Tag: willem dafoe

The Lighthouse


The Lighthouse (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Psychological horror picture “The Lighthouse” is a step back for director Robert Eggers. In “The Witch,” he is able to take a period story, set in 1630s New England, and construct a deeply unsettling tale around that time and place. It peers unblinkingly into a dark folklore and we buy every second of it. It is told with clarity, relentless energy, and with a period dialogue so uncompromising at times that it risks frustrating most viewers. In his follow-up, however, co-writing with Max Eggers, although the story takes place on an island in 1890s New England, photography in black-and-white, it feels just like any other modern twisty tale of a man’s madness unspooling in an isolated, lonely location. I received little enjoyment from it.

It cannot be denied that Willem Dafoe’s performance is entertaining. As Wake, the ill-tempered supervisor of Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is prone to believing superstitions of the sea, he is extremely watchable when the camera places him front and center, recalling experiences he claims to have had and how he manages to tie them—no matter how tenuous—to the current predicaments that he and Winslow find themselves in. Although Pattinson attempts to match the veteran’s effortless magnetism—and there are a few moments when Pattinson is effective—he pales by comparison.

Histrionics, particularly toward the end when secrets have been spilled and blood has been spattered, are unconvincing and forced; I felt awkward during instances when the performer would go off-script because he is so into the moment. Particularly challenging when it comes to period films is that every second must feel and sound believable. I felt certain reactions to dire situations needed to be edited, cut short, or reshot altogether. Modern acting in period movies, unless this concept is meant to be the point, is most distracting. When it comes to Pattinson, who has been terrific in risk-taking roles prior to this (“The Rover,” “Good Time,” “High Life”), I felt I was watching an actor acting rather than being.

The relationship between the two men of vastly different ages and even bigger differences when it comes to how to approach the job they are tasked is meant to be rocky, a constant source of conflict. There are a handful of amusing moments when Wake would unfairly remind Winslow of his lower rank just because the old man can, but especially when Winslow broaches the subject of never getting to see the lamp of the lighthouse. Wake appears to be obsessed of being alone with that lamp. Why? Dafoe’s wicked performance suggests there might be a sexual component to it. One night, due to nagging curiosity, Winslow walks to the top of the lighthouse and sees his partner, lying naked, in the same room as giant, octopus-like tentacles. The movie gets more bizarre from there.

One of the Wake’s odd superstitions is it is bad luck to kill a seagull since each bird contains a soul of a sailor who had died. This idea ties nicely to the final shot of the film, but it commands little power or irony because the storytelling, for the most part, is muddled, composed solely of one peculiar happening after another: a mermaid encounter by the rocks, getting dead drunk and experiencing nightmares, hallucinations born out of guilt, and the like. The formula gets repetitive and exhausting after a while.

Although some thought is put behind these images, I was reminded too often of other generic psychological horror pictures in which an untrustworthy protagonist grows even more unhinged as the story moves forward. Remove the black-and-white photography in addition to the silent film aspect ratio of 1.9 to 1 and there is nothing special about “The Lighthouse.” Not once did I feel scared, or surprised, or thrilled by any of the plot developments. I found shots of ocean water crashing against the rocks during a storm to be far more hypnotic than the wild goings-on.

Aquaman


Aquaman (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Aquaman” brings to mind Playstation RPGs in the ‘90s: a reluctant protagonist with a calling, journeying across vast landscapes, nail-biting boss battles, fetch quests, and an impending war between worlds looming in the background. But what elevates the material from becoming a video game under the guise of a superhero film is James Wan’s energetic direction. He embraces groan-inducing jokes, silly one-liners, and ludicrous scenarios like a couple deciding to kiss in the middle of a battlefield with aplomb. What results is a work with a distinct personality—certainly entertaining—even though there are moments when plot developments fail to command a lick of sense.

It is said that a superhero movie is only as good as its villain. Patrick Wilson plays King Orm, half-brother of Arthur/Aquaman (Jason Momoa—clearly having a blast with the role) who wishes to unite four underwater kingdoms before raging war against those who live on land. To my surprise, I found his motivation to be practical—humans have trashed and polluted the oceans so badly over the years that it is a fact that our activities have negatively impacted marine populations and biodiversity. Orm is not painted to be evil for the sake of having an antithesis to our hero; he simply wishes to do right for those whom he represents and doing so requires absolute force. Orm is a curious antagonist, somewhat undeveloped, but I wished he, too, like the title character, were given an equally colorful personality.

The screen is filled to the brim with overwhelming visual effects. There is almost always something to gawk at, from hundreds of sea creatures making their way toward Atlantis, stumbling across a hidden kingdom underneath the Sahara, to a bizarre but inspired moment in which an octopus is shown playing drums. A character may stand still but her thick red hair is always flowing beautifully. And these are the calmer moments. Busy action sequences take place underwater, in the air, and even underground.

Particularly impressive is the rooftop chase in Sicily where Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard), the latter betrothed to Orm but knows her future husband is not fit to be a king and a leader, are located by the enemy while in the process of searching for a legendary trident that would grant great powers to the person who wields it. This sequence is particularly challenging for two reasons. First, it must balance thrill with comedy. Look closely and realize there are slapstick jokes thrown about—appropriate because the water-based hunters are not accustomed to moving on land.

Second, we follow two protagonists that have been separated—one dealing with a handful of weaker enemies and the other faced with one incredibly formidable foe. With the former group, it is impersonal. But with the latter group, it is personal because for one of them, it is about revenge. Each confrontation must be directed and edited differently. And I admired that the filmmakers are aware of the importance of keeping things fresh. It is not about delivering violence and explosions but the entertainment created during the buildup.

The film offers a good time, not a smart time or even a sensible one—and there is nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed “Aquaman” because those who shaped the project prove knowledgeable of the genre’s weaknesses… and strengths. Perhaps more importantly, the director puts his own stamp on the work. Keep in mind that Wan specializes in horror films. Watch carefully as Arthur and Mera reach The Trench—a place where sea creatures are sent to be sacrificed for their crimes. Note how numerous horror imageries—the storm, monsters increasing in numbers at an alarming rate, how these creatures move, how hungry they look—take over the screen. It is a literal descent to hell. It is clear that without the director’s vision, creativity, and execution, the final product would have been just another DCEU blockbuster with little to no personality.

The Florida Project


The Florida Project (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

When I stay in motels, the last thing I think about are the people who actually live there. In a way, for us tourists, the motel inhabitants are invisible in their own neighborhood. “The Florida Project,” written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, forces our eyes wide open to the realities of forgotten or ignored motel residents. It is not afraid to show their destitution, how community members interact with one another and those in power, how parents treat their children. Although a work of fiction, it creates a tone closer to a documentary.

The story is told through the eyes of children. It is summer vacation and so Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik) go unsupervised most of the day, free to roam in and around the Magic Castle motel which is within walking distance of Walt Disney World. We observe them play, beg for change, buy ice cream, explore abandoned buildings, watch adults scream at one another, and tell one another their hopes and dreams. It is a deeply engaging picture without an expected story arc and therefore the usual trappings involving a look at poverty.

Emphasis is placed is on the children’s resilience. For instance, when faced with a problem, like not having money to buy ice cream, Moonee tells her new friend (Valeria Cotto) that they can actually get ice cream for free. They must ask strangers for change. But the screenplay is brilliant, you see, exactly because the emphasis of the dialogue is on the silver lining—getting the cold dessert for free. But the action emphasizes having to put in the time to actually acquire the snack.

Having had experience working with children, some of them from poor families, I found this observation to be disarmingly honest. Based on my own observations, kids, especially those who come from low-income families, learn to put a positive spin on the challenges that face them. The ice cream example is only one of many sharp details. Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite), consistently behind on rent, cannot send her daughter to the theme park and so Moonee must pretend that the abandoned motel several yards away is a giant haunted mansion. She has no access to safari tours in the world renowned park and so she must pretend that the animals behind the motel are creatures that she imagines to be living in the actual park. The world becomes her playground.

Much like the ostentatious color of the motel, we see through the children’s eyes in similar flashy colors. Look deeper and you will see the effects of long-term neglect of some of the children: how dirty their clothes look; how they speak to their elders; how, when indoors, they are always watching television or playing on the iPad and never reading books; the unhealthy food and drinks they put in their mouths. Not once does the film hammer the viewers into paying attention to these images. They are there to be noticed if one so chooses to look.

Director Sean Baker should be proud of this most humanistic project for it nudges audiences to look at a group of people we choose to ignore because looking at them makes many of us feel uncomfortable. The picture is also admirable for its craft. Adapting an observational, naturalistic approach, the meaning of the story will likely differ between you and me.

Murder on the Orient Express


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.

There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.

The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.

Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.

Death Note


Death Note (2017)
★ / ★★★★

For a story that is supposed to highlight the power of imagination, “Death Note,” based on the screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slate, is malnourished of this very element, from the way the characters are written to the manner in which events unfold surrounding a teenager named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a mysterious notebook imbued with the power to kill any individual whose name is written inside its pages. It is a challenge to sit through material with potential to genuinely engage and impress but proves incapable of doing so with every passing scene.

Due to the writing’s lack of depth, we never believe the fantastic reality the protagonist finds himself embroiled in. While the dialogue acknowledges that Light is supposed to be smart for his age, his decisions prove otherwise—he is unable to think three to five steps ahead of whatever he is up against, whether it be his girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), his father (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be the chief of police, an enigmatic detective from the FBI (Lakeith Stanfield), or Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the demon god of death that enacts the killings specified by the owner of the notebook. That is, until the moment when the plot requires that he be intelligent enough to pull off a surprising final act. Since it is all too convenient, we feel cheated of our time.

The plot requires an exploration of moral gray. Essentially, it brings up that question that if you had the power to kill anybody at a drop of a hat, would you do it? But the material is not at all interested in depth or philosophical musings. Rather, it is interested in pushing the pacing in such a way that the story creates a semblance of the story moving forward—even if it is inappropriate at times. In actuality, ironically, mindful viewers will recognize that the story is stuck in one position. Sure, events occur and unfold, but, for instance, do we actually learn about the subtleties implied within the numerous rules surrounding the curious notebook? An important sequence involves a ferris wheel. This ride works as a metaphor for, and critique of, this picture.

While the deaths are visually impressive, reminiscent of “Final Destination” horror films when we can actually see them transpire rather than being manically edited, less striking is the look of Ryuk. While appropriate that it hides in the shadows, when it is shown under some shade of light, the substandard CGI takes away from the already low-level tension of the film. Although Dafoe taps into some interesting notes when it comes to his voice acting, it is disappointing that the character itself never does nor says anything particularly revealing or surprising.

“Death Note” is directed by Adam Wingard, filmmaker of stylish pictures such as “The Guest,” “You’re Next,” and “A Horrible Way to Die.” But his sense of style comes with a load of painful mediocrity, leaving a bland taste in the mouth, content-wise, rather than a shock to the system. With the aforementioned works, at least it is apparent he intends to follow his own vision. Here, however, the material reeks of desperation to be liked, to be modern, to be mainstream to the point where his stamp is no longer visible. A bad movie with a specific vision (and execution) is always more tolerable than a bad movie that embraces any and all compromises.

Out of the Furnace


Out of the Furnace (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rodney (Casey Affleck) owes a lot of money and he believes a quick way to pay his creditors is to participate in mano-a-mano fights. But defeating locals prove not profitable enough. So, Rodney convinces his manager (Willem Dafoe) to schedule a fight in the hills of Jersey where inbred drug dealers like Harlan (Woody Harrelson) having grown so powerful that even cops feel the area is out of their jurisdiction. Harlan expects Rodney to drop the fight. Maybe Rodney is too much of a loose cannon. When Russell (Christian Bale) learns that his younger brother is missing, he drives to Jersey where Rodney is last seen.

Directed by Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” is not for people who expect a straightforward revenge picture where it gets violent real quick and justice is served cold in equal servings. It is a moody, messy, meandering piece of work with a lot offer to those willing to follow the bread crumbs and value asking questions more than getting easy answers. Watching the events unfold is like looking through a dark fog—the focus is not necessarily on what happens but the feelings behind and underneath the occurrences.

Rodney and his debts, Harlan and his drugs, Russell and his clean way of making a living—it is clear that money is the main motivation of the central characters. The brothers live in a working class neighborhood and they are often dirty-looking—often covered in dirt, sweat, or grime, sometimes bruises and blood. Meanwhile, Harlan is a rabid dog who lives in the woods with nameless lackeys. As far as they know, he is always right. To say something otherwise is to gamble one’s life. Outsiders do not know this fact.

The picture does not reach full power until about halfway through. Clocking in at about two hours, the first half involves Russell losing those that he values. Every day is a struggle to keep them close by. One mistake—involving drunk driving and an auto accident—costs him just about everything. It is easy to sympathize with Russell because he is a good guy and he wants to do the right thing. Unlike his brother, he has learned to be humble—even if it means forcing himself to do so—and how to keep his temper in control.

Because the material is so patient before delivering the big blow just above the hour mark, it creates a real sense of dread and convincing, palpable tension. And yet, surprisingly, even though it tackles the subject of vengeance, it does not lose track of the sadness with regards to what can never be reclaimed.

What does not work is a subplot involving a chief of police (Forest Whitaker) and Russell’s ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Though the material avoids certain trappings, we never see the cop doing anything of value other than delivering lines about how important it is to follow procedures and allowing the men of the law to do their jobs. In addition, the ex-girlfriend is underdeveloped. She is reduced to doing two things: laugh or look sad. Whitaker and Saldana are good performers, but they could have been played by another pair and it wouldn’t have made a big difference.

“Out of the Furnace,” written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper, will divide viewers. I admire movies like this. It has a goal and it carries out its vision without compromise. It may not be perfect but others ought to follow its lead when striving to commit to a specific voice. Forget trying to impress the audience. Just tell the story the way it is intended, assuming a solid screenplay, and rest are likely to fall into place.

John Wick


John Wick (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Contrary to glowing reviews, “John Wick” is a sub-standard action-thriller with a few elements that could have elevated it if the screenplay by Derek Kolstad had elaborated upon them. Instead, the picture is largely composed of shoot-‘em-up razzle-dazzle—perfect, I suppose, for audiences who crave nothing more than empty calories. However, for those of us hoping to be entertained and engrossed, there is nothing to see here.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is an assassin who left his occupation five years ago to get married and live a life that will not require him to look over his shoulder constantly. But upon the death of Helen (Bridget Moynahan) due to an illness, John is thrown back into the business of killing after the dog that his spouse left him is killed by Iosef (Alfie Allen), son of the head of a Russian syndicate (Michael Nyqvist).

For a story involving a group of assassins who know each other, some can even be considered to be friends, the picture commands neither heft nor substance. There is a hint of a relationship between John and a sniper named Marcus (Willem Dafoe), the latter a sort of father figure for the former. At one point, we are supposed to question Marcus’ loyalty to John but the material abandons this potential route of intrigue so quickly that we wonder why such an avenue is introduced at all. Dafoe is a consummate performer and it is a missed opportunity that the script does not allow him to do much.

The action is one-note in that it is about twenty-percent hand-to-hand combat and the rest involves shootouts. Such an approach might have worked if there had been a little more diversity in its execution. However, the majority of the action happens at night, in the dark, and indoors. Although the locale changes, it is always dark. Thus, we do not get to truly appreciate the fight scenes in terms of who is being hit, how hard, or if there is any strategy involved into the attack or kills.

In addition, the action scenes are almost always submerged in a hard rock soundtrack, one has to wonder if the filmmakers had no confidence at all in the purity of the images. Eventually, I caught myself feeling passive when there is commotion on screen—which is most problematic because action movies are supposed to be thrilling or cathartic, not sedative.

We learn very little about the lead character. Reeves is not exactly the most versatile actor but he does possess effortless charm. Instead of using that charm, it appears as though the film wishes to make him as cold or closed down as possible. Reeves is either quiet or muttering his lines, occasionally growling when John is supposed to be enraged. As a result, what we see and feel on screen is nothing more than average and expected. The material does not inspire us to want to know more about the grieving man.

Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, “John Wick” is yet another forgettable and brainless action movie that fails to capitalize on its more creative elements. For instance, the assassins have a code they agree to honor in a hotel called The Continental. By following this code, the assassins create a semblance of professionalism and being civilized. By failing to lure us into its world completely, the film begins to run out of steam by the first act. By the end of its short running time, we feel not exhilaration but relief that the depressing experience is finally over.

Odd Thomas


Odd Thomas (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), a short order cook, sees dead people. Only two people know of his abilities: his girlfriend, Stormy (Addison Timlin), and Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who has grown to trust Odd for his knack for finding clues and tracking bad guys. Lately, however, creatures called the Bodach, invisible to those who lack the special sight, have begun to follow residents of Pico Mundo. These shadow-like creatures crave the scent of people who are about to die. Odd becomes convinced that someone is planning to execute a mass killing.

“Odd Thomas,” based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, is a fast-paced mystery-thriller but despite its very hip and modern embellishments, from the rapid cuts and editing meant to exude cool to the quirkiness of the dialogue between Odd and the girl with whom he thinks he is meant to be with forever, it never moves beyond mild entertainment. The mystery lacks a level of urgency despite the possibility of hundreds of people being killed and so the investigation is not all that interesting. Some of the quirkiness gets in the way of building a forward momentum and thus lacking the building blocks for suspense.

Yelchin and Timlin create a cute screen couple presence but Stephen Sommers, the person in charge of shaping the screenplay and directing, seems to forget that this is not a romance picture. After finding just about every piece of the puzzle, Odd and Stormy must engage in either a light banter or expressing how they care for one another—on the phone or in person. These two are attached to the hip and it does not work. So, it quickly becomes a challenge to enjoy the film as a supernatural detective story.

There is far too much visual effects. A lot of it do not look first-rate—which is not a problem if the concept or story is strong enough to keep us engaged. Here, since the tone is a mixture of action-adventure, mystery, and comedy, adding the visuals on top of an already busy plot makes the picture look cheap or trying too hard to be impressive. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better if Odd were the only one who was able to see the Bodach. This way, it might have inspired us to imagine how these creatures look. Seeing them leaves nothing to the imagination. I did not find them scary.

Standout performances include Dafoe and Yelchin. If the screenplay had been sharper, it would have placed the father-son dynamic between Porter and Odd front and center. To me, the partnership between the cop and his aide is the heart of the picture because when Porter’s life ends up in grave danger, I found myself not wanting to miss a blink. I wish I can say the same about Stormy. She is sweet and has some nice lines but there is no depth to her.

The problem with “Odd Thomas” is that it feels too much like a TV show that can likely thrive on the CW—maybe the WB when their standards were different. Take a two-hour pilot episode and a two-part season finale of a solid—but not impressive—show in its first year and this is the result. Quite frankly, the movie reminded me of the first season of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Its knees may be wobbly but the potential is just waiting to be let out of the box.

The Last Temptation of Christ


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe), a carpenter, journeys to Jerusalem, along with his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), to be crucified and die for the sins of all people.

Though the premise is familiar, this is not the version of Jesus polished by religious groups and popular culture. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” directed by Martin Scorsese, portrays Jesus Christ as both a divine being and, more interestingly, a man full of crippling self-doubt and contradictions.

What fascinated me was the qualities that made the title character human. Raised by Catholic parents and forced to attend school that requires religious studies for several years, I am somewhat familiar with Jesus’ journey to the cross including the key figures he encounters along the way. It is refreshing to see a different interpretation of the events compared to what is on traditional inscriptions and teachings. Scorsese approaches the material with confidence and tunnel vision focus. He honors the filmmaking by being true to what kind of story he wishes to make.

The relationship between Jesus and Judas is not exactly a friendship, even though the word is mustered once or twice, but a symbiosis between men of faith. Jesus’ decision to manipulate Judas, who desperately wants to believe that the son of God is completely devoted to what he is instructed to do, holds intrigue because the material tends to underline both characters’ flaws and fears. Their partnership unfolds in a logical way.

The film is shot beautifully. When the camera pulls back to absorb the beauty of the barren desert or quiescent lake as Jesus walks on the foreground, it is breathtaking. The experience is similar to looking at a postcard and on it is an inviting world. When the intense gust of wind dances around the unseen microphones, I felt transported.

However, the acting from some of the supporting actors is distracting. Keitel’s decision to maintain his Brooklyn accent is a constant reminder that he is an actor playing Judas. During his most serious scenes, I caught myself feeling detached because of the way he enunciates of certain words. Furthermore, Jesus’ angel (Juliette Caton), a little girl, is so doe-eyed and delivers her lines so heavily pure, I wondered why the director did not feel the urge to do more reshoots until her performance did not come across so forced. Either that or she should have been recast. It is necessary that Dafoe gives the most convincing performance. And he does.

“The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the screenplay by Paul Schrader, is unjustly mired in controversy. I found it daring and, yes, even iconoclastic. But let us not forget that the movie is based on a novel. If your faith is as strong as you claim, you will not allow an interpretation to shake the foundation of your beliefs. If anything, you should keep an open-mind–which shows strength. What is deserving of fear are those people who think that what they believe in is completely, unwaveringly correct. There is a fine distinction between faith and zealotry.

The Hunter


The Hunter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Red Leaf, a military biotech company, hired Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary, to go to Tasmania and hunt an animal for its DNA. The animal of interest was the Tasmanian Tiger which was thought to be extinct but reports claimed that people had seen it in the woods. It may be the last of its kind and competition among companies was fierce so getting to it first was paramount to Martin’s assignment. His mission turned a bit more complicated, however, when the company chose for him to stay in a house with a depressed woman, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), and her two children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, “The Hunter,” based on the screenplay by Alice Addison, had a meticulous pace, almost verging on somnolence during its slowest sections, but when the big sequences arrived, it was like a jolt to the spine. Martin was a character that preferred to be alone with his thoughts, his work, and his classical music. Other than that, we knew next to nothing about him which was excellent because it made him unpredictable. He was so secretive, even his desktop wallpaper was blank. I appreciated such small details because the screenplay’s reluctance to reveal made me want to look closer and think a little bit more about the distinction between, for instance, body language and behavior. This was important because the eventual bonding that occurred between Martin and the children, arguably the heart of the picture, was, although not always subtle, had varying levels of complexity. I enjoyed the idea that even though he was a father figure to the children, Bike and Sass believed that their father was still alive out there in the wilderness and he would return soon. Dafoe’s performance then became crucial because he had to put them at arms length–he was doing a job after all–while at the same time the thought that maybe it was all right to allow someone in and get to know him on a personal level sat on the back of his brain. Dafoe couldn’t afford to look or come off as passive even though his character was supposed to be used to taciturnity. I was sensitive to this because I looked in his eyes each time the languorous pacing took over which would most likely prove a challenge to anybody. As Martin, like the Mona Lisa, the more I looked at him, the more it seemed like he was thinking about something. Furthermore, the cinematography needed to be singled out. Every time the camera pulled back and forced us to pay attention to the natural beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, my eyes danced. I wondered how it was like to actually be in that breathtaking environment. More importantly, other than the expectation of Martin and the endangered animal sharing an intense scene, how was it going to be utilized, if it were, to solve the eventual conflict of interest between the professional and the personal? One of the most engaging scenes involved an expertly executed sequence between Martin and another hunter (Callan Mulvey) in the snowy and rocky terrain of the wilderness. I wished it had more scenes like that; I actually shouted directions at the screen because the suspense worked my nerves in the best way possible. Directed by Daniel Nettheim, “The Hunter” oozed confidence in terms of what it wanted to deliver. So regardless of the leisurely portions that would surely repel a handful of viewers, it had rewards for those willing to put in a bit of patience.

Daybreakers


Daybreakers (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

It was year 2019 and vampires have taken over the world while humans were forced to hide because the creatures of the night hunted and used them for blood. Now faced with a shortage of blood because there were more vampires than humans, a hematologist (Ethan Hawke), a vampire who also sympathized with humans, aimed to create a blood substitute that could solve vampires’ problems. However, the leader (Sam Neill) of the company in which the hematologist worked for and the hematologist’s brother (Michael Dorman) himself had other plans. This movie had an interesting take on vampire movies because, like “28 Days Later” in terms of zombies, it related vampirism to a disease because it talked about having a cure. That scientific angle fascinated me, even though not 100% of it made sense in the end, and appreciated that it tried to do something new with the genre. Hawke did a great job as a man who, ten years being a vampire, hated what he had become because he did not want to become a vampire in the first place. I enjoyed his interactions with Claudia Karvan, as a human who led a resistance against vampires, and Willem Dafoe, as a vampire who accidentally turned human. The action sequences where exciting, thrilling and sometimes startling because it went in directions I did not expect. I just wished that the picture had a stronger last twenty minutes. It felt anticlimactic instead of urgent (especially if the fate of the planet boiled down to one showdown) and the abrupt ending left much to be desired. I was not quite certain whether it was setting itself up for a sequel or we were supposed to be hopeful for what would happen next. The ending needed a defined tone but it did not have a chance to reach a certain point because the filmmakers did not allow it to simmer. “Daybreakers,” written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, caught my attention and managed to keep it because it had grand and creative ideas about vampirism. It had its weak moments such as introducing a politician who was not explored in any way but it also had strong moments showing how far vampires would go to get food. Perhaps it took itself too seriously at times (it certainly would have benefited if it had taken some pages energy-wise from “Zombieland”) but I could not help but admire how dedicated it was with its new concepts.

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on a book by Roald Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” directed by Wes Anderson, told the story of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who promised his wife (Meryl Streep) that he would stop stealing food from farmers when she told him that she was carrying a child. Twelve years later, right around the visit of Mrs. Fox’ nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), Mr. Fox felt the need to return to his schemes and eventually got his entire animal community into trouble. The first thiry minutes of this animated film was strong. I was amused with the scenes involving Mr. Fox sneaking into the farmers’ respective lands and facing different and fun challenges. I also liked the scenes that highlighted the insecurities of Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. and Mrs. Fox’ son, when he would often compare himself to his cousin, especially in terms of physicality and athleticism. Those were enjoyable because it had a certain energy and excitement so I couldn’t help but look forward to what would happen next. Unfortunately, like in most of Anderson’s work, the movie began to run out of fuel past the forty-minute mark. When the animals were forced to live underground, the picture felt like it didn’t know where it was going and random references to other films started popping up like the plague. The attempts for dry humor were unoriginal and I could feel the material’s desperation to get any kind of laugh. Despite many things happening at the same, unlike the first third of the film, the material no longer felt fresh. It lost intelligence, tenderness and spark. In fact, the characters started to blend amongst one another. As a result, I merely saw the animals as pests instead of creatures that supposed to reflect us humans. While I thought the animation was interesting to look at (and I did embrace its flaws), the way the story unfolded wasn’t strong enough to get me to care for the characters. Quirkiness could only get a movie so far and unfortunately, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” relied too much on the superficial. Other actors who contributed their voices include Bill Murray, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. However, I didn’t recognize their voices because the picture was too busy trying to deal with the conflict between the animals and humans to the point where it didn’t have enough time to take a minute and convince us why we should care. For all I care, the big names’ voices could have been played by unknowns and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” received a lot of comparisons with Pixar movies. However, I think Pixar films are much more effective because they are aware of the fact that since we’re not seeing human faces, they highlight the animated characters’ human characteristics to lure us and, more importantly, keep our attention. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” managed to lure me but it didn’t keep me interested.

Directors: Martin Scorsese


Directors: Martin Scorsese (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

American Film Institute’s documentary focused a spotlight on Martin Scorsese’s works from the 1970s up until 1999. In this documentary, we got to hear from Scorsese himself and his actors such as Jodie Foster, Ray Liotta, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Willem Dafoe, and Harvey Keitel. I enjoyed this movie because I am absolutely in love with Scorsese’s work but I felt like it should have been much longer. Just when Scorsese stated something really interesting like an event from his childhood that he incorporated into a particular film, for instance, the picture jumped to another work and left me wanting so much more. I’ve read about Scorsese but it was a much richer experience hearing him talk about his childhood and the struggles he had trying to establish himself as a director–a director that did not make movies in which the material was based on his life. I found it fascinating how he wanted to be a specific kind of director, a long way from his initial dream of becoming a priest. I also enjoyed the fact that Scorsese talked about every film and what he tried to achieve with each of them. Even though I have not yet seen his movies such as “The King of Comedy,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and his independent movie “After Hours,” (at the time I wrote this review) hearing him discuss the themes he tried to tackle made me want to see them that much more. The actors who he had worked with also said some very interesting things about Scorsese. One of them said that Scorsese was one of a kind because he sometimes said, “My actors are getting tired.” And it was easy to tell that the actors he used in his films time and again have a special connection with him because even though he was sympathetic to them, he had the ability to get great performances out of them. For instance, I was not aware of the fact that Scorsese actually encouraged his actors to keep going whenever they messed up a line or completely forgot the line–and such improvisations often made it to the final cut. I have a feeling that this documentary is just half of Scorsese’s amazing career. With movies like “The Departed” and “Shutter Island” recently attached to his name, I strongly believe that the thick-browed master has more memorable and exciting movies up his sleeves.

Antichrist


Antichrist (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by the very controversial Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” tells the story of a couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to the woods appropriately called Eden to deal with the recent death of their son. Dafoe’s character, a psychiatrist, uses various therapeutic methods to help his wife go through grief, pain and despair (the titles of the first three chapters of the picture). Gainsbourg’s character believes that her husband doesn’t much care for the death of their son. It must be said that this is not the kind of film for everyone. In fact, I think this movie is made for certain groups of people who can take heavy levels of very sexually intimate scenes, violence and symbolism. The way von Trier focused on his two characters fascinated me from start to finish. He was not afraid to show them at their most vulnerable to the point where it was almost painful for us to watch; it really felt like I was watching a real couple who lost their only child. From the synopses I read, I got the impression that the bulk of the story was going to be rooted in the supernatural. It wasn’t at all. In fact, although it did reference to an evil force residing in the woods, the focus was more on the psychological breakdown of the wife. In order to make the strange happenings more believable (and more terrifying), von Trier pushes “ordinariness”–both the nature and the unknown in our minds–to the extreme until it almost felt like we were dealing with something extraordinary. That strategy in storytelling is something that I don’t often come across and ultimately that’s why this picture worked. I also had a lot of fun watching this movie because I noticed it having some similarities with “Dogvile” (also directed by von Trier). For instance, the breaking of the figurines (something that Nicole Kidman’s character considered a part of herself) in comparison to breaking certain body parts and Kidman’s character being tied to a heavy metal contraption like Dafoe’s character. The similarities made me think beyond the violence of this film and really tried to think about what the director was trying to convey. I loved that each scene had a purpose and he was not at all afraid to take risks–risks that may give the audiences to laugh uncontrollably. A lot of people thought that “Antichrist” had an open-ended ending. I did not get that feeling. I thought it came full circle: the final feelings and images highlighted the surrealism of the first two chapters. My wish is for less adventurous moviegoers to see this picture and not get distracted by the sexuality and violence because it offers a real insight about what it means to grieve in its core.