Tag: movies

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Domestics


The Domestics (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

There are far too many suspense-thrillers with rather neat premises but ending up sputtering about halfway through. I think it is because screenwriters get so distracted by the shiny new ideas that they end up neglecting to explore them in meaningful ways. And so when the novelty wears off, the work lacks a reason to exist. A twisted road trip picture, for instance, is reduced to yet another shoot ‘em up. “The Domestics,” written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, is guilty of this significant shortcoming.

The U.S. government’s black poison has killed most of the American population. No reason is provided why this was sanctioned, nor is the material required to do so. The survivors, those resistant to the toxic substance, have been divided into two major factions: those who joined a gang—which is divided further based on their moral codes (or lack thereof)—and the so-called Domestics—people who scrape by every day without group affiliation. Married couple Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) belong in the latter category who decide to make their way to Milwaukee after Nina’s parents cease to communicate via radio. As expected, the spouses encounter various gangs who wish to imprison, torture, or… play with them.

The co-leads do a serviceable job in their respective roles, but the screenplay fails to make them equally interesting. Mark is strong, creative, and vigilant—clearly equipped with survival instinct. On the other hand, Nina is in this constant state of sadness. During the majority of the picture, she is nearly useless, a major liability. I found it to be painfully cliché when the character so suddenly becomes a warrior during the final twenty minutes. The pivot is ineffective because neither character is given enough specific details so that any change that may occur later is thoroughly convincing.

Instead, more effort is put into the action sequences—where the gun is pointed, whose brains are being blown out, blood spatters on walls, sharp objects going though flesh. Notice the manic nature of the editing during these scenes. The violence, while cringe-inducing in a good way, is consistently at the forefront yet there is minimal social commentary in whatever is going on. After all, strong post-apocalyptic films tend to be about something else entirely, from the rousing “Mad Max” films, darkly comic “Delicatesen,” insightful “Children of Men,” down to poetic dirges like “The Road.”

There is a hint, I suppose, of friction between the protagonists. Before the toxins were released, Nina and Mark were on the process of getting a divorce. But the details are both superficial and laughable. Listen to this: Nina confesses to a fellow survivor (Jacinte Blankenship) that they used to be so crazy for each other. She especially swooned at the fact that Mark would leave her cute and romantic notes at home or at work. Eventually, however, the gesture stopped. I couldn’t help roll my eyes and stifle a laugh during this would-be vulnerable moment. Did she really expect such flirtation and playfulness to last for the rest of their marriage? Is she really this short-sighted and shallow? Of course passion wanes. What matters is what you do about it as a couple when it does.

“The Domestics” is not without potential to become a solid thriller. I enjoyed that each gang has a specific personality. The leaders may not have memorable faces, but their monstrous behaviors linger in the mind. Had the screenplay undergone further editing by focusing on the overall message they wish to portray, followed by strong, detailed, and surprising characterizations, it would have felt refresher, more urgent, more relevant in our modern times of politically divided America.

Dinner with Friends


Dinner with Friends (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell) have just returned from Italy and cannot wait to talk about their adventures with their best friends, Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette). The doorbell rings. There appears Beth but no sign of Tom. She says her husband had to go to Washington, D.C. for business. But the truth comes out before dessert: Tom is leaving her for a stewardess. Karen is furious for Beth and Gabe is at a loss for words—twelve years down the drain.

“Dinner with Friends,” based on the play and adapted to the screen by Donald Margulies, appears to be just another standard marriage drama where one couple’s break-up forces another to reflect upon their relationship. While it embodies that quality on the outside, the film is actively interested in the human condition and how painful truths about love, friendship, and companionship can be confusing, exhausting, and surprising. And yet it works on another level, too. In my eyes, the message is that an evaluation of a relationship may not be pretty or convenient at times but it is an important part being together for it forces a couple to appreciate what they do have—even if everything may not be perfect.

The performances are consistently on a high level. The first few scenes are deceptive in that it appears as though what we are seeing on screen are caricatures: Karen the perfectionist, Gabe the husband with not much to say, Beth the victim, and Tom the jerk. But the more the characters speak, even though we may not agree with their opinions or courses of action, the more we want to get to know them. In just about every scene, a layer or several layers of complexity is added to the characterizations. We are constantly getting to know the characters.

In addition, the script has captured the rhythm, mood, and tone of white, middle- to upper-middle class dialogue. While the film is interested in exposing their flaws as people, it abstains from judging them. The judging is left to us and so we are engaged. At time same time, it is difficult to judge them because they are relatable. I found a piece of myself in every one of them.

The latter half is most impressive because it manages to capture the sadness of potentially broken relationships. No, I am not necessarily referring to just the marriages. Most interesting is how the friendships are portrayed between the men and the women. In two key scenes that unfold over lunch, we feel two people sharing a meal slowly drifting away even though physically they are only an arm’s length away. They feign as if there is nothing wrong but we—and they—know that things have gotten difficult and awkward. How do you continue to love someone when you recognize that the person that you thought you knew for years has suddenly turned into someone you can no longer relate with?

Directed with perspicuity by Norman Jewison, “Dinner with Friends” captures a critical moment in time when four people must evaluate where they stand. Sometimes the scariest thing is taking a moment and asking ourselves whether we are happy with the way things are. Karen, Tom, Beth, and Gabe assumed that nothing would ever change among them because they were so close. We are all guilty of that assumption and so when changes do occur in special friendships, sometimes it’s the most difficult task to accept and let go.

Blood Money


Blood Money (2017)
★ / ★★★★

There are not enough plot twists in Lucky McKee’s “Blood Money” to justify having to endure extremely irritating characters who come across four bags full of money, each containing two million dollars, while hiking in the wilderness. In the middle of it, I found myself rooting for the white collar villain, an embezzler, a man named Miller played with cool by John Cusack, because then the movie would have been over. Despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the material is so generic, it feels closer to two hours.

Attempts at character development inspire epic eye rolls. Notice how it tells rather than shows. Three college friends—Victor (Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), and Jeff (Jacob Artist)—sit around a campfire spewing expository dialogue that details their histories, current thoughts, and hopes for the future. None of the dialogue rings true; it is so superficial—like one feeling jealous that his former girlfriend is now with the other guy—that the whole charade feels like a teen soap opera. It does not help that not one of the performers is particularly compelling to watch or listen to. The awful dialogue is worsened by the constant, interminable whining. If I were around that campfire, I would have called it an early night by pretending to be unwell because staying would actually make me feel unwell. It is unbelievable that the trio have convinced themselves to remain friends with one another. Every one of them is vile. Maybe that is their commonality, their sick bond.

The manner in which the sound is put together is most irritating. Of particular struggle is when actors speak their lines while standing next to a river. Dialogue is barely audible. It is worsened by the fact that the score is almost always present during these exchanges. So no matter how passionate or angry a person becomes during an increasingly complex task of towing four heavy bags full of cash across a forest, the experience—their suffering, our catharsis—is muffled. At one point I wondered if it was the director’s intention to make a bad movie because some mistakes are so elementary. It is like reading an essay plagued with spelling errors.

Chase scenes are standard and edited haphazardly. It does not even bother to stop once in a while to show us the beauty or danger of the setting. It feels like amateur hour when at times you feel as though could take any old camera and capture more effective shots of predator attempting to catch its prey. Cue close-ups of performers not looking remotely tired, let alone breaking a sweat, for supposedly sprinting about half a mile. Time and again the picture fails to establish elements that make up a convincing survival thriller.

“Blood Money” is a near complete waste of time, but there is one fresh quirk about it. Miller does not wish to kill those who stumbled upon his money. He asks for them to simply hand the bags over. It is the students’ greed, one of them in particular, that allows an awkward situation to snowball. There is minimal entertainment to be had here despite the numerous unintentional humor. We should be laughing at their stupidity, but we are reminded time and again that the filmmakers do not even bother to make a passable movie.

Rust Creek


Rust Creek (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The backwoods suspense-thriller “Rust Creek,” written by Julie Lipson and directed by Jen McGowan, is clearly inspired by noir pictures of early Coen Brothers, but the overall experience is less than satisfying due to its tonal shifts, particularly in the middle of the picture when our heroine, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), is rescued by a man named Lowell (Jay Paulson) whose job is to cook meth for the very same people that Sawyer is running away from. While the relationship between Sawyer and Lowell is intriguing and the actors manage to sell how their characters regard one another over time, there is not enough excitement in the main narrative surrounding two rednecks (Micah Hauptman, Daniel R. Hill) whose goal is to kill the college girl who escaped from their initial assault.

Sawyer is a believable character who is strong and tough without the material constantly dangling these elements in front of the audience. I think it helps that Corfield chooses to internalize nearly everything that happens to Sawyer instead of going for the more overt emotions—like screaming, shouting, and crying—in order to earn our sympathy. I felt as though she trusts the writing and direction to punch through the expected chases and left turns that come with the genre. And yet, when necessary, there is a softness to Sawyer. Her surprising connection to an unexpected ally, Lowell, is fresh: I cannot remember a hillbilly in another thriller who is actually smart and shown to have deep thoughts.

Less interesting are the cops in charge of investigating the missing woman. Sheriff O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan) appears to be extremely sharp when introduced but progressively gets dumber as the film goes on. Deputy Katz (Jeremy Glazer), a wide-eyed rookie with enthusiasm to spare, too, is promising initially. I believe the reason why they get less interesting over time is the plot requires them to not know as much as the audience in order to delay the action. Because if they were as knowledgeable as us, the movie would have been over thirty minutes earlier. I wished the no-nonsense Commander Slattery (John Marshall Jones) took over the case completely because his presence is so strong, he is not required to say a word to command the room.

The extended chase scenes are realistic, horrific, and beautiful. Overhead shots of injured Sawyer really capture the fact that our protagonist does not have a chance in those woods. By showing the massiveness of what’s around her, she looks so small and insignificant. She may scream and cry out for help but there is no one there to listen except the birds. Time is also against her since she is bleeding out. And because she is disabled, even climbing a small hill, for instance, becomes a challenge. Notice McGowan’s control of the camera as she forces us to view the action through Sawyer’s perspective. When she is down on the ground, the camera is limited to a certain height or angle, especially if there is no hope of achieving a certain goal.

Clearly, thought and effort are present in “Rust Creek” and that is why I am giving the film a marginal recommendation. However, it would have been a far more potent survival thriller had the noir elements been sharpened. When tension cuts like a scalpel, you know you are sitting through a first-rate thriller.

It: Chapter Two


It: Chapter Two (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie with elaborate set pieces and a willingness to experiment with different types of horror, “It: Chapter Two” is only entertaining parts. Perhaps the problem can be attributed to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It spends far too much time communicating how the Losers, now adults (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean), have become traumatized from their encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) twenty-seven years ago. Not one of their plight is particularly compelling or original and so it is a curiosity why the material feels the need to spell out the psychological underpinnings of their behaviors. I found it needlessly expository.

The opening scene is most promising because it underscores the idea that people around us can be just as evil—if not more—as the supernatural kind. A romantic date is turned into something so awful, the events linger in the mind for a while. One is led to believe, if one is not familiar with the source material, that perhaps we will learn, in detail, about Pennywise’s history, why he—or it—is driven to terrorize this particular town. Is it solely for its own survival or are the people’s behavior in this place (homophobia, racism, xenophobia) directly tethered to his bloody rampage? However, as the film goes on, we learn only one bit of critical information about the villain. Pennywise is pushed to the side until climactic special and visual effects extravaganza.

It is not without good performances. Hader stands out as Richie, a man with a secret, whose life is so sad and lonely that he became a comedian in order to utilize humor as armor. I am familiar with Hader’s more dramatic roles but never have I seen him as effective as he is here. At times I caught myself looking in his direction while sharing the same frame as powerhouses like Chastain and McAvoy—highly efficient performers who can do next to nothing and yet remain in control of the screen. It helps that Hader gets some of the best lines. He sells every single one with conviction; we believe this character exists out there in the world. An argument can be made he is the heart of the film.

The movie offers fewer terrifying moments than the predecessor. Part of it is because we are following adults instead of children; there is a natural instinct for us to want to protect children and get them out of harm’s way. But the more interesting part is a lack of effective build-up to the scares. I can think of one exception: Beverly’s return to her childhood home when she is welcomed by the current tenant, an elderly lady whose father joined the circus. Other than this standout, a deliciously devious sequence, the rest of the Losers’ encounters with their pasts feel as though these were taken from other generic made-for-TV horror pictures.

Of particular annoyance is the numerous hallucinatory sequences. I felt as though these comprise the majority of the second act. Sharp writers should recognize that events surrounding hallucinations suffer greatly from diminishing returns. And yet it remains adamant in employing this approach without sudden, genuinely shocking left turns to keep us invested.

Both “It” chapters are based on Stephen King’s novel. His works are notorious for being a challenge to put on screen so that the movie is just as effective or even better than its source material. It is because many of his work are so pregnant with imagination that even the most expensive special and visual effects are not able to match the images formed in our minds. Despite the yelling, screaming for help, and terrorized expressions, “Chapter Two” feels like just another scary movie. It is a disappointment because “Chapter One” is a killer springboard.

High Life


High Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The obtuse but consistently fascinating “High Life” tells the story of a group of criminals, each one either sentenced to life in prison or on death row, who are given the chance to serve science by going to space, approaching the nearest black hole, and collecting its rotation energy. On the way there, most of them participate in an experiment involving artificial insemination led by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a doctor who murdered her family. The work offers a tight and slow pacing but never boring, supported by numerous ideas like the value of a life within a microcosm, freedom in an enclosed space, and what it means to have purpose during what is essentially a suicide mission.

There is a strong possibility that most may sit through the film and find little to no value in it. The closing chapter, after all, is anticlimactic, tinged with sadness, and open-ended. One cannot be blamed for asking, “What’s the point?” But I believe the aim of the screenwriters, Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the former directing the picture, is not to tell a work with a defined shape through precise plotting. This is supported by a non-linear storytelling followed by some vague build-up surrounding fates of particular characters—some die in the hands of one another, others choose to kill themselves, one or two entirely by accident. It is a prime example of a story in which the value lies upon the journey more than the destination.

The work is shot with a keen eye. Never mind the neon lights. Beauty lies in actual details, like the many routines the criminals must partake in, especially when inside Dr. Dibs’ highly impersonal clinic. For example, because she rules over that space, and knowing her obsessive approach to create a life in space, bodies are treated like cattle. She does not ask questions unless answers may be relevant to her work. When she herself is asked questions, she is often dismissive. When a participant expresses distaste for her project, concerns are not addressed directly or elaborated upon. She values her samples over the people who provide the samples. A case can be made that the character symbolizes the oppressive system back on Earth. And yet Dr. Dibs is not portrayed as a villain.

Aside from Binoche’s single-minded “second chance” doctor, another standout character and performance is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson. In the opening sequence, we learn he is the only adult survivor aboard the ship. But he is not alone. There is an infant with him—a little girl that we assume to be the product of Dr. Dibs’ artificial insemination project. I found it strange but curious that although Monte and the baby is supposed to be the heart of the picture, given they are introduced prior to the rest of the characters, I did not find myself invested in their relationship or story. Or perhaps we are meant to feel this way, to prey on or capitalize upon our assumptions that a father figure and a helpless child must be the focal point not only within the vastness of space but also among criminals of varying degrees—from petty crimes, drug addicts, to rapists and murderers.

“High Life” offers an enveloping experience, filled to the brim with thick atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. In some ways, the core is a muted horror film surrounded by ideas closer to science-fiction. Like the Dr. Dibs character, it is, for the most part, impersonal. It is uninterested in making us like the characters. In fact, we are encouraged to dislike some of them. On the surface, viewers may sneer at all the artificiality—its use of light, the synth music. But I think that those who manage to see through the fog may find something worth examining.