Mystery Team (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Jason (Donald Glover), the master disguise, Duncan (D.C. Pierson), the boy genius, and Charlie (Dominic Dierkes), the strongest kid in town, have been solving mysteries since they were in the second grade. Back then, their parents and neighbors thought their play-acting was cute. But now that the trio are seniors in high school, just about everyone, especially their peers, considers them as weird. When a little girl (Daphne Ciccarelle) whose parents are recently murdered, comes up to their booth, Jason convinces his friends that finding the killer is an opportunity to prove to everyone that their detective skills are no joke.
Based on the screenplay by the three leads, “Mystery Team,” directed by Dan Eckman, is disarmingly charming during its first twenty minutes. There is something interesting about the contrast between eighteen-year-olds being so fixated on acting like children and a pinch of something quite dark possibly brewing in the suburbs. Aside from the kid with an affinity for cursing on the playground and hanging out in a strip club, the most amusing scenes involve adults who expect the detectives to understand their dirty jokes and hand gestures.
Miscommunication often leads to frustration and accidental clues, leading to the next scene of more sleuthing and questioning. The sequence that takes place in the strip club is executed brilliantly. Jason, Duncan, and Charlie have no idea what they are in for. Apparently, nor do we. Some doors that the young detectives open reveal jaw-dropping imagery, it is impossible not to let out a laugh or some expression of disgust—maybe even confusion. This is not a movie for children who relates to detective stories.
However, the pacing eventually begins to slow down as if the material has run out of ideas. Instead of focusing on the mystery and providing us twists and turns, Jason starts to develop feelings for Kelly (Audrey Plaza), the little girl’s older sister, and Jason’s fear of losing his friends after high school. Kelly is deathly boring. When she is not pouting, she milks how big her eyes are yet there remains a blankness to them. Her parents just died yet she is more mercurial than devastated. If anything, it would have made sense for her to be really angry. I was at a loss as to what Jason sees in her.
Moreover, Jason’s attachment to his friends is introduced later in the picture but the subplot feels completely out of place. There is no weight in their arguments involving going to college and giving up detective work. Although the three central characters act like kids, if they were able to clearly articulate their thoughts like young adults beyond their years, the contrast between their appearance and words could have added much needed depth to the screenplay, thereby grabbing the audience’s attention and making us think that the story is more than just solving a mystery—that this particular case is special not because it is their first murder mystery but because it is possibly their last.
Instead, the whole thing comes across silly and inconsequential. The reconciliation scene is expected but it is so uninspired. Ultimately, I got the impression that the material is simply burning minutes which is tantamount to stealing our valuable time. Maybe the Mystery Team should have looked into that crime.
★ / ★★★★
After almost closing a business deal and then derailing it, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an alcoholic, goes on a drinking binge despite the fact that he ought to be attending—sober—the birthday of his three-year-old daughter. He passes out in the street and wakes up in a motel room that is locked from the outside. He screams for help and demands to be let out. No cigar. Cameras around the room record his every move. Twenty years of living in a confined space with no human interaction and living off Chinese food, he is released. The game has only begun.
Although “Oldboy,” directed by Spike Lee, is a remake of Chan-wook Park’s cult favorite “Oldeuboi,” the former has enough differences in the final third to make the two pictures different from one another. However, that is not to suggest that the differences are particularly effective. On the contrary, I found myself quite passive to the revelations when they ought to be exciting or shocking. In the end, though I was not enraged by the denouement, I still thought the experience was a waste of time.
Lee’s film is well-shot and well-made, but it lacks a sinister mucosa. A sense of danger is a requirement in a story like this because this element pushes the viewers to ask questions, to lean in, to be as bewildered or confused or frustrated as the protagonist. Instead, the screenplay by Mark Protosevich prefers to show behavior rather than the inner workings of minds—the mind of a victim who had a chunk of his life stolen from him as well as the mind of a perpetrator (Sharlto Copley) who believes that his actions are justified.
Delving into the psychology of a person requires not only a slow unveiling of key information but also a sense of control of mood with respect to what is being revealed. Here, the mood, tone, and atmosphere remain constant and flat. As a result, Joe’s investigation, with the help of a nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), is uninteresting for the most part. I felt as though I was watching a pair follow a trail of crumbs—Point A to Point B—rather than starting at Point A and then having a choice to explore multiple paths that may or may not lead to answers that they wish to attain.
Copley is miscast as the man responsible for Joe’s imprisonment. Though he tries to be dangerous in voice and mannerisms, the whole charade comes off as a distracting performance, almost a caricature. He fails to communicate a level of seething anger. Perhaps a more natural approach might have been better. I wondered how our understanding of the mysterious character would have been different if someone like Mads Mikkelsen had played him.
“Oldboy” is a remake and there is nothing we can do to change that. I am not against remakes as long as I feel they are worth my time. Though a few scenes are well-shot— especially in the first half—its lack of nuance in terms of characterization and how the plot develops is an increasing source of disappointment. I was not convinced that the filmmakers really understood what ought to be extracted from the original and what should be changed in order to create a better piece of work.
★★ / ★★★★
A woman calls the police because she heard a scream from an apartment a floor above hers. Little do the cops know that Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke), killer of thirteen children, resides there and they are incredibly unprepared to deal with him. Soon enough, federal agents arrive at the scene which lead to Engel’s surrender. Cut to Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a farmer and a man of the law, in the countryside. Although a year had passed since the murder of the Fliedler girl, he still obsesses about catching her killer.
Written and directed by Christian Alvart, “Antikörper” is quite exemplary in building a steady feeling of unease as well as bringing up questions about the inherent good and evil in all of us but when it comes to providing answers in terms of plot and philosophy, it falls flat. By the end, one looks back and assesses whether the experience has been worthwhile. For me, it is not and so I cannot recommend it.
Perhaps it has something to do with the film laying out Engel’s modus operandi so early on. Although the writing throws red herrings our way, most well-versed viewers in police drama and procedurals will most likely see through the fog without strain. I happen to fall in this category. As a result, I grew bored with its mystery even before it reaches the halfway point. While it does not lose all of my interest, I caught myself attempting to construct a mental checklist of predictable corners it will likely visit which turns out to be accurate. I relished being right but I felt neither entertained nor challenged.
Scenes that require most effort to sit through involve Engel describing in great detail what he likes to do to the pre-pubescent boys he kidnaps. Hennicke does quite a tremendous job in making us detest his character down to his very marrow. Every word that comes out of his mouth is accompanied by a sort of hiss which only highlights the evil that resides within. It is apparent that the film has taken inspiration from Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Martens’ interrogation of Engel and the mind games that the latter imposes upon the former reflects that of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling’s: the crazed but smooth-talking criminal’s deceptive knowledge about everything even when he is behind bars and the cop, clearly out of his depth, hoping to scavenge answers because he feels his own efforts are insufficient.
There is some tension in the interactions between Engel and Martens but a sense of urgency is not always present. Notice that the music often guides us to feel a certain way during the exchanges. Why not use silence as fertilizer to enhance their lack of trust in one another as well as our own distrust in them? Also, the little tension it has is often broken by editing. Instead of staying with the killer and the provincial cop for the duration of the interview to give us as much time as possible to savor their smallest emotions, it jumps quite often to the detectives listening right next door and how they react to the dialogue. The problem is, we do not need to know their reactions because we, the viewers, function like the detectives—thereby having similar reactions—as we try to piece together the mystery.
Also known as “Antibodies,” the film is directed with blind confidence but it is not as smart as it perceives itself to be. Given its good actors and occasional interesting writing that hints at the repercussions of sexual repression, it should have offered a bleaker, more oblique, and intense experience.
Kill Your Darlings (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), future pioneer for what is now known as the Beat Generation, gets an acceptance letter from Columbia University and is ecstatic because it means he is one step closer toward becoming a writer. But actually being on campus and attending classes, he quickly discovers he doesn’t quite belong. This changes when he meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a writer who engages and challenges Allen, commanding such a live wire and charismatic personality that sometimes the two end up being in trouble with the authorities. Meanwhile, a man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), Lucien’s older male lover, becomes increasingly jealous.
“Kill Your Darlings” is not a straightforward picture. At times it works because we get the impression that we are simply dropping into a specific period of time where future literary icons converge. And yet at times the approach is ineffective because certain subplots that deserve to be explored in order to truly highlight trends and themes are pushed to the side. Despite its limitations, the film demands a recommendation for its good performances.
The relationship between Ginsberg and Carr lies in the center and so Radcliffe and DeHaan must take control of every scene when it is only the two of them interacting. The actors do so beautifully, consistently letting go of what is safe or predictable. Since they often make fresh choices on how to express specific emotions, a level of danger and mystique inspires us to keep watching and ask questions in terms of where the friendship is heading—a romantic route, one that is solely platonic, or something more destructive. Sometimes it appears to be embody all three and that is exciting.
I enjoyed it on another level because I had a chance to measure who is the better actor. In a lot of movies, I can watch a scene and about ten seconds in, I can point at the person who is delivering stronger work. Here, it is a bit of a challenge. I had the pleasure to observe and really think about why the actor decided to choose a certain avenue over another. Sometimes it is about a partnership, too. One might think Radcliffe is the stronger performer and another might say DeHaan is the standout. But one thing is certain: Radcliffe and DeHaan not only have natural chemistry together but they continually work on it.
The best scenes involve Ginsberg and Carr knowing exactly what the other is trying to say without being direct about what they really want or feel. In my eyes, Radcliffe is a level above DeHaan in terms of performance because I felt he is less self-conscious or more relaxed in terms of line delivery, where to put his body, when to turn on the intensity in the eyes, when to remain still—and how to remain still—in order to hold a shot. Clearly, he knows exactly what he is doing. Prior to this picture, I was already convinced Radcliffe is a good actor. But I must say that his work here made me look forward to how else he can improve over the rest of his career.
Subplots that fail to reach completion include: Ginsberg’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being hospitalized and how that has changed or impacted Ginsberg’s experiences in Columbia as well as its role in Ginsberg’s evolution as a writer; a lack of a solid background about Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster)—I was not convinced that someone who had not heard of their names would have any idea why they were important or how good of a writer they were; and a dearth of elementary information with respect to the relationship between Carr and Kammerer. The third is most problematic because the final third of the film attempts to deal with complexity and yet there are no tracks available for us to follow.
Due to its lack of depth, there are sections in “Kill Your Darlings,” written by Austin Bunn and John Krokidas, directed by the latter, where discerning viewers are bound to think that it might have been a better movie if it had been three hours long. In a way, it is most fortunate because the casting directors chose smart in selecting its lead actors.
★★ / ★★★★
Lance (Will Keenan) is driving on the highway when his car suddenly gives out. Desperate for a ride, he gets into a truck of a stranger (Timothy Muskatell) who is willing to take him to the nearest town. While on the way there, the driver asks Lance if he can ask him two questions. Naturally, he complies given that the man is kind enough to give him a ride. First, if he can save only his wife (Camille Keaton) or half-brother (Chad Ferrin) from certain death, who will it be? Second, has he ever been shot with a tranquilizer gun?
“Chop,” written by Adam Minarovich, is a hit-or-miss horror-comedy. The picture is an unconventional revenge movie with occasional uncomfortable chuckles. The stranger claims Lance has done him wrong in the past, but our protagonist cannot remember the specific bad thing he did. It does not help that he is a former drug addict, only driven by what felt good at the time. Each time Lance fails to follow the stranger’s specific instructions, he loses a limb. The process is repetitive and what once seems promising turns dull real quick.
Keenan has plenty of crazy expressions which work during scenes where he must interact with the cops (Tamil T. Rhee, Adam Minarovich) assigned to investigate the disappearance of Lance’s half-brother. Lance’s strange behavior—inability to focus on the detectives’ questions, eyes bulging out of their sockets—and appearance—missing a finger one day, four fingers the next–lead the men of the law to suspect that Lance is the culprit.
The latter half of the film involves Lance being strapped onto a chair and harangued by the stranger to think real hard about the wrongs he did. This is the point where the screenplay begins to feel painfully stagnant. Even though colorful characters are introduced, like drug dealers (Mark Irvingsen, Jeff Sisson) and prostitutes (Elina Madison, Malaya Manson), each introduction comes off like a desperate set up to bring on the blood. There is no substance. And though the material retains its sense of humor because the blood’s consistency looks like it comes right off a garden hose, the flashback scenes—when Lance attempts with all his might to recall the terrible things he did—are neither as funny nor as involving as they should have been.
At some point I wondered when the film is going to surprise the audience and take a genuinely serious turn. There is no doubt that Lance is not a good person when he used to be under the influence. When he is tied up to the chair, no longer a drug addict, he feels a certain level of responsibility for his past actions. However, his confessions and words of regret do not ring true because the comedy never takes a backseat even for a few minutes. As a result, the apologies feel jokey and sarcastic.
Directed by Trent Haaga, “Chop” might have been stronger if it had been more emotionally complex by excising scenes that come off as too desperate to generate laughs and inserting scenes aimed to explore the roots of Lance’s remorse. Horror-comedy hybrids, or any movie for that matter, work best when there is real drama and tension behind them. This one does not feel like there is something else behind its façade.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
In my original review of Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” I asserted that the picture is nothing more than a movie that happens to have a superhero in it. The predecessor, though the action sequences are beautifully shot, is flat, boring at times, and has a villain with an endgame so confusing and paradoxical, the material never gets a real chance in engaging the viewers. The core is hollow.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the same writers as the original, feels and looks like a completely different movie. It has more inspiration, enthusiasm, well-timed comedic moments, and characters worth caring about. As a result, a highly entertaining and confident mainstream blockbuster is created and just about every scene gets it right.
Each time a vehicular chase is involved, one can always expect three elements: a ridiculous amount of wasted bullets, glass shattering in every direction, and, perhaps most importantly, an increasing level of suspense. If one comes to think of it, the approach is not dissimilar to the better installments of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Let us take the pivotal scene with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of an espionage agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., behind the wheel as an example. It is, in a way, inspired by horror greats: utilizing a simple thing as space to trigger our hearts to beat that much faster.
It begins with a glance at a man in a police car while at a stop light. Notice as the action unfolds, although the violence grows incendiary, accompanied by a boost decibels, there is increasingly less space for our eye-patched hero to wiggle through. Assuming that one has seen him in other Marvel installments, we already know how effective of a fighter he is when he is free to move around. But this time the conflict is fresh because not only is there no room for escape, no one is coming to help him. We believe that he is in genuine danger. We hold our breath as the intimidating masked man with a metallic arm gets ever closer.
The plot is technical and almost irrelevant but here it is: S.H.I.E.L.D., under the direction of a senior official named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is about ready to launch its latest creation called Project Insight. It involves three heavily weaponized helicarriers that, in theory, will protect seven billion people across the globe. They are so advanced that once they are in the air, they never have to land. By sharing a connection with satellites, these helicarriers will supposedly be an effective tool to terminate acts of terrorism before they even occur. Though a man born in the 1920s and later cryogenically frozen for about seventy years, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sees through the flaw in the project immediately. He claims what will be achieved is not true freedom but fear.
The final statement above hints at a more interesting Captain America. While I find his background to be sufficiently absorbing because he was so determined to become a soldier despite weighing only ninety-five pounds and standing at about five feet four inches, I have always found his reasons for wanting to become a soldier lacking special depth. He always wants to do the right thing—not like Iron Man, who can be a jerk sometimes, or The Hulk, who is almost always out of control. Here, the definition of the “right thing” is a muddled a little bit. And yet it is enjoyable that his character arc is not so obvious as to cause his change to come off as false. Thus, we look forward to the further changes in his reasons for fighting in the inevitable sequels.
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a superior follow-up in every single way. The action is more thrilling, the motivations of the villains make more sense (even though their identities are able to be seen from a mile away), and we learn something new about our heroes. It is—without a doubt—a step forward for both the “Captain America” franchise and the Marvel universe.
Age of Innocence, The (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but their wedding date is not yet picked out. Both come from what is considered to be good families in nineteenth century New York. On the other hand, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is considered a pariah because she divorced her husband in Europe. Archer is convinced by those who still care for Ellen that he should be around her more often to make people feel less uneasy about being around her. As the two engage in conversations, Newland realizes that he is engaged to the wrong woman. While May offers stability, Ellen is exciting because deep down, like Newland, she considers formalities as mere trifles.
Based on Edith Wharton’s novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The love story between Newland and May and Newland and Ellen has resonance because there is an absence of a traditional villain where one character actively tries to steal’s someone’s heart with vindictiveness. Instead, the enemy is the times, the rules that define an era, and the social conducts that connect the leading players. Because traditionalism must be strictly upheld, there is little room for deviation from the norm. Even the characters who consider the New York society as a joke must to keep their opinions behind closed doors. No one wants to be like Ellen, the subject of toxic gossip.
When the camera moves, it does so with purpose. For example, as rules for behaving and important figures are introduced by the narrator, the camera scans the lavish walls and points our attention to things that range from paintings as they are, the implications of hanging up certain artwork for friends and family to see, to the paint’s color that serve as a background for the works of art. It feels as though the material is forcing us to be as critical as the men and women who inhabit such a world. By allowing us to think about how they think, we are able to navigate ourselves through their own games.
When the camera finally stops to observe a group of conversing people, we look at them with a more critical eye. For instance, we are able to evaluate how they rank compared to one another through their body language, gender, and the way they are dressed. The director’s decision to take his time in pocketing us into this era is critical because the eventual happenings in the story, especially toward the end, involve a deception through the mundane customary social gatherings.
The heart of the picture is Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love. With each secret meeting and delayed gratification of the flesh, the more we want them to be together even though they are having was an affair. By rooting for them to consummate their feelings, it is, in a way, an indirect act of rebellion against the conventions of those times.
Based on the screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is pregnant with implications and excellent performances, even from supporting ones, particularly Miriam Margolyes as the influential but couch-ridden Mrs. Mingott. Good manners and warm smiles have never looked so poisonous.
Extreme Measures (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two men (Shaun Austin-Olsen, André De Shields) wearing no clothing run out of a building, desperate to get away from a car with two men holding guns (David Morse, Bill Nunn). Claude and Teddy decide to go their separate ways for a better chance of survival. Claude ends up in Gramercy Hospital under the care of Dr. Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant). But the patient is barely able to speak because his very high fever is accompanied by uncontrollable body seizures, requiring about six people to hold him down. When Claude’s smorgasbord of strange symptoms calm down on their own, seconds before his death, the patient mentions “Triphase” which Dr. Luthan assumes to be a drug. The doctor is deeply bothered by the incident so he decides to investigate.
Based on the novel by Michael Palmer, “Extreme Measures” works like a treacherous vine that slowly wraps around the audience. When it finally decides to put on the squeeze, it is too late for us to resist its dark charms. Our minds are too invested in the mystery that connects doctors, cops, and homeless men.
The early scenes in the emergency room unfold with great fascination. Because Dr. Luthan is inevitably our eyes, ears, and moral center, there has to be something concrete about him that we can root for. In the emergency ward, we learn about his capacity to deal with stress. Not only does he have to make rapid and astute decisions about which drug to use or which tool is necessary to make the patient more comfortable, he has to take into consideration the various personalities of his staff, patients, and random onlookers. When he is asked to make a decision to give the only operating room available to either a criminal or a cop, I swore I held my breath.
The distinction between a moral and medical decision is a fine line indeed. He gains my attention and confidence not because I thought he made the right or wrong call. It is because he deals with his decision seriously yet not without a sense of humor.
Tony Gilroy’s screenplay consistently increases the ante with Dr. Luthan snooping around certain dark rooms because no one can or will bother to answer his questions about Claude’s missing corpse, but I wished it has less scenes of suggestive romance between our protagonist and a nurse (Sarah Jessica Parker). While Grant and Parker are convincing in their roles, the romantic angle feels forced and ultimately distracts from the mystery and thrills. It does not help that there is a drought of chemistry between the actors when they give each other too knowing dreamy looks.
I would rather have seen more of Dr. Myrick (Gene Hackman) and the methods of his research. At times, the material challenges us whether the nature of his work makes him the villain of the piece. After all, there is no denying that he just hopes to give people with severe spinal injuries a chance to be able to go on with their lives again.
Directed by Michael Apted, “Extreme Measures” poses interesting questions about ethics and morals in medicine and research. Though most are left unanswered, it is most understandable. The answers that matter most are sometimes found in ourselves and they may not necessarily be so easy to come to terms with.