Tag: michelle pfeiffer

The Family


The Family (2013)
★ / ★★★★

The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.

The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.

It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.

Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.

In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.

Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.

Ant-Man and the Wasp


Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” may be lacking the epic scale that some of the other Marvel movies possess, but what it has to offer is equally invaluable: terrific entertainment without even lifting a finger. And yet—it tries to engage the viewer every step of the way, whether it be in terms of wacky banters, larger-than-life action pieces, or surprisingly emotional turns of the plot which remind us that our protagonists are fighting for something close to home: to rescue a family member (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the so-called Quantum Realm, a universe composed of worlds in a subatomic scale.

Under Reed’s direction, the film moves at a brisk pace with imagination to spare. Notice that although action scenes almost always involve Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) miniaturized lab being stolen, and it can be argued that one or two of them drag during the latter half, a new setting is consistently utilized to show us interesting ways for Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) to exercise their powers. What results are memorable scenes with distinct flavors. Particularly impressive is the car chase that unfolds in the winding and hilly streets San Francisco which leads to our hero increasing his size to dangerous levels in order to chase a tour boat in Fisherman’s Wharf. Although these scenes are busy and exciting, the effervescent humor runs parallel to them.

There is a running joke about magic tricks but the approach likens that of a juggling act. The rescue mission lies in the center but there are also bits such as the house arrest of Scott Lang (Rudd) following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” in which an FBI agent (Randall Park) attempts to keep a close watch, an enigmatic figure called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who is able to walk to through walls but is in constant nearly unbearable pain, and a black market dealer (Walton Goggins) hoping to steal the lab’s technologies and make a healthy profit. It even has time to inject the humor of the X-Con Security crew (Michael Peña, T.I., David Dasmalchian). Somehow these elements work together not only because of the performances but also due to the screenplay being written smartly, always aware not to wear out a subplot’s running gag.

Like numerous Marvel movies, the “Ant-Man” sequel suffers from an antagonist that ought to have been more interesting. While Ghost is provided a rudimentary background, and it is great that she is not intended to function as a typical villain who wish to end the world or make people suffer, she is not intriguing outside of what she can do to prevent Ant-Man and the Wasp from pulling off their central mission. While John-Kamen is fit for the role, I recognized a common ailment that performers rely on when the material does not inject enough substance into its characters: quirky behavior. More interesting, however, is her relationship with a father-like figure. I wished to know more about them and their work together following Ghost’s orphanhood.

Another relationship worth further examination is the titular characters’. Scott and Hope’s more romantic moments are reduced to awkward dialogues (mostly executed and dragged on by Scott without losing a percentage of charm) and googly-eyed exchanges. While the romantic chemistry between Rudd and Lilly is strong, we do not experience genuine growth in their relationship nor do we recognize that, following their struggles in this film, they come to see one another under a new light, that they appreciate one another more. I suppose something has got to give when the action and comedy must be at the forefront. Yet one can argue that we should expect more exactly because the writers and filmmakers are so talented in juggling disparate elements.

Despite its secondary shortcomings, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” offers great fun. It is always visually dazzling whenever the film showcases images from a miniaturized point of view, particularly during the action sequence at a hotel kitchen. Even more daring images are found within the Quantum Realm, the pavonine colors almost overwhelming the senses.

mother!


mother! (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Too many movies of today are so bland, so vanilla, they are forgotten even before the credits roll. I believe the great thing about “mother!,” written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is that the viewer will not walk away from it without an opinion or, at the very least, a strong impression—even if, at the time, one is unable to put into words the blender of emotions that come with the experience. Yes, it can be maddening at times, particularly the final forty minutes, but it is also intriguing as a horror film. Polarity is interesting.

There is curiosity in the story because it appears to follow a familiar horror template of a couple (Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem) living in isolation whose peace is disturbed by strangers (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer). We observe as the elements are introduced and fall into place like clockwork until we come to a conclusion as to what might be going on underneath the niceties and sudden passive-aggressive remarks. I thought the revelation is going to be deathly similar to a certain psychological horror film from the 1960s that was written and directed by Roman Polanski. I was elated to have been proven wrong.

Although not the most digestible work, I enjoyed putting some of the pieces together and realizing eventually that these pieces can also fit together a different way, paving several other ways to interpret the message of the story. To me, it is a criticism of how our society, certainly applicable to American standards, has normalized women having a certain place and for them to defy or step over the line that has been drawn by patriarchy is considered to be horrific by those in power. An evidence of this observation is when Lawrence’s character finds herself reluctant to take action or ashamed when she feels the need to speak up and inform her guests, whom her husband has welcomed, that they need to leave. After all, we have this idea that women are supposed to bear the inconvenience of having a chaotic home and get it all under control.

But interesting messages do not necessarily make a good movie. There is craft to appreciate here, particularly in how the writer-director builds the tension behind the mystery. It is done through showing curious images like a mass of deformed tissue clogging up a toilet, a strange bloody hole on the wooden floor, a possible hidden door in the cellar. One can even study the face of the husband when his wife attempts to encourage him through his writer’s block. There is almost always a hint of annoyance and frustration there. Perhaps a part of him considers that the mothering is contributing to his state of stagnancy.

Most problematic is the final third of the project because the metaphor is so heavy and long-winded that it tests the viewers patience more than it demands to be carefully considered, to be thought about. Credit to Aronofsky for making the assumption that some viewers would be willing to look past the extreme and desultory images. However, this portion of the film comes across as self-congratulatory, perhaps even self-masturbatory, rather than something to be appreciated in silence. Sometimes subtlety and silence is the correct way to go about an allegory.

Murder on the Orient Express


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.

There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.

The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.

Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.

The Age of Innocence


The Age of Innocence (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but their wedding date is not yet picked out. Both come from what is considered to be good families in nineteenth century New York. On the other hand, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is considered a pariah because she divorced her husband in Europe. Archer is convinced by those who still care for Ellen that he should be around her more often to make people feel less uneasy about being around her. As the two engage in conversations, Newland realizes that he is engaged to the wrong woman. While May offers stability, Ellen is exciting because deep down, like Newland, she considers formalities as mere trifles.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The love story between Newland and May and Newland and Ellen has resonance because there is an absence of a traditional villain where one character actively tries to steal’s someone’s heart with vindictiveness. Instead, the enemy is the times, the rules that define an era, and the social conducts that connect the leading players. Because traditionalism must be strictly upheld, there is little room for deviation from the norm. Even the characters who consider the New York society as a joke must to keep their opinions behind closed doors. No one wants to be like Ellen, the subject of toxic gossip.

When the camera moves, it does so with purpose. For example, as rules for behaving and important figures are introduced by the narrator, the camera scans the lavish walls and points our attention to things that range from paintings as they are, the implications of hanging up certain artwork for friends and family to see, to the paint’s color that serve as a background for the works of art. It feels as though the material is forcing us to be as critical as the men and women who inhabit such a world. By allowing us to think about how they think, we are able to navigate ourselves through their own games.

When the camera finally stops to observe a group of conversing people, we look at them with a more critical eye. For instance, we are able to evaluate how they rank compared to one another through their body language, gender, and the way they are dressed. The director’s decision to take his time in pocketing us into this era is critical because the eventual happenings in the story, especially toward the end, involve a deception through the mundane customary social gatherings.

The heart of the picture is Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love. With each secret meeting and delayed gratification of the flesh, the more we want them to be together even though they are having was an affair. By rooting for them to consummate their feelings, it is, in a way, an indirect act of rebellion against the conventions of those times.

Based on the screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is pregnant with implications and excellent performances, even from supporting ones, particularly Miriam Margolyes as the influential but couch-ridden Mrs. Mingott. Good manners and warm smiles have never looked so poisonous.

Married to the Mob


Married to the Mob (1988)
★★ / ★★★★

Frank (Alec Baldwin) works for a mobster called Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell), a man that the FBI has been watching for some time. When Tony discovers that Frank is getting his sloppy seconds, it is the perfect excuse to shoot Frank dead. During his former henchman’s burial, Tony makes a move on Angela (Michelle Pfeiffer), Frank’s wife. This forces the now single woman into an uncomfortable position because she no longer wants to have anything to do with the mob. To assert her independence, she moves to the Lower East Side with her son. This does not stop Tony from wanting to win her over.

“Married to the Mob,” written by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, is not devoid of humor, romance, or excitement, but it fails to excel at all of them. The mob boss is too outwardly silly and soft to be taken seriously. His henchmen are no better; it seems like not one of them has ever handled a gun before. Is it supposed to be farcical? I assumed it is.

It is fine that the picture has a light-hearted tone, it is supposed to be comedy after all, but its characters do not need to be so obvious all the time that we eventually grow numb to the screenplay’s efforts. There is one action scene involving a burger place that is designed to show how dangerous Tony can be when absolutely necessary, but the set-up feels like it has come from a completely different movie.

Mob bosses are scary not because of their ability to kill. That is probably a major factor for many but capacity for violence does not differentiate a gangster leader from his henchmen. I argue that the inherent fear we have about mob leaders stems from the way they are able to get whatever they want through conversation, silky-smooth charm, or a certain look they give when they mean business. Tony lacks depth. So when Angela feels threatened or disgusted by simply being in his presence, there is no change in the level of suspense. Even when he pulls out a gun, I had a difficult time believing it.

Angela, only a day after she has moved into her new apartment, meets Mike (Matthew Modine), who, unbeknownst to her, is one of the FBI agents, the other being Agent Benitez (Oliver Platt), assigned to spy on her and gather evidence to bring down Tony for good. I enjoyed the scene when the two go on a date (she is the one who asks him out) and share a few drinks. However, when they interact without drinks in hand, I could care less about how their relationship ends up. Naturally, she must find out about his true occupation and has to deal with the fact that she has been used.

The character I was most interested in is Connie (Mercedes Ruehl), Tony’s high-strung wife. Every time she is on screen, there is something off-kilter about her. She is so obsessed about being the wife of Tony, she will do absolutely anything to keep that title. If it means barging in on Angela’s apartment with nothing but a hunch on her side, then so be it. Even if she knows she is in the wrong, she walks away proudly. Ruehl is amusing to watch not because she is trying to be funny but because her character’s suspicion and paranoia become so severe, they take over her completely. I wished the picture was about Connie.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, “Married to the Mob” lacks subtle spice. Sitting through it is like eating a bowl of noodles with meat and vegetables but without key seasonings to make it splendiferous.

Dark Shadows


Dark Shadows (2012)
★ / ★★★★

In the eighteenth century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Deep) is cursed by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) to become a blood-sucking creature of the night because he chooses to love Josette (Bella Heathcote) over her. To further demonstrate her hatred toward him, the scorned sorceress then unveils to the townspeople that a vampire lives among them. She benefits from their fear after a mob captures Barnabas and buries him in a coffin to rot for eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a group of construction workers come across the vampire’s tomb and decide to open it.

If “Dark Shadows” had not been advertised as directed by Tim Burton, I would have assumed that it been under the helm of a young filmmaker who wanted to prove himself and had been given the opportunity to direct his first commercial Hollywood picture because every square inch of the material reeks of potentially good ideas but lacking in narrative focus to give the bland recipe some much needed seasoning.

The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is an exercise of mediocrity. What exactly is the story about? Have you ever played the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game where if Mario or Luigi stays on one platform for too long it collapses? The player then must control the avatar as quickly as possible toward stable ground without falling into the depths. That is the same approach taken here. In its attempt to cover up the plethora of weaknesses in the film, it gives the illusion that it’s about a lot of things and moves through them with nervous energy.

In the end, it’s all subplot and no central story. Although there is talk about the importance of family prior to the opening credits, once Barnabas is let out of his cage and joins his distant family members who are living in his castle, not one scene is constructed with dramatic heft or flow to make us believe that he genuinely cares for his clan, at least on an emotional level. Instead of focusing on developing the story and exploring the characters that inhabit it, the performances take center stage.

Depp sports his now usual weirdness and proves once again that he’s a master technician, from his range of intonations depending on the level of threat his character faces to the way he looks at someone with just enough menace as to not appear as a complete monster. Green, on the other hand, amps up the sensuality by giving intense glares that are perfect for high fashion editorials. They share one funny scene rolling around in a loft and breaking expensive furniture in the process, cheekily suggesting sexual intercourse.

But what about the family? As the head of the Collins clan, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not given enough scenes to show that she is a capable leader of her family as well as the cannery business. Most of the time we see her looking stern, almost constipated, like she’s having a bad day and wanting a strong drink. What is done with Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s hormonal daughter, is depressing throughout because she is only allowed to play two emotions: sexy and stoned. Moretz is a thespian capable of exuding a balance of sensitivity and strength so watching her reduce herself to a would-be sex kitten is embarrassing. I would personally like to ask her what she saw in the role while reading the script because she does not look like she is being challenged here.

The visuals are outstanding especially during the final confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique. I liked watching the transformation of inanimate objects suddenly having a will of their own. Still, it was difficult to care how it would all turn out because we had no understanding of the characters. We have epidermal information about what the winner might gain and the loser might lose but there hovers a deafening emptiness in the squabbles.