Tag: sebastian stan

Destroyer


Destroyer (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Whenever the camera goes for a close-up—and the picture is fond of this technique—all I could see was the makeup plastered on Nicole Kidman’s face. It is a shame because “Destroyer,” a crime-drama about a detective so guilt-ridden by what happened seventeen years prior when she was still a green undercover cop, is a work that grips the audience by the throat and never lets go. Kidman fits the role wonderfully, capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions within a span of seconds. The moments when we are forced to look at Detective Bell’s face are supposed to be strongest—appropriate because it is also a character-driven drama. And yet these moments turn out to be the weakest. I am flabbergasted that no one spoke up when it comes to the ineffectiveness of the cosmetics designed to depict age.

An argument can be made that without the incredibly distracting makeup, it would have further elevated Kidman’s already ace performance. The thing about heavy cosmetics is that, when used wisely, it is capable of heightening a sense of realism. It is far from the case here. In this film, there are two strands: Bell, along with her ill-fated partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), as she infiltrates a gang led by a man named Silas (Toby Kebbell) and Bell as an angry alcoholic whose purpose is reignited when Silas resurfaces almost two decades after a bank robbery.

In the former, Kidman is provided minimal makeup and the little ticks and smirks communicate paragraphs—a good choice because the flashbacks tend to rely on succinct impressions. In a way, the lead performer, along with the sharp writing by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, must fill in the gaps between what we know will happen and the trauma that follows the character like a curse. There is a huge gap between this lively woman who is excited for her career and the walking scarecrow that scowls and makes her co-workers feel uncomfortable. With the latter situation, Kidman is essentially given a mask and it does her no favor. In fact, it serves as a barrier between the character and the audience—problematic because Bell is already a figure of few words.

The tightly constructed plot is well-paced as Bell follows clues that may lead to Silas. Seeing former partners-in-crime (Tatiana Maslany, James Jordan, Zach Villa) and forcing them to provide information is an act of exorcising the past; each succeeding person is more difficult to deal with that the last. Bursts of violence are expected, but they remain powerful when delivered. Credit to director Karyn Kusama for presenting violence in a matter-of-fact manner. Not for one second is it glamorized. Violence looks painful, it is loud, people get hurt or die. Those lucky enough to walk away from it remain touched by it nonetheless.

The heart of the picture is the shattered relationship between Bell and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who is dating a man in his mid-twenties (Beau Knapp). There is a diner scene in which the girl recalls a painful memory and Bell is touched because at least Shelby remembers something between them other than their protracted fights. It is the single honest moment between a child and her mother—during most of their interactions, one is usually disconnected. It is the moment when we realize Bell’s gravest mistake: in pursing the past, she has forgotten to live in the present. Shelby is almost grown and she regards Bell as her biological mother but not the mother who was there to console, to give advice, to be there when it really mattered. Here is a portrait of a woman who feels so hollow, she might as well be dead.

I, Tonya


I, Tonya (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

How does one take a punchline like Tonya Harding, disgraced figure skater banned for life from the sport she loves due to an FBI investigation which concluded she was connected to the planned attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, and make the subject interesting without undergoing a redemption arc so typical of biographical dramas? Make it a dark comedy. But not just any standard dark comedy. Make it pitch-black, smart, full of crackling wit, ensure every performance commands electric energy, and force the audience to feel how it is like to wear the shoes of a person whom the public and the media labeled as a villain.

“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, delivers a rollercoaster of emotions which is not typically employed in a mockumentary-style storytelling. For instance, just when we are relishing laughter from the savage verbal affront Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney) delivers to everyone within a ten-foot radius, a scene right after it shows, unblinkingly, Tonya (Margot Robbie) being hit in the face like a punching bag by her dolt of a husband (Sebastian Stan). And just when we think we know how the formula works, rules are turned inside out and upside down. Due to its ability to shift and evolve, what results is a highly watchable project, unpredictable at nearly every turn.

For a good while of the picture, I couldn’t help but wonder about the work’s intended target audience. Surely it must not be solely for those who are familiar with Harding’s fall from grace. While it is understandable to wish to know more about the scandal, I felt that appealing to such a group is too easy, almost painfully obvious. Toward the end, however, it becomes clear that perhaps the target audience is younger people, perhaps middle school or high school students with a dream, youths who didn’t yet exist in 1994.

I reach this conclusion because Harding’s background is emphasized by the material, not only through words but also using images. Harding’s broken family is poor, not only financially but also that of a loving home, and she is surrounded by others who do not aspire to become anything more than what is available around town. There is more aspiration to become famous or recognized or financially successful than there is making sure one works hard to attain and complete an education. There is a wonderful scene, perfectly delivered by nuanced Robbie, in complete control of her range of emotions and facial expressions, where Harding makes a plea to the judge who delivered her sentence. The film is at its rawest here.

Despite the picture’s occasional ability to move the audience from one extreme to the other, the age of the performers cannot be ignored. Robbie and Stan playing fifteen-year-olds up until their characters are in their early twenties, braces and awkward mustaches included, is completely unconvincing. It is most distracting when the dialogue brings up their ages for no good reason. This miscalculation could have been avoided somewhat had the filmmakers relied on the title cards, which depict the passage of time, and left it for the audience to assume the age of the characters.

“I, Tonya” has a rock ’n’ roll vibe that does not fit at all with polished, classy, expensive biographical films—the correct decision because the film’s spirit must match its intriguing and complex specimen. I admired that it is willing to get down and dirty, welts and bruises included, to ensure that we give it our undivided attention. It earns the time we put into it.

Captain America: The First Avenger


Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.

The Education of Charlie Banks


The Education of Charlie Banks (2007)
★ / ★★★★

Fred Durst directed this movie about a violent teenager (Jason Ritter) who believed that he could change after visiting the college of two of the people who fear him (Jesse Eisenberg and Chris Marquette) ever since childhood. Not only is he violent, he gets into fights for the most stupid reasons and his opponents either end up in critical condition or dead. My main problem with this picture was its tone. It never really got its right footing so the whole movie looked different than what I should be experiencing. Durst had a very contradictory style. Just when you think he’s trying to tell a story about a person who can achieve redemption despite his dark past, he completely switches gears and makes an argument that a broken man will always remain a broken man. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was watching a bad episode of “The O.C.” where all the rich kids get physically harmed in some way. I also didn’t appreciate the way Durst (despite his intentions) glorified violence. What struck me the most was the final scene when something extremely serious was happening on screen yet this peaceful melody was playing on the background. I was slightly disturbed and I felt rotten just watching it. As for the characters, I did not believe for one second that Eisenberg could stand up to Ritter. For me, Eisenberg’s character started off as a little mouse and he ended up like one. The absence of evolution in the characters left me asking what the point was of the whole experience. The only person I enjoyed watching was Sebastian Stan (“The Covenant,” “Gossip Girl”) because I completely believed that he was this rich kid who doesn’t care about his education and goes off buying things he doesn’t need for the hell of it. Most of the time, I wished the story was about him instead of the other so-called main characters. I say skip “The Education of Charlie Banks” because nothing quite holds up.