Tag: movies

Blinded by the Light


Blinded by the Light (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fifteen to twenty minutes into Gurinder Chadha’s Bruce Springsteen love letter “Blinded by the Light,” I was unmoved and unimpressed. It throws one cliché after another right onto our laps: a syrupy flashback—narration and all—of childhood friends who dream of escaping from their boring hometown one day, sixteen-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) living in a Pakistani household ruled by a patriarch (Kulvinder Ghir) with an iron fist, Javed walking down a school hallway—in slow motion, no less—during his first day of college… and then laying his eyes on a girl who would later become his first love (Kit Reeve). These are nothing special. Tired, dull. They are, at best, situations we come across on silly television pilots where half the viewership is gone even before the episode is over. But then the film comes alive the second Javed inserts the “Born in the U.S.A.” cassette into his portable player and “Dancing in the Dark” begins to play.

From here the picture shows an understanding of why this particular story, set in 1987 Thatcher era, needs to be told. It is not just about a boy who listens to Springsteen and falls in love with The Boss’ music. It is about how Javed comes to terms with his identity—as a budding writer, as a Pakistani living in Britain, as a son and brother, as a friend—Springsteen’s music just so happens to serve as catalyst. At the same time this coming-of-age story is not afraid to be political. Workers lose jobs as a result of specific government policies. Racists hold rallies demanding that they want their country back—whatever that means. There is threat of violence. At times violence is enacted. Even white children are shown urinating into their brown neighbors’ home.

We are given a thorough look into Javed’s home life. Malik, the father, is proud that he is able to leave Pakistan and start a family in Britain. He loves his family, but we also get an impression that he rules them. It is expected that money earned by his wife (Meera Ganatra), daughter (Nikita Mehta), and son be handed to him. No questions, no complaints. The camera fixates on his hands as money is handed to him. This Pakistani family adheres to tradition. Deviating from it would result in dire consequences—precisely why our protagonist is so moved by Springsteen’s songs because many of them are about rising up against The Man, the establishment, the norm, tradition. As a result, Javed and Malik are often at odds.

But because the screenplay by the director, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Paul Mayeda Berges makes a point to underscore the humanity of each character we meet, not once do we forget that the central conflict is rooted in love. To Malik, success is hand-in-hand with money. There is an amusing—and accurate—exchange between father and son when the former claims he gives the latter so much freedom because Javed is not required to become a doctor. He can choose to be a lawyer, an accountant, or a real estate agent. And so Javed should be thankful to his father for being so charitable. It goes to show that sometimes it is more compelling to see two characters who deeply love each other clash than it is to watch enemies. There is more at stake.

We come across the usual lip-synching and dancing in between comic and dramatic moments, but these are executed with high energy, infectious joy, and freshness. Look at the way the lyrics dance around characters, for example. These are presented differently with each song and depending on the mood of a scene. Notice that sometimes Kalra is actually singing the songs—his voice may not be particularly strong but it feels exactly right because the performer gets to interpret the feeling of the words and phrases instead of simply moving his mouth and allowing Springsteen to interpret for his character. It makes a whole world of difference. It is astute decisions like these that make “Blinded by the Light “ absolutely worth seeing.

Disobedience


Disobedience (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

So few films are able to show with crystal clear quality what they are about at just the perfect moment when their respective stories are about to enter their resolutions. In Sebastián Lelio’s visually spare but contextually elegant “Disobedience,” the scene involves an embrace with no words shared or tears shed, just a common understanding among those involved that life goes on and that sometimes we can choose to be in control of the challenges that befall us. The work is beautiful, occasionally heart-wrenching, and surprisingly hopeful—and it always underlines the humanity of those we meet.

Rachel Weisz plays a professional photographer, Ronit, who returns to her Jewish Orthodox community when her father, a beloved London-based rabbi, passes way. Given that Ronit has been shunned by her community for being a lesbian, it is made apparent her presence is not welcome but one to be endured because she is blood of the deceased. Notice the director’s control of the camera as strangers make a laundry list of judgment as they lay eyes on Ronit. It is no accident that numerous sequences involve entering and exiting rooms filled with people as public and private spheres are brought under the magnifying glass.

In a story like this, it would have been far easier to point at a religion and condemn its practices by, for example, exposing its hypocrisies, underscoring its limitations when it comes to exercising one’s personal freedom, or highlighting the moral inconsistencies that result from attempting to live a life based on a book that was written hundreds or thousands of years ago without taking into account how life or lifestyles have changed over time. Instead, the film chooses to respect the religion in question not by ignoring how it can hurt others but by providing a character so complex that by the end I wished to know more about him.

Alessandro Nivola portrays Dovid, the main disciple of the fallen rabbi. He is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman whom Ronit got involved with romantically, certainly sexually, many years ago. Instead of treating Dovid as clueless, the screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz allows him to evolve. We assume that just because he is a man of faith and continually shows that he values faith above all else, his capacity for feeling or understanding is limited. Nivola plays Dovid with a surprisingly healthy dose of humanity that even when he is at his headstrong, we understand his perspective, why he feels he must fight for what he believes is true—not just because he is pious man but also because he is a husband who genuinely loves his wife. Love can be devastating sometimes.

And so the material takes on several new layers which involves partnership, ownership, and patriarchy. Particularly telling is a scene that takes place at a dinner table with Ronit, Esti, Dovid, along with friends and family of a certain age. Nearly every line is a reminder that Ronit is an outcast not just because she is a lesbian, an unmarried woman for her age, or a daughter who did not stay to take care of her ailing father. No, there is a common understanding she is less than because of her gender. Even the women at that table—even when they choose to be silent—support the notion that men are a tier above.

Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” is teeming with information—should one decide to examine it. Its austere look, particularly in how it avoids showing bright colors or employing an ostentatious score or soundtrack, may quickly bore those looking for a traditional form of entertainment. But these are appropriate, you see, because the film is meant to be melancholy, ruminative, a chance to empathize with people who feel imprisoned by their religious communities. The film is about freedom and it reminds us how we take our own freedoms for granted.

Countdown


Countdown (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another supernatural horror film that takes a specific concept—this time a phone app called Countdown that predicts when a person is going to die down to the very last second—and does nothing special or memorable with it. Comparison to the “Final Destination” franchise is easy but a big mistake, an insult to the series because 1) those films offer rather creative, brutal, and occasionally amusing or ironic deaths and 2) the concept is turned into a minefield of twists and turns. The “Final Destination” films, especially the first two, actually try to be innovative. They’re entertaining.

In “Countdown,” written and directed by Justin Dec, we sit through highly repetitive scenarios in which an eventual victim almost always ends up panicking because his or her time is almost up, followed by a cloaked figure—often spotted on mirrors—being seen looming in background, and the victim being pushed, dragged, and tossed around by an invisible presence. Cue the neck-breaking and skull-crushing. It is exhausting to sit through because everything is so uninspired.

Dec’s idea of what makes a horror film effective is questionable at best. When someone’s body is thrown through a glass mirror, it feels like an action movie because of the way it is shot. When a person falls to his death headfirst from a couple of hundred feet, it feels like an exercise of visual effects due to its in-your-face approach to violence. So often the punchline is a person getting hurt or killed. Why? What’s the point of it? We might as well just sit through a YouTube video that has compiled movie death scenes from the past fifty years.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This picture is heavy on the bang to the point where horror flatlines eventually. There are some attempts at humor, however misplaced, which, for instance, involves a priest (P.J. Byrne) who dresses like a priest but doesn’t talk or act like one (he has tattoos and he listens to hip-hop—ha-ha, get it?). Father John offers some knowledge about the devils in the Bible and how their stories might be relevant to the app that cannot be deleted. The picture comes alive because Father John’s knowledge offers hope against a seemingly insurmountable villain.

The protagonists are neither charming nor interesting. Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who earned her nursing license just recently, is a bore at home and while at work. When faced with the app problem, she acts like any other person. And so it begs the question why she is our heroine when she herself is unable to think or act outside the box. What makes her worth rooting for? What makes her special? The writer-director fails to answer the most basic questions of creating a character worthy of our attention. He was too busy, I guess, thinking of ways to make a death look gruesome so viewers would flinch at the sight of a neck being broken.

Honey Boy


Honey Boy (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Honey Boy” is yet another story about a child who yearns to have a genuine relationship with his father, but what makes the movie special is that it has no qualms about showing reality and relationships as they are. It takes a look at an abusive relationship between parent and child in a way that not many movies are willing to show. The reason is because the screenwriter, Shia LaBeouf, is able to take specific details from his own childhood and harness them, in a way, so that he could come to terms with his troubled past. Coupled with director Alma Har’el’s vision and execution, what could have been a generic “therapy drama” is given cinematic language that rings true. Pick any random scene from the movie and notice it is worthy of examination.

Although a personal story, the picture is able to look at celebrity without the glitz and glamour. What better way to showcase this theme than in the opening scene in which twenty-two-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges) is seemingly blown away by a special effect explosion. (It looks to be a set for the movie “Transformers.”) For a second, the job appears to be thrilling and exciting. But when the harnesses and ropes are shown, followed by the director yelling, “Cut!” it looks just like another job. This theme is consistent with twelve-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe), a rising star in Hollywood, living in a seedy motel with his father (LaBeouf).

The work is at its best when simply taking a look at the father-son relationship. It is often sad and unblinking, always fascinating. For instance, Otis wishes to hold his father’s hand, but James is afraid to be seen by others as a “chickenhawk.” And so every time the boy reaches for his father’s hand, the father rejects the notion and walks away. Without relying on words, short but impactful scenarios like these tell us a lot about what the father considers to be more important: his tough guy image over the needs of his son. While in rehab due to an alcohol problem, Otis tells his counselor (Laura San Giacomo), “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain. And you want to take that away?”

At the same time, the emotionally and physically abusive father is never painted simply as an evil figure whose actions are worthy of condemnation. LaBeouf writes the father as a man who loves his son deep down despite how he treats the boy. Perhaps James doesn’t know how to show it. Or maybe, coming a long line of alcoholics, showing love in an overt way is not a part of their DNA. James has proven he does not like it when he appears weak or vulnerable. Whatever the case, the writer proves to find it important that James be considered to be a whole person in addition to his flaws. We can hate him but we feel sorry for him, too. LaBeouf plays James with a certain unpredictability; there comes a point when we flinch at the sight of the Otis getting too close to his father when James is clearly experiencing a manic-depressive episode.

“Honey Boy” does not offer easy solutions or typical closures found in dramas of this kind. Instead, it finds a comfortable place in excavating deep empathy and finding that to be enough to warrant telling its story. And for that, I found it to be a refreshing coming-of-age tale of a troubled talent who comes from a background of shame, rejection, and pain.

Lost Girls


Lost Girls (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that by the end the police have found four corpses and at least ten to sixteen human remains in Long Island, but it is not about uncovering the identity of the infamous serial killer. Liz Garbus’ melancholic, angry, and focused “Lost Girls,” based on the book by journalist Robert Kolker, tells the story of sex workers whose deaths are treated cheaply by those whose job is to find truth and justice. It is a human story, interested in the flaws of its victims, their families, and the cops themselves. The work demands attention. It offers no easy or convenient solutions.

Amy Ryan portrays the mother of one of the missing girls. Her Mari is a force of nature, a fighter, the kind of person who speaks and demands others to listen to what she has to say. Ryan is not interested in vanity; she provides the audience raw anger—anger toward the authorities for their sheer incompetence (and disinterest) and also anger toward herself as a mother who knows deep down that she had not done all she could so that Shannan could fulfill her potential while growing up. It is fascinating that although Ryan is given strong dialogue by Michael Werwie’s screenplay, her strongest moments are entirely silent, when Mari must restrain herself from screaming, crying, or taking action that she might regret later.

We are provided details of the crime. There is a clear pattern in the victims’ profiles: women in their twenties, short stature, their line of work, their cause of death. And yet despite all the information that has come to light, the police, led by Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), has time and again fallen short of solid leads. The material shows us why. For instance, the investigators neglect to look (or simply choose not to look) at footages recorded by a residential camera the night of Shannan’s disappearance. And another: the hysterical Shannan called 911 and begged for help… but help arrived over an hour later. Why?

The movie does a good job in creating a sense of frustration. There is tension because the question of, “What if this crime happened to one of your loved ones?” is always in the back our minds. Wouldn’t you want justice? Wouldn’t you want to call out and root out incompetence? The first group of bodies found is discovered completely by accident. The police are not even trying to look for the missing Shannan. Again, why is that? Is there a cover-up? Throughout the film, we are inspired to ask questions about the players involved and also ourselves. How would we react if we saw the news and our sister, cousin, or friend is only referred to as a prostitute, a sex worker, an escort—as if she were to blame for being murdered?

“Lost Girls” could have been a syrupy melodrama that follows the usual beats and the same old boring dramatic parabola, but the filmmakers are too smart for that. The correct choice is made: To focus on showing the characters as messy, imperfect, and perhaps even unlikable. Because we are able to recognize real people on screen, we empathize even more with the crises they face. The film treats the story from which it is based upon with respect—which is more than what those in charge of the case at the time had given.

The Salesman


The Salesman (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

In the hands of a lesser writer-director, “The Salesman” would likely to have ended up as yet another revenge-thriller with an expected catharsis in the end. An argument can be made that this picture is worth seeing exactly because it provides no release of emotions, but it is nonetheless worth thinking about and discussing long after the movie is over.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi wishes to say something important about traumatic events. Although each incident may vary, I think he means to communicate that trauma is almost never an isolated event. It bleeds, it causes a flood, it takes over the lives of the people it touches. It is a stink that refuses to leave the room. It haunts us when we are alone, in our beds, when we are at our jobs, when we are sitting in the car and it is utterly silent on the outside but a raging storm in our heads. The material captures the brutality of trauma, how it cripples the body and the mind. And yet not once does the movie shows violence explicitly.

The plot revolves around Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher by day and an actor by night, who is compelled to find the man who attacked his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) in the apartment they recently moved into. Although Rana is relatively all right physically, Emad feels it is his duty as a husband to find answers. We observe him in their home, at school, and at the play before and after the incident. The differences are subtle but informative. We understand the character through his silence and action, not words. Hosseini communicates paragraphs with only his eyes. Alidoosti, meanwhile, matches him with her extremely telling body language.

The picture has an eye for realism. I admired how it takes its time to let scenes unfold—especially those that may not necessarily advance the plot. Notice the extended scene in which the couple moves into their new apartment. It would have been easier to show them having already moved in and simply putting various knickknacks away like in most mainstream American films. Here, we feel a sense of community because we see friends helping to carry a mattress up the stairs; we get a mental picture of the place as the camera goes in and out of rooms; we notice small things like how used their clothes look; we infer about the weather since all windows and doors are open. It captures the insanity, excitement, and exhaustion of move-in day.

I always say that in order for dramas to be effective, the setting must be believable. Here is a picture with such a trait and it is beautiful how the story is told through action but a whole lot more can be learned by looking at the environment of the characters. Because of their worn belongings and the fading colors of their clothing, I began to wonder whether this is a couple that can withstand a horrifying, unfathomable, and ultimately devastating event. But, as in life, there is no certainty.

Howards End


Howards End (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Handsome-looking every step of the way, “Howards End,” based upon the novel by E.M. Forster and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a film to be admired from a sensory point of view but, for most, including myself, not one to invest emotionally despite first-class performances. Yet it is worth seeing at least once because there are numerous fresh choices here that modern dramas, particularly of the mainstream variety, that can learn from. More importantly, how these choices are utilized in order to make a rather old-fashioned plot feel new and engaging.

One of these choices is in the use of transition between scenes. The plot revolves around a wealthy family who owns various estates in England whose patriarch, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), strict in maintaining his wealth, reputation, and privilege, chooses to ignore his wife’s dying wish (Vanessa Redgrave) of the titular estate being passed on to Margaret (Emma Thompson), a middle-class unmarried woman who lives with her siblings (Helena Bonham Carter, Adrian Ross Magenty). Because the story unfolds in different houses, certainly of varying prestige, it is critical that the transitions do not come across as sudden or jarring. An interesting choice is employing seemingly random images like a group of horses clip-clopping their way down the street, a person reading out loud the words of the novel he is immersed in, or the camera moving away from the focal point of the action and toward a nondescript object that just so happen to be in the same room.

It is such a clever way to denote a movement in location, to highlight a passage of time, to underscore emotions felt but not expressed. A deep level of poetry can be found in these images which is most appropriate because Margaret and her siblings are the type of people who take pleasure in appreciating art, reading and discussing literature, listening to music and form theories about them. Thus, the artistic choice of making each transition special puts us into the mindset or lifestyle of Margaret’s family—which also serves as a contrast against the Wilcox clan: how they tend to value money and what people say about them over everything else. If there were love in the Wilcox’ household, it would be found in their bank accounts.

Another interesting approach is minimizing the drama—which may sound odd because the material is dramatic by nature. For instance, revelations about certain characters, especially their pasts, are almost treated as afterthoughts. We suspect that certain secrets will be a big deal when revealed, but more often there are no screaming matches, no yelling, no tears. There is, however, compartmentalization. Although it did not always work for me because I found that certain characters a not fully fleshed out, particularly in establishing thoroughly convincing relationships, especially the romantic variety, there is great drama in not expressing. Consummate performers like Thompson and Hopkins thrive in being quiet and letting us know how knowledge of certain things affect their characters. And that is enough to make us feel for them. After all, we have all been situations where we find ourselves at a loss for words, sometimes on purpose in order to maintain a level of control, even though coming across such information bothers us to the core.

To elaborate further, I felt that the relationship between Margaret and Henry is curious but lacking detail—that certain crucial elements are lost between novel and film. For example, I found no compelling reason for someone like Margaret to want to have anything to do with Henry. Did she enjoy the man’s attention because she herself is getting older yet she remains unmarried? Was she interested in his money? Being the central character, her motivation must be clear. Instead, the possible romantic connection felt rushed. Another example is the change in Margaret and Helen’s relationship. Again, it is hastily handled which felt contrived and unconvincing about half the time.

So, you see, I admired the film for its craft but not necessarily the human connections. Another example: The cinematography, the rural outdoors being juxtaposed against the metropolitan London, offers great beauty in different ways. Perhaps the intention then is to create contrasting impressions. It does, after all, tackle the subject of contrasting worlds.

Watching the work is like looking at a seemingly ordinary painting of a house sitting in a field but as you look more closely, its world opens up and speaks to you. It was a strange feeling and I urge others to see if they would have that experience, too.