Purge, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
It is 2022 and for twelve hours beginning seven o’clock at night on March 21st, all crime, including murder, is legal. With the exception of ten high-ranking government officials, everyone is free game to be killed. The government allows The Annual Purge because it is believed that this event helps to eliminate people’s rage and frustration which in turn minimizes crime and unemployment rates.
It pays to be rich and to live in a nice neighborhood. If one can afford various defenses and one is away from the violent hotspots, it is likely one will last through the night. The Sandin family, led by James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey), are ready for the yearly overnight lockdown. Zoey (Adelaide Kane) retreats to her room and Charlie (Max Burkholder) stares at the screens which monitor the outside of their home. When a black homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who is covered in blood begs for help, Charlie races to let him in. Soon, a gang of college students (led by Rhys Wakefield, very creepy) approach the front door demanding that the “homeless swine” be handed to them. Failure to do so will force them to break inside and kill everyone.
With such an exciting and original premise, most of us will be inclined to expect a lot from “The Purge,” written and directed by James DeMonaco. While the picture is able to deliver on the level of a home-invasion thriller, it is somewhat disappointing that it is not able to rise above the sub-genre and really hone in on the subject of violence on a societal scope through this one specific family. The latter is important because the film spends a chunk of its exposition showing us the media and the reality of a future that has confused correlation with causation on moral and scientific arenas.
The anticipation is executed in a concrete way. There is a lot of silence between empty conversations, like one that takes place at the dinner table, as the family’s collective fear is swept underneath the carpet rather than discussed head-on. I liked that the screenplay does not spell out everything for us. We can just feel that this family is cold toward another, from the husband and wife being a beat away from wanting to reach out and talk about what is on their minds to the family members being consistently scattered around the house when they ought to be united in purpose and space.
When the lights go out, the slow burn of looking around various rooms and sinister corners is pedestrian at times. While I was in the moment and feeling very concerned for the family’s safety, typical thriller elements eventually pile on top of one another. The more it tries to make us jump out of our seats, the more it wanes in originality. When the third act comes around as guns, machetes, and billiard balls are used to attack, disarm, and kill, it is clear that we are no longer interested in the film’s premise. Instead, the attention is on the entertainment value. I was entertained… but is it right that we should be? One can argue that since the material has focused on and has elevated the rush of violence, it has ended up contradicting its thesis.
“The Purge” is a parable, an interesting one because it holds current relevance, so it must be evaluated on two levels. First, as a film of its genre, a thriller, which I think it succeeds to a degree. It does offer a few heart-pounding sequences. Second, as a film with a message to convey, the level of focus it commands in terms of assessing people’s inherent need for violence and what it means for that yearning to be wrapped in chains for the majority of the year. This is where it is lacking. Perhaps a complete overhaul of the third act might have been a good idea.
Nobody Walks (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Martine (Olivia Thirlby) takes a plane from New York City to Los Angeles to work on adding sound effects for her upcoming black-and-white documentary about bugs. Since she has to work with Peter (John Krasinski) anyway and his family has a pool house that often goes unused, he invites her to stay for the sake of professional convenience. Soon enough, Martine’s presence in the household proves to be unhealthy as she welcomes Peter’s advances and his wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), starts to become suspicious.
Written by Lena Dunham and Ry Russo-Young, “Nobody Walks” strives for an intimate feel but it lacks a central drama that forces its characters to question who they are, what they want for themselves and from each other, as well as how to go on about achieving such wants, and so the screenplay stinks of privilege. Due to poor writing, its subjects are unlikeable without depth to warrant much interest. They make their problems bigger than they should be and we are left wondering when the picture (and the whining) will be over.
The picture is riddled with cutesy scenes, from the flirtatious smiles that Peter sends Martine’s way to Kolt (India Ennega), Peter’s sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, admiring David (Rhys Wakefield), Peter’s mid-twenties assistant. Even more difficult to swallow is the intercutting of Martine’s documentary into real life scenes. It aims to parallel, I guess, the struggles of bugs’ survival and the struggles of mankind’s need to be loved. Although an ambitious thesis, it does not work because the characters’ struggles on screen lack a visceral element for the comparison to be justified. As a person who loves bugs and used to raise all sorts as a kid, I felt insulted for these astonishing and resilient creatures.
The characters most worthy of attention get very little screen time. I liked Leroy (Dylan McDermott), Julie’s ex-husband, because his presence challenged the dynamics of a boring family. Invited over dinner, I enjoyed the way McDermott’s eyes seems to be analyzing whether or not his former wife is happy with her new beau. Leroy makes for an interesting character because he has an agenda. The others sitting around that dinner table appear to be sleepwalking through life. Another presence worth noting is played by Justin Kirk as Julie’s patient. He wishes to be intimate with her and we feel her struggle to resist. As a counselor, of course submitting to her desires would be unprofessional. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want them to test the waters. Kirk and DeWitt share such a wacky chemistry that I wished the picture was mainly about them.
Entropy is an intimate drama’s best friend. Directed by Ry Russo-Young, “Nobody Walks” plays it too safe, mistaking playfulness and tease for transgressions worth blowing up. By the end, we are left with little to no understanding of what makes Martine tick when she is supposed to be the conduit of the would-be life changes in the household. Like a guest that we thought would be fun but turning out to be annoying, we wonder when she’s finally going to leave. And good riddance!
Black Balloon, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The Mollison family (led by Toni Collette and Erik Thomson) was new to the neighborhood. Upon their arrival, neighbors couldn’t help but stare because Charlie (Luke Ford) had autism. One of the kids voiced out what the onlooking adults might be thinking. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) defended his older brother. He initially thought that moving into a new house was an opportunity for him to start anew. He wanted to make friends or maybe even get a girlfriend (Gemma Ward). Just as quickly, he realized that perhaps nothing would change. He was still torn between wanting to lead a life of normalcy and his family’s expectations concerning Charlie’s condition. Written and directed by Elissa Down, “The Black Balloon” had moments of painful honesty but only to be watered down by a typical romance often found in coming-of-age movies. The best scenes were the ones that wanted us to feel uncomfortable. For instance, when Charlie acted out in a supermarket, it was when we had a chance to truly feel Thomas’ resentment toward his brother. Yes, he was embarrassed because of the other customers’ stares and misguided judgments but the point was for us to realize that even though he lived with Charlie, Thomas, like most us, didn’t really understand the mysterious condition that is autism. Another scene that supported Thomas’ lack of understanding was when he tried to teach Charlie to speak “like a normal person.” Unfortunately, just when the film was about to come into its own, the material had focused its attention on Thomas’ attempt at getting a girlfriend. Were we supposed to believe that the only way that Thomas would find happiness was for him to get a girl? It seemed too easy and transparent a solution. For me, since we saw the film through Thomas’ eyes, it should have been about his coming to terms with his brother’s condition, even in the smallest way, and realizing that it was okay for him to sacrifice more than his peers and that life is indeed unfair. Not once did I see him pick a book or ask a question in order to educate himself about how he could further help his brother. He resulted to using force. I was also waiting for the movie to acknowledge that autism had varying degrees of severity. For those who aren’t as knowledgeable about the disorder, I’m afraid they might interpret people with autism as having explosive personalities, cannot function well in society, and that it is uncommon for them to return affection. That isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, I knew that “The Black Balloon” had good intentions. It was at its best when it highlighted people’s prejudice toward people with disorders that we don’t fully understand yet. Like Thomas, it just needed to sort out its priorities.
★ / ★★★★
Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a professional explorer, and his crew (Dan Wylie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Creamer Cain) were in the uncharted Esa’ala Cave to map out the underground river that ran through it. But their exploration turned grim when it began to rain. The cave was located underground so water from the rainforest began to pool inside. With exits blocked by heavy rocks and powerful torrents, Frank, his crew, his son named Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the project financier (Ioan Gruffudd), and his girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) decided that their only hope was to find the exit the led up to the ocean. Inspired by a true story, “Sanctum” might have been better off as a documentary. Instead, it featured melodrama between father and son. Josh felt distant toward his father because Frank was fully invested in his work and didn’t spend enough time at home. When they shared conversations, the topic consisted of cave diving, mountain climbing, and other extreme physical activities. I suppose Josh wanted his father to ask him about his hobbies or if he ever had a girlfriend (or boyfriend). I found it difficult to connect to their relationship when everyone was yelling all the time. Naturally, as the picture progressed, the two found common ground. As for the survival aspect of the film, I liked that the environment looked threatening. Sharp rocks were abound, the flowing water looked like it could easily knock me over, and the claustrophic space when the characters went underwater looked menacing. However, did the characters have to make one bad decision after another? They were supposed to have had experience in extreme situations one way or another, but their mistakes were elementary. Take the financier’s girlfriend for example. Prior to a crucial dive, she was adamant in not wearing a dead woman’s wet suit. She claimed she would rather, in her own words, “be cold and alive than warm and dead.” Her logic did not make sense to me. Someone should have knocked some sense into her and explained that a wet suit could help keep her alive. I just had to laugh at her in the next scene when she got hypothermia. I thought she deserved it for being so stubborn. The picture needed more quiet moments. The score was distracting especially during the underwater sequences. If most of those scenes were silent and all we could here were the bubbles, there would have been genuine, naturalistic tension because we all know how it’s like to hold our breath underwater and the panic that creeps in when our lungs crave oxygen. The filmmakers should have taken advantage of that instead of allowing the music to tell us what to feel. Directed by Alister Grierson, “Sanctum” failed to show us what needed to be experienced. This was best reflected in the scene when Frank and his crew witnessed something that was supposedly astonishing. The camera focused on their expressions the entire time and never allowed us to see the greatness for ourselves.