Tag: patricia clarkson

Delirium


Delirium (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Although psychological horror picture “Delirium” is not entirely intolerable, one gets the impression that it could have been a more potent work had a director with a critical eye for what makes images especially scary or disturbing been at the helm. Director Dennis Iliadis leads the film with emphasis on thrills but he forgets to invest on a convincing, emotional, or perhaps even a humanistic rising action. The execution is pedestrian, clearly made for viewers who must receive a punchline—even if it is weak—every five minutes or so.

In a way, a more classical approach of horror filmmaking—patient, precise, rooted in implications rather than ostentatious displays—is more appropriate given that the story revolves around a former mental patient of twenty years who is required to serve a month of house arrest prior to freedom. But the house is no ordinary house—it is a mansion whose owner had recently committed suicide. Not even a week into his house arrest, Tom (Topher Grace) becomes thoroughly convinced that the house his father left him is haunted.

The mansion’s interior is beautiful, spacious, and each room is well-decorated. Some of them offer a specific theme so moving from scene to scene piques our curiosity. However, once the initial tour is over, the screenplay by Adam Alleca gets mired in presenting one potential delusion after another. The approach is to bombard to audience with visions but these are never scary because the emphasis is on getting big reactions rather than small but lasting ones. If we were to be convinced, too, that the house is haunted, we must feel a sense of foreboding in every room. We must feel there is a history there. Every hallway must emit a sense of danger, uncertainty. It is most unfortunate because the setting is terrific. Like the best haunted house pictures, a strong and specific vision is required to transform a place into a personality.

Questionable characters that Tom interacts with during his house arrest are not written in a smart or memorable way. A potential romantic interest (Genesis Rodriguez) is given a backstory more appropriate for television, the case officer (Patricia Clarkson) tends to make decisions so extreme that we do not believe someone like her exists in real life, and the brother’s (Callan Mulvey) motivation is so conventional that it feels like he is from a completely different picture. Couple these poorly written characters with the question of whether certain interactions are simply a part of Tom’s delusions—these are elements that plague terrible horror films: because just about anything can happen, anything can be real or not real, investing in the material proves difficult. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we cannot help but wonder if we are being duped.

The saving grace, pardon the pun, is Grace who appears to give it his all in order to create a character we should care about. An underrated performer, Grace excels when the camera simply rests on his face and his eyes are left to tell a story. But notice a pattern: As Tom explores creepy closets with one-way mirrors and comes across hidden rooms, the film is quick to introduce deafening noises rather than taking it slow, presenting us, teasing us with Tom’s range of bewilderment. Clearly, creating a high level of suspense is not the film’s strength. At times I felt it is rather uninterested in suspense, strange and off-putting for a horror film.

Learning to Drive


Learning to Drive (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Patricia Clarkson has an uncanny way of making you look at her whole being when she is on screen, a very necessary quality, one that elevates “Learning to Drive,” written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by Isabel Coixet, because, although a comedy, the picture is, in its purest form, a humanistic story. It revolves around two people, one a book critic named Wendy going through divorce and the other a driving instructor named Darwan (Ben Kingsley) who moonlights as a cab driver.

Clarkson’s character, in more than a handful of ways, is unlikable, understandable why her soon-to-be-ex-husband (Jake Weber) wants a divorce, but the performer’s magic comes in the form of making us want to know more about Wendy despite her temper tantrums. We get the impression that somewhere deep inside this privileged New Yorker is a person worth getting to know deeply, perhaps even relate with. Like all great actors, Clarkson has mastered the use of her eyes by means of communicating without words. Some of the most poignant scenes involve silence.

Wendy wishing to learn how to drive is an obvious symbolism but the material offers many layers to her sudden interest in getting behind the wheel. Although being able to drive means a way of becoming more independent, the picture makes the point that it will help her to move forward from her upcoming divorce. Furthermore, being able to drive requires control. Wendy, although a fully grown, successful woman, is clearly not in control of her life at this time. If she were, one could argue, she wouldn’t react so emotionally to every little annoyance or unexpected turn of events. Take notice of her acting like a child when she does not get exactly what she wants.

The picture is not without shortcomings. I winced during its moments of sitcom-like dialogue, particularly scenes that show Wendy and her friend. I was at a loss as to why the writer felt the need to have scenes that clearly pokes fun of a specific kind of woman when it is apparent that such is not the film’s forte. On the contrary, the film makes a point about trying to understand people whom we would otherwise judge based on how they looked or acted. These television-level quality of writing in these scenes stand out like a sore thumb.

There are a few editing choices that distract. Most frustrating are moments when it is best to observe Wendy undergoing an uncomfortable exchange or situation without interruption. Keep that camera as still as possible to create an impression of objectivity. Instead, various cuts are employed to show the protagonist’s face from different angles—executed so awkwardly, at some point I lost focus while paying attention to the dialogue.

And yet despite these limitations, “Learning to Drive” is absolutely worth seeing. It will likely appeal to those who enjoy simply listening to people speak. I found Wendy and Darwan’s connection as passionate, intelligent, mature, and human. They did not expect that their commonalities transcend seemingly important things like the color of one’s skin, gender, economic background, culture, where one lives in New York. The film creates a tender but realistic human portrait.

The Woods


The Woods (2006)
★ / ★★★★

Heather (Agnes Bruckner) almost sets her family’s house on fire so her mother (Emma Campbell) and father (Bruce Campbell) send her to an isolated all-girls boarding school. Upon Heather’s arrival, the headmistress, soft-spoken Mrs. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), gives her an aptitude test that consists of mysterious symbols for a potential scholarship. Mrs. Traverse is impressed because Heather passes with flying colors. During Heather’s stay, girls start to disappear. There is rumor going around that the missing students have been killed in the woods.

Written by David Ross and directed by Lucky McKee, “The Woods” might have been an interesting story about a girl’s discovery that she has a natural ability to perform witchcraft if the technical aspects are less scattered and more controlled. For a horror movie about a school located right next to a creepy forest with a lot of strange history, it just isn’t scary.

Perhaps the problem is that the filmmakers do not bother to establish a more sinister mood. The teachers are weird and mean but we do not even know their names. What do they teach? I had no idea. We know they are teachers because they are taller (and older) than everyone else and they keep secrets because of the way they give each other knowing looks. The place itself harbors no tension. I always felt like I was watching actors acting on set.

The characters need not and should not remind us constantly that the place is evil. Assuming that every piece manages to fall into its rightful place, the audience should feel it for themselves. There are several scenes where Heather becomes highly emotional because she misses home, is bullied by a blonde girl (Rachel Nichols), calling her names like “fire-crotch,” and has nightmares involving the missing girls. But for what? Instead of allowing us to root for her, she just comes off unstable. She does no smart detective work. When fellow students warn her not to do certain things (and end up dead the next day), she does exactly the opposite. Why is she our protagonist? What makes her special enough to enable us to see the story through her eyes?

The tone toward the end, when Heather’s parents finally come to pick her up, experiences a sudden but welcome shift. Instead of the film desperately holding onto a serious, somber tone that leads nowhere, it allows a bit of humor to seep through. The movie suddenly feels alive. Sure, the tone, as a whole, feels elliptical and almost out of place, but it is better than boring.

With the aid of actors like Campbell, who made a career by starring in horror-comedies, the funny moments feel effortless. I wished the entire picture embraced taking more risks like that. When a script does not have strong underlying messages (it does not bother establishing parallels, let alone nuance, between puberty and witchcraft), being playful with other aspects like our expectations of the characters or the genre can make up for it. In the end, the film is just a silly romp in the woods where you desperately want to be scared but there is actually nothing out there but the wind and some dry leaves.

One Day


One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★

On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.

Friends with Benefits


Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.

Whatever Works


Whatever Works (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Boris (Larry David) was a cynical man. He was smart but he was lightyears from charming. He was a man without a filter; he took great pride in pointing out the phenomenal idiocy of mankind like their belief in the man in the sky, pretentious art, and the travesty we call modern culture. Nothing surprised him. Beating kids at chess and teasing them about him gave him pleasure. But his eccentric nature hit a detour when he met a Southern girl named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). It was her first week in New York City so she had nowhere to go. To our surprise, he allowed her to stay in his apartment until she found a job. Despite what he considered to be her utter lack of intelligence, often calling her an “inchworm,” he began to like her the more they spent time with each other. Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” consisted of some good performances but it failed to resonate with me emotionally due to its lack of focus on the lead character. I enjoyed the film when it was only Boris and Melody in one room. It was like watching a man with anger issues fire in a shooting range: Boris was the shooter and Melody was the target. As Boris complained about humanity and the like, Melody just absorbed each verbal bullet. I loved her because she was sunny and words didn’t get her down like most people. She knew that Boris’ verbal diarrhea was therapeutic for him and, for her, it was an opportunity to learn something different, something so far from the beliefs she was raised in. They were good for each other even if it was just for a while. But when Melody’s mother (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), Marietta, knocked on their door, it was a downhill race to the finish line because the story was no longer about Boris and his wild temperament. It became about Marietta’s evolution as an artist, her ménage à trois with our protagonist’s friends, and her desperate attempt to pluck her daughter out of Boris’ life and set her up with an actor named Randy (Henry Cavill). Another unnecessary piece of the puzzle was John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody’s father, and his mission to win back Marietta’s heart. Boris hated clichés and this film ended up exactly that. I kept waiting for the director to pull something different out of the bag but he didn’t. Excitement came as far as Boris talking directly to the camera to acknowledge his audience, to discuss the concepts of entropy and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Only about a quarter of the material was funny. The rest of the time I spent wondering why Boris was constantly yelling. We didn’t know much about his background, other than he was once considered to be awarded a Nobel Prize, so why was he such an angry, hypochondriac misfit who saw himself as better than everyone else? “Whatever Works” was an appropriate title because it was mishmash of third-rate material from Allen’s other projects.

Cairo Time


Cairo Time (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) decided to visit Egypt because she wanted to spend time with her husband who worked for the United Nations. Her expectations involved her husband picking her up from the airport, heading to the hotel, and maybe seeing some unique tourist attractions. But her visit was far from what she expected. Instead, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a coffee shop owner and a friend of her husband, picked her up from the airport because Mark had been delayed in Gaza. The more time Juliette and Tareq spent together, they noticed that there was romantic interest simmering between them. “Cairo Time,” written and directed by Ruba Nadda, was a mature romantic picture that exuded intelligence and insight in just about every scene. It showed that less really was more. The excitement was in the conversations between Juliette and Tareq as they talked about their own lives. Juliette mostly talked about her kids, the time she had on her hands and the freedom she felt now that they no longer lived at home, her career as a writer for a magazine called “Vous,” and the social issues she believed in. On the other hand, Tareq talked about his business and a former lover (Amina Annabi) whose daughter was about to get married. From the moment they met, we immediately felt a possible romantic tension between them because, despite the vast difference between their cultures, they shared excellent chemistry. The way they looked at each other, even if the look lasted for only a millisecond, communicated more than a hundred words. Clarkson was divine. Since she was in every scene, she had to deliver something special in order to successfully keep our interest. I couldn’t help but smile when she would flirt as she talked on the telephone, the way she held herself when someone was being rude or failing to respect her personal space, and her attempt to immerse herself in Egyptian culture. She didn’t have to be edgy to be interesting. Her character’s ordinariness and maturity was enough to make me want to get to know her. The director made a smart choice to showcase the characters first instead of the stunning landscapes especially during the trips to the desert. Despite normally attention-grabbing wide angle shots, twice I caught my eyes transfixed on Clarkson first and then I noticed the breathtaking backdrop. I thought that was a testament in terms of how invested I was in Juliette’s journey in realizing that maybe she didn’t end up with the right person. When her husband (Tom McCamus) finally made an appearance, like Juliette, I felt as though Egypt’s magic and romance was sucked by a vacuum. The car ride toward the pyramids was gut-wrenching in a subdued way. Like our protagonist, it inspired us to think about the many choices we made that shaped our lives to the way it currently is.