Category Archives: Drama

Hard Surfaces (2017, Zach Brown)

Hard Surfaces is pretty thin. Sometimes it’s translucently thin. The film itself never has any depth, but fairly regularly the actors at least show they could give it some depth, if it weren’t for the thinness. Ostensibly the film’s well-meaning, but that quality comes off as fake. Like writer (and director) Brown is using trying to leverage melodramatic tropes to tell his story, which even he doesn’t care very much about because it’s impossible to care very much about successful cokehead Winston-Salem, North Carolina photographer Shawn Pyfrom (who also produced). He’s such a big hit, he goes to red carpet openings—which later makes no sense when you find out he’s been living a lie in Winston-Salem for years. Surfaces exists in a world without much of an Internet. It’s not even clear the cellphones can text. Pyfrom is dating professional mean girl Julia Voth (who also produced); actually she’s a prosumer mean girl; Voth not being some kind of YouTube influencer is one of Surfaces many misses. She couldn’t be a YouTube influencer, however, and not just because the Internet doesn’t exist, but because Voth’s character isn’t allowed that level of depth. She’s just the bitchy, sex-crazed harpy who seduces Pyfrom whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. Because Pyfrom doesn’t want kids, so all Voth can give him is sex. And enable his cocaine and prescription pill addiction.

Pyfrom’s hit photographs are all of people on drugs. His studio is in his apartment and even though these subjects sometimes make Pyfrom uncomfortable (Sterling Hurst in the film’s only thing approaching a standout performance), he doesn’t worry about it ever coming back on him. His buddy—and the guy who sells pictures—Chase Fein hires the subjects. So they’re paying people to get dangerous high and then Pyfrom takes pictures of them drooling, then Fein sells them. Fein, we later find out, is all about his AA-fueled sobriety. Fein knows drugs are bad, he just doesn’t care about them being bad for other people. He’s even got an overdose story at one point. He’s also a… hipster? I mean, he walks around barefoot all the time, mostly wears long-sleeve shirts and shorts, eats in front of people at a place of business and talks with his mouth full, and does yoga on his desk. Given Brown doesn’t appear to direct his actors at all, it’s impressive how much Fein’s able to get away with when the script and direction aren’t ever there to back him up.

But then Pyfrom’s past catches up to him; his sister and her wife die in a tragic boating accident off Catalina. Because where else does anyone die except in tragic boating accidents except off Catalina. They’ve left him their daughter, who—before they kicked him out of the state and he left in tears, they all promised he’d care for if they ever died. There’s some twenty-first century “not that there’s anything wrong with it” from the two female characters in the film, bitchy girlfriend Voth (who needs to have a kid to validate her existence we later find out) and virginally wonderful social worker Sophie Kargman. Voth can get away with her surprise at lesbians existing because she’s supposed to be playing shallow, but Kargman’s awkward delivery of “partner” instead of wife in a legal setting? It’s a creative decision on someone’s part and a dumb one.

There are a lot of dumb creative decisions in the film, but they’re mostly Brown’s script. It’s not like Pyfrom ever screws up a scene. Quite the opposite. He’s perfectly fine doing this movie all about how sad it is this thirty-something white guy has to take a measure of responsibility–basically, it’s about him realizing it’s not a good idea to get high around tween ward Hannah Victoria Stock. Stock ought to give the movie’s best performance, but she doesn’t because Brown’s so bad at directing her scenes. It’s like they used the worst take in every scene, then cut it wrong. But it’s not like Pyfrom has any arc with Stock. Or, more, the other way around. See, once Stock is introduced and starts eating instead of being locked away in her room while Pyfrom day drinks (it’s okay though, thanks to the coke, he never gets drunk; it’s established in the first scene because the script is all about priorities), she pretty much disappears. Fein becomes her babysitter while Pyfrom and Kargman have this awful courtship then disappointment once someone (psst, it’s Voth) calls into social services he’s a drunken cokehead who probably shouldn’t be caring for a tween.

However, since Pyfrom never has any problems other than, you know, passing out on his counter, and never actually does anything with Stock except maybe feed her and drop her off at Fein’s gallery… it’s hard to see a problem. But then you realize it’s because Brown is manipulating everything to make Pyfrom a victim, even when Fein’s accusing him of playing victim, there’s another layer to make Pyfrom the victim. Because we don’t have all the details. Sure, he lied to pal and business partner Fein and live-in girlfriend Voth about his past and they never found out not just because there’s no Internet but because it turns out the local newspaper, which apparently does multiple stories about Pyfrom’s photography, never did some basic checking into his identity. It’s not like he had his name legally changed, so Voth never looked at the water bill either.

The suspension of disbelief Surfaces requires, not just for plot points but for characters and the ground situation itself… it needs to bring something more than the acceptable acting of a typo-free but insipid screenplay. And whatever screenwriting book Brown read to help with the third act needs to be burned; it’s reveal after gimmick after reveal after gimmick after reveal.

If Brown had some personality as a director, there might be something to Hard Surfaces. If Voth and Kargman had switched roles—Voth implies depth, Kargman never does—it’d be something. If Brown knew how to direct his actors, it’d be something. If Noel Maitland’s photography weren’t so perfectly competent, it’d be something. Hard Surfaces is the kind of thing where the only thing it can’t be is vapid and Brown brings nothing to it but vapid. The way he avoids the female characters is astounding. Like, Stock ought to be the main character. Instead, she gets less to do than anyone else. It’s also weird the sister left him her kid but none of the kid’s possessions.

Pyfrom’s okay. It’s actually surprising how well he maintains that okay throughout the film. Stock’s likable, but should be good. She also doesn’t get to grieve because she’s not given that much character. Voth. Voth could be the film’s secret weapon, instead she’s just as much a drag on it as Kargman. And Kargman’s a drag.

But, hey, Fein’s good in a crap role and that Hurst guy is awesome.

Hard Surfaces has some decent, if insincere, performances, but nothing else. Except director Brown in a bit part where the gag is he stutters.

Wait, wait, I forgot—the Panavision aspect ratio for the DV. Really, really, really, really, really bad idea.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Zach Brown; director of photography, Noel Maitland; edited by Patrick Bellanger; music by Ryan Rapsys; production designer, Kristen Adams and Jayme Helms; produced by Julia Voth, Shawn Pyfrom, and Brown; released by North of Two.

Starring Shawn Pyfrom (Adrian), Chase Fein (Steve), Hannah Victoria Stock (Maddy), Sophie Kargman (Sophie), Julia Voth (Liz), and Sterling Hurst (Dale).


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Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


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Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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The Lake House (2006, Alejandro Agresti)

There may be a pseudo-sly Speed reference in The Lake House, which reunites stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, but it’s a spoiler. Unfortunately it is not Bullock’s Speed 2 co-star Jason Patric as her wet towel boyfriend (Patric infamously replaced Reeves in the sequel). Instead, Dylan Walsh is the wet towel boyfriend. His performance is just as boring as the exceptionally thin role is written.

And it also may not be a Speed nod because it would show some personality from the filmmakers and they truly have none.

Lake House is not an action movie about a bus. Instead, it’s a romantic drama involving a magic mailbox and seemingly magic dog. Bullock is a newly-out-of-residency Chicago doctor who lives in the “present” or 2006. We soon find out Reeves is in 2004. They have lived in the same house at different times; a stilt house on a lake somewhere near Madison, Wisconsin. The house is ostensibly a dump—no one lives on the lake, someone exclaims because Lake House also has magic realistic values—even though it’s gorgeous and designed by world renowned architect Christopher Plummer, who is also Reeves’s father. Only we don’t find out about the history of the house until almost the third act. And, as with many things in David Auburn’s shockingly pedestrian script, stops being important immediately following it getting introduced in exposition. Everything in Lake House is disposable. Including a bunch of logic in the third act.

First act is nearly romantic comedy with Bullock crying at work (because she cares so much about her patients but, thanks to Auburn’s lousy sense of pacing, probably is just mopey because she dumped Walsh at some point in the recent past) and Reeves trying to get his life back together after moving back to the area after four years away. He makes housing developments instead of being a fancy architect like dad Plummer and younger brother Ebon Moss-Bachrach (who is somehow even less present than Walsh). He wants to fix the stilt house, which makes sense because it’s where he grew up and Plummer—who’s a jerk, but not a monster—verbally and emotionally abused Reeves, Moss-Bachrach, and their mother. Then Bullock and Reeves find out the mailbox at the house is magic and they can write to each other through time.

Cue up the endless terrible letters Reeves and Bullock write to one another as voiceovers. At least when they’re reading each other’s letters, there’s some acting to it. When they’re just thinking their letters and having back and forth conversations—Bullock has to drive two hours and twenty minutes—in the best traffic—to get from new home Chicago back to the house in Madison. Or maybe they’re standing at the mailbox and writing back to each other, which kind of gets explored—the film has zero interest in the time travel aspect of the story; Auburn’s script doesn’t have a single neat time travel-related moment. The only reason it gets away with the romantic comedy thing is because the film introduces split screen to show Bullock and Reeves being separately charming. By the end the split screen is still occasionally in use, but never well-utilized because Agresti’s direction is so boring.

Second act is then Reeves and Bullock exploring the time travel mailbox and falling into a chemistry-free long distance love affair. Because eventually Reeves starts stalking Bullock in the past, when she’s got super-long hair and is entirely dependent on lawyer boyfriend Walsh who doesn’t have any reason to want a girlfriend in his yuppie lifestyle. Should’ve gotten Jason Patric.

Anyway.

Second act is also all the revelations about Reeves’s past with Plummer. The worse the revelation gets, more the Reeves tries to bond with Plummer. It’s inexplicable behavior. The only thing Auburn seems to care about in the screenplay is the architecture monologues from Reeves, Plummer, and Moss-Bachrach. The monologues are bad, but at least they’re distinct. And Plummer can make it seem legit instead of terrible. Moss-Bachrach’s the worst, Reeves is nearly middling. Agresti’s inability to direct conversations hurts with the monologues. Alejandro Brodersohn and Lynzee Klingman’s editing is choppy, but it seems like it’s Agresti’s composition more than anything else. He’s got no rhythm to the scenes. Occasionally, when Bullock or Reeves is charming enough you wish the movie were better, you wonder how a better script might have entirely changed things.

But then Agresti does something weird and bad—like his extreme long shots for conversations—and you realize it’s just the production. It’s broken in too many ways.

Bullock’s character is bad. She doesn’t get the “maybe reunite with Walsh” storyline until into the second act and it entirely flushes her doctor storyline potential. Her mom (Willeke van Ammelrooy) is around for occasional scenes, but—like Moss-Bachrach with Reeves—there’s never any surprise at the magic mail box. It’s totally normal stuff. Pedestrian like everything else about Lake House.

Bullock’s performance is probably the best anyone could do. Maybe ditto Reeves? The movie skips the motivation and development scenes where he nice guy stalks Bullock in the past and possibly jeopardizes destroying the entire timeline. Not really because Auburn never addresses any of the time travel elements and explains away Bullock seeing Reeves multiple times and having no idea she’s seen him before because she forgot what the guy she ran off to San Francisco with when she was sixteen to become a singer. You’d trust someone with that terrible a memory to be your doctor.

Okay.

Terrible part. And Shohreh Aghdashloo somehow gets an even worse part as Bullock’s new boss.

Reeves is… mostly harmless. It’s totally his movie, which is bad since his reconciliation arc with Plummer is even worse than Bullock and Walsh rekindling. But the part isn’t as bad as Bullock’s.

Technically, I suppose Alar Kivilo’s photography is fine. The editing’s bad, the directing’s bad, the script’s bad, Nathan Crowley’s production design (and Agresti’s shot compositions of it) is bad. Rachel Portman’s score could be a lot worse. The soundtrack’s really bland stuff, including a Paul McCartney song from 2005 playing in 2004 because it seems like there should be a Beatles song at that moment—the dialogue makes the song sound like a Golden Oldie too. Lake House is full of really dumb gaffs. Like, an obvious staircase where there shouldn’t be one. Or Reeves not being able to figure out his dog is a girl until Bullock tells him she’s a girl. The dog. Reeves knows Bullock is a girl because he stalks her.

Bad costume design too. Like silly.

Still, until the third act, there’s at least the potential for a good ending. Then there’s not and it’s almost a relief because it’s so lacking in ambition (as well as being dumb as far as the narrative’s internal logic goes). But it’s still a bad ending. The Lake House takes place over four years and ninety-nine minutes. It’s not abjectly terrible or anything, but it’s an entire waste of time.

Another dumb thing—well, two so real quick—The Lake House title doesn’t mean jack for Bullock and Agresti’s deathly afraid of directing in the lake house. He avoids it at all costs. It’s constantly aggravating.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alejandro Agresti; screenplay by David Auburn, based on a film written by Kim Eun-Jeong and Yeo Ji-na; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; edited by Alejandro Brodersohn and Lynzee Klingman; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Doug Davison and Roy Lee; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Alex), Sandra Bullock (Kate), Dylan Walsh (Morgan), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Henry), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Anna), Lynn Collins (Mona), Willeke van Ammelrooy (Kate’s Mother), and Christopher Plummer (Alex’s Father).


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