A pocketful of reviews, part 1

Just the other day this little space of mine turned 8 years old. As I write these lines it dawned on me that I started writing about film almost a year after I lost my dad. This blog, like many other things in my life at the time, was a manifestation of an idle mind that was seeking for motivation, purpose and new passions in the midst of nostalgia and unshakeable sorrow.

Soon after, this blog, like many other things that I tried or started between 2010-2012, took a backseat to the path I was already following prior to my dad’s passing, and there were a handful of incomplete goals that I needed to refocus on, for my sake, and to honor my dad’s life. Yet, this blog, like other outlets in my life today, still serve a purpose, one that inspires my creative side, and that keeps it from feeling entirely suffocated.

There are a lot of films I have watched since November that I haven’t had the chance to share my impressions on. This post, and the one or two that will soon follow, will be an attempt to catch me up and force me to exercise my critical artistic brain.

Below is the first batch of those films, covering all of November and a good part of December of last year.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) [ 4/5 ]

Have you ever said: “You can’t write this stuff up”. If there’s one story in 2018 that makes that phrase ring true is the one chronicled in Three Identical Strangers.

The film tells the unlikely and unbelievable tale of triplets separated at birth who did not know of each other’s existence until two of them coincide at Sullivan County College when they were 19 years of age in 1980.

While the story may be known to some that lived through its wide media coverage back in the day, the seemingly happy accident had terrible beginnings that were much less covered by news organizations.

What begins as a rosy, feel-good moment of reunion slowly unravels, blossoming into an unbelievable mystery that poses complex ethical questions. The documentary is smart about pace, unpacking the layers of mystery in an ever-engaging manner.

The interviewees, both participants and eloquent talking heads, give the film an immediacy that is, at times, deeply moving. The brothers are candid and charming New Yorkers that easily carry the narration with humor and determination, gaining our empathy from the onset.

One of the most shocking human interest documentaries of the last few years.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013) [ 3.5/5 ]

The somber finale to one of the greatest love stories in the history of cinema is one where fantasy and dreams are largely replaced by harsh realities. Our couple from the first two installments, Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) find themselves vacationing in Greece, married and the parents of two twin girls.

While the two managed to build a happy life in between films, there appear to be complications brewing just under the surface. In Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine have few things left to conquer as a couple. Their trip begins as a search to rekindle their passion, but it eventually turns into a test of their relationship, and about old problems resurfacing.

My score for the film is a reflection of how difficult and uncomfortable it is to watch this beautiful couple fight, making the experience of reuniting with Jesse and Celine a lot less fun to watch. While the first two films exist almost in isolation as beautiful and hopeful love stories, Before Sunset is about adults who are tired, frustrated and have grown apart. As escapist cinema it offers little, even if the film never ceases to capture the unbelievable chemistry between its leads.

No matter how carefully crafted the story continues to be and how much I respect Before Midnight as a film, it will always be more fun to watch two people fall in love, than seeing them fall out of it.

MR BROOKS (2007) [ 2.5/5 ]

The success of the film hinges, in large part, on Kevin Costner’s ability to sell his character: a successful business and family man who is also a serial killer. For an actor who has built a career portraying good and honest men, the role is a step too far.

Unfortunately, Costner gets little help. The women in his life are mere footnotes in the script, offering nearly nothing to gain a broader perspective on Mr. Brooks as a husband and father. Even more problematic is Dane Cook’s supporting role. The stand-up comedian turned actor cannot escape his on-stage persona, delivering an amateurish performance that lends the film a deeply uninteresting antagonist who is little more than a creepy fanboy nuisance who happens to catch Brooks in the act.

Oddly enough, the film takes on challenges it is not crafty enough to overcome. The film’s distinctive high-concept is introduced early when we meet Marshall (William Hurt), an imagined evil alter ego who pressures Brooks to continue killing. Sadly, the concept is a poor replacement for the kind of nuanced psychological examinations that an excellent series like Mindhunters (produced and directed by David Fincher) can give you about the twisted minds of serial killers.

HOLD THE DARK (2018) [ 3/5 ]

The films by Jeremy Saulnier are violent and dark. His films appeal to our primitive instincts, painting us as vengeful, blood-thirsty savages prone to fits of animalistic behavior. The stories he tells are about men resorting to their most basic instincts to survive, to avenge and to prevail. Hold the Dark expands on Saulnier’s peculiar cinematic language as it tells a gruesome story set in the far reaches of Alaska where nights are long and days are as white as the snow that blankets the land. The film is Saulnier’s lushest piece of filmmaking to date, enveloping us in an oppressive and depressing environment that is as dangerous as it is beautiful.

Given Saulnier’s obvious skill as a filmmaker, it is with frustration that I see the direction of his work pointing towards mindless horror. Starting with Green Room (the acclaimed 2015 thriller I wasn’t enthusiastic about) Saulnier has squeezed the life out of his stories in the service of violence that is without purpose, and of cinematic craft that is without soul.

As with Green Room, Saulnier’s writing seems to be an excuse for the staging of men in battle. It’s hard to imagine how any of his characters here were able to coexist as humans prior to the beginning of the tale, since it seems there is no remorse or hesitation to their actions when we finally meet them.

In Hold the Dark, Saulnier also dips his feet in fantasy. The way he uses it gives the story a metaphorical resonance that adds to the mysterious of wild Alaska. However, his attempts are timid and scattered, almost working entirely against the oppressive realism of the setting.

BOY ERASED (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

As a gay man it is hard not to identify and sympathize with the plight of the protagonist in Boy Erased. Though I was lucky not to have gone through so much hardship when I decided to come out of the closet, there is, undoubtedly, a shared thread of pain and societal rejection that unites all members of the LGTBQ community.

At times, the difficulty in the telling of such a uniquely gay story proves to be too difficult for a heterosexual director like Joel Edgerton (who also plays the film’s antagonist). It’s not because he is straight, but because he is too concerned with telling the story, rather than feeling it.

As controversial as the film may feel to some conservatively-minded people, I found it to be formulaic in its portrayal of religious intolerance, avoiding less convenient paths for politically correct ones that are filled with hope and reconciliation.

Boy Erased is precisely the reason why more films should go to the hands of the underrepresented. Stories like the one in the film deserve to be told from an insider’s perspective and not from that of an outsider like Edgerton, whose direction feels removed and antiseptic despite tackling a very hard subject with good intentions.

CROWN HEIGHTS (2017) [ 3/5 ]

I have seen movies like Crown Heights before, both in a theater, and outside of it, on the streets of the Great Ol’ Country.

Based on a real story, Crown Heights misuses its source material to craft a largely soulless story about injustice. Director Matt Ruskin shared the story of Colin Warner in a perfunctory manner, as if he couldn’t wait to tell us how it ends.

Regardless of the story’s intrinsic pathos, the film can’t quite grasp the grace and patience of the many families who are torn by unjust incarceration. The structure of the film stays two steps ahead, burning through moments of poignancy as if chased by hounds.

The highlight of the film is the lead performance given by Lakeith Steinfeld, whose tall and lanky frame perfectly juxtaposes the quiet strength of spirit that the real man, Colin Warner, must have had to endure such hardship.

THE EQUALIZER (2014) [ 3/5 ]

Before I truly began to get myself acquainted with cinema and its rich history in the last ten years, I started abandoning the action thriller genre. After all, the mainstream Hollywood action thriller appeals to our more primitive instincts, often asking little of us, and typically offering nothing more (if we are lucky) than the kind of escapism many of us seek when we go to the movies.

Released in 2014, The Equalizer feels like an older film that evokes a different era; one where movie stars like Schwarzennegger or Stallone could carry a film with their undeniable charisma.

What The Equalizer doesn’t share with many other action thrillers is that it stars Denzel Washington, one of the greatest actors of his generation. The problem with The Equalizer isn’t Denzel or that it is an action thriller. The problem is that the film directed by Antoine Fuqua is far too self-conscious about the bag of tricks it hides under its sleeve. Constantly, the film winks at us, choosing to overindulge in conversation, setting up a central relationship that never felt genuine and holding our hands to a satisfying finale.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014) [3/5]

I would be afraid to get on Liam Neeson’s bad side. This much is true.

The Northern Irish actor carries with him an intensity of purpose that united with his strong features and tall and wide physique make for a formidable screen presence.

In films like A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson’s age and seasoned skills in front of a camera display a weariness that hints at past struggles that serves his character well. While A Walk Among Tombstones knows how to use Liam Neeson to best effect, there is also plenty about the script that doesn’t work as well. There is, for example, an odd friendship that develops between Neeson and a teenage African American kid. The relationship seems to belong to a different film and it becomes a part of the script that never fully amounts to something of significance. Like that, there are other moments that left me scratching my head, wondering about their value to the whole. Entertaining enough nonetheless, and worth watching for Liam Neeson’s performance alone.

KING OF THIEVES (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Considering the cast at hand, I was surprised to find King of Thieves as messy and impenetrable as it was. The script penned by Joe Penhall is the work of a man who attempted to pack many films into one, borrowing from a great many sources. The film lacks tonal consistency, changing skins on multiple occasions, jumping from character to character without spending enough time with anyone to get at what makes them who they are.

The film is the senile and insufferable relative of the Ocean franchise, if the likes of Clooney and Pitt had turned into sour, paranoid and awful human beings. King of Thieves commits one deadly cinema sin: failing to create at least one character we can root for and sympathize with.

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988) [ 5/5]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Films

This film was a revelation. Its tragedy was overpowering. Its characters indelible. Its animation style a perfect vessel to find beauty and grace in the midst of a great tragedy.

This Studio Ghibli masterpiece is the film I’d use to demonstrate the value of animation to tell stories that are universal and pertinent. In fact, I’d be hard for me to come up with a more compelling indictment on the horror of war than the one contained here. A must watch for any cinephile.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) [ 4/5 ]

Ever the provocateur, Spike Lee reinvents himself yet again with a film that is bold, entertaining, funny and suspenseful. The premise is typical Lee in that it shines a light on deeper cultural truths while telling a story that isn’t altogether serious. The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer stationed at Colorado Springs who manages to infiltrate the KKK in the 1970s with the help of other white police officers.

Surprisingly, Spike spends considerable screen time with the Klan, exposing the fallacy and ignorance of their beliefs, mocking and ridiculing their entire operation. Blackkklansman introduced me to the great talent of John David Washington, whose lead character shifts and changes, working as both a comedic and a dramatic performance.

Most importantly, Spike Lee gets the tone just right, weaving another deeply aware cultural tale into a finely tuned Hollywood production that radiates charm.

ROMA (2018) [ 4/5 ]

I have shared my thoughts on Roma recently, view them here.

SEARCHING (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

It’s been a couple of months since I watched Searching. The time that has passed has only reinforced the merits of this film.

The story of a missing daughter whose father is desperate to find her may be as old as time, but it is the singular millennial vision of director Aneesh Chaganty that distinguishes Searching in inventive and often engaging ways.

Unlike other contemporary films that try to pull off similar tricks, Searching finds interesting ways in which to tie its story to the way with which we engage and often rely on technology these days. Crucially, the film gives the reins to John Cho, a very capable actor who, in his first lead role in a mainstream feature gives a fully committed performance that is, at times, devastating to watch.

MINDING THE GAP (2018) [ 4/5 ]

The feature film debut of Bing Liu reminds me of an equally great documentary: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”. Both had a raison d’etre when they were first imagined only to transform into documentaries that spoke about very personal and tragic stories.

Unlike Dear Zachary, there is a bit more design to Liu’s goal, but what he encounters along the way, as he films some of his childhood friends, are the kind of happy accidents that elevate artistic expression.

Despite a very limited budget, Bing Liu displays the kind of talent and confidence that belong to a more mature and experienced director. His opening skating sequence remains a highlight of the year for me.

PRIVATE LIFE (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

In just her third feature film Tamara Jenkins demonstrates she has talent in spades to tell familial, deeply personal stories. Her characters are rounded people, both men and women, whose quotidian struggles put a mirror to our own lives in ways that are often touching. At the same time, such interest in the common and familiar can sometimes lack the kind of revelations we seek when we go to the theater.

One of the highlights of the film is the cast led by the ever-great Paul Giammatti and the surprising Kathryn Hahn as a middle-aged New York-based couple whose nearly obsessive attempts at childbirth have conditioned and defined their relationship.

The script, penned mostly by Ms. Jenkins while she was pregnant, speaks of middle-age crises with immediacy and the kind of dark humor that is familiar to tired and often overworked adults. Private Life is Tamara Jenkins’ best piece yet.

SOLTERA CODICIADA (2018) [ 3/5 ]

Soltera Codiciada (translated to How To Get Over a Breakup for the English-speaking market), a Peruvian comedy backed by Netflix, is a type of film I have seen before, but with English-speaking characters and a uniquely American point of view. Though inspired by its North American counterparts, Soltera Codiciada has, by nature, a distinctive Latin American flavor that may be the film’s saving grace. By saying that, I refer almost entirely to its humor, a combination of slapstick and ridiculousness that shares a great deal with hispanic soap opera productions.

Even when Soltera Codiciada opts to be an Americanized version of Peruvian culture, the attitude with which it is written and acted makes it a perfectly amenable watch.

BAH, HUMDUCK!: A LOONEY TUNES CHRISTMAS (2006) [ 2.5/5 ]

This 21st century Looney Tunes reimagining of the tale of Ghosts of Christmas Past is a bland and unimaginative excuse to make another feature out of classic cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.

The first problem is that the very familiar source material demands a better effort, if only to bring some unexpected twists to a tale that has been told in the big screen at least once per decade. The second problem, and perhaps a more significant one, is that the legacy of the Looney Tunes brand heightens the stakes, and makes nostalgic audiences expect something more.

The fact is that Bah, Humduck, is a series of regurgitated gag jokes of Daffy Duck being completely unlikeable and extremely clumsy. The humor aims to please the youngest of crowds, but it quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome. Every character is but a lackluster carapace of the larger-than-life personalities they have displayed in countless of classic Looney Tunes specials.

Our kids deserve more.

DUMPLIN’ (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

As far as coming-of-age stories goes, one can do much worse than Dumplin’, a Netflix original film directed by Anne Fletcher.

Apart from the all-too-common Hollywoodesque roadblocks our charming protagonist encounters, the surprising and charismatic Danielle McDonald as Willowdean “Dumplin’ Dickson, carries a film packed-full of Southern charm and personality. Dumplin’ is a story about mother and daughter relationships and growing up as a fully-figured young woman. The film also stars a very good Jennifer Anniston as a beauty pageant-obsessed mother, whose difficult relationship with her daughter is much more complicated than it first seems.

Highlights of the film include the lively soundtrack of greatest hits by the great Dolly Parton, and the side story of the drag Southern bar where Dumplin’ and her friends find a safe haven to embrace who they are.

EIGHT GRADE (2018) [ 4/5 ]

Of all the films released in 2018 no other made me feel more self-conscious than this gem by first-time feature film director Bo Burnham.

Watching the painfully shy lead character, a star-making turn by Elsie Fisher, reminded me of my own struggles to overcome my social awkwardness at around the same age.

Inspired by the many stories shared by young teen girls on platforms like YouTube, Burnham manages to create a female character that felt incredibly familiar, both because of my own personal experiences and due my own impressions of teenagers navigating an interconnected and social-media focused world.

One of the many interesting things about the script is that Burnham explores the duality that often exists between the person we edit for the internet, and the real thing. Elsie, who plays Kayla Day, is a perfect example of said phenomenon. She painfully reveals just how much young people try to fit in and the perils that come with trying.

This is a film that will only grow on me over time.

Please put your comments below. Any thoughts on the reviewed films?

1 thought on “A pocketful of reviews, part 1

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