Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
A wealthy couple, Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland), wake up one day and suspect that their place has been ransacked. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that nothing is missing. But something strange did happen the night before.
While discussing business with a friend (Ian McKellen), an African-American young man, Paul (Will Smith), knocks on the door and claims to have been stabbed and mugged. When asked why he chose this place as refuge instead of a hospital, Paul explains that he knows Flan and Ouisa’s son in Harvard. Unbeknownst to couple, however, Paul is a confidence man, pulling the same tricks that have worked before to anyone gullible enough to listen.
“Six Degrees of Separation,” based on the play and screenplay by John Guare, has a script so pointed in its criticism of white New York socialites, I almost did not mind its occasional elliptical pacing coupled with distractingly quick cuts when it is time for various couples to tell their stories of the charming black man they welcomed into their exquisitely decorated homes. Its sense of humor is sly, almost like a striptease at times. Instead of always going for the jugular in terms of how pretentious and racist the socialites are, they are given a chance to speak.
And the devil is in the detail. From the way they tell their own versions of the stories, we learn about their varying degrees of prejudices. It is amusing because almost all of them consider themselves so worldly, so readily able to discuss art, throwing out names of plays, artists, and literature in daily conversations, they forget that being knowledgeable of such things is not tantamount to actually experiencing life out there in the streets and having to work just to make ends meet. Even though they know a lot, in a way, they also know not so much.
But the film is not only successful because of its style of criticism. The acting is consistently magnetic and surprisingly touching. Smith’s performance dominates the first half and Channing absolutely shines in the latter half. Smith polishes Paul with a cool glaze of intelligence and huggable earnestness. Although we learn a little bit more about him as the picture goes on, I enjoyed that even until the very end, Paul remains an enigma, very appropriate because we mostly learn about him through hearsay.
Channing is wonderful as a wife of an art dealer and a mother of very unhappy children. The way she unspools Ouisa is interesting because of the way she slowly realizes how unbearably dreary her existence has become. The eventual, although slight, mother-son affection Paul and Ouisa share comes across as believable because they manage to fill each other’s void somehow. Since their relationship is so expertly handled, I wished that the acting of Flan and Ouisa’s children are less jarring by means of excessive yelling. While understandable that they are supposed to be brats, the representation is too obvious. I did not care much for the screaming matches over the telephone or in person.
Directed by Fred Schepisi, “Six Degrees of Separation” is most effective when it reels in emotions on the verge of an explosion. Although a comedy for the most part, there is real pain in these people’s lives, very much visible in their eyes as they yearn for acceptance.
Grand Budapest Hotel, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
As far as favorite directors go, Wes Anderson’s name is about a mile off my list. And yet whenever he releases a new picture, I always want to give him a chance because he has proven prior that he is capable of making a humanistic picture first and a moving painting second (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”). But not lately.
Instead, he puts style ahead of substance and it becomes an experience not to be enjoyed but to be endured. He has the power to cast many big and talented names, but he rarely uses them in such a way that every single one is able to make a mark. He would rather utilize them as decorations and so it becomes distracting, almost like watching a ninety-minute commercial rather than a full feature film.
Case in point: When the main character of the film, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the famed Grand Budapest in 1932, faces an old woman who is supposed to be his lover, instead of absorbing and processing the scene, my mind took notice of Tilda Swinton almost immediately underneath the heavy makeup. If the screenplay had been more alive by being more interested in introducing its characters in a meaningful way instead of going for the predictable Anderson wide shot designed to showcase how pretty the room looks, recognizing the performer would probably have escaped me.
The story is all over the place. Perhaps it is the director’s attempt to disguise being original when, really, the scenes are nothing but a potpourri of familiar trappings. I think he is aware of this, too. Perhaps it is the reason why he decided to adopt a story-within-a-story(-within a story) conceit. The more pretty convolutions provided, the easier it is—at least with most people—to believe that maybe what one is watching is one of a kind. Do not be fooled.
There is a death, possibly murder, relatives who come to the funeral only because they wish to know the contents of the will (Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe), a lobby boy who hopes to prove his worth (Tony Revolori), a stolen priceless work of art and the police hunt that comes afterwards (Edward Norton)… Aren’t you bored? I’m bored just typing all of that. Compound them with a very relaxed, almost lackadaisical, direction, there is a drought of suspense and excitement. There is only twee quirks and pastel palates.
Despite having a running time of just above an hour and a half, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” makes Stanley Kubrick’s three-hour “Barry Lyndon” feel like only an hour long. These two films are comparable in that both are very beautiful even though the former is more like a children’s collage and the other is a time travel to the past. But there is a key difference. In Kubrick’s film, its protagonist is driven by a motivation we can all relate with. Gustave, on the other hand, is esoteric. Why is he interesting? His reputation for sleeping with older women? How some men consider him a queer? His bisexualism? I say none of the above. Anderson neglects to make his protagonist interesting or memorable. His eyes are on the set decor.
Ghostbusters II (1989)
★ / ★★★★
Five years after they saved New York City from Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) are out of business. The city also has a restraining order against the team which prevents them from pursuing and solving paranormal activities. Meanwhile, a spirit (Wilhelm von Homburg) inside a strange painting in a museum wishes to be reborn. Dana (Sigourney Weaver), divorced, happens to have a baby boy who just may be a perfect vessel.
“Ghostbusters II,” written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, begins promisingly but its paranormal subplot involving a river of ectoplasm beneath the city is overshadowed by the sheer joy of watching Murray and Weaver’s characters flirting with one another. The premise involving the slime is potentially interesting. When the guys are in the lab and test its capabilities, I was as curious as they were and there are times when I was genuinely surprised by its biology.
However, when the Ghostbusters are out and about the city, most of the humor either comes off forced or falls completely flat. There is only one time when I caught myself laughing out loud which involves the Ghostbusters pretending to be construction workers. A pair of cops are suspicious of their digging in the middle of the street but the boys must somehow persuade them, by acting like how they perceive construction workers are like, that they have been authorized to create a big hole and cause a commotion.
Unfortunately, this moment of inspired comedy is diluted by endless aimless gags where the jokes lack punch. I did not enjoy that I felt as though I was always one step ahead of our protagonists. For a bunch of really smart guys, the screenplay gives them too much time to finally make the connection between the research that Dr. Spengler (Ramis) is conducting and the slime that reacts to extreme emotions. I got the impression that padding is inserted between interesting scenes for the sake of bulking up the running time. As a result, the film’s pacing is slow and there is barely a sense of magic, despite the generous special and visual effects on screen, in the discovery of the evil plot.
Furthermore, I sensed a lack of creativity in the resolution of the bizarre happenings all over the city. While it is hilarious to see a woman’s fur coat come alive and attack her, why even bother showing us the police receiving calls from citizens about, for instance, being attacked by a park bench and other inanimate objects if the police were never shown doing anything about the report? Also, it is not necessary that we see another giant prancing around the city because that has been done before.
The film’s strength is its quieter moments. For example, Dr. Venkman (Murray) playing with Dana’s baby and Dr. Venkman and Dana going on a date and discussing what went wrong in their once promising romantic relationship. Such moments of reality should have been the anchors of the picture. If the screenplay had given the human angle to simmer and evolve and the paranormal quirks had been dialed down a notch, “Ghostbusters II,” directed by Ivan Reitman, could have had a chance to be good. Instead, the picture feels as weightless and lifeless as its transparent, raggedy-looking ghosts.
Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)
★ / ★★★★
Spoofs and parodies are very difficult to pull off with grace and a consistent level of humor. Steve Oedekerk’s “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” validates the previous statement because the resulting work is neither graceful nor does it offer a strong enough consistency with its jokes to inspire those who may not be kung fu or martial arts aficionados to keep watching. The film attempts to entertain, if such a word is even applicable to this dross, solely on a sensory level and so it must be judged within the limitations it sets for itself.
It is an interesting choice to combine images from Yu Wang’s “Tiger and Crane Fist,” also known as “The Savage Killers,” and original footages shot by Oedekerk to coordinate the plot away from the former. But creative choices that work stop there. Halfway through, one starts to get a sinking feeling that it has peaked and there is absolutely no point in seeing the rest other than to subject oneself with torture.
It is plagued with incredibly bad dubbing. Worse, it is done on purpose for comic effect. While there are kung fu movies in existence with egregious dubbing, other elements are present to make up for what is missing. Here, fighting scenes that show artistry are taken directly from “Tiger and Crane First.” The so-called original shots are so transparently awful that the camera attempts to utilize extreme close-ups to hide its inadequacies—as if we were stupid enough not to notice.
Admittedly, there is one action scene that I enjoyed… which involves a computerized cow, udders and all, that knows kung fu. Yes, you read that right. There is a cow. That knows kung fu. (Tip: It is best to search for a YouTube clip than to have to sit through an embarrassing parade of incompetence.) I liked that the cow looks like it is rabid and on steroids. This is not a back-handed compliment. I admired that, at least with regards to the cow, the filmmaker is willing to go all the way in a manner that works.
Comedy most often works when it does not always try to make the audience laugh. In other words, humor should be treated as a punctuation point—not as letters. Once it is treated like the latter, audiences are bound to feel desensitized and it becomes that much more difficult to impress the viewer. The writer-director is desperate for laughs—and it shows. For instance, it might have been better if there was only one character given really bad dubbing. Every time that person spoke, he or she and whatever was about to said would highly likely stand out.
What is the plot? I place it here because it really does not matter. But for those who might still be interested (I implore you: watch something else), it is this: Representing the aims of the Evil Council, Master Pain murders an entire family because he and his group are convinced that the baby who had just been born is “The Chosen One.” The baby escapes and over time, he is able to learn and hone his fighting skills to avenge his family.
“Kung Pow! Enter the Fist” commands a brand of humor but that brand is not original or exciting because the picture fails to excel in any one thing. Anybody can grab a camera and employ extreme close-ups. Anybody can put on a wig and act really silly. And anybody can make really annoying voices. Imagine: This was made with millions of dollars. That money could have been donated to the poor, to animal shelters, or research. But no, it was used to create this hogwash.
I Love You to Death (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Joey Boca (Kevin Kline), a pizza parlor owner, confesses to a priest that he had cheated on his wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), about a dozen times—“give or take”—in the past two weeks. Joey claims that although he loves looking at women and being physically intimate with them, it does not mean that he no longer feels anything for his wife, readily available for his every need.
When Rosalie is returning books to the library, she catches her husband feeling up another woman behind a shelf and hears talk of going to a private place to mess around. Heartbroken and outraged, Rosalie informs her very Yugoslavian mother, Nadja (Joan Plowright), of what she has just witnessed and the duo plot to kill Joey for his indiscretions.
Loosely based on a true story in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “I Love You to Death,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, is so vibrant in its portrait of husband and wife that the darkly comedic elements work wonders when it probably should not have if the level of humor and timing had been off by a degree. And given its subject matter, it certainly easily could have been exploitative but underneath its twists and turns, it has a heart that the material is not afraid to acknowledge.
While its premise is reasonably thin, some may say gimmicky, it is a joy to watch because the actors seem really excited in playing their roles. Plowright is especially hilarious as Joey’s mother-in-law who looks for ways to antagonize him. She delivers her brilliant one-liners with such precision that we forget about her character’s age and the stereotypes that go along with it.
One of the best scenes is an argument the two share in a restaurant as Joey insults Nadja in Italian and Nadja curses at him in her native language. The neat thing is that although most of us would not be able to understand their remarks, it matters not: we feel their distain for one another by reading their facial expressions, intonations in their voices, and the way they use their hands as if they wanted to grab and pummel each other.
After one failed attempt after another in getting rid of Joey the adulterer scum, the mother-daughter’s plot becomes increasingly complicated as familiar and not-so-familiar faces begin to visit the house to finish off what they started. Devo (River Phoenix), an employee in the pizzeria, has a crush on Rosalie and claims he would do absolutely anything to win her affections. Devo is an interesting ingredient because Phoenix downplays his character’s sense of humor. Instead of attempting to match Nadja’s wit and sass, he is more about playing up ideas in his head with very poor execution.
However, the film hits a few snags in terms of pacing. When drug addicts, Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves), enter the equation, they are quite amusing initially. But as they spend more time in front of the camera, they begin to overstay their welcome because their type of humor relies more on slapstick rather than irony.
Finally, while the majority of the picture embraces a light-hearted tone, there are moments when it is dead serious. While the level of seriousness may vary for everyone, for me, I started to consider that maybe it is time for Rosalie and company to send Joey to the hospital when blood starts to flow.
“I Love You to Death,” written by John Kostmayer, is effective because absurd and bizarre elements are matched by enthusiastic performances. Philandering spouses will get a kick out of this.
★★ / ★★★★
Dystopian Chicago is divided into five factions: Erudite for the intelligent, Amity for the kind, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Abnegation for the selfless—each believed to serve a specific function to maintain peace and order. Young men and women take an aptitude test and the result of the exam gives each participant an idea which faction he or should should join. Typically, a person falls under one category. However, in rare of circumstances, a person may be considered a good for fit more one than one group. These are called Divergent and they are considered a threat to society.
Based on the novel by Veronica Ruth, though “Divergent” offers an interesting premise, it is a problematic picture largely because its exposition is expanded to such an extent that it becomes increasingly clear that it is a movie that never stops beginning. When it does hit its stride eventually, some time after the hour-and-fifteen-minute mark, the film is halfway over and supporting characters that are potentially worth knowing remain on the side. As a result, the material ends up offering very little substance—especially to those, like myself, who have never read the series.
Suspense is absent for the most part. Let us take a look at Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games.” There is a sense of build-up with scenes that lead up the The Reaping. Silence is utilized in such a way as to highlight the oppression endured by the protagonist’s long suffering district. Here, because the screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor fails to place heavy importance in what is about to transpire—the very thing that will propel the story forward, it feels as though taking the personality-based exam is a piece of cake. Although Tris (Shailene Woodley) is nervous about taking the test, I found myself watching rather passively rather than in anticipation.
Deaths occur later in the picture—which is now expected with films of this type. I wanted to know more about the friends Beatrice has grown close to in her chosen faction (Zoë Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen). What about her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who joined Erudite, a group that wishes to gain power and control over the city? What are his experiences like at that camp? And when Beatrice and Caleb left home, how did their parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) cope? These are not deep information about the characters but they are necessary for context.
Instead, we get an abundance of scenes surrounding so-called training: jumping off trains, hand-to-hand combat, target practice… Relatively boring junk, not to mention unconvincing. In my eyes, two of the “leaders,” Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), do not actually lead. They do a lot of standing and looking stern. They are not shown helping the recruits on how to hone their techniques and improve their performances. An exemption is when Four comes up to Beatrice and gives tips—but it is only because he is romantically interested in her. The charade is superficial, obvious, and cheesy—only there to appeal to people whose definition of sexy is outward gestures.
I enjoyed Kate Winslet’s presence as the Erudite leader. She elevates the material because even when her character is not saying a thing, we can tell immediately that she is someone of importance. It is in the way she stands, the way she walks, the way she looks—or not look—at others who she considers to be below her. However, Winslet does not have very many scenes. She did not have a chance to turn her cold character into someone with more substance, a villain with more to her than verbalizing her goal to maintain “peace.”
Directed by Neil Burger, “Divergent” is a mildly entertaining movie that offers standard action behind a premise that should have had more depth. If one were looking for shootouts at the end, one would likely be satiated. If one were looking for romantic glances and flirtations, one would likely walk away swooning. But I am not looking for standard; I am looking for something that attempts to set the bar—or at least meet it. In this respect, the film is a major disappointment.
Edge of Love, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Ryhs) makes a living writing scripts for the government during World War II. When not at work, he enjoys spending time with a childhood friend, Vera (Keira Knightley), a singer, in a bar, drinking, flirting, and chain smoking. When Dylan’s wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), pays him a visit, she suspects that he might be having an affair. Meanwhile, William (Cillian Murphy), a soldier, admires Vera’s beauty and elegance from afar.
Based on a true story, “The Edge of Love,” written by Sharman Macdonald, works more like a commercial for things to do to distract oneself during a war rather than embodying a focused and engaging story about a poet with a yearning to contribute his talent. The first half seems to be about the glamour of being free and not having to be responsible. Everything glows beautifully, from Vera’s hair as she entertains the bar’s customers to the alcohol-filled glasses being handed to those who wish to escape the horrible and traumatizing realities of the outside world.
I enjoyed deciphering the relationship among Dylan, Vera, and Caitlin. While too apparent push and pull forces are present between the two women, they are marginally interesting because the performers play upon a certain level of mystique. A kind of friendship is built upon what could have been jealousy or rivalry. By the end, it can be argued that what they come to share is the only true and lasting element in the film.
There are amusing moments when Dylan believes he is the center of attention—so seemingly adored by the women in his life—but he fails to realize that at times he is being made fun of for his tomfoolery. Somewhere in the middle, however, the picture is stripped off of its glamour. This is the point where we expect Dylan’s story to move front and center so we can understand how his mind works, his specific motivations, how much he values his partner, the children that they have, and the war that threatens to destroy everything.
It is disappointing because the screenplay comes across as reluctant to really delve into the darker side of his relationships. Tragic things happen but more than half are so out of context, sometimes I found myself confused and was forced to think back to the film’s common threads and themes in order to try to make sense what had just transpired. The lack of clarity in terms of presenting events in a logical way is problematic because instead of being invested in the emotions and psychology of the drama as well as anticipating what might happen, I spent ample time looking back.
While the women’s story held my interest, especially at the point when they are forced to evaluate their worth in their men’s lives as well as a possible attraction between the two of them, I wondered why Dylan is missing from the frame for extended amount of time. When he is finally shown, the picture fails to provide dimension. We see him drinking, looking sad, and acting cranky but we are not given a full understanding of him after the partying and fun times have come and gone. So when he makes critical decisions pertaining to another character near the end, it comes across more random than shocking. Since we never get to know Dylan as a person, his emotions and actions lack depth and resonance.
Directed by John Maybury, if “The Edge of Love” were a fashion video, it would be a success. It inspires us to look at the intricate details of the clothes and how the actors carry off the looks. However, as a peek into a time period in Dylan Thomas’ life, a poet of whom I had no knowledge of, it is quite uninformative.