Tag: michelle williams


Venom (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Early on in the picture, a woman carrying a Symbiote—an extraterrestrial parasite that hitchhiked on a space probe while its way back to Earth following a reconnaissance mission—ejects lethal barbs from her back, but when the camera pans around her, the clothing has no hole in it. This perfectly sums up the level of carelessness of “Venom,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, a seldom entertaining and often boring superhero film. It might have benefited from a couple more rounds of rewrites.

One of the titular Symbiotes eventually makes its way inside the body of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who gets fired for asking all the right questions involving a bio-engineering corporation led by the ambitious but unethical Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). It isn’t a coincidence that the probe that crashed in Malaysia is owned by Life Foundation; Drake plans to fuse these so-called Symbiotes with human bodies in order to save our mankind from certain extinction once Earth is no longer a viable place to live. Make no mistake: Moral quandaries regarding the use of science and technology in relation to the betterment of society is handled like sledgehammer to the face. There is no genuine or heartfelt human drama to be had here, just a series of empty action sequences.

At least a few of these pieces are handled with mid-level proficiency. Brock discovering his abilities when hired goons enter his apartment comes to mind. Another is a motorcycle chase across the hilly streets of San Francisco. Rain of bullets and car crashes are served like clockwork, but I enjoyed that there is humor embedded in them. Hardy finds a way to make Eddie the loser more palatable than the standard variety. It is easy to tell that he is up to task of playing with different types of comedy, so it most unfortunate that the screenplay does not possess the requisite creativity and intelligence to make a strange, darkly amusing, and convincing story. I felt as though the project was shaped so that studios can make the most money first and entertain the audience second. It shows.

The villain is generic from the moment we meet him until he is defeated. Ahmed, like Michelle Williams who plays Brock’s love interest, looks as though he is sleepwalking through the role. He is a performer with range, but he cannot be blamed in this scenario. The character is so unchallenging, imagine the CEO on mute and the effect would be negligible. It appears as though screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, have forgotten that a superhero film is only as good as its villain(s). So why not strive to give Drake more personality, dimension?

Perhaps the only element I found to be marginally impressive in this parade of mediocrity is the CGI Symbiotes. They are creepy and curious when they are slithering about without defined shape, and they are quite threatening when they feel the need to defend themselves. But the material is so dull, especially when the human characters are supposed to be connecting emotionally, I wished I were watching “The X-Files”—specifically the black oil/alien virus episodes—since the film and the television show have similar ideas on how an entity assumes control of its host’s body, its sentience, its ability to communicate. The legendary television show is able to take the concept on another level while the film appears content in having flatlined.

I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Although nearly everyone should be able to stand behind the life-affirming messages that the film attempts to impart about self-confidence and positive body image, it cannot be denied that “I Feel Pretty,” written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, offers nothing of value other than an amusing premise involving a woman, initially highly self-conscious about her body, suddenly regarding herself as a most beautiful specimen after a head-knocking freak accident. It is exasperating to sit through at times because for a movie that preaches the idea of being proud to be different, off-centre, and unconventional, it fits exactly into the mold of a generic, forgettable comedy. There is nothing inspiring about it.

The picture even fails to take a risk in showing how the subject looks at herself in the mirror. At this point many viewers are aware that Amy Schumer, who plays the main character named Renee, excels at playing a brash, boisterous, inappropriate figure. She can tell a dirty joke simply by looking at another a certain way with her head titled at a certain angle. It would have been a fresher choice, then, to highlight her dramatic potential. Early in the film, Renee looks at herself in the mirror and sees disappointment, someone who is too fat, too plain in the face to capture the looks of men—or of anybody—when she enters a room.

There is a sadness to this scene but it is important that it be captured with honesty and grace because we all have something that we are insecure about. In other words, this moment is so personal, it must be presented as raw as possible. Instead, the most disruptive soundtrack booms in the background. Because the noise contradicts and dilutes a private moment, the viewer is not given a chance to connect fully with a woman who wishes she had another face, another body, another self. A comedy, too, must work as a drama because the human angle, the reason we care about the story, is embedded there.

I place emphasis on this example because it is a microcosm of what is essentially wrong with a work that should appeal to everyone. What should have been highly relatable moments are almost reduced to afterthoughts because there is almost always something extra, something busy, that is either seen or heard. This is why numerous modern comedies tend to fail from a humanist, certainly dramatic, point of view: They do not possess the ability to the trust the audience to connect to an image or a situation without having to add flowery fluff like pop music, in-jokes in the background, or narration.

There is nothing wrong with the performances. I liked Michelle Williams who plays the CEO of a cosmetic company; Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant as Renne’s best friends; and Rory Scovel as the eventual boyfriend of the now-supremely confident protagonist. They sell the subpar script with enthusiasm to spare. I wished, however, that another fresh choice were made by the writer-directors: no drama whatsoever between Renee’s friends and herself after her “transformation.” The forced conflict between friends offers the audience nothing special other than an additional, and most unnecessary, twenty minutes of boredom.

I think “I Feel Pretty” might have turned out to be a far more interesting project had it been written and directed by filmmakers with a solid amount of experience when it comes to shaping independent comedy-dramas, those who are used to having a very limited budget to make every aspect work. A far more efficient, savagely funny, and fiercely intelligent risk-taking picture would have resulted since the filmmakers could not rely on tools such as playing the soundtrack to invoke certain feelings or having the perfect lighting so performers remain looking beautiful. Telling a story about embracing one’s flaws should not be this sanitized.

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers expecting a thorough and accurate presentation of P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) personal life and business career are certain to be dissatisfied by “The Greatest Showman,” based on the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, since it is more concerned about delivering showstopping musical numbers than old-fashioned storytelling. Here is a film for fans of modern musicals: it makes the audience feel good, it moves quickly, and it has just enough willingness to move the audience toward a more emotional territory without necessarily enveloping them in subtlety and nuance. It is a project to be enjoyed on the spot, not to be thought about or pined over afterwards. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And so the picture must be evaluated through the scope of a modern musical. It surprised me because it has more than three good songs. Better yet: these songs do not always come from the same character singing about the same subject but only using different words. Standouts include “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Never Enough,” “This is Me,” and “Rewrite the Stars”—already composing half of the soundtrack. Better still—each song is supported by elegant visuals, whether it be sheets being blown by the wind toward a certain direction which matches that of how a woman’s dress falls just so or how a singer’s body keeps still but her graceful limbs deliver a spectrum of emotions. The film offers no shortage of musical and visual styles.

Had the filmmakers been more brazen with the kind of work they wish to deliver, it would have been wiser to drop the typical trappings involving the subject’s home life as his career soars, for example. On this level, it offers no originality. I quite disliked how Charity, Barnum’s wife, is written because there is barely any dimension to her identity and personality. Michelle Williams portrays the highly supportive spouse and she does what she can with the role. But one looks at her face and immediately recognizes she is not being challenged. Here is a performer who can deliver any emotion, oftentimes several emotions at once, across any genre… but the character is written without any fire or excitement.

The plot involves the showman hiring people who happen to have physical oddities. The theme is supposed to be a celebration of differences, specifically those living along the fringes of society, either living an invisible lifestyle or visibly shamed for being born a certain way. I found it curious then that halfway through, the so-called freaks are nearly forgotten. Certainly they appear during shows and at times we see them backstage saying a line or two, but we rarely get a sense of who they really are outside of their eccentricities.

For instance, Lettie, the Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle, commands such an intriguing (and amusing) presence but the screenplay fails to delve into some of her past. What makes her interesting as a person other than her facial hair? What makes her such a jovial person despite her struggles? Instead, we are provided a more accessible subject: a romance between Phillip (Zac Efron) and Anne (Zendaya), how interracial relationships are shamed in the past. But one gets the impression that the various social disapprovals Anne and Phillip endure do not hold a candle against the level of hated and violence that interracial couples during that era had undergone.

It goes to show that smart execution and great energy can propel otherwise relatively average premises into solid crowdpleasers. “The Greatest Showman,” directed by Michael Gracey, belongs in this category and pulling off such a feat, despite the handful of aforementioned elements working against it, should be worn as a badge of honor.

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

We all need money, but there are degrees of desperation. — Anthony Burgess

Christopher Plummer’s eyes are the stars of “All the Money in the World,” a dramatic thriller involving a teenager (Charlie Plummer) kidnapped in Italy during the early 1970s and his grandfather who refuses to pay a cent for his ransom despite the fact that the old man is the most successful capitalist in the history of the world. Fascinating from start to finish, as a character study and as a genre picture, Ridley Scott directs his project with a highly meticulous eye, a great exercise of maintaining tension and breaking it as well as a statement piece of our relationship as a society when it comes to the paper we worship.

The veteran performer plays the character like a sphinx, elegant and full of riddles between the lines. The character, J. Paul Getty, is written in such a way that it is nearly impossible to like him because no amount of money is enough to satiate his craving for it. And yet Plummer has a way about him that makes us wish to know Getty beyond what he values. For instance, during the first act’s important flashbacks, his interpretation of the capitalist is rather grandfatherly with hints of warmth despite the armor he has learned to put on over the years because people consistently wish to take advantage of his wealth.

His level of performance is matched by Michelle Williams as the increasingly determined mother. Notice how she changes her affectations depending on the individuals she is surrounded by. Gail provides the opposite force. Because of where she comes from, which the script is smart not to detail in order to avoid melodrama, she values family over money. Getty knows this, in a way looking down on her for it, and so he finds ways to challenge her ideals. Will she break at the pressures not only coming from the crisis involving her son but also from the man who wishes to cheapen her worth?

Beautifully shot, the film looks as though a heavy fog sits right on top of images thereby muting the colors and creating a cold or detached feeling about it. Initially, I thought the strategy is to mimic the look of crime-thrillers from the ‘70s and not much else. Upon closer inspection, however, I believe such a technique is employed in order to establish an air of unpredictability, that anything can and will happen at a drop of a hat. As the knot begins to tighten, the mother increasingly beleaguered because her billionaire former father-in-law refuses to pay seventeen million dollars, a blip in his earnings, we start to wonder whether the kidnappers value the teenager as much as Getty values his ancient artifacts.

Based on the book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” by John Pearson, “All the Money in the World” offers an international texture about it, like those first-rate Korean and German procedural thrillers where you think you know where it is headed based on the mainstream Hollywood pictures we so often use as compass, but it goes on completely different directions at times. It invites thinking viewers to wade neck-deep into its dramatic presentation.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

On the run from and desperate not to get clobbered by a fellow circus performer, Oscar (James Franco), a magician whose stage name is Oz, gets on a hot air balloon. The ropes are detached which allows the balloon to float away from the impending threat. For a second, Oz thinks he is safe. That is, until he looks behind him and discovers that the wind is carrying his transport toward a destructive tornado and there is no turning back. After praying for his life and making a promise, he is somehow taken to the land of Oz, a magical place filled with vibrant colors and innocuous beings who fear the Wicked Witch.

Although visually spectacular in just about every scene, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi, is somewhat of a disappointment because its story, while appropriately simple, requires too much time to launch. As it barely chugs along, we are left with no choice but to treat the visuals as a sort of comfort blanket. The longer we look at them, like analyzing a magic trick, we realize that it is not really all that magical. We begin to notice the images’ artificiality and so a significant amount of excitement and curiosity is lost in the process.

When the visuals are used correctly, it makes us want to visit Oz. For instance, the transition from Kansas to Oz, from a black-and-white to a pavonine palette, is executed with the perfect amount of grandiosity and humility. It hearkens to a similar experience of reading an excellent opening chapter of an adventure novel: our heart skipping a beat because we are so captivated and excited by it. We wonder what is in store for us.

As it goes on, it becomes clearer that there is possibly nothing more than what is seen. The screenplay does not allow its characters to become more than caricatures: Glinda (Michelle Williams) the Good Witch is good and sweet, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) the Wicked Witch is wicked and formidable, and Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora’s sister, is naive and, well, sort of boring. Meanwhile, while Oz is not too likable because he is somewhat egotistical, the manner in which his journey is written and executed lacks enough verve and depth. Inevitably, the changes we see in him later on appear disingenuous.

One of the main problems is the lack of detail in Oz and Theodora’s relationship. They meet, converse, and walk together to Emerald City, but they are not given a personal connection. Their interaction is rushed. It does not make sense to spend only about ten minutes out of over two hours to try to establish the crux of the story. Later, when feelings end up being hurt, instead of watching a convincing fantasy-drama, it is like watching a marionette show. The strings controlled by the filmmakers are felt and seen. If anything, the charade is laughable rather than commanding a proper dosage of seriousness when necessary.

I was not convinced that Franco and Kunis are right for their roles. Though I tried hard to see Oz, Franco overacts so consistently that his performance dares us to notice him rather than the character he is playing. Still, I did enjoy that one scene when he slides down a mountain of gold coins. Who doesn’t want to do that? In that scene, overplaying it works. As with Kunis, she does not play it naive enough. Instead, I wondered if it might have worked better if she played Glinda and Williams (who is solid as the Good Witch) played Theodora. There is a difference between being good and being naive.

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” based on the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, has fine touches here and there. For example, there is a nice parallel drawn between the land of Oz and Kansas regarding girls who cannot walk. In an early scene, a little girl (Joey King) so convinced that Oz can really perform magic asks him to heal her so she can walk again. Since all he has is a bag of tricks, of course he is unable to grand her wish. Later, in Oz, the magician encounters a China Girl (voiced by King) with broken legs after her village is attacked by the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons. Though she does not ask him for anything, Oz helps her anyway by gluing the legs back to her body.

But occasionally hitting the target is not enough. We should be aware enough that we deserve to see and experience more than two good hits out of five attempts.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When I saw the ominous trailer for “Shutter Island” for the first time back in early to mid 2009, I immediately knew I had to see it. But even I have to admit that I lost a little bit of confidence in the movie because its release kept getting pushed back. Usually, that is a sign that the studios are not very confident about the project so they pick a month where there is not a lot of competition. Well, I should have followed my original instincts because the legendary Martin Scorcese (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “GoodFellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets”) delivered yet again. Leonardo DiCaprio stars Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), was assigned to investigate an island which harbored a sinister mental hospital because a patient recently escaped from the facility. The two head doctors (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow) seemed to be compliant initially but the lead character knew that they were hiding something terrible and it had something to do with maltreatment of the mental patients.

Since I have seen most of Scorcese’s pictures, I knew that this was not going to be a typical mystery-thriller. Right from the get-go, Scorcese established one of his themes. That is, DiCaprio’s fear of the water (perhaps a symbolism for life or rebirth) while he and his partner were on a boat on the way to the mysterious island. On the boat, Teddy stated that his family was gone and what killed his wife (Michelle Williams) and child was the smoke and not the fire. I thought that was a particularly important line because there was a lot of smoke–deception–happening in this film but it is not the kind of deception that cheats because in the end it offers us a logical explanation–the fire–yet at the same time it is ultimately up to us to determine what is real and what isn’t. In other words, Scorcese successfully blurred the line between fantasy and actuality, which could have been a total mess if the material had been steered by a less capable director. One of the many things I loved about this film was its confidence in switching back and forth among the present (the investigation), the past (Teddy’s traumatizing experiences in World War II) and the fantasy (having visions and dreams of his family). The quick cuts to horrific images (which sometimes lingered both on screen and in our minds) and the menacing mental facility reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining.” And like that particular film, I think “Shutter Island” can be a difficult to swallow in one sitting because there was a plethora of information presented to us often in one scene. The twists within a twist were fun but they can get confusing if one tries to analyze every single detail in order to find that “one” flaw. But I think that’s the beauty of this film: it is about a man who is in place where the fractured mind is king and none of it has to make sense (but it does and that’s why I’m very impressed).

I also admired the supporting actors such as Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine and Jackie Earle Haley. Even though they did not have much screen time, each of them injected something unique to their characters and it elevated the film. One of my many favorite scenes (and I think one of the most important) was with Clarkson after DiCaprio stumbled upon a terrible incident. I think the picture as a whole reeks of intelligence but I thought that scene was particularly astute because it managed to touch upon specific areas of the history of psychological practices that many people might not know about. I love disorders of the mind (the reason why I took a second concentration along with Biological Sciences) and that is why I love watching psychological thrillers. I feel so much joy applying the things I’ve learned in the university to films and getting a chance evaluate whether the scripts match what my professors had taught me. What’s more impressive to me is that this movie even captured that stigma that we easily put on mental patients: that they’re really scary because of the way they look, that they’re always going to be crazy even if they’re supposedly cured, and the lack of realization on our part that, when it comes to people with mental problems, the irrational behavior is separate from the person.

With all of that said, “Shutter Island” is my pick as the first great film of 2010. After the rollercoaster of emotions and mind-bending situations that the film put me through, I’m very interested in reading Dennis Lehane’s (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) book of the same name. The movie is approximately two and hours and twenty minutes long but it’s two hours and twenty minutes rich of a complex storytelling, a haunting soundtrack and an exploration of what can or should be trusted. Most importantly, it is an exercise in how powerful one’s vision can be if one approaches it with a balance of intellect and confidence.