Tag: richard jenkins

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those with a penchant for strange love stories, especially the dark fairytale kind, will surely gravitate toward “The Shape of Water,” a pensive and melancholy look into the lives lonely and yearning individuals during the Cold War. It can be argued that perhaps the most interesting element of the film is that it works as a gargantuan metaphor for our basic need as a species to be loved and accepted, whether that someone be an ordinary citizen who just so happens to be a mute to a curiosity that is so exotic that the foreigner is considered an entirely different creature altogether. In a way, the work is a celebration of so-called freaks of society for they find a way to rise to the challenge and pave the way for the future.

Equally interesting is the structure of the picture. Unlike ordinary fantastic love stories, director Guillermo del Toro chooses for his project to have an extended exposition to the point where it takes up nearly half of the film’s running time. While this approach is certain to challenge viewers, especially those who crave unsubtle action right away, I found that this communicates the fact that the veteran filmmaker has a special confidence in the material. Unconcerned about time pressures or following expected beats and rhythms, del Toro ensures that we understand our heroine named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a night janitor in a research center housing a humanoid amphibian to be used as a model for a weapon against the Russians, before any semblance of romance takes center stage.

Hawkins plays the mute character with such grace. It is easy to dismiss a performance when the actor does not say a word, but those who take the time to look closely and examine the intricacies of how she expresses a range of emotions will be rewarded. My advice: Occasionally ignore the yellow subtitles altogether. Instead, focus on her face, those eyes, the tension on her hands and fingers, how she holds her arms just so, and how she uses her mouth to expresses how she feels, what she thinks, and what wants to accomplish. A point can be made that it is more difficult to create a believable character, and keep her interesting, when one cannot vocalize.

Director of photography Dan Laustsen creates such a unique-looking world that it is almost like into a gem. Notice how hues of blue and green pervade the screen, not just in the laboratory where the tortured creature (Doug Jones) is kept but also the outdoors of rain-soaked streets, the gloomy apartments of singles who dream of an alternate life where they partnered, loved unconditionally. Partnered with del Toro’s direction, Laustsen’s cinematography, despite blues and greens usually pointing toward cold sentiments, can also communicate warmth, hope, and home. The penultimate and final scenes support this observation.

Despite the film having a running time of two hours, I found that this is not long enough. I wished to know more about the co-worker (Octavia Spencer) who always looks out for Elisa, the romantic struggles of Elisa’s aging homosexual neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and the villainous man (Michael Shannon) who caught the amphibian. While we do get one or two scenes that depict these characters’ personal lives, they come across rather episodic. Yet despite this shortcoming, “The Shape of Water” is absolutely worth a look-see.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.

The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.

Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.

It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.

And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.

But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.

Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

An interesting hybrid of western and horror, “Bone Tomahawk” is a work that requires a whole lot of patience, a pinch of rumination, and a healthy dose appreciation for the small but calculated elements dispersed throughout its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. Those craving for a film that is willing and unafraid to take risks are likely to welcome what it offers.

Notice how it takes its time. It is almost an hour into the picture when the plot is finally propelled to the forward direction and so for a while it makes us wonder where the story is supposed to go. We are given possibilities. Because the picture is a western, we expect a typical clash between the Indians and the white men. Instead, the material consistently strives to deliver more than what is expected. In some ways, it reminded me of a classic literature—the manner in which writer-director S. Craig Zahler lays the foundation so meticulously that payoffs are highly likely to prove fruitful. (And they do.)

The plot involves a rescue mission spearheaded by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). He is accompanied by a “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins), an educated man (Matthew Fox), a cripple (Patrick Wilson) whose wife is abducted. But the journey is not what the film is about. It is about the discovery of who these men are while facing their mortality. We learn of their pasts, their fears, their hopes, who they loved, and what they wish to accomplish once the rescue is over. Not all of them will see the end of the rescue.

The dialogue has color. Although a western and the words uttered are western-like, the attitude and the flavor of the various deliveries command a certain ironic-lite anachronism. Comedic exchanges tend to sprout out of nowhere and they are even bittersweet at times. It almost gives the impression that these men are aware, or have accepted the possibility, that they are walking toward certain death. Are they driven by revenge, honor, duty, curiosity? As the travelers push themselves to exhaustion, they open up, and eventually we are able to gauge their sense of morality and hypothesize what really made them choose to partake in this rescue mission. Perhaps they feel a need to rescue themselves.

Beautifully shot and well-acted, one can make a case that “Bone Tomahawk” is a case study of the male ego and what is expected of masculinity. Note that the women characters stay in the home, they are healers—even the female cave dwellers are blinded, crippled, their main function to get impregnated and deliver new life successfully. Most importantly, however, the film is an entertaining, highly watchable experiment that delivers potent thrills.

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a freelance journalist and novelist, is hired by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to work for a local newspaper in 1960 Puerto Rico. Paul wishes to get away from New York so even though he is not exactly happy that he has been assigned to write daily horoscopes and banal stories about bowling alleys, he takes comfort in holding down a job. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a real-estate developer with a beautiful fiancée, Chenault (Amber Heard), introduces himself to alcohol-addicted Kemp. Aware of Kemp’s gift with words, Sanderson hopes to use the writer to help support his business partners’ dubious plans.

“The Rum Diary,” directed by Bruce Robinson, sweeps important issues like alcoholism, ethics of journalism, and political/racial tension under the rug in order to make room for would-be funny trivialities like Kemp experimenting with drugs with the newspaper photographer (Michael Rispoli), getting in trouble with the locals due to classic American hubris, and visiting a hermaphrodite witch.

The material is not at all entertaining, despite the so-called misadventures, because it does not bother to juggle action and reaction. Kemp, despite being a hardcore alcoholic, is miraculously able to function and proudly stand up for his ideals in a clear and rational way. By the end, it seems like the lesson that the movie wants to impart is that adventure is a product of alcoholism—a message so off-putting, it left a bitter aftertaste on my palate.

Would it have been too much to ask for the filmmakers to have given us an ounce of realism or a pinch of genuine human drama as a trampoline for comedic situations as to not insult our intelligence and time? I chuckled once or twice because of brilliantly delivered lines by Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), the newspaper’s writer who covers stories about religion. His obsession with drugs and Hitler as well as his rivalry against his boss, Lotterman, are the highlights of an otherwise lifeless film.

The rest of the time, however, I was disappointed by the material’s innate stupidity. For instance, after Kemp drowns himself in alcohol the night before, the picture shows him with a hangover the next morning for about one or two scenes: bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, his stomach urging to gag. So far so good. But by the third scene, Kemp looks perfectly normal, sober, not a trace of evidence that his health—forget the hangover—is on a downward spiral. Look, many of us have had nights where our friends had been a little too generous taking shots. Morning is hell: very rarely do they get over the nausea, dehydration, and other symptoms that come with the condition in under one hour. As a result, when the screenplay makes incredible jumps as such, we no longer see the character; we see Depp acting and we are completely taken out of the picture.

Furthermore, since the material lacks focus and a proper dosage of realism, when it takes very serious turns, the human drama does not feel earned. I did not care about Kemp being regretful of his failed career, his wanting to expose Sanderson’s shady business, and his tricky romance with Chenault. I just wished it would end so I could do something better with my time.

Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” is chock full of badly executed ideas, slothful pacing, and careless editing that causes confusion. Just because the main character is an unapologetic drunk it does not mean that the work should not have had an ounce of clarity.

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

A man known as the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) hires two ex-convicts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to knock over a card game. The Squirrel thinks it is a smart move because there is a natural scapegoat: Given that its manager, Markie (Ray Liotta), has a history of admittedly robbing his own in the past (and allowed to get away with it), if it so happens to occur again, the mafia would surely look at him. With the money stolen combined with angry men who want the heads of those responsible, Jackie (Brad Pitt) is hired to figure out the identities of the brazen thieves and set things right.

“Killing Them Softly,” based on a novel by George V. Higgins, involves a lot of tough-looking men in suits sorting through their feelings so expectations that it is an action-filled thriller should be adjusted. It is a gangster film that adopts a more introspective approach but is nonetheless suspenseful in its own silent, slithery way.

Its individual scenes possess a central ember that crackles once in a while. An early scene involving the robbery of interest is executed with a high level of control. Almost every movement that Frankie and Russell make is accompanied by an equal sudden burst of energy by the camera. It is like dance and we are engaged by expecting that something very, very wrong will soon occur. We can imagine what the men that the sawed off shotguns are pointing to might be thinking. We pay close attention where their hands go as they continue to stare into the souls of the increasingly nervous duo.

Conversely, scenes without a gun in sight are equally compelling. The exchanges between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), an attaché for the mafia, are amusing at times because even though both have an understanding of the business, there is a soft tug-of-war in terms of what they want out of the situation. Although they do not share very many scenes, we get a real sense of their personalities. They are smart and they have their own way of getting exactly what they need to move forward. I thought that if this job had not been between them, they would have been very good friends.

The weakest points of the film are the moments of violence where not much is left for the imagination. The slow motion is most frustrating. I suppose it makes the killings and beatings look beautiful in a monstrous kind of way, but it decreases the urgency as well as tension of the situation. Take the character being shot down in a car. If it had happened so instantaneously to the point where we barely had time to absorb what had just transpired, we would have been shaken. Instead, we wait for the scene to unspool which feels like molasses being transferred from one jar another another. We get it; the character is dead due to the bullet holes through his head and body. The visuals beat us over the head with unnecessary details. Sometimes less is more.

Directed and based on the screenplay by Andrew Dominik, “Killing Them Softly” is anchored by believable performances. McNairy stands out especially during his scene with Pitt in a bar. There is a sad and quiet surrender in the way he plays Frankie as his character slowly realizes that there is a big possibility that the man to his right will not allow him to live for very long. The picture succeeds in communicating the conundrums in the minds of men about to do or did bad things. Like men who steal are asked to pay the price so do men who choose to pull the trigger.

Waiting for Forever

Waiting for Forever (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) didn’t have a home. He wandered from place to place, often hitchhiking because he didn’t have a car, because he was set on following Emma Twist (Rachel Bilson), an actress and a childhood friend, like a love-sick puppy. People were often touched of his stories about how much he loved Emma and how he planned on marrying her. The fact was the two haven’t spoken to each other since they were kids. Written by Steve Adams and directed by James Keach, if I could describe “Waiting for Forever” in one word, it would be “misguided.” I wasn’t convinced that it was a love story even though it tried desperately to be one because the sentiments were heavily one-sided. Emma, like myself, was creeped out by Will because his rationalizations involving why they should be together felt completely detached from reality. The screenplay begged us to feel sorry for him instead of identifying with him. His parents died when he was little, his brother (Scott Mechlowicz) looked down on his nomadic lifestyle, and he always wore the same pajamas. I guess he didn’t have any other clothes. His excuse was the pajamas felt comfortable. I found it insulting that the majority of the women melted after hearing Will’s stories. I agreed with the men: Will needed some help, possibly a one-on-one session with a counselor or a psychiatrist. It was difficult to judge him this way because the filmmakers confused child-like and childish. An adult’s child-like quality tends to momentarily sprout from its hiding shell. It happens without a person being aware of it. An adult is childish when he jumps on chairs, tables, and counters just to be “cute.” Will was certainly the latter. Sturridge was partly to blame. He needed to tone down his character’s ticks so we could focus more on his personal struggles instead of how hyper he was or how well he could juggle. The only believable people on screen were Emma’s parents, Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Miranda (Blythe Danner). Richard had terminal illness and Miranda hid her sadness by overcompensating with happiness. There was dramatic weight in the way they interacted with each other. Some words were ugly, some looks were undeserved but I felt like there was history between them. There was a memorable scene in which Miranda finally exploded at the man she no longer thought was the man she married. The way the camera was so close to their aging bodies and the way the purging of emotions was handled, it felt like I was intruding in their very personal moment. I wished the movie had been about them. I liked the last line in the movie because the joke had a punchline. That and the painful experience of constantly wondering why the characters chose to do what they did was finally over.

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.