About Alex (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Having received news that their friend, Alex (Jason Ritter), had attempted suicide, a formerly tight-knit group of friends from college decide to take a weekend and spend time with him—possibly even learn why he felt compelled to take his life. But Alex’ friends have their own set of problems and being under one roof might not be a good idea.
Written and directed by Jesse Zwick, “About Alex” is a meandering drama, highly frustrating in its style and execution, devoid of any real feelings or insight about friendships and human relationships. With its ironic title—the movie is not at all about Alex but about his so-called friends—the movie is largely a waste of time and I felt disappointed that otherwise good performers have chosen to partake in the film because the material is neither interesting nor does it offer characters that are challenging to play.
The characters are supposed to be in their late-twenties and it comes across so forced that most of them are already so jaded. To me, none of them has overcome true hardship. They are a bunch of complainers. Particularly prickly—and a bit of a prick—is Josh (Max Greenfield), a poseur who thinks that he is too smart and too good for things like social media. His tirades are a bore because the screenplay does not provide an equally forceful character that directly challenges his ideals.
The secret pregnancy regarding Siri (Maggie Grace) and Ben (Nate Parker) is a tired cliché. An interracial couple, I wanted to learn about them as separate individuals as well as partners but the material never dares to touch upon a subject that is worth a real discussion. The picture is a drama and about personal struggles, after all. Instead, we get a inanities like Ben experiencing writer’s block and Siri wanting to take a pregnancy test.
Exchanges between the characters are flat and uninteresting. There is supposed to be conflict simmering just underneath the pleasantries but the actors often have to raise their voices in order to make a point. This means that the script lacks the subtlety to genuinely engage. It is as if the film were taking place inside the mind of a teenager with an average intelligence, has little to no understanding about human psychology and complexities of relationships of people who are almost thirty.
There is nothing wrong with telling a story about narcissistic personalities clashing under one roof. However, there is a way to tell such a story so that the audience understands why each person is worth knowing further. Here, we are provided surface characteristics, the very basic qualities that may make up a person, but not the dirty details that force us to pay attention and feel encouraged to peel through the layers.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
With three number one singles and fresh off her win from the Billboard Award’s Top Song—even before her first album was released—Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) goes back to her hotel room and decides to jump off the balcony. Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer in charge of guarding her room, manages to talk her out committing suicide, but a slip on the railing and a few paparazzi are all it takes to sensationalize a story. Noni, who dreamed of becoming a singer since she was young, is just another pop star whose life, according to the press, is spiraling out of control. Not surprisingly, the truth is almost always more complicated than a few pictures.
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “Beyond the Lights” surprised me with its willingness to dive into various depths when it comes to how it may be like for a person whose profession involves receiving constant scrutiny while being under the spotlight. Based off the trailer, I came to expect a silly love story where a man rescues a woman from her unhappiness. On the contrary, the picture is about self-empowerment, learning to find the strength from within oneself to step out of another person’s shadow—in this case, parental expectations from Kaz’ father and Noni’s mother—and lead a life that is healthy, maybe imperfect, but one that feels right for herself.
The scenes between Noni and her mother, Macy (Minnie Driver), are dramatic but moving nonetheless. Not once is the screenplay shy about criticizing parents who treat their children like a product to be sold instead of a loved one to be protected. Driver embodies a manic intensity in portraying a scary parent that one would not want to disappoint or cross. With the film having a running time of two hours, which is a bit overlong in parts, I liked that the material provides a bit of her backstory, why she treats her own flesh and blood like a piece of five-cent meat.
Although less powerful, the scenes between Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a freshness to them, too. The two performers share chemistry physically but they do not rely on looking pretty or handsome to get us through their relationship. There is fluctuation in what they think and know about one another and so as they get to know each other, in turn, we feel like we are getting to know them.
Mbatha-Raw has the makings of an excellent, respectable, classy performer. To me, she delivered two performances: one with a purple weave on and one with her natural hair. Every time she is in front of a microphone and sings, it is magic. Not once does she forget that she is an actress playing a singer—not the other way around. Notice that when she sings, her facial expressions are more pronounced; though words are coming out of her mouth in a form of a song, her expressions command power because they highlight the emotions behind the words.
“Beyond the Lights” is an entertaining drama that makes some fresh choices. It is elevated by good performances, especially by Mbatha-Raw, and solid writing, at its best when not pushing too hard to be romantic. While watching the film, I thought about the female pop and R&B artists of today. I wondered if any of them could shine much brighter if image did not count as much and if the glitz and glamour were scrubbed off completely.
Red Tails (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
In World War II, the U.S. Army treats Negro pilots as though they do not possess the intelligence nor the reflexes to perform effectively in battle. Although African-American airmen are admitted in the army, members of the 332nd Fighter Group are relegated to jobs like coastal runs with secondhand planes.
In 1944 Italy, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) hopes to prove that his fighter group is fit for battle just like any white American soldiers. But with bigoted officials like Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) in the way, being given a chance to prove everybody wrong seems next to impossible. Under the direction of Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the black pilots itch to join the fray and prove their worth.
While “Red Tails,” based on the screenplay John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, wishes to make a statement involving the marginalization of African-Americans in WWII, its mundane script fails to impress as a movie composed of characters, based on real people, who have interesting stories to tell.
The characters who fly the planes are mostly defined by their surface characteristics. For instance, Captain Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron leader, is the one who likes his alcoholic beverages a little too much which makes his judgments questionable and Lieutenant Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) carries a “Black Jesus” around for protection. Since many of the characters are introduced at one time, such quirks prove helpful, at least initially, to help remember them.
However, once the characters become more familiar to us, their lack of depth proves frustrating and disappointing. These soldiers are supposed to be so patriotic that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect their country and loved ones. I waited for each of their stories to be told or hinted at in some way but their conversations are always about what is in front of them and how bored they are due to a lack of excitement in their assignments. Not one of them talks about missing home.
The closest line of dialogue that provides some sort of insight into their personal lives involves one of the airmen’s admission that whenever he seals himself into his plane to do his job, a part of him feels like he has just locked himself into his grave. It turns out that others can very much relate to him. This scene commands resonance because it suggests that even though the pilots are outwardly brave, they feel vulnerable and afraid, too. Whenever they are up in the air, while they fire at their enemies, they must also keep their fears in check. The picture needs to show more perceptive moments as such in order for the audience to really appreciate the material and be engaged.
The film, however, has very good fight sequences. As the various planes speed through the sky and the camera jumps between inside and outside of the plane, I was excited at what is about to happen. The pilots may have been bored with their job at times but I wasn’t. Even more thrills are delivered during the dogfights between the Americans and the Nazis.
“Red Tails,” based on a book by John B. Holway and directed by Anthony Hemingway, also suffers from dialogue that either comes across too stiff or very earnest but it has moments of entertaining action sequences. If only we learned more about the Tuskegee Airmen as people when they were on the ground.