Tag: movie review


Tully (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a project determined to provide a raw portrayal of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child during its early weeks post-birth that we rarely see in the movies. We do not see the pregnant woman emitting a perfect radiant glow, a silly panicked rush to the hospital once her water breaks, nor do we come across a miraculous instantaneous recovery once she has been discharged from the hospital. Instead, it is interested in showing the reality of many ever day mothers, particularly the exhaustion that takes over as they struggle to maintain the stability of the household. Although it shows the less than sunny side of how it is like to be a mother, it is a love letter dedicated to them nonetheless. It reminded me of times when I would simply observe my mother as she juggles cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, and making a list for the next day’s trip to the supermarket—all of it after a long day at work while standing most of the time.

“Tully” is directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Their partnership results in a savagely funny work that speaks multiple truths even with just a simple shot, a line of dialogue, or the precise timing between action and inaction. They trust that viewers are not only intelligent but that their life experiences are valuable, unique, but also universal. Not once do they cheapen the material by inserting an uncharacteristic turn of event just for the sake of making people laugh. We laugh not because there is hilarity unfolding in front of us but because we recognize a part of ourselves in the images and feelings on screen.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who not only looks haggard on the outside but one who is actually wilting on the inside. It is smart for Theron to choose to play her character with a muffled strength even though Marlo is falling apart. For example, the protagonist is quick with to employ her wits when joking or being sarcastic even though her body suggests she is weak, ready to fall over from fatigue. Because we are reminded of the fire inside of her from time to time, instances when she summons unexpected vigor—when she must confront, confess, make a stand—are not only believable. These moments feel exactly right for this particular character that we must examine. We learn to appreciate her complexity as a mother who wants to do it all but is unable to, as well as a mother who decides to seek help eventually from night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

The centerpiece is the relationship between the two women, one being at least forty years of age while the other is twenty-six. Cody’s screenplay does a tricky thing by using Tully and Marlo as a sort of mirror into the past and future—but not so completely that their relationship ends up becoming just another cliché.

Theron and Davis share excellent chemistry as their characters open up to one another about their personal lives, their thoughts regarding where they are now, what they have or have not achieved thus far, where they think or hope they will be in the future. Their exchanges command a wonderful ear for dialogue. We lean in a little closer in order to dissect and understand what they mean exactly, not just with words but the manner in which words are expressed. But like Elio and Oliver’s unexpected bond in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” we know that their relationship—as employer and employee—comes with an expiration date. It is as clear as day that this is a comedy that works as a drama.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the film is its willingness to show how adults relate to children. For instance, the opening scene shows Marlo gently brushing the body of her son “like a horse,” according to Marlo while conversing with Tully, because it is believed that this makes the “quirky” boy less reactive to various external stimuli. (It is never said outright that the child might have a mild form of autism.) Notice how Tully holds the baby in a seemingly awkward position but the infant is at ease. How Marlo performs a duet with her daughter during a birthday party. How the father (Ron Livingston) looks at his three children after a long day at work. The keen eye from behind the camera and the performances underline the humanity of the material. It is most beautiful during nuanced moments, moments that can be easily overlooked.

Bad Samaritan

Bad Samaritan (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is the kind of movie where the detestable antagonist ends up crawling on the ground by the picture’s final chapter and we root for the protagonist to “Hit him! Hit him!” in order to minimize the possibility of the psychopath from getting up and regaining the upper hand. Although far from an impressive thriller, “Bad Samaritan,” based on the screenplay by Brandon Boyce and directed by Dean Devlin, gets the job done as an entertaining genre exercise. Once the first domino is tipped forward, it is near impossible to want to look away because the stakes only increase from there.

In straightforward psycho-thrillers, it is a common technique to make the antagonist appear nearly impossible, certainly improbable, to beat. David Tennant plays a son of a billionaire who has a sick hobby of breaking people’s spirit by keeping them in his home and torturing them. Tennant plays Cale with unrelenting intensity that notice it is unnecessary for the character to say more than ten to fifteen words at a time. He communicates plenty by looking at his prey a certain way, like he is superior to them, how he moves with urgency and purpose, how he tilts his head in such a way when sick thoughts brew in his mind.

Cale’s secret is found out early in the picture during a nail-biter of a sequence. Sean (Robert Sheehan) and Derek (Carlito Olivero) are valets at a restaurant who break into customer’s homes as they enjoy their meals—assuming, of course, that they live nearby. The deception goes horribly awry for the duo when Sean discovers a battered woman who is tied up to a chair in Cale’s posh home. Sheehan plays Sean almost like an anti-hero in a romantic comedy: very likable despite the rough edges, willing to show his emotions at the right time, charming. These are necessary traits that must be communicated with clarity in order for the audience to get behind the protagonist and not simply regard him as the lesser of two evils: murderer versus scam artist. It is apparent that the performer is a dramatic actor because he sells specific emotions with seeming ease.

There are several threads that might have elevated the work had the screenplay taken the time enrich supporting characters that tread such avenues. I found the figures of authority to be marginally interesting here. For example, the detective who is willing to listen to Sean’s improbable claims and an FBI agent who has been following a case that had gone cold. It would have been interesting to get an inside look into their jobs in addition to a samaritan’s perspective. In standard thrillers, it is often frustrating that authority figures show up only after the criminal had been defeated. While such an element is present here (accompanied by a joke), a fresher choice might have resulted had the screenwriter been willing to put in more work in creating interesting characters who happen to have specific means due to their occupations.

Although not the most inspiring picture of the genre, “Bad Samaritan” entertains on the most basic level. It is the kind of movie that a person would decide to watch while browsing through channels because both its content and its murky tone snags one’s curiosity. It moves in a forward direction with utmost urgency. However, be warned that it is not for viewers hoping to understand the mind of a psychopath and how he ended up that way. It is quite bare even for a modern thriller, but I enjoyed its simplicity.

Girl Most Likely

Girl Most Likely (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Dumped by her Dutch boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and fired from her job shortly thereafter, Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a failed playwright, stages a fake suicide—which snowballs into, due to her deep-seated sadness, actuality. The hospital signs her off to Zelda (Annette Bening), Imogene’s mother. The problem is, she and Imogene have not seen or spoken to each other in years. Imogene has always hated her roots and believes that New York City is where she can thrive even if the cards in her hands say otherwise.

Though the actors play their characters with conviction, “Girl Most Likely” is ultimately an unsuccessful picture because it never gets the tone just right in order to allow the colorful personalities to really come through and convince us that Imogen’s story is worth telling. Instead of taking the character under a microscope, we see her through a pair of binoculars: we get an impression of her struggle through her body language but we never get a solid grip on what makes her tick.

The material, written by Michelle Morgan, takes risks by incorporating comedy with a dramatic core but much effort is required to humanize its protagonist. In other words, Imogene is not worth rooting for. From the beginning until way past the middle section, she is highly unlikable. She thinks her every need is an emergency. She whines a lot. She considers herself better than everyone just because she lives in NYC. Meanwhile, we grow restless and wonder where the story is going.

When she does begin to loosen up—predictably after putting more than few drinks in her system—by opening up to her mother’s boarder, Lee (Darren Criss), it is the point when we finally get a taste of some sweetness in the script. There are a few missteps involving the friendship but, as a whole, it works. There is something nice about a woman in her mid- to late-thirties finding a genuine—and surprising—connection with someone in his early- to mid-twenties. It could have been sleazy, played for cheap laughs, but it never crosses that line. When the film refrains from trying to wring out laughs from the audience, it works.

But every good scene is almost always followed by an eccentricity. Most off-putting is Zelda’s boyfriend named George Bousche (Matt Dillon), a man who claims to be a CIA agent and a samurai. Each time this cartoon character is on screen, I felt like I was watching a Wes Anderson film—and that is not a compliment. Dillon is a good actor and it shows, but the character has no place in a movie like this. There is a lot of pain surrounding Imogen’s family and I wished that the writer had the courage to deal with it directly.

Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Girl Most Likely” has the quirks but it lacks the substance. It shows that good performances can only take the material so far. It is a shame because, if the lead character and her circumstances were written better, I imagine that it could have spoken to many people who fear that they are losers or failures. It takes courage and a willingness to offend to make that type of story compelling.

The Swell Season

The Swell Season (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Upon the success of their film “Once” and winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová go on tour across the globe. While they are happy and excited to share their music and become a part of something big, “The Swell Season,” directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, shows how fame takes a toll on the couple’s personal and professional relationship. Though not a sequel to “Once,” the documentary works as one, in a way, because the films share a knack for looking into the souls of their subjects with honesty, embracing the pain in small but important revelations.

To show the documentary in black and white is a wise decision. It creates a dream-like quality, us having to look into the realities of the singer-songwriters and discovering that maybe going on tours is not as glamorous or fantastic as one might assume. Yes, we see them celebrate through small gatherings and drinks, but these are occasional. I enjoyed watching the hard work put into preparing prior to a show, the stresses that may occur when a venue fails to acquire the proper instruments requested by the performers, and the inner struggles specific to Hansard and Irglová, the former having to come to terms with the pressures and expectations of his family and the latter questioning whether fame is right for her. When the two clash, there is no yelling or screaming matches in front of the camera. Instead, the silences and pauses are the ones making deep cuts.

In addition, shooting the film in monochrome tends to highlight the emotions during and outside of stage performances. The reason why I loved listening to the songs is because there is a contradiction. The lyrics are often sad and aching, but there is undeniable power in the voices and the delivery of the words. In that way, it is an uplifting experience—empowering even.

But the picture is not without sense of humor. Especially memorable is the point when Irglová and Hansard look at the poster for “Once” (I believe two versions have been released) and pick out the details that have been Photoshopped. For example, in the actual shoot, Hansard claims that he wore a hat and that his clothes had been changed by the computer in order to make him “look handsome.” But what really bug them about the poster is that the image was manipulated in such a way that it looks like they held hands during the photoshoot. In fact, they never did. The duo may be the ones we recognize in front of the camera, but we are reminded that those in control at times are people we never see.

The one person I wanted to know more about is Catherine Hansard, Glen’s mother. She is just so proud of her son winning that Oscar, but Glen tells her that he does not like the attention. There is a sort of argument between them at some point that really touched me. I was moved because it reminded me of times when I would argue with my mom or dad and sometimes it easier to just walk away and try to let it go. Sometimes it is most frustrating because it feels like the more you put in the effort of explaining something, it seems like the farther both parties are in reaching a common ground.

While “The Swell Season” touches upon the topic of celebrity and what it means to its subjects, it remains to be a highly personal work. Hansard and Irglová are Academy Award winners, but we relate to them because it is made clear that the things they consider important are what we value, too: family, friendships, personal happiness, being and remaining enthusiastic to our passions.


Traffik (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a prime example of a film wishing to have its cake and eat it, too. It strives to deliver an entertaining survival thriller as it sheds light on an often forgotten problem we have in our country which generates billions of illegal funds annually: women being kidnapped and forced to become a part of human trafficking rings. A serious subject matter requires an intelligent and precise screenplay. Credit to writer-director Deon Taylor for trying, but one gets the impression that “Traffik” might have been stronger if it had focused on providing entertainment instead of education.

Brea (Paula Patton), a reporter, and John (Omar Epps), a mechanic, head to the Northern California mountains for a weekend getaway. Not only is it Brea’s birthday but John plans to propose to his longtime girlfriend. But on the way to the posh but remote estate, Brea encounters a woman in a gas station; she gets the feeling that the harried stranger is desperately asking for help based on her behavior. Later, when the couple have reached their destination, the same woman rings the doorbell and asks for her cell phone back—one she had purposefully placed inside Brea’s bag. This phone contains extremely sensitive information—pictures, bank accounts, telephone numbers—of those involved in the sex trafficking ring and the leader (Luke Goss) needs it back.

The picture takes its time to establish characters to be terrorized by those who run the illicit activities. While necessary so that viewers grow to care about the potential victims, it is repetitive and superficial. We do not learn anything particularly interesting about Brea and John as a couple, only that they love one another—which isn’t fresh at all in a movie of this kind. It would have been far more interesting if their flaws as a couple had been amplified, that we had to root for them to survive despite their imperfections. While Patton and Epps deliver their usual charming personalities and physical magnetism, these are not enough to provide dimension in a lacking screenplay.

I liked that it is willing to show a high level of brutality, not only in the physical assaults between the bikers and their prey but also in terms of non-moving images. One of the most chilling scenes involve the characters looking at photos on the phone of interest. We are forced to look at each image in horror so that we have a clear mental picture of the anguish of the women being held against their will. It is written all over their miserable facial expressions, the bruises and wounds all over their bodies, and the manner in which they are posed—like meat to be sold at the supermarket. It made me feel uncomfortable—which is the point.

Taking the time to show these pictures in this way is the correct decision. It is something that many crime shows on television, with the exception of premium cable and satellite television networks, do not show at all or do not show enough because it is considered to be too graphic. But that is what film is for: to show the ugly sores and then having the courage to rub it on our faces. I wished that this attitude were consistent throughout the film.

Chase sequences are less exciting both in content and photography. In the middle of it all, I wondered if the filmmaker understands the difference between shooting a thriller versus a slasher film. Some shots, especially when Brea and John attempt to make their escape, liken that of a thriller. However, when they are cornered or down on the ground, the camera takes on the perspective of a horror film. This disconnect distracts the overall experience. Thinking about it more closely, however, perhaps casual audiences might not notice the difference. Still, it does not change the fact that the formula regarding such chases does not offer enough variations so that we are constantly on our toes.

Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were teenagers, they broke into Sandra Stotler’s home, killed her, and attempted to dispose of her lifeless body in a nearby lake. The two teenagers were eventually caught by the police and convicted of the murder. Perry and Stotler were also suspected of murdering Adam Stotler, Sandra’s son, and Jeremy Richardson, Adam’s friend, but were never convicted. Director Werner Herzog had the unique opportunity to interview Perry, due to be executed via lethal injection in eight days, and talk about what had occurred in the Stotler home as well as his thoughts about being put to death by the state of Texas.

“Into the Abyss” could have easily taken an obvious path of being about the crime because it certainly has the necessary elements to make a completely engrossing material: the crime scene videos, the lieutenant in charge of the case, Perry and Burkett, as well as the victims’ families, and residents around town. However, under Herzog’s thoughtful direction, it is actually more about the emotions experienced by those affected by the sudden and irrevocable loss of lives. It also works as piece on why perhaps capital punishment is never the right choice.

The documentary offers powerful physical images and it isn’t afraid to use them. One of the saddest involves a cemetery containing rows upon rows of graves in which the crosses that protrude from the ground have no names inscribed on them, just numbers, as if to imply that the convicted men and women, once living, had no identities and not at all important to be remembered. I wondered if this was a right thing to do even if none of the families of the deceased wanted nothing to do with them. The more haunting images come from the crime scene videos. There is a real sense of dread in seeing the blood smeared across the floor, furnitures, and ceiling. It is almost like placing us in a set of a grizzly horror movie only the blood and the violence that had occurred there were real.

The film provides powerful mental images, too. So much detail is included in the crime scene videos that it is possible for us to create a relatively accurate mental image of what had happened there. That mental picture is shaped continually by listening to the interviews. In turn, the material succeeds in allowing us to become almost like secondhand detectives, trying to wade through the facts and opinions and formulating our own conclusions of what might have happened.

Furthermore, by allowing the people being interviewed to speak freely in the sense that the conversations don’t always have to be about the crime or one’s reaction to it, we learn a little bit about the interviewees as living, breathing individuals such as how they think, what they value, and their perception of themselves. The first interview with Revered Richard Lopez, for instance, is surprisingly moving because he starts to talk about what he does on his spare time which eventually leads to his opinion about the death penalty. It is admirable that Herzog is willing to ask the difficult and awkward questions, sometimes pushing just enough to get a more precise answer, but he always treats his subjects with respect.

Insightful and full of purpose, “Into the Abyss” takes a controversial topic that is capital punishment and makes it accessible—humanistic—by showing us that being incisive and showing sympathy need not be mutually exclusive. Everyone in the film demands our attention because all of them are given a fair chance to express their pain.

The German Doctor

The German Doctor (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

On their way to Patagonia to reopen a hotel, a family is approached by a physician named Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl) to ask if he could follow their car through the desert because he is not at all familiar with the area. The patriarch, Enzo (Diego Peretti), agrees to lend a hand to the stranger, but little does he and his family know that the man right behind them is a war criminal from Nazi Germany whose real name is Josef Mengele.

Written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, “The German Doctor” is heavy on atmosphere, sleuthing, and looks pregnant with implications, but it fails to evolve into an effective dramatic thriller because the requisite powerful forward momentum does not get introduced until the final fifteen minutes. As a whole, it is about sixty-percent exposition, thirty-percent rising action, and five-percent climax. It is a struggle to sit through at times.

It is most compelling when we are provided pieces of the puzzle in terms of the monster that is Mengele. The contents of his little book, which contains scientific notes and detailed illustrations, is of particular interest because looking carefully at the material written and drawn there is a glimpse inside a brilliant mind without a care for what may be considered unethical. He gets his hands on whatever might be of interest and the rest is collateral damage. The way he observes the twelve-year-old girl named Lilith (Florencia Bado), the only daughter of Enzo, is creepy and curious. What does the doctor have in store for her?

Less interesting are the scenes depicting the bullying that happens at Lilith’s new school. Because she has the bones of an eight-year-old, born two weeks premature, she is often picked on by her classmates for being a “dwarf.” Although we might feel sorry for her (I didn’t), there is very little about the character that is interesting or worth knowing. Her motivation is one-dimensional: To get taller means no more bullying. This is problematic because, for the most part, the story is told through her eyes. Preadolescents are much more interesting in actuality than what the story provides.

There is a photographer named Nora (Elena Roger) who suspects Helmut being Mengele. I wished that the writing had focused a little bit more on her undercover work. The men and women around the exiled former German SS appear to be willing to do whatever it takes to protect his identity and so the few scenes where Nora is trying to connect the dots hold a solid level of suspense.

“Wakolda” is a picture that is half-asleep. While I appreciated that the writer-director downplays elements that could have predictably been hyperbolic, a much-needed breath of fire from its belly is needed about halfway through to reward us for hanging in there. Instead, it saves all of the catharsis for its finale when the audience has long gone weary.

Cars 3

Cars 3 (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite being as pavonine and pristine as ever, “Cars 3” is yet another disappointment in the painfully mediocre series because it is a product of a confused screenplay. This time, the story is about obsolescence and how one chooses to react in the face of such inevitability. Keep in mind that the target audience is between four to nine-year-olds, but I am not convinced that a typical child within this age bracket would care about the heart of the picture. What it is, then, arguably, is a pessimistic film, certainly not anywhere within the vicinity of Pixar greats, since it goes by the assumption that children would eat up what’s projected onto the screen just because the images are colorful and full of energy.

While the story of becoming obsolete and the thoughts and emotions that come with it may appeal to adults, writers Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich fail to walk the tightrope between fun and mature content with elegance and grace. Putting harmless and silly jokes right next to a rather serious subject worthy of contemplation simply does not work here. As a result, the drama is convincing, rushed in parts, and lacking focus in areas meant to get to us emotionally. Notice the number of quick flashbacks, a common strategy in pedestrian films, designed to plug in the holes of its emotional core. Aside from confusion when thinking about the filmmakers’ goals, I felt next to nothing toward the material other than occasional amusement.

Voice acting behind each character are well done across the board. Owen Wilson, as usual, is convincing as racing legend Lightning McQueen with enthusiasm to spare on and off the tracks. A standout is Cristela Alonzo as Cruz Ramirez, a trainer who had dreams of getting on a racetrack when she was younger. The character is interesting for two reasons: it touches upon a woman’s place in a male-dominated arena and she is meant to function as a conduit for audiences who put their dreams on hold due to self-doubt.

Had the structure of film been more elliptical, unexpected, and dared to resolve McQueen’s boring issues in order to focus solely on Ramirez, it would have been a highly relatable film because just about everybody can relate to being put in an environment and feeling uncomfortable to the changes one must undergo to adapt to one’s role. Children would relate, whether it be starting in a new school entirely or even a new school year. Adults would relate also, whether it be beginning a new job or receiving a promotion with new responsibilities. The latter half of the film is stronger than the former because the screenplay has turned its attention on the more interesting race car.

Another element that’s lacking is a thoroughly effective villain. This time, it is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), one of the many new generation of cars with parts that are much better. Plus, they race on simulations rather than a dirty, old track. The antagonist is wasted completely, reduced to saying one dig after another against “old timers,” specifically McQueen because he refuses to retire and allow new bloods to take over fully, who cannot compete with his superior breed. The character does not have an ounce of complexity and so the task of defeating him is more like an afterthought than a goal.

With so many brilliant films under the Pixar cannon worthy of receiving sequels, one must wonder why the unexceptional “Cars” series keeps producing follow-ups that no one asked for. Directed by Brian Fee, “Cars 3” shows that retiring the franchise is a long time coming. Let go; let’s put it in the junkyard where it belongs and call it a day.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Young and ambitious Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who studied in Yale University with hopes of becoming a writer, moves to New York in the 1922 and snags a job in Wall Street selling bonds. He lives in West Egg, right next to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), known for throwing a lavish party every weekend—one that is open to the public, attended by who’s who of the city. And yet although people clamor to the estate by the end of the week, no one really knows Gatsby: his background, how he really looks like, why he hosts a party every weekend, not even where his money comes from.

“The Great Gatsby,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is easy on the eyes and it offers real emotions on screen. Despite this, however, the movie is not a compelling watch, only superficially entertaining because there is always something to look at and the performers are good in their roles. One cannot help but feel like there is a disconnect between the source material and the way it is being translated on screen.

Others might find the anachronistic music to be quite off-putting. I liked it. The contrast between the Roaring Twenties and modern hip-hop and R&B creates a sentiment that while the parties are grand and everybody appears to be having a wonderful time, the charade remains temporary and superficial. The images and music function as a mask just like how Gatsby feels that he must put on a front in order to be equal to what he thinks a respectable man is like.

I found the romantic angle to be forced and, for the most part, tedious and unconvincing. While the screenwriters, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, can only divert so much from the novel, I felt as though the conflict involving married people having or thinking about having affairs is not modern enough to be intriguing. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan play Tom and Daisy Buchanan, respectively, the latter being Gatsby’s former lover, and both deliver what is necessary for the role, but there is no spice or much flavor in the twists and turns in their romantic entanglements.

Things get back on track, however, when the picture turns its attention somewhat on Nick and Gatsby’s friendship. It is interesting because when I read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, I was convinced that Nick was a closet homosexual. (But it is not really the kind of thing one brings up in class… at least at the time.) The little nuggets are found in the way he describes Gatsby, almost glorifying him at times, versus the manner in which he is almost apathetic toward women. Elements of one-sided admiration, possibly romantic in nature, are present but neither prolific nor defined enough to establish a theme.

The film might have been more intriguing if it had embraced extremes. The middle portion is a slog at times and the latter section quite dull despite the supposed dramatic events that transpire. In the end, I found myself detached from the emotions and circumstances that the characters are going through.

I think people who are likely to enjoy “The Great Gatsby” most are those who have an eye for exquisite clothing. Certainly I noticed how the characters’ attires are inspired by the 1920s but there is almost always a modern to twist to them, whether it be certain patterns on a man’s tie or the sorts of accessories a woman wears to a party. It is predominantly a visual film. It is not for those who hope to be moved emotionally or be inspired to think critically.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A straight trajectory to the heart of the mystery appears to be the approach of classic film-noir “The Maltese Falcon,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet and adapted to the screen by John Huston, for it demands that the viewers learn something new or surprising in every scene, whether it be about the puzzle to be solved or the characters who find themselves embroiled in a crime that begins with two people ending up dead within minutes of one another’s murder. What results is a highly efficient piece of work that urges the person looking in on the action to keep up with its many questions and curiosities.

Those regaled with beautiful dialogue are certain to find romance in a film bereft of sentimentality because it is filled to brim with words. But not just words. Partnered with these are silences lodged in between which are equally telling at times. Humphrey Bogart plays Samuel Spade, one-half of a San Francisco-based detective agency whose partner is killed while investigating a client’s claim (Mary Astor). Bogart plays the role with such intricate and refined delicacy that he sells every line with seeming ease. He can be tough then soft, sometimes at the same time, at a drop of a hat. Spade embodies the words while the dead partner rests in silence. The film commands a magnetic rhythm.

Like a pendulum that eases one into hypnosis, the material inspires us to look closer at the screen—and it is not just because the plot involves a mystery to be solved. Every character introduced exudes intrigue, from the spirited secretary (Lee Patrick) to the figure (Elisha Cook Jr.) who follows our protagonist from among a crowd in broad daylight. We are inspired to figure them out, to learn about their endgames. There is not one weak link here; having one would have limited its world-building that consists of tough talk, foggy alliances, and convincing lies. Most importantly, each character must serve a purpose and not rely on being a personality—a trait that modern thrillers and noirs seem to overlook.

But it is the “Fat Man” who steals the show and he is named Kaspar Gutman, played by the excellent Sydney Greenstreet. This corpulent man’s ambition to get his hands on a twelve-inch black falcon statue, its origin going as far back as the 16th century, is matched by his sheer size. When he speaks, he dominates the room; and when he is silent, we look into those cunning eyes and wonder what he might be thinking. Within just a few seconds of the Fat Man’s meeting with Spade in a posh hotel suite, we are convinced that not only is he intelligent and well-connected but that he can be dangerous, possibly ruthless when the occasion calls for it. His boisterous laugh tends to mask his threatening presence. He is Spade’s equal in nearly every way and it is so entertaining how our protagonist attempts to outsmart and outclass a coequal.

“The Maltese Falcon” is skillfully directed by first-time filmmaker John Huston and it stands strong alongside mystery-thrillers of today. It is intelligent in regards to plotting, it offers an understanding of genuine human interactions, and it invites us to participate in detective work. The reason for the words is not to fill up the time but to engage us with the poetry of the genre, a way to get us to think and feel like the characters so that by the end we are not surprised by the answers, but rather we accept them as natural resolutions for it is simply how it is in their cynical, unforgiving, morally ambiguous world.

The Little Hours

The Little Hours (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Short on story but not on enthusiasm, “The Little Hours” manages to stay afloat because of the risks it is willing to take to get a laugh. Had writer-director Jeff Baena decided to tweak the script in such a way that the story commands heft and daring to make strong but objective statements about the hypocrisy of religious practitioners, it might have worked both as a farce and a satire. Instead, what results is a forgettable goofy comedy set during the Middle Ages with occasionally amusing scenes. It wears out its welcome about three-quarters through its already short running time of ninety minutes.

Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci play nuns who wish to have more in life than revering an invisible being in the sky. Equipped with different approaches to make the audience laugh, their ability or willingness to throw their inhibitions to the wind is their commonality as performers and what ties their characters together. Since each strategy to get us to laugh is so distinct, arguably jarring, at times it feels as though these characters do not belong in a single movie but of three. While this may annoy others, I found it fresh and interesting. It gives the impression that the material can go in multiple directions.

Plaza, as usual, outshines her co-stars, colorful in their own way, because she plays with the possibility that her character is mentally unstable, deranged. The decision to give off a level of danger is a masterstroke because it makes the viewers curious about the character, that perhaps she is a bomb waiting to go off. By contrast, we do not sense this alluring danger with Brie or Micucci. The other two performers play it cute or quirky, a more expected route in farcical comedy.

The story is missing a defined heart although a hint of it is there. I believe it can be found in the romance between Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon). There are small and evanescent moments when Reilly and Marea play their characters as if they were in a drama, particularly Shannon. I wished to know more about Sister Marea because those eyes give the impression that she has been trapped for so long in an institution that she may at one point believed in but believes in no longer. At least not when it comes to its strict rules. Shannon’s eyes are so soulful at times that I wondered whether the character considered the romance as path toward freedom; that if they got caught together then they would be free of their shackles.

“The Little Hours” is not for the easily offended nor is it for prudes. Sexual jokes are the opposite of subtle and the material is willing to experiment with what may be considered to be gross behavior, certainly cringe-worthy, especially from men and women of god. But that is the point, I think. It shows that, like us, men and women of the cloth have intense sexual desires, too. Prepare to spot more than a few handfuls of anachronisms.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.

It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.

Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.

Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.

“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.

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.

Beast of Burden

Beast of Burden (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It has been said that the best way for a filmmaker to criticize a movie is to make one’s own, but the would-be thriller “Beast of Burden,” written by Adam Hoelzel and Jesper Ganslandt, is a failure compared to the far more impressive “Locke,” as both pictures mostly take place inside a particular mode of transport—a small plane in this instance—as the expressive lead is required to tell a seemingly straightforward story using only his rawest acting abilities. While Daniel Radcliffe does what he can with the role, there is no script to work with here.

Sean (Radcliffe) is tasked to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. Unbeknownst to his employers, Sean is also working with the DEA to take down the drug cartel. While the setup is familiar to action-thrillers and may excite some, the execution is botched beyond repair. For more than half the film, Sean simply retrieves phone calls as if he were a telemarketer stuck in a backdrop of an action-thriller. It is boring, repetitive, and commands no tension whatsoever. In the middle of it all, I wondered if better material might have been made had the premise were scrapped altogether and instead I were watching a documentary, a day in the life of a top-ranked telemarketer in which he or she must persuade the person on the other line to buy products they likely won’t need. At least in this scenario, the situation and the voices behind the phones would be real, not some unconvincing fabrication.

Flashbacks are employed and they are designed to elucidate Sean’s situation, particularly how desperate he became to agree on taking the job in the first place. However, these instances that are meant to shed light end up confusing the viewer. The reason is because these flashbacks offer no context, let alone details and specificity, on top of not lasting very long. How can we make assumptions and therefore form our own conclusions when we are not given time to absorb whatever is supposedly going on? Eventually, attempting to put the pieces together feels like a colossal waste of time, that the joke is on us for even attempting.

Radcliffe is a capable actor, equipped with many interesting techniques to create convincing characters. I admire that he takes on numerous and varied roles, even willing to push himself physically to deliver exciting performances. However, this film reveals that he cannot rely on charm alone to carry a film. He disappears completely in the role—and not in a good way, particularly during moments in which he appears to be ad-libbing in order to communicate the great distress his character undergoes. Because the screenplay offers nothing to back him up, not once do we forget that we are watching an actor act.

The photography is most unappealing. I would even go as far to say that it is downright ugly. The story takes place at night and so everything is awash in shadows and darkness. But there is a lack of artistry in how the film is shot. The small space that Radcliffe sits in, for example, looks like a cramped booth in a cheap studio. Not one of the buttons on the plane looks real or even functional. And, finally, when the character makes it out of the plane during the final act, we are supposed to be in Mexico but it looks like the setting is some random swamp in the middle of nowhere.