★★ / ★★★★
Before bearing the stage name Linda Lovelace and starring in Gerard Damiano’s pornographic picture called “Deep Throat,” twenty-one-year-old and somewhat of a prude Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfriend) meets Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) outside a roller skating rink and she is quickly won over by his charm. Soon enough, Linda decides to move out of her parents’ house and gets married to Chuck. When money becomes a problem eventually, Linda’s well-connected husband convinces Damiano to allow her to star in an adult film that will eventually gross over half a billion dollars.
Though “Lovelace,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friendman, is wise to avoid a hyperbolic route in telling Linda’s tragic story, it is limited by an unimpressive screenplay by Andy Bellin. It employs an unnecessarily confusing non-linear approach disguised as so-called complexity, but just about anyone with a discerning eye is likely able to see right through the fog. Why not just tell the story straight?
The first half is not especially strong but it is somewhat engaging because Seyfried’s saucer-like eyes embody a vulnerable, girl-next-door innocence. It is critical what we believe that the lead character is just like any other girl living in suburbia so we feel some sort of impact once we see her thrusted into a world of unblinking cameras and men who think with something else other than their brain. There are times when I wanted to protect and nurture Linda as if she were a wounded bird.
But the pacing is unforgivingly fast in that it fails to allow us to absorb small but important moments. It races to the making of the infamous pornographic movie and slows down significantly. Not allowing us to spend enough time with the important people in Linda’s life before her superstardom is a problem because we have but a tiny understanding, mostly based on assumptions, as to why people are acting the way they do. As a result, for the most part, Linda’s father (Robert Patrick) appears largely absent while her mother (Sharon Stone) comes off vindictive and controlling. Patrick and Stone have one or two good scenes but there is only a thin dimension to their characters as a whole.
It switches gears halfway through by going back to the beginning of Linda and Chuck’s marriage in order to provide an alternative view when it comes to the dynamics of their relationship. This is a miscalculation because there are more than enough clues—some very obvious—that point to an unhappy union. Explaining every detail disrupts the rhythm of the story being told and I found myself questioning when it would eventually move forward.
I wanted to see more interactions between Seyfried and Juno Temple, the latter playing Linda’s best friend named Patsy. I suspected a lot of their scenes did not make it through the editing room because some of the scenes that did make it onto the final cut hint at a possible arc. For instance, in the first half, Patsy is almost reckless in pushing Linda try to new things. In the latter half, she actually hopes that her friend will take the time and consider her options.
It is most unfortunate that the material’s priorities are, for the most part, misplaced. A person’s story is best told through subtleties so that the audience can appreciate what makes his or her trials special enough to warrant being put into celluloid. Though “Lovelace” has good performances all around, the screenplay is simply not ready to dig through hidden depths.
Night Moves (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Director Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Movies” should have been called “It Drags” instead because sitting through it is like an unending torture, a bore down to its bone marrow. It tells the story of three environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who decide to blow up a dam. When news circulate the following morning that a camper has gone missing since the night of the terrorism, guilt and paranoia begin to take control.
An understated realistic drama does not equal boring. It is the opposite: great movies that fall under this category are engaging because the characters are smart, the script offers no easy solution, and the direction demands the viewers to pay attention very closely because at times someone else’s plight may reflect a version of our own.
The film seems to pride itself through maintaining a level of detachment. The problem is, its subjects, environmentalists who are not above employing violence to get what they want, are already figures that are inaccessible. Instead of opening them up—what they think, why they come to think a certain way, how they plan to go about executing the changes they wish to see in the world—the material keeps us in the mist by utilizing soporific techniques.
It has a penchant for sticking with long takes—even if the scene leads nowhere or fails to offer an important detail about a character or a situation. Worse, the silences are supposed to be thoughtful, I suppose, but the script itself is devoid of insight. Yes, this is one of those movies where it puts close to nothing in and yet expects us to extract a lot from it. I do not know much about eco-terrorists or eco-terrorism other than the repercussions of their actions. By the end, I did not feel like I understood them a little better. The pictures introduces the idea that they are humans, too: capable of fear, guilt, and remorse. But that is too obvious.
The climactic scene is so poorly lit that it forces us squint through the darkness. It takes place at night in the middle of a body of water. It is understandable that the characters decide not to use flashlight in order to avoid getting caught. But it is the director’s responsibility to ensure that the audience are not struggling to watch a critical scene unfolding. Reichardt needed to reshoot the boat scene. Because it is so dark, the climax comes across flat rather than suspenseful. Realism does not equal incompetence.
“Night Moves” will be forgotten five years from now—and it deserves to be. What is shown here is not art in any way, shape, or form but an inexcusable digression aimed to waste everybody’s time. Despite its attempts to come across as “real,” there is no thought or emotion here worth sitting through. I was disgusted by its brazen attempt to tell a dead dull story for almost two hours.
Robot & Frank (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hunter (James Marsden) lives about five hours away from his dad, Frank (Frank Langella), whose dementia is starting to deteriorate at a much faster rate. In order to help him out, the dutiful son buys his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to function as a health care aide. Although Frank meets the gesture with resistance, he warms up to it eventually given the fact that not only does it make things easier for him, it is also proves to be quite a reliable companion. Frank being a former cat burglar, he soon decides to train Robot to pick locks and other requisite skills to pull off successful heists.
Written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by Jake Schreier, while some will be compelled to consider “Robot & Frank” to be a story about a man with dementia, this is misleading because it is actually more about an unusual friendship, if one decides to call it as such, between man and machine. Frank’s gradual and then sudden memory loss is an important tool for us to want to believe in the relationship forged over a period of time.
It is easy to buy into the picture’s reality. The story is set in the near future where robots are found in homes and at work but the machines do not look polished. They look very manmade, angular and blocky, so it is not at all a stretch to imagine that they are creations meant to serve specific purposes. Also, there are no flying cars or wild fashion to catch our attention. So when Frank and Robot interact in public, for instance, we are drawn to them instead of what might be happening on the background.
Langella injects his character with a gruff sense of humor. Despite his character’s age and declining memory, I enjoyed that his personality is as vibrant as someone half his age. By playing him in such a way, the character is not seen as victim of a disease. When he talks about his plans of stealing from a rich yuppie, he look forward to how he and Robot will manage to pull it off and not how it might fail because of the memory problems.
The robot, too, is interesting. At one point, Frank and the machine get into the topic of self-awareness and what it means to be alive. Robot admits to Frank that it knows that it is not alive and so it does not care about, for example, having its memory erased. It is easy to see the limitation in the duo’s relationship. As humans, we value our experiences and our ability to remember them. Machines, on the other hand, remember information because that is the way they are programmed, not because they want to. Machines do not even want. They do as they are instructed via direct commands or patterns.
“Robot & Frank” is not without moments of genuine dramatic heft. While Frank’s interactions with his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), verged on annoying, I wished that there had been more scenes between Frank and the librarian named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) with whom he crushes on. The protagonist’s interactions with the latter have a lot of sweetness even though we suspect that it probably will not work out considering the circumstances. There is a dramatic punch involving the two in the back half, but it would have had more of an impact if we are given a more defined portrait of their relationship. Still, the film is not handicapped by a lack of depth in the romance because it is first and foremost about Robot and Frank.
Green Lantern (2011)
★ / ★★★★
When Hal was young, he witnessed the death of his father due to an aviation accident. Almost twenty years later, we came to discover that Hal (Ryan Reynolds) followed his father’s footsteps and became a successful test pilot. Meanwhile, two entities had been in war for a millennia: a group of warriors known as Green Lantern Corps, powered by will, and Parallax, powered by fear. The latter was quickly gaining the upper hand by literally eating the souls of its enemies. When one of the leaders of the corps, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), made an emergency landing on Earth after being attacked by the evil Parallax, he managed to pass his powers onto unsuspecting Hal. “Green Lantern,” directed by Martin Campbell, was sloppily put together. A myriad strands were introduced but not one achieved an above average level of thought nor a minutiae of common sense, so the film ultimately felt flat. Let’s take the romance between Hal and Carol (Blake Lively) as an example. Supposedly, the two of them had known each other for more than half their lives. I found that very hard to believe. While the two obviously cared for each other, perhaps even on a romantic level, I found it frustrating that they didn’t know how to communicate as adults and as close friends. If you’ve been friends with someone for a very long time, that certain connection, which often defies explanation, should be palpable to a third party. But I never felt that special connection when Hal and Carol were on screen. In fact, the whole thing felt forced. There were a lot of puppy dog eyes and polite smiles, like I was watching some teenage soap opera where characters pretend to be dumb yet they have the nerve to complain about the fact that no one is getting what they want. The screenplay, by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, came off as rather desperate in injecting a human element into the story. I actually would have enjoyed the movie more if Hal and Carol were given the time to sit and talk about their feelings for up to three key scenes and defined their relationship once and for all. Then focus on the action, without the hammy and frivolous will-he-or-won’t-she interruptions, because 1) I wanted to see the war between good and evil and 2) watch things blow up in the city. The decision to put petty romances between action sequences made the project disjointed. As a result, the momentum failed to build and I ended up not caring. Another one of Hal and Carol’s childhood friend was Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), a formerly corpulent boy who preferred to stay indoors and read books rather than to play outside. Eventually, Hector became an agent of evil after being infected by an alien life form. But why was his transformation necessary? Since the writers offered no answer to that question, it was pretty much implied that brainiacs were less than so they deserved to be punished. That wouldn’t have been the case if we had a chance to observe Hector being black-hearted as a child in the first place. “Green Lantern” need not have been too serious nor abound with grand special effects to qualify as a decent superhero movie. It just needed to tell its story with clarity.
Knight and Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
June (Cameron Diaz) bumped into Roy (Tom Cruise) at the airport on the way home for her sister’s wedding unknowing of the fact that he was a spy and fellow government agents (Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis) were after him. Before she knew it, June got caught in the middle of two camps but eventually it seemed like she was more than happy her life made a drastic turn because she finally found excitement, love and adventure. “Knight and Day,” written by Patrick O’Neill and directed by James Mangold, offered nothing new to the action-comedy genre but it felt refreshing because the actors were having fun, the filmmakers were having fun and so the audiences couldn’t help but have fun as well. Comparisons to “Killers,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, could not be helped because the two were released at just about the same time and both pretty much had a similar concept, but “Knight and Day” was lightyears better because it had energy from start to finish. More importantly, it was actually funny. I was glad to see Cruise starring in a film that somewhat spoofed his more serious roles because it showed me that he had a sense of humor. It was also nice to see Diaz being her usual charming sunny self. Her character’s reactions to unbelievable and often dangerous situations amused me in so many ways. In a way, I felt like she was just playing herself and I appreciated that. The movie worked for me even though it did not attempt to have any sort of character development because I was thoroughly engaged. Each passing scene had a higher level of danger and adrenaline from the one before and I was curious about what creative action sequence I would see next. There was a lot to choose from but the three scenes that put a smile on my face were when Cruise informed Diaz that everybody on the plane was dead and it was about to crash but she thought it was all a big joke, the train scene with a lethal assassin who could easily have been taken right from the “Bourne” series and the motorcycle chase in Spain with the bulls. It is definitely easy to judge the movie before seeing it because we are all aware of Cruise’s controversial life. I say give it a chance because “Knight and Day” is a bona fide, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, globetrotting adventure that never runs out of fuel. It’s a good movie to see with the family especially those familiar with Cruise’s golden days.
Education, An (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.