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.