner than its relatively short running time of seventy-five minutes.

Damsel


Damsel (2018)
★ / ★★★★

I suppose a congratulations is in order for co-writer-directors David and Nathan Zellner because they have created one of the most torturously unfunny comedies I have come across in a long time. It offers such a miserable experience that I noticed my body, spirit, and comportment wilting in unison about a third of the way through. I have no idea what possessed these filmmakers to go in the direction that they did; it goes to show that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should.

“Damsel” is a mishmash of comedies: a spoof of grand Western pictures that Hollywood used to make, a satire of the often romanticized American frontier, and a slapstick comedy that pokes fun of the roughness and lawlessness of the era. But none of them works, together or apart, because the screenplay has a certain attitude about it, a knowingness that fails to ground the material in such a way that viewers recognize the heart of the story despite hurricane happening all around. What results is an episodic boredom, a dirge so excruciatingly painful to sit through that one could feel IQ points dropping by the minute. It inspires the viewer not to look closer at the screen but to walk away.

The plot is seemingly straightforward. The passionate Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) hires a preacher (David Zellner) to officiate a wedding ceremony, the latter unaware that the former’s love interest, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), must first be rescued from hooligans. Nothing is at seems initially, but the sudden left turns are not at all surprising. These so-called surprises have little impact, if any, because, without them, the audience would simply have to endure uninteresting characters engage in increasingly tedious conversations. Notice that although many words are used, they are not meaningful because the self-awareness in the script undermines what characters are expressing, especially moments that are supposed to come across even mildly heartfelt.

Pattinson has been great in other projects, particularly in the dystopian drama “The Rover.” Here, however, nearly every body language and distinct style of speaking comes across as a performance. Like the screenplay, the self-awareness is translated as fake at best and off-putting at worst. He has failed to create a character: what we see is merely a series of behavior that is supposed to be entertaining. And he has failed to create a convincing character because the screenplay is devoid of creativity or imagination. Wasikowska does not fare any better; it is like watching a mannequin take up space for fifty minutes.

Some viewers may label this film as “weird” because it is a comedy but the end result is not funny. I, on the other hand, refuse to use this wonderful word to describe this most appalling work. The more appropriate word is “lazy.” The reason is because the Zellner bothers thought they could get away with creating a hodgepodge of sub-genres and the end product would be given a pass because it could be considered unique, something that had never been done before.

But I ask: What’s the point of striving to create original material when the work is without sincerity, without soul? Comedies, you see, often have a point—even the darkest, bleakest comedies attempt to make a statement about, for example, the current state of our society or where it might be heading. Some comedies are more specific or more pointed in assaulting the viewers’ ethics or morality. And some simply try to entertain by casting a wide net—there’s nothing wrong with that.

Being different is not enough; I am not interested in handing out participation trophies.

Alice Through the Looking Glass


Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” based on the screenplay by Linda Woolverton and directed by James Bobin, is capable of faking everything else except the most important ingredient in a fantasy picture: real emotions. It boats special and visual effects that are nothing short of impressive, but if one were to peer a little closer, it actually offers nothing worth of value—deeply ironic because the story dares to preach about the importance of family.

Most awkward are the scenes involving human interactions. These should have been perfectly calibrated and executed given that the majority of the film is composed of computerized imagery to the degree that is dizzying and vomit-inducing. These ought to have functioned not only as a breath of fresh air but a chance to anchor the story on a human level despite the story taking place in a wonderland. Yet notice the exchanges between Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and Hatter (Johnny Depp)—the two characters who are dead center of the plot involving time travel—so wooden, forced, not at all intriguing or the least bit warm.

One gets the impression that an illusion were created. I questioned whether the actors were ever in the same room together, let alone have gotten a chance to see each other face-to-face. This is because is a constant disconnect between not only the words uttered but the overall emotions they attempt to convey. Although Hatter is supposed to be mad and Alice is a cheery figure by default, the script fails to underline enough commonalities between the characters. When interacting with someone in person, there is a baseline when it comes to the level of engagement. Here, there appears to be nothing at all.

Despite the pavonine special and visual effects, from the animated characters to Alice’s travels through time, they suffer from diminishing returns. This is due to the fact the material fails to engage the audience in an active manner, it seems too content to give the viewers eye candy and nothing else. It goes to show that you can have the most expensive, most dazzling effects in the world but if there is little to no meaning or heft that propel them, then what’s the point? Over time, I found the images so unrealistic—even for an adventure-fantasy film—that they end up merely serving as decorations.

Notice how I have not delved into the plot. This is because the plot is completely immaterial. The filmmakers did not concern themselves with plot or story because what they wished to make was a not a product that entertained or one that they wanted to be proud of. This is merely a fashion show of greed and ego, serving to cash in on its predecessor. And it shows.

Crimson Peak


Crimson Peak (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

The night of her mother’s death, young Edith was visited by her mother’s ghost and warned her of Crimson Peak. Although it did not make sense to her at the time, Edith has never forgotten the encounter. Fourteen years later, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, meets a baronet from England, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who comes to America with the hopes of raising capital for his project with the help of Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a successful businessman.

In Europe, Thomas’ mansion, Allerdale Hall, sits on top of a clay mine. It is a matter of funding and building the proper machinery so that the clay can be acquired and sold. Soon, Edith and Thomas marry and live in Allerdale Hall. However, Edith begins to suspect that the mansion is haunted.

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robins, “Crimson Peak” is a gothic-horror film that is beautifully told with strong special and visual effects to back it up. It has many similarities with classic horror films, particularly with its treatment of gore and violence. These elements are secondary. The film is about the story and the characters first and how they come to change over time. Thus, an expected criticism is its slow pacing.

The deliberate pacing fits this type of story like a glove. It forces us to wonder how the characters are going to clash upon the delivery of key revelations. During its opening minutes, there are well-placed acknowledgements that the story is not really about ghosts, that ghosts merely serve as metaphor for the past that haunts. Although the idea only becomes fully realized during the latter half of the picture, it works because the wonderful performances by the leads and supporting performers help to carry through the promise.

It can be argued that the heroine is written as a bit of a bore. I agree—to an extent—but Wasikowska puts in a lot of effort to make Edith interesting. Take away the extravagant garments, hairstyles, and accessories and the performance remains highly watchable. Wasikowska appears to have more than a dozen faces to express fear. It looks and feels so effortless, the viewer gets the impression that she just picks one from her bag of tricks when the time is right. The scenes in which Edith is required to investigate during the night stand out.

There is suspense and genuine horror as she walks through hallways and opens cabinets because, like the camera, her expressions and body language are patient and precise. Jessica Chastain, too, shines as Thomas’ older, conniving sister. Notice the way she milks every scene she is in; menace is communicated right down to her fingertips.

Some of the computer-generated imagery are a bit much. Although the monsters in the haunted mansion look creepy and dangerous when they are shown, the longer the camera lingers on them, the less impact they tend to have. Perhaps this could have been circumvented if some of the images were more tactile, less translucent-looking. The choice to make them the latter, however, is an interesting one. Perhaps we are never really supposed to believe they look real or convincing, to tie into the idea that the film is not primarily a ghost story.

“Crimson Peak,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, does not need to be thoroughly original. It is difficult to deny that it is a period piece horror that is very done well. There is intrigue in the gothic romantic story and characters, the forefront and background images are stunning, the performances exhibit range, and we care about what happens to the characters. Though others may claim the film is “an exercise of style over substance,” the imbalance is not by much.

Stoker


Stoker (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

During her father’s burial, India (Mia Wasikowska) sees a man observing their mourning from afar. This turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), believed to have been traveling the world for many years. Charles is very charming and cultured so India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), invites him to stay with them for a while. India does not think this is a good idea given that they know almost nothing about him.

Daubed with a mysterious atmosphere and directed with a keen eye that allows images to come alive, it is a shame that the final quarter of “Stoker” is wimpy and standard. For a movie that is very careful about creating a well-paced build-up of bizarre events, there is something cheap about relying on guns and bloodshed instead of finding another way, one that feels right, to end the story.

The distance between the grieving mother and daughter is just right. Wasikowska and Kidman are nicely cast because they have a tendency of portraying cold personalities with just enough fire to keep their characters interesting. The screenplay does not give their relationship much depth, but there are enough oddities in their interactions that we cannot help but ask questions. Losing the man of the house is difficult for both of them. When Charlie enters the equation, it is almost as if there is a competition among the women.

When it comes to India and Uncle Charlie, about thirty to forty minutes in, I predicted exactly what is going to happen. However, I enjoyed the images enough that I was able to overlook its lack of excitement. I relished how a lamp in the basement moves back and forth when touched, how the camera lingers on the fingers dancing on the piano as the hand guides them to play beautiful melodies, and how images of past and present are placed on top of one another to draw parallels. It is an understated thriller with a taste bud for poetry and lyricism.

The supporting characters are not given enough time on screen in order to make a difference where the story will veer toward. Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) appears to be knowledgeable about the family’s dark history and Auntie Jen (Jacki Weaver) seems to be deathly afraid Charlie. Meanwhile, India’s classmates, cruel Pitts (Lucas Till) and kind Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), enter and exit the picture for the sake of showing the fact that India is not very popular at school. Their scenes could have been taken out completely and it would not have made much difference; we can tell that India is a loner by just looking at the way she dresses and the manner in which she interacts with people closest to her.

In the beginning, India admits through narration that she has an ability of seeing and hearing things that many people tend to overlook. I wished the writer, Wentworth Miller, had been more willing to play with the possibility that there is something paranormal about our protagonist. The house is palatial and prime for an old-fashioned ghost story. In other words, the material lacks the necessary red herrings so that people like myself will be distracted enough that we are inevitably swept up in the fun of its revelations.

Directed by Chan-wook Park, “Stoker” is visually splendid but it lacks a level of danger that many effective mystery-thrillers possess. It remains in a state of muffled restraint for so long that when it is time to conclude the story, it feels like it is simply trying too hard.

Jane Eyre


Jane Eyre (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

After Jane Eyre’s father passed away when she was a child, she was sent to live with Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), the aunt who had given up loving her because she often caused trouble. Mrs. Reed eventually sent Jane to a boarding school where her behavior was expected to be corrected. When Jane turns of age, now played by Mia Wasikowska, she works as a governess in Thornfield Hall where she meets the respected Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). One of the reasons why people around them believe that they shouldn’t be together is money: he is rich and she is poor. Other than his attraction to her, there is another, darker reason which Mr. Rochester is willing to keep a secret no matter what.

Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre” surprised me in the best ways possible because it’s actually sexy, a quality I rarely expect from period films. Part of it is due to the performances. Wasikowska nicely embodies a plain beauty who can easily hide on the background. But when her character has something important to say, she has the ability to change her mannerisms in a nuanced way, whether it be brightening her eyes a little bit or just parting her lips so delicately that she gives off an air of aristocracy. It is impressive to watch her make small changes in her body language yet they are enough to make a statement and allow us to consider what she might be thinking.

Fassbender injects his character with complexity that we cannot help but be suspicious. While it is mentioned that he has a volatile personality, we are actually able to experience his fluctuating warmth and coldness. We want to like him because he is a good fit for Jane, but we approach him with reluctance because of the lingering possibility that he simply wants to use her. After all, he has no problem dangling her in front of his elegant company mostly consisting of women with vile tongues. I loved that each time Fassbender enters a scene, I never could predict how he will play his character.

When the two finally admit their feelings for each other, the cinematography comes into focus but it never overshadows the emotions. While it highlights the aspect of beauty in the way the wind rustles the leaves of trees, caresses the grass, and surfs through the characters’ detailed clothing. Meanwhile, thunderstorm and lightning can be heard and seen from afar which signals that maybe the beauty that we see is a transient, illusory thing.

There is an element of darkness despite the picture’s emotional highs so it kept me curious and cautious. The supernatural elements are deftly handed by the director. We hear ghostly whispers and voices, characters acknowledging curses and bad luck, and we even see unexplained phenomenon like chimney spewing out ash inside a mansion. However, these elements feel like a natural part of this specific story. It helps us to get into a certain mood when Jane goes about the mansion in the middle of the night holding only a candle in her hand and courage in her heart.

There are times when I felt as though the pacing of “Jane Eyre,” based on a screenplay by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a bit rushed. I would have been happy, even if it means adding an extra thirty minutes, to have gotten to know more about Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and what she really thinks about Jane and Edward’s relationship. Furthermore, the scenes with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) toward the end feels tacked on. What is exactly the real connection between he and Jane?