Tag: toni collette

Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell) have just returned from Italy and cannot wait to talk about their adventures with their best friends, Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette). The doorbell rings. There appears Beth but no sign of Tom. She says her husband had to go to Washington, D.C. for business. But the truth comes out before dessert: Tom is leaving her for a stewardess. Karen is furious for Beth and Gabe is at a loss for words—twelve years down the drain.

“Dinner with Friends,” based on the play and adapted to the screen by Donald Margulies, appears to be just another standard marriage drama where one couple’s break-up forces another to reflect upon their relationship. While it embodies that quality on the outside, the film is actively interested in the human condition and how painful truths about love, friendship, and companionship can be confusing, exhausting, and surprising. And yet it works on another level, too. In my eyes, the message is that an evaluation of a relationship may not be pretty or convenient at times but it is an important part being together for it forces a couple to appreciate what they do have—even if everything may not be perfect.

The performances are consistently on a high level. The first few scenes are deceptive in that it appears as though what we are seeing on screen are caricatures: Karen the perfectionist, Gabe the husband with not much to say, Beth the victim, and Tom the jerk. But the more the characters speak, even though we may not agree with their opinions or courses of action, the more we want to get to know them. In just about every scene, a layer or several layers of complexity is added to the characterizations. We are constantly getting to know the characters.

In addition, the script has captured the rhythm, mood, and tone of white, middle- to upper-middle class dialogue. While the film is interested in exposing their flaws as people, it abstains from judging them. The judging is left to us and so we are engaged. At time same time, it is difficult to judge them because they are relatable. I found a piece of myself in every one of them.

The latter half is most impressive because it manages to capture the sadness of potentially broken relationships. No, I am not necessarily referring to just the marriages. Most interesting is how the friendships are portrayed between the men and the women. In two key scenes that unfold over lunch, we feel two people sharing a meal slowly drifting away even though physically they are only an arm’s length away. They feign as if there is nothing wrong but we—and they—know that things have gotten difficult and awkward. How do you continue to love someone when you recognize that the person that you thought you knew for years has suddenly turned into someone you can no longer relate with?

Directed with perspicuity by Norman Jewison, “Dinner with Friends” captures a critical moment in time when four people must evaluate where they stand. Sometimes the scariest thing is taking a moment and asking ourselves whether we are happy with the way things are. Karen, Tom, Beth, and Gabe assumed that nothing would ever change among them because they were so close. We are all guilty of that assumption and so when changes do occur in special friendships, sometimes it’s the most difficult task to accept and let go.

Velvet Buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.

Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.

Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.

Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.

I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.

There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.

Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jaded viewers might assume that the premise of a father-daughter duo forming a band called We Are Not a Band—cheeky, possibly twee—will offer mere puppies and rainbows, but “Hearts Beat Loud,” written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch, is sharper than the average comedy-drama-musical because it shows that life does not move out of anybody’s way. It’s adapt or perish. It shows that virtues like love, passion, and friendship—or even a successful debut performance—are not enough to change the course of what must happen. Despite this, the film is highly watchable and entertaining. Although not afraid of silence at times, notice how music is almost always present, as if it were the very air our subjects breathe.

Sam (Kiersey Clemons) hopes to become a physician and she believes that attending UCLA as a pre-med will take her one step closer to her dream. She is so excited, she decided to take pre-med summer camp courses during the summer. But given that she and her father, Frank (Nick Offerman), live in Brooklyn, New York, the latter has started to experience separation anxiety on top of financial stresses involving his failing vinyl shop. His solution: start a band with his daughter who is clearly gifted musically. Maybe they could start a band and tour the country.

This surprisingly toe-tapping picture wonderfully captures how it feels like for someone who is about to leave for university. Clemons is so natural in the role that she can stand in one spot simply reacting to somebody and her body language, especially her expressive eyes, communicates plenty. Looking at the character closely, I felt she is unchallenged by the neighborhood she grew up in, that she hopes to start over in a new location where her mother’s death doesn’t linger, that it is also her goal to be able to help her father financially once she has established a career. The great thing is none of these are mentioned in the film. Look closely and there are hints scattered around that Sam is always thinking, planning.

She is also a highly feeling person—there are instances when her father frustrates her but she has learned to compartmentalize. This ability makes room for a fresher script. Instead of typical confrontations in which characters raise their voices when they disagree or when another stayed past curfew, the material makes room for not only unpredictability but also pain that lingers longer or deeper than when conflict must occur because a dramatic parabola or timing must be followed. I admired that this work would rather allow room for making or singing songs than having to create shallow or inconsequential exchanges. No, it is not because the filmmakers wish to make a musical. It is able to capture a spirit, a flow.

The songs are catchy, their lyrics are personal, and the performances are believable. Watch Clemons closely. She plays the character like a real girl rather than a wannabe pop star. When belting out the lyrics, she is an an actor first and a singer second—she performs to deliver the emotions behind the song, not to look good while singing or to reach the higher notes perfectly. She is willing to contort her face. She is unafraid to use her limbs even though certain angles may not look as flattering. Her approach of making Sam thoroughly relatable is smart. I look forward to the decisions she makes in her future roles.

“Hearts Beat Loud,” directed by Brett Haley, is not just about the headstrong daughter who is about to go off to college. The other half is about the father, who was in a band back in the day but never reached the fame or success he thought he could have, who longs to be with his daughter for a second longer… and then another. There is a sadness to Offerman’s character that is worth dedicating an entire script toward. Supporting characters like the landlord (Toni Collette) and the best friend/bartender (Ted Danson) are quite interesting, too. But credit goes to the screenwriters delivering a work that is both efficient and entertaining.


Madame (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Although Amanda Sthers’ razor-sharp comedy-of-manners “Madame” unfolds within the household of a wealthy family, it is effective as a social commentary when it comes to how we see and therefore treat people in uniform who hold jobs that are typically considered as common or lowly. Some may reduce the plot to a lite Cinderella story, but it so much smarter, more efficient, certainly more savage, than mainstream comedies.

In this case, the focus is on how a maid, required by her employer to pretend as a posh friend due to a mix-up in the number of guests to attend the dinner party, is utilized as an object to be displayed when the upper-crust company arrive. She is expected to be radiant, classy, sophisticated, and quiet—traits that poor or working-class people simply do not possess, at least according the family she works for. They may not say it, but their behavior communicates exactly what and how they feel toward the person who is more or less invisible until she does something even slightly wrong.

Rossy de Palma is one of the few performers who disarms me simply by looking at her. Not considered to possess a typical beauty, she has proven in previous roles that she has mastered how to utilize her strong and unique features. In this film, she softens them in order to acquire the viewers’ empathy without necessarily feeling sorry for her. For instance, look closely during the dinner sequence. Even when she is surrounded by a crowd in the middle of conversations, all she has to do is turn to her face in profile relative to the camera and our eyes go directly toward her. When she bulges her eyes a little, we know exactly what she’s thinking. When she is eating soup and looking down, she remains in character; we feel how uncomfortable and awkward Maria feels, how ashamed she is for being at that table as her employer discharges pointed looks at her for stealing the spotlight. Note the way she handles the utensils. Clearly, the ballet is being performed by a consummate actor.

But the picture is not just about the maid. It is also about the woman who is baffled for realizing she is jealous of her own maid. Collette plays Anne as a shrew, but her portrayal inspires a certain sadness despite the character’s extremely disgusting behavior. I admired that the screenplay touches upon a few reasons why this woman feels the need to control—even those that shouldn’t be controlled. de Palma and Collette share great chemistry in which the reaction is almost always cold and unforgiving. We wonder about their history, particularly how Maria could have endured working for Anne for a decade.

I imagine many viewers are likely to be put off by the ending. For me, however, it is most appropriate because it works a barometer on how optimistic or pessimistic we are about how life tends to unfold. I enjoyed that the final few minutes turns its attention on the viewer rather than the characters. Yes, we wonder what will happen next. But how we feel about what might happen next holds more significance. We walk away with a strong impression.


Hereditary (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Have you ever been in a place outside your home, maybe at work when you decide to come in an hour earlier or stay a little later than everyone else, and you know—or thought you knew—you’re alone in that space? Yet somehow you hear—or thought you heard—a noise from a several feet away, the sound subtle enough that it is near impossible to discern where it comes from exactly, that the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps you’re not as alone as you had initially thought. That sneaky and creepy vibe perfectly captures what “Hereditary” has to offer, written and directed by Ari Aster, a horror film that understands the many different definitions of the genre.

It works because it has a deep imagination—one that lasts until a disappointing final act so generic, I wished the writer-director had taken a final close look at the material and realized that his work, as a whole, is so much better than a series of would-be spooky images aimed to satisfy mainstream expectations. Here is a movie in which it is demanded that the conclusion not be explained because everything else that leads to it is detailed enough for viewers to be able to come up with their own conclusions. I argue that this is a rare case in which a project might have gotten away without a third act. It is that strong. To add more, as what happened ultimately, is to take away from that power. It would have been so daring.

The first half unfolds like an intense family drama that just happens to have horror elements in it. Frightening images are shown but they are mostly hidden in shadows. It drenches us with foreshadowing, right from the opening shot of a window with a random fly. We see markings etched on walls and wonder what they mean. The interior of the home offers such a cold and crippling look and feeling about it, during the exposition I had thought that the family were staying at their recently deceased relative’s house. It comes across as though they are not comfortable in a place where, in theory, they should be at peace. Because the characters do not feel at home, neither do we. And so we become alert to every possible turn of the plot. When day turns to night, we anticipate what might happen. Modern horror movies have conditioned us to expect something to occur. It plays with our expectations.

Toni Collette plays Annie, a wife of a patient husband (Gabriel Byrne) and a mother of two teenagers (Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro). It is one of Collette’s best roles and performances in years as she balances being beleaguered and fierce often in the same scene. While certain images are ugly and terrifying, like a corpse infested with ants, equally unpleasant is the manner in which the family interacts. While the unit is undergoing a state of grief, there are things they do or say that communicate to us that they do not like each other very much—even if the act of mourning were taken out completely. Still, they must co-exist under the same roof because they are blood. Collette is a master at playing subtlety but she is throughly capable of creating an explosion at a drop of a hat. There is a dinner scene that perfectly captures her raw power as a consummate performer.

Overt scares are uncommon in the film. It values restraint over utilizing monsters, ghosts, or whatnot to jump out at the audience. While there is nothing wrong with the latter approach, such is a scare tactic designed to generate an evanescent response. It is simply not right for this material. Instead, Aster’s story is more concerned with strengthening its thesis when it comes to the subject of one’s a genetic predisposition to mental illness.

I think the film functions, for the most part, as a metaphor for not knowing with certainty what the future might entail for someone who has a family history of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. And so, it works better as a horror film that wrestles with private feelings, longings, and fears than as a horror film that attempts to appeal to mass audiences. Thus, the ending is a severe miscalculation. While not quite a horror film for the ages, I admired its intentions and most of its decisions.


Krampus (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

The opening credit sequence of “Krampus,” a horror-comedy directed by Michael Dougherty, is right on target about what is fundamentally wrong about the holiday, must-have-it-all season these days, one cannot help but be very excited for the rest of the film. Not one word is uttered—aside from a classic Yuletide carol serving as the soundtrack—but the images are so vivid, so funny, one suspects that the material has many more tricks and social commentaries up its sleeve.

It is a disappointment, then, that the film does not deliver more on that front. Although the story involves an unhappy get-together between two families days before and during Christmas, one of the families is not spoiled and rotten enough as to create a strong enough polarity and create dramatic gravity off their rather unique situation. When the youngest son of Sarah (Toni Collette) and Tom (Adam Scott) named Max (Emjay Anthony) begins to lose faith in the spirit of Christmas, an ancient spirit called Krampus and his monstrous pals pay the household a visit. Each member of the family is taken and presumably killed.

What the picture does best is showcasing images that are not computer generated. While a number of CGI is utilized in the film—like a cloaked figure with hooves jumping from one roof after another and murderous gingerbread cookies—most curious and terrifying are real and tactile imagery such as a giant jack-in-the-box with a massive mouth and shark-like teeth and cloaked figures that are supposed to be dark elves who look like they came right off a Kubrick-inspired play. Humor can be found in these images.

This Joe Dante-inspired material ought to have focused more on the personalities and dynamics of the children. They have such an ordinary look about them that target audiences—pre-teens and young teenagers—are likely to find them accessible. However, because Max, his sister, and three cousins are not explored enough, especially having them relate or engage in conflict during scenes with no adults around, the message meant for the young generation about the value of retaining the spirit of giving during the holidays ends up rather off-target.

Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, and Zach Shields, “Krampus” offers more moments than is necessary for a horror film—or any genre—where characters simply sit around and exchange platitudes. Collette is arguably the one best able to break away from expressing frustration through ordinary dialogue because she tends to give her characters specific behaviors. Sarah might be saying something nice on the surface but notice how she rolls her eyes between certain pauses. We wonder if Sarah does such a thing out of habit because hosting Christmas in her home is just too much pressure or does she not really mean what she says?

The picture gets a marginal recommendation from me with significant reservation for reasons mentioned previously. In addition, in horror movies, even horror-comedies, I usually must walk away and remember at least three sequences that are so well-executed, it makes me want to revisit the material right away. Here, I was only able to remember two vividly: the chimney scene because it starts off quiet and then becomes chaotic mere seconds later and the giant jack-in-the-box scene that must be seen to be believed. And come to think of it, the animated flashback with Grandma (Krista Stadler) as a little girl is a lovely surprise, too.

Jesus Henry Christ

Jesus Henry Christ (2012)
★ / ★★★★

By the time Patricia reached the age of ten, she had to take care of what remained in her family of seven: herself and her father. Her mother died in an fiery accident, her twin brothers died out of stupidity, one brother died from a disease, and another brother left for Canada because he did not want to be drafted to Vietnam. It was the late 90s when toughened Patricia (Toni Collette) had her first child named Henry (Jason Spevack), conceived via a cell culture dish but gifted with a photographic memory so clear, the best universities would be lucky to nurture his capabilities. Out of all the questions in the universe, his efforts focused on finding the identity of his father. Based on the screenplay and directed by Dennis Lee, “Jesus Henry Christ” was an especially exasperating experience to sit through because its potential was wasted so systemically through one cute, precious, and quirky scene after another. Instead of focusing on the human factor while improbable coincidences occurred for the sake of plot convenience, a way of giving it a semblance of realism, it was more focused on style than substance. What I wanted was simple: to feel the bond between a mother and son, one symbolized experience and the other raw potential, respectively. As more characters were introduced by the script, naturally, more conflict ensued. Dr. O’Hara (Michael Sheen) was a renowned author who published a book, more or less, about her daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), called “Born Gay or Made That Way?”. Because of his work, Audrey had to endure tremendous amount of bullying at school, her peers calling her “lesbo,” especially from an obnoxious classmate in Physics class. Dr. O’Hara was a person of interest because he could very well be Henry’s biological father. It also meant that Henry could have a half-sister. While the two families eventually met, it was strange that the material never became all that interesting. More people spoke but their words held little weight. More people took up space in each scene but there was no comedy or drama. Everything was just passive as if each character was simply sleepwalking through this amazing thing that was unfolding right before their eyes. My biggest frustration, character-wise, was that Patricia and Dr. O’Hara were supposed to be smart adults. Why not just sit down and ask each other the difficult but necessary questions in order them–and us–to be able to move on? How did they really feel, as parents and as single adults, about being thrusted into such an awkward situation? These questions, among others, needed to be addressed because although its narrative was so twee to the point of distraction, their world was rooted in reality. Since those questions were essentially overlooked, why make the movie in the first place? If its point was to be cute, I could very much have just gone to the park and played with cute dogs. At least I would’ve gotten fresh air. As for Henry, because the character was established so poorly, whenever he stood next to Audrey with her bright red hair, big dark eyes, and undisturbed solemnity, he disappeared. His genius meant nothing because he had no presence. “Jesus Henry Christ” made me want to shout profanities at it because about halfway through I began to feel like my time was being stolen and trampled on.