★★ / ★★★★
Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) have known each other since they were kids. They grew up along the ocean and decided to stay there as adults. They are so close, their sons are also best of friends. However, when Tom (James Frecheville), Roz’ son, catches his mother walking out of the guest room, where Ian (Xavier Samuel), Lil’s son, is staying at the time, with barely any clothes on, the dynamic among mothers and sons are pushed into a sudden shift. Tom and Lil become lovers, too.
“Adore,” based on Doris Lessing’s novella “The Grandmothers,” is actually a nice surprise—though the picture tackles a subject that can be considered taboo, the screenplay by Christopher Hampton treats the situation and the characters very seriously. The question is not so much whether or not the relationships will survive till the end but which person gives more love and is willing to sacrifice more in a friendship. That is something fresh.
I had my reservations. I expected it to be some sort of sexy skin flick where women of a certain age get their way with young men. But it is not like that at all. The only thing that is sexy about it is how gorgeously it is photographed by Christophe Beaucarne. The interiors of the houses are so spacious and modern but lived in at the same time. The exterior shots, especially ones that take place at the beach, look like the best Hawaiian postcards. Just about everything about the cinematography is inviting—even when it goes for the close-ups of the aging Lil and Roz. We wonder what they are thinking. Watts and Wright appear very comfortable in their own skins and I think that is key in playing characters like Lil and Roz.
The weaker links are Samuel and Frecheville. While I did buy their performances during their characters’ late teen years, I found them sort of awkward when they come to a point where they must portray men in their late twenties. They just look so young, so boyish that I was taken out of the gravity of what their characters are supposed to be going through. Perhaps casting actors who look a little older to play teenagers might have been a better decision because the bulk of the meat is in the latter half when repercussions are due.
There is a running joke in the film that Roz and Lil are so close that they are often mistaken for a lesbian couple. While funny on the surface, perhaps there is something to that. The images on screen made me wonder about the book. Are Lil and Roz subconsciously in denial of their sexual attraction to one another? Is being with one another’s son a way to diffuse or channel or resolve their romantic feelings for each other?
Directed by Anne Fontaine, “Adore” leaves us something to think about even though the content is not that relatable. In some instances, it works against itself completely. There were moments when I thought, “Who cares?” All four seem to be living in a suspended fantasy that no one wants to leave—deep down at least. Still, I am giving it a mild recommendation for the leading actress’ performances and beautiful seaside imagery.
Wonder Woman (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, is yet another superhero picture that is over-reliant on CGI and does not offer enough imagination to impress or move the viewer beyond images presented on screen. This is especially inexcusable since the film is over two hours long. What results is a barely passable popcorn entertainment—clearly not a project that will be remembered decades from now and be utilized as a bar to be met for the sub-genre. I find that it possesses a skeletal idea of what it wishes to be, but the execution lacks the necessary inspiration to create first-rate entertainment.
The casting of Gal Gadot is spot-on not only because of her physical beauty. While capable enough of carrying both dramatic and comedic moments, I enjoyed it most when the performer simply stands among a crowd and yet our eyes gravitate toward her. Magnetism is something that a person naturally possesses and Gadot has plenty to spare. She manages to stand out even when computerized special and visual effects invade the screen to the point of overload.
Notice that the best scenes in the picture are moments of levity, whether it be Diana, having been raised on a hidden island, discussing the pleasures of the flesh (and how she read twelve volumes of a book detailing such information) with an American pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who is obviously attracted to her or Diana being forced to try on different articles of clothing so she can fit in with the crowd in London. When the material does not take itself too seriously, and willing to slow down the plot so we can get to know the characters a little more, it is refreshing in ways that other superhero movies are not. This is because the jokes are specific to Diana’s story, where she comes from, and what she hopes to achieve.
Conversely, when the material takes itself too seriously, the tone is dour, uninviting, and at times soporific. All of us have seen war films before and great ones shake us to the bone. The events that transpire here is a bizarre combination of real-life drama and comic book. Clearly, these extremes do not mesh well. A diluted version of reality is thrusted upon our laps and somehow we are supposed to find entertainment value out of it. Since the screenplay by Allan Heinberg lacks depth, it simply does not ring true on any level.
In addition, broad topics such as corruption, horrors of war, sacrifice, and heroism are touched upon, even mentioned outright, but these ideas are never explored in such a way that we are given insight as to what these words or ideas mean to the characters we are supposed to be rooting for. Instead, a pattern emerges: an idea is brought up and it is immediately followed by a relatively uninspired action scene. This is especially pervasive during the final hour of this drawn out film.
Those looking for dimension, depth, and insight from superhero pictures are bound to be severely disappointed by “Wonder Woman.” Here is a picture with outposts—important events that must be introduced into the plot in order to create a semblance of story—but the journeys between these outposts are rushed and lacking in flavor. I take comfort in the fact that the romance between Diana and Steve offers enough surprises.
★★ / ★★★★
Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) lives with her grandmother (Piper Laurie) because her father (David Morse) is away often. But even when her dad is home, the majority of his attention is directed to another woman (Robin Wright). When Lewellen is sad and does not particularly want to show it, she turns to singing Elvis Presley’s songs, music that symbolizes reckless abandon, expression without bounds, and freedom.
“Hounddog,” written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier, relies on allowing us to sit back and observe the circumstances that lead to the event which changes Lewellen’s life forever. We often see her hanging around a boy around her age, Buddy (Cody Hanford), as they play in the river, capture snakes, and steal kisses from each other. The yellow-orange glow of the trees and the grass reflects their innocence, but the constant imagery of snakes slithering, writhing, hissing suggest that there is something vile just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
The children’s adventures outdoors serve a nice contrast to Lewellen’s interactions with her grandmother while indoors. We feel the grandmother’s imposing presence when she enters a room, always looking unhappy, and begins to ask questions about her granddaughter committing “moral sins.” She is so devout, she considers it her duty to examine Lewellen’s body for possible markings that can point to her grandchild no longer being pure. There is certainly tension there because what you and I might consider normal childhood experimentation, including sexual experiences, is, to the grandmother, succumbing to the devil’s influence. In order to get rid of it, the child has to be punished physically. She is a scary figure because it is difficult to tell how she might interpret certain situations.
The film requires more focus on the relationship between the little girl and her father. When the father is struck with lightning, although he survives, he becomes a completely different person. Since the material does not provide enough information regarding who the father really is, other than he has always threatened to abandon his daughter, before the incident, we do not have much to work with with respect to the change. Lewellen loves her father for a reason. And it is not simply because he buys her Elvis Presley records. It is something deeper. I wanted to feel the depths of their connection but the screenplay is limited thereby lessening the material’s emotional impact.
“Hounddog” marks Fanning beginning to come into her own as a serious actor with a bright future. At times, the way she delivers her lines with ferocity mixed with vulnerability makes me overlook the weaknesses of the script. If the film has eliminated some of its many, somewhat unnecessary subplots and actually worked on strengthening the emotional connections between the core characters, the statement it wanted to make might have fallen into place.
Conspirator, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Seven men and one woman were arrested for conspiring to assassinate the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Abraham Lincoln was dead and the government wanted someone to bury in order for the nation to be able to move on, not just from mourning and sorrow, but also to a new era in which the Civil War was history. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), manager of a boarding house, was accused of being a conspirator in the assassination led by John Wilkes Booth. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a veteran lawyer, came to her defense but almost immediately appointed young and reluctant Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Johnson knew that if he led the defense, Surratt would have no chance because Johnson was also from the South. Aiken, at least initially, was convinced she was guilty. Based on the screenplay by James D. Solomon and directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” was a well-crafted courtroom drama about the scarcity of justice in a nation that felt terrorized to the core. I admired the film’s insistence on tackling difficult questions. It offered us answers from many points of view but it was wise in highlighting the fact that the so-called truth is irrelevant if the stage is plagued with bias. Aiken was an interesting character because he had a difficult task in separating his beliefs from his duty as a lawyer. McAvoy was quite good in the role. Although he looked a bit young, there was ferocity in his eyes when he witnessed something unconstitutional and downright immoral. As a former soldier in the war, he thought he had seen it all, but he learned, in a subtle way, that bureaucracies had its share of traps and subterfuge. It was fascinating to see him adapt and at times even fail. The picture was shot beautifully. During the courtroom scenes, I was transfixed in the way the light emanated from the windows and how it landed on clothing and people’s faces. Smoke and dust blurred certain images but it was so natural that it made me feel like I was in the room. However, there were a few distracting elements that took me out the mood. I felt as though the pace of the rising action was diminished by the flashback scenes when Mary still had her freedom. The flashbacks were somewhat unnecessary because it took away some of the mystery that surrounded Mary’s allegiance. I got the impression that Redford wanted to humanize Mary just a little bit more when he really didn’t need to. Furthermore, Justin Long, as Aiken’s friend, and Alexis Bledel, as Aiken’s romantic interest, were miscast. Their styles of acting were distractingly modern. I felt their struggles in adapting to the film’s specific time period. Regardless, “The Conspirator” contained powerful messages about patriotism. Watching the film, people can and ought to learn that a true patriot is not someone who cries hardest in times of terror or grief; a true patriot is someone can see past the overwhelming feelings and commotions, someone who is loyal to the concept of what is fair.
★★★ / ★★★★
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was on a train from New York to Philadelphia that suddenly derailed. Everyone on the train passed away except for him; in fact, he walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. This strange phenomenon caught the eye of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man born with osteogenesis imperfecta–since his body lacked an essential protein, his bones were very low in density and therefore easy broken. Elijah had a passion for comic books and he was convinced that David was a superhero in the making. Was Elijah a madman who became embittered from his experiences as a child or was he a friend that could help David realize his true potential? M. Night Shyamalan did a fantastic job blurring the line between science fiction and realism by establishing a heavy but malleable solemn mood. I thought it was great in building the tension as we were given information that could lead to the conclusion that David might be special. The film could simply have been about a man coming to terms with his “gift” (if he did indeed has one) but it took the more introspective path and it became a story about a family trying to stay together. David and his wife (Robin Wright) were on the verge of divorce due to reasons undisclosed and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) became fixated with the idea that his dad was special in order to deal with the fear of his father being plucked away from his life. Shyamalan’s talent in telling a compelling story was always at the forefront. Even though I did not know the truth about David’s identity, I cared about him because I was as confused as he was. “Unbreakable” was highly successful in building an inordinary experience from ordinary elements. I loved the way the director gave us information that was open to interpretation but not so abstract that it became frustrating or even insular. I also enjoyed the awkward camera angles because it challenged our perspectives visually and intellectually. And in a way, the film was also about perspectives: do we believe that David is a superhero or just a man trying to get by? It was strangely moving and I thought it ended at just about the perfect moment. Most people have lost faith in Shyamalan’s talent in creating stories that are involving, honest, and creative but at the same time defying our greatest expectations. I’m not one of them because when I rewatch his films like “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” (or even “The Village” to some degree) I cannot help but notice the level of detail he puts into his work. What I think he needs is to step back, look at what made the aforementioned pictures work and tell a story he would love instead of what he thinks the public would love.