Tag: nicole kidman


Destroyer (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Whenever the camera goes for a close-up—and the picture is fond of this technique—all I could see was the makeup plastered on Nicole Kidman’s face. It is a shame because “Destroyer,” a crime-drama about a detective so guilt-ridden by what happened seventeen years prior when she was still a green undercover cop, is a work that grips the audience by the throat and never lets go. Kidman fits the role wonderfully, capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions within a span of seconds. The moments when we are forced to look at Detective Bell’s face are supposed to be strongest—appropriate because it is also a character-driven drama. And yet these moments turn out to be the weakest. I am flabbergasted that no one spoke up when it comes to the ineffectiveness of the cosmetics designed to depict age.

An argument can be made that without the incredibly distracting makeup, it would have further elevated Kidman’s already ace performance. The thing about heavy cosmetics is that, when used wisely, it is capable of heightening a sense of realism. It is far from the case here. In this film, there are two strands: Bell, along with her ill-fated partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), as she infiltrates a gang led by a man named Silas (Toby Kebbell) and Bell as an angry alcoholic whose purpose is reignited when Silas resurfaces almost two decades after a bank robbery.

In the former, Kidman is provided minimal makeup and the little ticks and smirks communicate paragraphs—a good choice because the flashbacks tend to rely on succinct impressions. In a way, the lead performer, along with the sharp writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, must fill in the gaps between what we know will happen and the trauma that follows the character like a curse. There is a huge gap between this lively woman who is excited for her career and the walking scarecrow that scowls and makes her co-workers feel uncomfortable. With the latter situation, Kidman is essentially given a mask and it does her no favor. In fact, it serves as a barrier between the character and the audience—problematic because Bell is already a figure of few words.

The tightly constructed plot is well-paced as Bell follows clues that may lead to Silas. Seeing former partners-in-crime (Tatiana Maslany, James Jordan, Zach Villa) and forcing them to provide information is an act of exorcising the past; each succeeding person is more difficult to deal with that the last. Bursts of violence are expected, but they remain powerful when delivered. Credit to director Karyn Kusama for presenting violence in a matter-of-fact manner. Not for one second is it glamorized. Violence looks painful, it is loud, people get hurt or die. Those lucky enough to walk away from it remain touched by it nonetheless.

The heart of the picture is the shattered relationship between Bell and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who is dating a man in his mid-twenties (Beau Knapp). There is a diner scene in which the girl recalls a painful memory and Bell is touched because at least Shelby remembers something between them other than their protracted fights. It is the single honest moment between a child and her mother—during most of their interactions, one is usually disconnected. It is the moment when we realize Bell’s gravest mistake: in pursing the past, she has forgotten to live in the present. Shelby is almost grown and she regards Bell as her biological mother but not the mother who was there to console, to give advice, to be there when it really mattered. Here is a portrait of a woman who feels so hollow, she might as well be dead.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

With such colorful roles under her belt, Elle Fanning has proven herself to be a performer whose career could span across decades—should she want it. In “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” she plays an alien named Zan currently in the body of a human in 1977 Croydon where punk rock is more than music, it is a way of life. She commands the role with such gusto, it is is near impossible not to look at her and stare at how she is in control of her entire being… even when the character, bizarre as she is, is apparently out of control. The story is strange and the plot quite obfuscated at times, but her star power anchors the material in such a way that it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on around her.

I wish I could say that the film were stronger because it contains many ideas worth exploring. Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, it touches upon why it is important that punk exists, what punk means to those who consider themselves to be a part of its community, and what punk might appear to be based on outsiders looking in. In addition, there are subplots that function as metaphors: being in control of one’s body, sexual awakening, becoming embittered by the passing of time, finding belongingness… All potentially fascinating but not easy to explore and weave together, especially in a comedy.

John Cameron Mitchell is no stranger when it comes to relying on sheer energy to entertain his audience. It works in the marvelous “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the uproarious “Shortbus,” but the approach is not as effective here. This is because, with the exception of Fanning, the performers are not memorable. For instance, even Nicole Kidman, portraying a manager of a local punk pub, gets lost in the shuffle. Observe closely and notice that, when next to Fanning, it feels as though Kidman is acting rather than embodying the role of a woman who is angry after the bands she helped to get discovered had failed to give her credit or, worse, forgotten her. This character ought to have been utilized more effectively in order to humanize some of the more outlandish elements of the picture.

It excels with the visuals. Aside from the psychedelic faux-intermissions that lean toward cheap instead of hypnotic, I enjoyed, for example, the cheesy clothing of the aliens because the performers who wear them commit. Notice how during pulsating dances, the music, the lighting, and the awkward camera movements aid the clothes to make a statement. An experience is created; it really feels as though we are in a gathering of teenagers who happen to be from another planet. Compare these images to the punk rock gatherings underground. At first glance, they may look worlds apart. But when one really thinks about it, these are parallel images, certainly conjoined ideas.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is endearing because it tries so hard to entertain. In particular, I enjoyed its willingness to touch upon obtuse humor instead of the usual double entendres. However, the material lacks substance—which it is obviously what it is going for during the final hour as it embraces more would-be heartfelt scenarios. I felt bored and annoyed by the melodrama. Perhaps it might have been a stronger work overall had it showed one party after another in which aliens, humans, and those in-between are simply having a blast.

Boy Erased

Boy Erased (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The purpose of “Boy Erased” is straightforward: 1) To further expose the cruel and downright predatory practices of gay conversion programs, their pseudoscientific practices still legal, at the time of writing, across 36 states across the U.S.—all having the power to subject even minors through all sorts of humiliating and traumatizing situations, and 2) To inspire a change in us and also on a legislative level. Although it succeeds on this front, what I admired most about the film is that it is a specific story first and foremost. And so a topic that may sound or feel abstract to some is anchored to something concrete. A viewer need not know someone who has gone through such “therapy” to be able to empathize with the heartbreaking and maddening occurrences on screen.

Lucas Hedges shows once again why he is one of the best performers of his generation. He plays Jared Eamons, eighteen-year-old son of a preacher/car dealer (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser (Nicole Kidman), whose family is deeply religious. Standing toe-to-toe against veteran actors like Crowe and Kidman is not easy, but he makes it look effortless. For example, he makes the intelligent choice to adopt Crowe and Kidman’s approaches to their own characters, the former nearly inaccessible, quiet, his nose often buried in the Bible, and having the tendency to look down during moments of confrontations while the latter’s technique is almost the exact opposite.

Striking a balance between extreme characterizations, it helps on two fronts. First, it provides believability that Jared has in fact been raised in a particular household laden with many rules inspired by the word of God. Second, Hedges employs the opposite technique when facing either Crowe or Kidman, depending the scene, and so he does not get buried when an experienced performer sends wave after wave of powerful emotions, both subtle and dramatic.

The disadvantage, however, is most apparent when the three of them share a scene. Because Hedges is not as effective—yet—as his seasoned counterparts, there are times when he fades into the background just a little. And yet, thinking about it more thoroughly, perhaps this is the intent. Because Jared feels invisible when being around his parents, maybe the correct approach is to dial back, to blend into the surroundings. After all, the parents refuse, downright deny, a part of their son that is important.

Scenes at the Love in Action gay conversion therapy program, led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton—who also writes and the directs the film), are most effective when shot in a matter-of-fact way. Interiors are so barren and impersonal, notice no one wears a hint of bright color—for bright shirt might as well have been a rainbow flag. Most of the staff appear robotic and cold. No one cracks a warm or friendly smile because doing so may come across as suggestive. Touching, other than quick handshakes (firm handshakes for males, soft for females), is not allowed. Conversations are encouraged to be brief. There are even strict rules when it comes to going to the restroom.

We observe the entire process, from the personal items that must be checked in, what is brought up and explored during the program, to the long-term psychological effects of brainwashing. I appreciated that the material bothers to make a point that every program’s “client”—I prefer the word “victim”—responds to “therapy” in different ways. Appropriately, these are meant to make the viewers angry. More importantly, it urges us to empathize, to see that, clearly, these programs are a sham and those who choose to run them are swindlers. There is no curing homosexuality because there is nothing to cure. It is not a disease or a choice. It just is.

There are numerous genuinely affecting moments in the picture, like the talk between a doctor (Cherry Jones) who is tasked to draw blood from her patient (Hedges), but one that elevates the film greatly is the final exchange between father and son. To reveal as little as possible is ideal, but what is at stake is how the Eamons family will move forward. There is so much to say and express, but Edgerton chooses to be concise and precise. Beautifully shot and the dialogue so well-written, somehow the confrontation comes across both grand and deeply personal. It is a terrific closer to a wonderful film that just so happens to be well-intentioned.

The Railway Man

The Railway Man (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast, meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse, during a train ride from Southampton to Glasgow. Though she is curious about him, clearly very intelligent and good-hearted, Eric appears to be more interested in his timetable than he is about her. His goal is to go around the country to collect railway memorabilia. The two strangers will come to get married eventually, but Patti is unaware of Eric’s experiences in Kanchanaburi—a town in Thailand where British soldiers were tortured, beaten, and abused by the Japanese Imperial Army’s military police during World War II.

“The Railway Man,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is quite small in scope and almost devoid of emotional hyperbole by choice which gives it a slight edge against similar movies that are based on real experiences during wartime. But the picture is not skillfully helmed in that the setup and conclusion are too simplistic and abrupt. Such qualities are not appropriate in a story like this because trauma is all about details—specifics that we may or may not want to look into or think about for too long but we are fascinated by them nonetheless. Generalizations prevent the picture from offering something truly special.

To make the past more interesting than the present is an appropriate move. Because the film’s core is defined by what has happened to Eric in the 1940s, it is only right that we are jolted into paying close attention once the present folds into the grim past. Young Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine beautifully. I was impressed because I believed that, despite the different eras, younger Eric and older Eric is one person. It helps that Irvine has chosen to adopt some of Firth’s signature mannerisms—attributes that the latter seems unable to shed in every role, no matter how good he is. Though he is less experienced than Firth, that makes Irvine not only aware but very smart because he ends up using his co-star’s quirks to his advantage.

Kidman and Firth do share a good level of chemistry, especially when their characters first meet on the train, but a lot of their scenes come off repetitive. Though Kidman does a solid job portraying a woman who is deeply concerned about her husband’s psychological state and well-being, she is not given very much to do other than to look sad. To me, her expressions essentially range from seeing her puppy being stolen and there is nothing she can do about it to seeing her puppy getting kicked in the gut. Kidman has always been that performer who can pull off a silent sadness but still being very beautiful. It is always nice to watch an actor performing on the inside rather than relying on behavior to create a semblance of believability.

It is disappointing that the film does not spend enough time in showing Eric’s relationship with his comrades. Because of this, the young British soldiers around him are rather interchangeable. When a name is mentioned, I found myself having no idea which person is being referred to so I relied on a particular character reacting and missing, for a second or two, the deeper details of the drama. Distractions weaken the power of the film significantly because the tone and pacing are understated to such an extent that any interruption in the delicate balance comes off very noticeable and off-putting.

Based on the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, “The Railway Man” is not that impressive from a storytelling standpoint even though the story it wishes to tell is worth hearing. Many people tend to find it difficult to draw the line between the two which is understandable but never excusable.

The Beguiled

The Beguiled (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sofia Coppola’s period drama “The Beguiled,” based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, is such a beautiful-looking film that its images likens that of looking into a memory from a hundred years ago. From the exquisite details of handmade dresses, curious paintings hanging on walls, to the manner in which only natural light is used even when there is no daylight, it offers a transportive experience as the tension boils from underneath a seemingly straightforward plot involving a badly wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) being taken in by a seminary led by Miss Farnworth (Nicole Kidman).

This is not a movie for viewers who expect fast-paced unfolding of the material, but it is exactly for audiences who appreciate details both in what is shown or merely insinuated. It is most concerned with human interactions and flaws: how female characters interact before and after a man is in their living space, what they are willing to do in order to garner the attention of a stranger, how they change themselves just to be regarded a certain way by someone who they do not even know. This is a film about attraction, how blinding it is—not necessarily romantic attraction but that of lust and how the energy around us is transformed by something or someone we want so badly. Although set in the Civil War era, the subject is timeless.

There are solid performances across the board. The females in the seminary vary in age. Notice how each of them has a specific strategy when it comes to getting the attention of the opposite sex. For example, Amy (Oona Laurence), about thirteen or fourteen, uses sweetness and friendship to get on Corporal McBurney’s good side. On the other hand, Alicia (Elle Fanning), about sixteen or seventeen, uses her feminine wiles, her body, her eyes, to lure the attention of a man easily twice her age. And then there is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), possibly in her thirties, who doesn’t even bother to pretend to be anyone else. Meanwhile, Miss Farnsworth’s strategy (Kidman) is apparent disinterest in the man but she reminds everyone, not only the stranger in their midst, that she has the most power in their home. Laurence, Fanning, Dunst, and Kidman approach their characters with curiosity, grace, and, when necessary, danger.

The picture can be criticized for its lack of fluctuation in delivering emotions. Some may call it downright tedious or boring. I believe its rather monotonous look and feeling is done on purpose because these are characters who are essentially dead. Yes, they are alive physically but they have been hidden from society for so long, away from their friends and loved ones, that they could only refer to the life outside as if they would be stuck forever in a never-ending war. Take special notice of the very last shot. These women and children are prisoners by choice. In a way, this is a horror film underneath dramatic layers.

“The Beguiled” is a product of a precise vision and it can be enjoyed with the right mindset. The picture is not about action but inaction. What are these people saying to one another during moments of silence, how they hold their faces down when should be looking up, the discrepancies between what they choose to express versus what they wish to express? Clearly, the work is, but not exclusively, for deep thinkers.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

As expected by those familiar with writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, the former directing the picture, the film demands its viewers to squint through the fog of allegories and metaphors in order to ascertain what the material is possibly about. Or, perhaps more importantly, what it is saying about ourselves based on the deformed reflection of its characters, how they are treated, what ends up happening to them. For what it’s worth, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” may be frustrating to sit through at times, but I admired that it assumes the audiences are learned, cultured, and curious rather than ignorant, stupid, or incapable like numerous generic and unambitious works lean toward.

Those without or having only a limited knowledge of Greek mythology need not be dissuaded from taking a peek into the strange world offered here. Because despite the detached photography, cold interactions amongst characters, and schizoid manner of delivering lines of dialogue, there are enough pieces presented so that a casual viewer may get a feel of what the story is about. In my case, I thought it was about a man who has failed to take a moral responsibility in his career. And due to this failure, one he thought he got away with, it is demanded again that he take responsibility… but this time his home life becomes involved. Will he take responsibility now?

Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman play Steven and Anna, a cardiothoracic surgeon and ophthalmologist, respectively. It is interesting that while other works demand that the married couple evoke chemistry, it is the complete opposite here. They must not fit due to the bizarre language, both spoken and non-spoken, and the off-key rhythm of the material. It is almost as if we must feel as though the spouses are forced together in their palatial home filled with luxurious but empty decorations. Farrell and Kidman share no romantic chemistry and it is most appropriate. Notice when their characters are supposed to be at their most passionate. There are instances when when the fighting or having sex comes across as somewhat comedic, ludicrous. Strong emotions are expressed with a certain flatness.

There is a breakout performer in this strange but intriguing passion project and that is Barry Keoghan who plays Martin, the sixteen-year-old whose father had died on Steven’s operating table. Less perceptive performers might have played the character as overtly menacing. Keoghan decides to go on the opposite direction and downplays it. His seemingly innocuous physicality oozes an implied threat, a recurring pestilence. The rage of this character is found in those unforgiving eyes as he stares down the person that he believes to be at fault for him no longer having a father.

Drenched in idiosyncrasies, it goes without saying that “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is for select audiences only. In nearly every scene, there is an eccentric detail worth noticing. For instance, during Martin and Steven’s early interactions, it appears as though they are connecting because they are able to talk about the superficial details of their lives. But notice where the camera is placed. It is capturing the back of their heads. Or it is looking up at them from a lower angle, a technique often utilized in horror films before a jump scare. Those who choose to dive into this work should be open and prepared to take notice of details like these for an enriched experience. Do not bother otherwise.

Secret in Their Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the masterful film “El secreto de sus ojos” by Juan José Campanella, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the execution of plot, pacing, and tone, but it is anchored—somewhat—by three highly watchable performances. If one had already seen the modern-classic Argentine thriller, there is not much to see or learn here.

The crime-drama revolves around a murdered teenager whose rapist and killer (Joe Cole) goes free after high-ranking men in the FBI determine that he is too valuable an asset, a snitch, within a potential terrorist group—despite the fact that the deceased was the daughter of one of their very own investigators, Agent Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts). Cobb’s partner, Agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), demands that justice be served and so every day for next thirteen years, he devotes himself to looking through endless records with the hope of finding the whereabouts of the killer who had been set free.

The screenplay is not sharply written and so the movement between past and present comes across as jarring, careless. It merely relies on the characters’ different hairstyles and graying hair so audience can discern which timeline is up on screen. Many viewers are likely to end up confused. Such a superficial approach is frustrating especially since the material pretends to be more intelligent or compelling than it actually is. A more subtle picture would have chosen to show how experience hardened the characters over physical characteristics that come across as silly and fake in the first place.

Tension is absent during Kasten’s investigation. There is a scene where Kasten and a fellow cop (Dean Norris, severely underused) sneak into the home of a potential suspect. The failure of the scene is due to the filmmakers not taking the time to get us to feel nervous for the cops for doing something that could potentially destroy their case. The camera moves quickly. Cuts are generously employed. Moving the camera slowly and having minimal cuts would have made all the difference.

It goes to show that the writer-director, Billy Ray, does not thoroughly understand his film’s direct inspiration. “El secreto de sus ojos” is about perspectives. The plot involves a murder, a fierce investigation, and the passions of those people involved. But these elements are not what that picture is about.

The Argentine film plays with perspective as it uses characters like chess pieces. As we observe the chess pieces make their intelligent, risky, nail-biting moves across the board—with each piece always having something interesting or compelling to say or do—we lose track of the possibility that we, too, are getting played. That key understanding separates a great film, one that will stand the test of time, from a project that is mediocre at best.

Still, Ejiofor, Kidman, and Roberts try to do the best they can with the material. Although Ejiofor and Kidman do not share much chemistry, which is a significant problem because their supposedly complex relationship is the heart of the material, at least each of the three gets at least one specific moment to shine. Out of the trio, Roberts is the strongest, particularly during scenes when she must balance a mother’s sorrow and rage alongside a cop’s disappointment of the system that gets more than one chance but consistently fails to provide her daughter justice.


Strangerland (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Strangerland,” written by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres, is one that can easily be labeled as boring, slow, a drag, and a waste of time. That, too, was my impression until about halfway through when I began to recognize its creeping power. Although not at all a successful piece of work—certainly not one that will be remembered years from now—I came to admire the writers’ courage to not give us all the answers. I could not stop thinking about the movie long after it was over—which is a sign that, although somewhat of an experience to be endured, it is probably worth seeing at least once.

Catherine (Nicole Kidman) oversleeps and notices that her two children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), are neither in their beds nor inside the house. There is news that a dust storm is predicted to go through the Australian small town, and Catherine feels that something is very wrong. When she gives a call to her pharmacist husband (Joseph Fiennes), her concerns are dismissed almost immediately. Matthew neglects to tell her wife that the night before, he saw his children sneaking out of the house. Something tells him they have not returned since.

Director Kim Farrant makes a few fresh but frustrating choices in terms of storytelling. Instead of going for the melodrama, she turns the focus toward the bizarre in order to excavate secrets shared only between spouses as well as secrets that are so damaging and horrifying, they are best hidden deep in the subconscious. As a result, we observe scenes that depict extreme behaviors. Since very thin context is provided, we scratch our heads when it comes to figuring out what the filmmakers hope to communicate.

There is a lot of talk around town about the whereabouts of the minors. Some claim that there is a mythical Rainbow Serpent roaming the land and the two have become its prisoners. There is talk involving the land being cursed, that children just tend to go missing once in a while. People at the grocery store are convinced that it is a case of an alien abduction. Supposedly, aliens are able to land their spacecrafts just outside of town because the land there is empty and vast.

Some gossip point to the parents. Maybe they killed their own children and are only pretending to be distraught. Others say Lily and Tommy probably ran away and are now lost in the desert. Meanwhile, a cop (Hugo Weaving) tries his best to get to the bottom of the mystery without getting involved too personally.

Although there are plenty of holes in the plot, I loved certain details that ring true. Here, it is shown clearly that people are still capable of cruelty despite knowing that you and your family are going through a difficult time. For instance, the teenagers who know Lily crudely tell Catherine that her daughter is essentially a whore—a willing hole to be used by the boys in a nearby storage container located only a few steps from the skate park.

“Strangerland” is not a fulfilling film because it leaves a lot of questions—basic questions—left unanswered. Halfway through, I let go and learned to appreciate each scene as it is. That is, an exercise in technical proficiency, from the framing of the performers’ faces to the beautiful shots framing the simple lifestyles of the residents. Perhaps not getting all of the answers is the point. Catherine and Matthew, whose marriage is in a state of deterioration where a possible reason is only implied, certainly do not get closure. There are films where audiences are meant to bathe in the bleakness.

The Paperboy

The Paperboy (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

The summer of ’69 is a turning point in the life of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) because it is the season he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-year-old woman who has fallen in love with a man on death row. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged for killing a cop but there might be something more to the story. Ward (Matthew McConaughey), Jack’s brother, and Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward’s co-worker in the Miami Times, pay a visit to Moat County, Florida to investigate and possibly expose a potential crack in the justice system.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Peter Dexter, “The Paperboy” is to be admired on one level because it does tell a straight story. Yes, it is about two investigative reporters—one driven by idealism and the other by ambition—but it is not just about the truth. Perhaps more importantly, it is about characters so blinded by what they wish to attain that they fail to acknowledge the dangers or evils that are staring directly at them.

It is compelling to sit through at times. Two characters stand out. First is Ward, a man who loves his brother but is hiding a private shame. As the story unfolds, it becomes more difficult to keep it covered. In one of the most memorable scenes, in execution and content, we are tested how much we care about him. One might flinch at the scene or one may feel compelled to look away, but it is near impossible to not ask any questions.

The sudden burst of violence is not put on the screen for mere shock value. It builds and stirs until something must give out. McConaughey exhibits great control. The camera has a penchant for close-ups—for better or worse—and so just about every time it focuses on his face, we are left wondering where his character is looking, how he is looking at something or someone, and what he is thinking exactly. However, many of the other performers cannot communicate with just the eyes and so the close-ups end up distracting at times.

The second standout is Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s housekeeper. She gives the picture a layer of humor and heart. Anita’s interactions with Jack are meaningful—much warmer than Jack’s interactions with his father and the woman he is dating. Given that Jack’s mother had abandoned him, Anita recognizes the pain and suffering in the boy—not always outwardly present but there nonetheless—and so she treats him like a friend. Sometimes Jack takes this for granted. But Anita understands.

The picture is driven by an important subplot that is often swept under the rug—a critical miscalculation. Although there are many scenes where Ward and Yardley talk about the case and a few where the convict is interviewed, there are not enough details as to how the investigators manage to connect the dots. In a way, the screenplay must function as a procedural so that the case makes perfect sense. Thus, when the disorder that unfolds during the final quarter is presented, our expectations are swept away.

Instead, we get scenes involving Jack being sexually attracted Charlotte. Although Efron and Kidman are game for the ridiculous things their characters say and do, it all feels like a performance. In other words, when they are on screen together, most of the time I felt taken out of the sweltering heat of that small town. I was too aware that I was watching actors rather than complex characters who happen to be caught up in something they do not completely understand. Less scenes of Jack and Charlotte and more scenes of Ward and his partner might have produced a better movie.

Directed by Lee Daniels, “The Paperboy” is not as trashy as many people build it up to be. These are likely to be the very same people who have not had much experience with foreign or independent movies. It is trashy to an extent but there is a story here worth telling. The level of focus in terms of which story is best explored is where it falls short.

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After the death of a patient, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks around New York City and enters a jazz club where one of his former classmates, who dropped out of medical school, is supposed to play the piano. Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) tells Bill that he has another gig later that night—one that is particularly strange because he is required to play blindfolded. In addition, the event’s location is held at a different place every time and he is told only an hour prior where it will take place. Piqued with curiosity, Bill insists that he goes with Nick to the party but, clearly, it is not open to guests. One needs to provide the password at the gate and the attendee to be costumed and masked.

“Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final work, is a film that functions on several planes. On one hand, it works as an exploration of marriage and the roles spouses play in order to stay married. On the other, it is a descent into a nightmarish dreamworld which involves a thriving secret society that is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its business hidden. It is a beautiful-looking film from top to bottom, but the aesthetic enhances the experience of us getting to know Bill as a husband and as a man, which at times are mutually exclusive spheres.

What it is not is a simplistic skin flick meant to titillate but offering little substance. The dialogue is rich with passion, guilt, and frustration—particularly memorable is the scene where Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), confesses to her partner of nine years that just a summer ago, she contemplated of having an affair with a young Naval officer. The scene is one that constantly evolves. It begins with a level of sensuality. As the argument heats up, amusing elements are introduced and we are left to wonder whether the space between the lovers will dissolve or grow. It is exciting that it is entirely possible to go either way. Finally, the scene ends with a catharsis and sadness, followed by a phone call that brings terrible news.

Cruise and Kidman’s performances are colorful and engaging. Kidman is particularly entertaining in playing a character who is under the influence, whether it be of one too many alcoholic beverages or marijuana. Though Kidman’s screen time is about a third of her co-star, she hits the nail on the head in every one of them. Notice the way she plays Alice, who is a little bit drunk at a Christmas party, when a man named Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) expresses his interest to take her upstairs to, supposedly, show her some art. What could have been a tacky scene turns into an elegant power play. Admittedly, I wanted to see her commit an act of infidelity. I suspected that she also wanted to but her senses are not yet numb to the ring on her finger.

On the other side of the spectrum, Cruise plays Bill almost stoic most of the time but he is never boring. His curiosity tends to lead to one close call after another, whether it be of getting caught by his wife as he considers being physically intimate with another woman or being physically hurt by members of a secret society after they discover his trespasses. As the picture goes on, we are all the more convinced that he is out of his depth. There is suspense when his hundred dollar bills and the title in front of his name are no longer able to save him from what must happen.

Some argue that the set is never a convincing stand-in for New York City. They miss the point completely. I believe the exterior shots are not meant to look real, just as outer appearances of the characters do not accurately provide a real representation of themselves. The interior shots, on the other hand, are entirely different. These are very detailed—from the paintings on walls, books on shelves, bottles and glasses of wine on tables, to textures of carpets and rugs in every room. We get a sense of how they live, what they like, where their interests lie.

Based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut” challenges the mind and the senses. Some may even find it to be a physical trial due to its running time of two and a half hours. But one thing cannot be denied: A dark artistry is at work here and once one has adapted to its rhythm, one will not want to look away.


Stoker (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

During her father’s burial, India (Mia Wasikowska) sees a man observing their mourning from afar. This turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), believed to have been traveling the world for many years. Charles is very charming and cultured so India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), invites him to stay with them for a while. India does not think this is a good idea given that they know almost nothing about him.

Daubed with a mysterious atmosphere and directed with a keen eye that allows images to come alive, it is a shame that the final quarter of “Stoker” is wimpy and standard. For a movie that is very careful about creating a well-paced build-up of bizarre events, there is something cheap about relying on guns and bloodshed instead of finding another way, one that feels right, to end the story.

The distance between the grieving mother and daughter is just right. Wasikowska and Kidman are nicely cast because they have a tendency of portraying cold personalities with just enough fire to keep their characters interesting. The screenplay does not give their relationship much depth, but there are enough oddities in their interactions that we cannot help but ask questions. Losing the man of the house is difficult for both of them. When Charlie enters the equation, it is almost as if there is a competition among the women.

When it comes to India and Uncle Charlie, about thirty to forty minutes in, I predicted exactly what is going to happen. However, I enjoyed the images enough that I was able to overlook its lack of excitement. I relished how a lamp in the basement moves back and forth when touched, how the camera lingers on the fingers dancing on the piano as the hand guides them to play beautiful melodies, and how images of past and present are placed on top of one another to draw parallels. It is an understated thriller with a taste bud for poetry and lyricism.

The supporting characters are not given enough time on screen in order to make a difference where the story will veer toward. Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) appears to be knowledgeable about the family’s dark history and Auntie Jen (Jacki Weaver) seems to be deathly afraid Charlie. Meanwhile, India’s classmates, cruel Pitts (Lucas Till) and kind Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), enter and exit the picture for the sake of showing the fact that India is not very popular at school. Their scenes could have been taken out completely and it would not have made much difference; we can tell that India is a loner by just looking at the way she dresses and the manner in which she interacts with people closest to her.

In the beginning, India admits through narration that she has an ability of seeing and hearing things that many people tend to overlook. I wished the writer, Wentworth Miller, had been more willing to play with the possibility that there is something paranormal about our protagonist. The house is palatial and prime for an old-fashioned ghost story. In other words, the material lacks the necessary red herrings so that people like myself will be distracted enough that we are inevitably swept up in the fun of its revelations.

Directed by Chan-wook Park, “Stoker” is visually splendid but it lacks a level of danger that many effective mystery-thrillers possess. It remains in a state of muffled restraint for so long that when it is time to conclude the story, it feels like it is simply trying too hard.

Batman Forever

Batman Forever (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

While checking up on Wayne Enterprises’ electronics division, Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) was approached by the nervous Dr. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a brilliant scientist and a longtime fan of the humanitarian, about a project that needed funding. Dr. Nygma wished to put a device in every home in Gotham City which would send beams from the television signal directly to the brain, allowing the viewers to feel like they were inside the program. Bruce detected that the underlying assumption involved mind manipulation so he refused to continue Dr. Nygma’s project. The outraged scientist, eventually turning into The Riddler, promised to get revenge on Bruce for turning down his proposition. Directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” was so cartoonish in just about every respect and yet it might have held up if there was something else behind the glitter, sensuality, and explosions. The events that transpired felt so disconnected from one another. Characters entered and exited scenes which served little point in moving the story forward. For instance, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a psychologist specializing in multiple personality disorders, and Bruce were supposed to discuss the trauma that the latter experienced due to his parents’ death. This was a golden opportunity because up to this point, the audience was offered no in-depth explanation of the tragedy. However, their sessions came off so laughably phony. With every other line uttered, Dr. Meridian outwardly flirted with her patient. Kidman’s decision to sport a sultry bedroom voice made her character appear meretricious when she was supposed to be, first and foremost, smart and knowing. I just hate it when women are supposed to be intellectuals and yet their hair glowed as if they were in a shampoo commercial, their red, puffy lips were always prominent every time the camera focused on their faces, and, if the camera somehow managed to pull back, it was all about the curves and featuring the most desirable angles. I like women exuding raw sexuality but if that is the only factor that the film focuses on about the character when clearly she has something more to offer, it looks completely ridiculous. Worse, it took me out of the experience. On the other hand, I did somewhat enjoy the introduction of Robin (Chris O’Donnell), how he came off as an ungrateful brat after Bruce provided a home for him when he had no one else. O’Donnell and Kilmer shared good chemistry when they argued. However, in terms of offering excellent reasons as to why Batman needed a partner to fight crime, the screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman proved lackluster. The same problem applied as to why The Riddler needed Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) to hunt Batman. The former may not rely on guns but he had the brain in setting up ingenious traps. Meanwhile, Two-Face, formerly known as Harvey Dent, provoked chaos so randomly, he came off like a pest that desperately needed pesticide more than an antagonist with clear motivations. Unlike The Riddler, very little background information was offered about Two-Face. “Batman Forever” occasionally showed a glimmer of interesting material, such as Dr. Nygma’s creepy obsession with Bruce, but it was unfortunate that its priority was on expanding the elements that didn’t work. At least the riddles made me think.


Trespass (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

When their daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato), snuck out to attend a posh teen party, Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Kyle’s (Nicolas Cage) home was invaded by four thugs (Cam Gigandet, Ben Mendelsohn, Dash Mihok, Jordana Spiro). They knew Kyle’s business involved selling diamonds and they hoped that by forcing the husband to open a money vault, they would be that much richer by the end of the night. But Kyle wouldn’t open the depository even if his wife’s life was threatened. Written by Karl Gajdusek and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Trespass” could have been a lot of fun if it hadn’t taken itself too seriously. Once Sarah and Kyle were on the floor, screaming, begging, and arguing for their lives, they weren’t given very much to do. With such a high caliber actors, one would think that the filmmakers would take advantage of it, take some risks, even unnecessary ones, and really challenge its audiences in terms of what was normally expected in home invasion movies. Instead, the film was too safe. Aside from the shot when Sarah realized that one of the men wearing masks was someone she knew, there was no other scene that moved me, good or bad. The rest were just there as I passively watched the formula: the hostages waiting for an opportunity to run, finding a chance to get away for a couple of minutes because the thugs ended up on each other’s throats, and eventually getting caught because the backyard was so big, it was like running a marathon from Point A to Point B. Back to square one, nothing changed. To its credit, the formula wasn’t boring, per se. It was repetitive but I wanted the family to find an escape so badly to the point where I didn’t mind. I just wasn’t as involved as I felt I should have been. The characterization was obvious especially concerning the head of the family: Kyle was like a diamond. Despite the heat and pressure applied by the criminals, he just wouldn’t break. But there was nothing else to his character. Aside from Cage doing his crazy yelling in an outstanding (and borderline comical) manner, his character wasn’t very interesting. He was smart and sarcastic but he held so many secrets that, by the end, we ended up not really getting to know him. And then there was the criminals’ laughable decision to bring a druggie, Petal, the only woman in their group, as a helping hand. I thought it was unintentionally funny. She pranced around the house wearing other people’s clothes, admiring shoes, jewelry, purses and taking drugs. When she wasn’t doing the aforementioned activities, she went downstairs to whine about what was taking so long and wanting to slap around Sarah out of jealousy. It was like bringing an already ticking bomb to a supposedly controlled situation. For a group who went out of their way to gather so much information about Kyle and his family, stringing a loose cannon along just didn’t feel right. With all the things that happened, “Trespass” probably would have worked as a farce or a satire instead of a straight-faced suspense picture if the writing had been exaggerated and ironic. Since it settled with typicalities, it ended up blending in a haystack of mediocrity.

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, “Rabbit Hole” was about a couple named Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) whose son had passed away eight months ago. The two had vastly different ways of coping which caused tension between them. Becca tried to get rid of their son’s belongings while Howie desperately tried to hang onto his son’s memory by watching a video on his cell phone. Further, Becca found comfort in reconnecting with the teenager (Miles Teller) who ran over their son and Howie found common ground with another woman (Sandra Oh) who lost her son eight years ago. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” was a gut-wrenching look at a couple about to pass a critical point in their grief which could go one of two ways. They could dissolve their marriage from a lack of communication or go through the notions together and find some closure. Many elements were thrown at them and we had a chance to observe their reactions. One of the key conflicts was Becca’s sister being pregnant. On the outside, Becca was seemingly supportive like when she brought over some clothes that used to belong to her son. However, there were times when her bitterness would show and snide remarks about how her sister’s future husband, a musician, might not be fit in being a father due to financial stability. Becca didn’t want to hurt others but she did small ways because she didn’t know how to deal with her anger and guilt. Mitchell took some risks that paid off. The general tone was depressing but there were some scenes that I thought were laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) talked about kicking someone out of her house. The sense of humor did not feel out of place or inappropriate because these characters deserved some happiness in their lives. More importantly, the rapid changes in tone felt right because when someone is dealing with a great loss, various emotions, empty they may be, are amplified, sometimes reaching certain extremes. The plot may be familiar but it still managed to surprise me with its insight. I loved the scene when Becca’s mother explained to her daughter that moving on from grief was like carrying a brick in one’s pocket. When a person finally moves on, she forgets that it’s there but there comes a time when she will reach into her pocket for whatever reason and she’s reminded that it’s there. Wiest did not have very many scenes but she made the best of what she was given. Even though her character remained on the sideline, I felt like she, too, had an important story to tell. “Rabbit Hole” was emotionally exhausting but a strong picture nonetheless. It showcased why Kidman is an actor who should not be forgotten. There’s a lot of shallow talk about her face and what she did to it. I don’t care about such sensationalisms as long as she continues to make moving films like this one. The rabbit hole could be interpreted as a metaphor for depression but let’s not forget that Alice woke up from her nightmare and moved on.