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The Poughkeepsie Tapes

Poughkeepsie Tapes, The (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

The premise of “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” directed by John Erick Dowdle, is an interesting one because although it belongs under the found footage sub-genre, it does not involve supernatural occurrences to try to scare the wits out of the viewers. Instead, its content is presented as an investigation by means of interviewing various experts, from forensic pathologists, FBI field agents, police offers, to medical technicians, and presenting the images contained within the videotapes that the serial killer left behind. One can choose whether or not to believe in ghosts, but it is certain that there are many serial killers out there who have not been caught—and may never get caught.

The film makes a few severe miscalculations that break the realism it creates. When certain supposedly real footages are shown, like the abduction of a little girl who is playing with dolls in her family’s yard, a dramatic score can be heard and eventually reaches a crescendo. A person may or may not believe that the tapes are real, but the fact is this: the movie is presenting its content as potentially real. Thus, it must be evaluated within the parameters or standards of the sub-genre.

Why add an eerie score to an already chilling course of action? What this scene, and others like it, communicates is a lack of confidence in the images being shown. We all have that fear of a complete stranger walking up to a child, interacting with him or her, and then taking the child for a ride. A score that functions to underline the importance of the scene is unnecessary because we already have a gut reaction to it. Clearly, sometimes less is more.

Some of the images are extremely difficult to see. While a certain level of graininess, lack of light, and ambiguity is required, there are full sequences here where we can walk away for two minutes and not miss a thing. Why? Because we can listen to the sounds and imagine a more horrific encounter than the obfuscatory images.

Its strength lies in some the extended sequences of a tape’s content. A particular standout involves the killer breaking into the Dempsey house while Cheryl, a home alone teenager whose parents are away, is in the shower. The way it unfolds is frightening because there is a mechanical calm to the man holding the camera. He makes sudden movements only when absolutely necessary. The sequence tells us a lot about him. First, it may not be the first time he has snuck into someone’s home to spy on them. Second, we see how patient he is. For example, he does not attack his victim in the shower because she is expecting her boyfriend to arrive at any time. He waits until the opportunity is exactly ripe for the picking.

“The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle, is also quite engaging when certain experts are in front of the camera. Most creepy is when an FBI field agent is walking around a property pointing to us which specific areas contained corpses and how mutilated they were. It is only three minutes into the picture and already we understand that what we are dealing with is a monster with an insatiable dark passenger.


The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Divergent Series: Insurgent, The (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Jeanine (Kate Winslet) has acquired an artifact that she believes to contain an important message from people of the past that would allow current society, divided into four factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite—with Divergent and Factionless as outsiders), to flourish. Jeanine, an Erudite, insists on eradicating the so-called Divergents, a select few who do not belong under only one faction, but only a Divergent can open the box. She assigns her henchmen to capture all Divergents in order to force the latter to go through a series of challenges—via simulations—that must be surmounted in order for the message to be revealed. Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley), a powerful Divergent, and her friends remain in hiding.

Perhaps it is not a surprise that “Insurgent,” based on the novel by Veronica Roth and directed by Robert Schwentke, is a frustrating sequel to a disappointing and superficial first outing—but one cannot help but feel hopeful. This film offers a relatively solid first half, especially when it comes to the action, but the climax is so driven by empty visual effects that one cannot help but get the impression that the filmmakers, especially the writers who adapted to novel to film, did not even try to create something that is both cinematic and emotionally or intellectually involving.

The hunt for the Divergents is led by the brutish Eric (Jai Courtney). Courtney commits to the role so much that at times I felt the protagonists were running away from a tank or a bull. Look closely at the scene involving a chase through a forest and an incoming train. The sequence—even though it consists of standard action elements—bursts with so much electricity that I felt excited about what else the picture might offer.

But what a nosedive. In between the gun-shooting and chases are puppy dog eyes traded between lovers and the million ways they attempt to communicate how much they care for one another. Remove all of the action and I argue that the romance here is on par with the silliness and superficiality of the central romantic interest in “The Twilight Saga”—only not as suffocating, sticky, and drawn out. The fact that the romantic plot is not relatable universally really drags the picture down because there are actually a few good ideas here. For instance, the material touches upon identity, the value of innate abilities, the importance of choices, the role of self-forgiveness, the dangers of arrogance.

There are also hints of good performances here. Woodley is such an effective dramatic performer that she actually elevates an otherwise stale script simply by making fresh choices through her body language. Even though I could not relate to the words Tris is saying most of the time, I related to her body language. It is the strangest experience but it really underlines the importance of casting choice. Because the film is not completely involving, very slow in parts, at one point I imagined a lesser performer relying solely on words or intonations to emote. Miles Teller, playing a character whose allegiance is hazy at best, is a breath of fresh air here, too.

There is absolutely no excuse for such a lackadaisical climax. The simulations that Tris undergoes in order to open the artifact are so overdone that the movie ceases to look like a movie but a video game released in the early 2000s. The shards of broken glass, the collapsing buildings, even the debris in the air—they all look so fake that I started to get angry at the thought of how much time and money the filmmakers probably spent on such unnecessary nonsense when all that effort could have been put in sharpening the characters and making the story more engaging. They chose the easier avenue and it shows.


Slow West

Slow West (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sixteen-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels from Scotland to America so he could be with his one true love, unaware that there is a bounty of two thousand dollars for the heads of Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father. Silas (Michael Fassbender) offers to aid Jay to reach his destination for a fee of one hundred dollars. Soon, however, a group of bounty hunters have figured out that all they have to do is follow the the boy and his guide and the reward will soon be theirs.

“Slow West,” written and directed by John Maclean, is a western with quirks and so although the pacing deliberately moves at snail’s pace, there are numerous small moments that are quite amusing and entertaining. The western genre is not my cup of tea but this one surprised me on almost all levels, from the pleasing performances to how the story unfolds. The writer-director has a knack for showing beautiful images.

One of the surprises involves the colors having the opportunity to stand out. Because Jay and Silas are constantly on the move, the environment always changes. We notice the hue, texture, and dryness of the desert background, how the water is blown by the wind during a flashback, and how the temperature of the temporary shade of interior structures must be like relative to being outside under the blazing watch of the sun. This is the kind of movie I can watch without sound and it is likely that I will still enjoy it.

I had doubts about the casting of Smit-McPhee. His look is so distinct—some may even claim bizarre because some of his facial features are so large relative to his bone structure—and I have not seen him do anything particularly outstanding. I was glad that these doubts were quickly dispelled. His character is quiet, polished, and thoughtful. I enjoyed Jay’s quiet musings and the way he looks up into the night sky and the stars. This young man is a dreamer and it made me wonder if people like him had a place in the American frontier where a person’s life is determined by a gun pointing at him.

The action sequences are nothing special but they do command a level of tension. The showdown at the very end is the loudest and the most complicated to execute, but the one that I will remember most is the scene in a shop where a couple busts in, pulls out a gun, and demands the owner to hand over the money. The scene resonates because the violence is used to remind the audience that there is a consequence to every death even though we may not remember a person’s name or face right after he or she hits the ground. A sense of melancholy creeps in when we least expect it.

I wished that “Slow West” had been more poetic because that is its strength. There are musings about love, death, and living—with a sense of irony tying them together—but none of these are explored thoroughly or enough to make a lasting impact. Also, I wanted to get a stronger sense of Jay and Silas’ relationship. What they share only becomes really interesting toward the latter third. At one point I imagined how the picture would have been different if Terrence Malick had a hand in co-directing.


[REC] 4: Apocalipsis

[REC] 4: Apocalipsis (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Having been rescued from a high-rise apartment complex, Ángela (Manuela Velasco) finds herself on a ship with scientists who are trying understand the highly infectious disease that drove the apartment residents into a killing spree. Key to that understanding is having an animal model. Monkeys are placed in cages, but it is only a matter of time under one infected primate escapes and bites a human being.

“[REC] 4: Apocalypse,” written by Jaume Balagueró and Manu Díez, is a standard, gory horror picture with nothing new to show or say about the genre, zombies, or science once again going wrong. The last section of the film involves a timer counting down before a bomb goes off. It is the longest twenty minutes; I wished all of the characters would get stuck on that ship prior to the inevitable explosion because it would mean that the movie was finally over. Of course, the lead character must survive for a possibility of a sequel.

The writers and filmmakers show no understanding of how to make an effective horror film. They have this wonderful environment—a sizable ship surrounded by endless ocean—and most of what is shown is desperate, sweaty-looking characters running around and shooting guns. Once in a while they manage to grab another weapon but the novelty wears off quickly because these scenes rely only on blood and not an active attempt in building suspense or intrigue.

The editing is manic, almost nonsensical, and so we never get a chance to appreciate scenes that should have been memorable. It rests on showing an enclosed space and fitting as many bodies as possible within that space. It is supposed to provide a claustrophobic atmosphere but it does not work because far too many cuts are made before we realize that escape is nearly impossible. Far too many directors confuse rapid editing or quick cuts for creating a sense of urgency. This is most common in bottom-of-the-barrel action and horror films.

Ángela is neither written nor portrayed as a compelling character. She is a survivor but not once do get to feel her inner strength and drive to want to keep living. Velasco plays the character flat and passive at times. Ángela is the only woman on that ship and yet she is almost treated as an afterthought. Why bring back a character when there is no point in showing her again? We learn nothing about her past, who she is, and what her plans are for the future. She is on the screen only because she survived the first movie. I found that depressing.

Directed by Jaume Balagueró, “[REC] 4: Apocalipsis” highlights the exhaustion of the series. It insults the viewers by assuming that watching characters run around is entertainment and that showing blood is special. The filmmakers responsible for creating this dung could learn a thing or two from the master of blood and story David Cronenberg.


Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) finds young Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) lying along the shore in the middle of the night, she is all the more convinced that Saoirse and her elder brother, Ben (David Rawle), should not be raised in an island. So, with the father’s consent (Brendan Gleeson), Granny hauls the siblings to live in the city. However, ever since that curious night, Saoirse has gotten increasingly sick.

“Song of the Sea” is a wonderfully made, Miyazaki-level animated film that is full of deep emotions, Irish folklores, and surprising turn of events. It is for everyone: young children, adults, ages in-between, people who love and crave the medium of animation, as well as casual viewers on the lookout for gems that might be worth remembering years from now.

The style of animation likens that of a pop-up book. The foreground is almost always flat at first glance but there is something about the background that is constantly alive. And yet the latter does not desaturate the power of what should be the center of attention. On the contrary, the foreground is underlined, especially when it counts, because the eyes of the characters are so expressive, we wonder at the thoughts unsaid.

Saoirse is not yet able to talk but there is not one moment where she is boring. This is a testament to the sheer power of the images. We are able to surmise what she is possibly thinking or feeling when her brother is not very kind to her even though it is her birthday, when Granny uproots them from the only place they have ever known, when her brother decides to share his beloved shell flute. Great animated films share a common quality: Put the picture on mute and one is still likely to have an idea about what might be occurring.

The mythical elements are captivating. Having seen John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” I thought I would not be as engaged because I knew what a “selkie” was. This film is able to explore what a selkie is more deeply because animation allows a level of fantasy that live action pictures might be limited to. We encounter fairies—not the Disney kind—and even then they are written as having a sense of humor or sense of irony to them. Saoirse and Ben encounter creatures that are fascinating, from the extremely long-haired Seanachai (Jon Kenny) to the fearsome Macha (also voiced by Flanagan), mother of spirit-collecting owls.

Directed by Tomm Moore, “Song of the Sea” is not just about how Ben learns to become a better brother. So many animated films stop with delivering a lesson. Not this one. It is about celebrating a specific culture and sharing the magic to those who may not be familiar with Irish, Scottish, and Faroese folklore. It is about family—how it comes apart and being brought together again even though it is not perfect. Perhaps more importantly, it is about celebrating the medium, without or with minimal help of a computer, and pushing what it can do when it comes to telling a specific type of story.


Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) consider collaborating on a research project after they come across an ancient Ashanti relic. The latter is invited to stay in the former’s elegant home by the sea with plans of discussing the avenues of their potential partnership. However, having had a couple of drinks, Dr. Hightower attempts to murder Dr. Greene using the Ashanti blade. Dr. Greene drops to the floor, bloody, apparently dead. Guilt-ridden, Dr. Hightower then commits suicide. But Dr. Greene is not dead; he wakes up a couple of hours later, craving blood.

“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” written and directed by Spike Lee, is a strange vampire picture not because the bloodsuckers here do not exhibit the expected traits of the mythic creature but because the story, like a corpse, does not move. Events happen but the focus is consistently on Dr. Greene’s home and the people who come to visit. The protagonist is a knowledgeable, wealthy man and I wondered why, after he discovers he has a chance to live forever, he did not choose to travel around the globe and learn whatever there is to be absorbed. Perhaps that expectation is reflective of what I would do personally if I had eternal life.

The protagonist is interesting because other than his addiction to blood, just about everything about him remains human. There is no fear of daylight, no sleeping in coffins, no sensitivity to garlic. He is able to feel like a normal human man which becomes the center of the picture when he meets Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the ex-wife of Dr. Hightower. The two cannot be any more different in personality. Dr. Greene is quiet, always keeping to himself, while Ganja is honest to the point where it is almost abrasive. The two performances, although strange in their styles of acting due to a play-like quality about them, command a certain magnetism. This is very necessary since the plot moves slower than a snail’s pace.

Comedic scenes come across false and out of place. Rami Malek plays Seneschal, Dr. Greene’s help. I suppose some of the scenes where Ganja treats him badly are supposed to be funny—amusing at the very least—but these do not work because there is no substance behind the attempt at humor. There is another scene where Dr. Greene chats with two older, white, upper-middle class women who are a fan of the work he has done. They come across shallow, idiotic, buffoons. What is the writer-director’s intention? Does he mean to comment on race? Gender? Social classes? It is not clear and so the humor is off-target most of the time.

Credit to the set decorators for creating a home that is almost like a museum. When a scene is shot indoors, I found my eyes scanning the photos and paintings on walls, relishing the collectibles on tables, admiring the unique-looking carpets. They say you can tell a lot about a person by how his or her home is decorated. I believed that the protagonist is someone who values culture, knowledge, and experience over money. He is the kind of person I would like to get to know if we crossed paths.

The film is not for everyone because it requires not only a considerable amount of patience but also a willingness to sacrifice one’s time especially since the majority of the work does not come together completely. In fact, it is kind of a mess and yet the material is never boring. The most exciting bit involves someone finding a dead body in a freezer but even then there is very little repercussion. In a way, I found that refreshing.



Explorers (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Constantly wondering of the kind of places and lifeforms outside of Earth, Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams about a circuit board one night and draws it out the moment he wakes up. On the way to school, he shows the image to his best friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who reckons himself as a scientist. Soon enough Wolfgang is able to built it and discovers that the chip creates a force field capable of traveling long distances at high speed.

“Explorers,” written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante, generates a sense of wonder during the first half but offers a disappointing final thirty minutes when the junior high students actually meet the long-awaited extraterrestrials. It works best when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren (Jason Presson) are interacting—trying to figure out what to do with their discovery—because the characters have different and colorful personalities that children and pre-teens can relate with.

Ben is the dreamer, Wolfgang is the pragmatist, and Darren lives in the moment. Sometimes these personalities clash but not in a way that it creates big drama and impedes the story’s forward momentum. The clash is often dealt with humor and so we get a chance to appreciate their friendship despite their disagreements. The script is written in such a way that we believe there is a good reason why the boys are friends.

There is a misplaced romantic subplot between Ben and a girl classmate. I found it to be forced, silly, and cheesy. Although I believed that the dreamer is at an age when he is beginning to notice the allure of the opposite sex, not once is the girl given anything interesting to do or say. As a result, she comes across more than an object than an actual person with real thoughts or ideology. It is most amusing when Wolfgang rolls his eyes every time his friend goes girl-crazy.

The special and visual effects are dated based on today’s standards but they retain a level of charm nonetheless. One can argue that such a quality works for the film as it ages because the story is more about imagination than showcasing the most crisp, first-rate images. When I was a kid, I did not care whether a movie or television show looked old; what mattered was the energy, the story, whether the characters encountered a lot of surprising dangers and last-minute saves.

The aliens ought to have been more interesting. Although there is irony in the eventual crossing of paths between extraterrestrials and human children, the tone is far too comedic. Gone is the sense of wonder and curiosity established in the former half. The personalities of the trio feel diluted instead of more concentrated. They are overshadowed by the creatures instead of them getting a chance to ask questions and to explain how humans are like divorced from what the aliens expect.

Still, the picture is imaginative enough to be worthy of seeing at least once. Children, especially boys, who are interested in spaceships and aliens are likely to enjoy the little adventure that the main characters go through.



Mommy (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

In a fictional Canada, the so-called S-18 Bill has been passed which is designed to amend policies of the Canadian health services. Within it is the S-14 law which confers the parent of a child with behavioral problems, “in a situation of financial distress, physical and/or psychological danger, the moral and legal right to commit his child to a state psychiatric hospital without further legal review.” The story focuses on Diane (Anne Dorval) after her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is kicked out of a detention center for having set fire to the cafeteria and gravely injuring a boy.

Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Mommy” hearkens back to the challenging European dramatic features of the ‘70s and ‘80s and it makes for a compelling watch. It is for audiences who crave to understand why people are the way they are and the actions eventually triggered by the difficult hand that life has given. It is easy to judge Diane’s trailer trash sort of lifestyle but the material is not interested in judgment. It aims to excavate hidden depths and yet avoiding to spell out answers every step of the way.

Pilon’s performance is shocking in the best way possible. Throughout the picture, I was convinced that he was picked off the street—perhaps an actual detention center—and asked to just be himself in front of the camera. The sheer anger displayed on screen is so raw that at times I felt very uncomfortable.

His mere presence, even though he is not particularly tall, commands an intensity so high that I was reminded of ace performers like Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio during certain scenes. I hope he continues to choose challenging characters as seen here because I think he has the potential to become not just any celebrity who appears in movies but a character actor who is respected for his craft.

Dorval and Pilon share a convincing mother-son chemistry. It is important that we believe they are a family first before being convinced that they really are dysfunctional. There is an excellent, tension-filled scene that involves Diane suspecting that Steve has stolen groceries. A verbal confrontation inevitably turns into a threat of physical violence. We wonder if the writer-director will allow his material to go there. Dolan is an envelope-pusher, as he had been in his prior work, and he does not disappoint here.

Dolan is, as usual, playful with his images and choice of soundtrack. Bright colors pop out on purpose and the music often has a sense of irony compared the images we are seeing. But it is in the use of the 1:1 aspect ratio that surprised me this time around. This is a most effective technique because I found myself focusing on the characters, especially their faces, instead of the objects and other distractions around them. And although we see the story unfold in a square, the lives within it are far from perfect.

“Mommy” is dramatic, histrionic, and bold—but it works. Offering impressive performances by Pilon, Dorval and Suzanne Clément, who plays a mysterious neighbor with a stutter, it may not be easy to sit through, especially with a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but it does present a story worth telling.

One can argue that it is about how to not parent. Some may claim it is about a critique of our society’s inability to deal with people with behavioral problems. But I say the picture is about empathy: toward parents, neighbors, children, to people who are only doing their jobs. It is a rich film and for that it is very much worth seeing.



Cake (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Claire (Jennifer Aniston) lost her young son in a car accident and she has since suffered from chronic physical pain. Most days, she is on drugs and that makes her quite unpleasant, to say the least, to be around. When Claire learns that a member of her chronic pain support group named Nina (Anna Kendrick) committed suicide, she goes on a mission to learn more about the tragedy.

Based on the screenplay by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, “Cake” is an undercooked drama but it is uplifted for the most part by Aniston’s wry performance. Although the material does make some fresh decisions like not forging a romantic relationship between Claire and Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), it requires more detail to become a truly engaging drama. Why is it that we do not learn a bit more about the man (William H. Macy) directly involved in the death of Claire’s son?

The first thirty minutes of the picture is independent drama at its best. It makes us wonder about Claire’s intentions, how her mind works, whether she is capable of empathy even if she is suffering a great deal. Is the reason why she is so curious about Nina the fact that the recently deceased had the courage that Claire simply does not have? Is Claire actually jealous that someone else achieved what she has fantasized about since the car accident? These are very interesting questions that are not easy to bring up and tackle directly, but this film does it with pride, respect, and class. It is true that Claire may not be the most likable character, but these questions feel right for this story—her story. I wanted to know more.

It is most disappointing then that the material begins to repeat itself just before the halfway mark. The bottom line is that the scenes which occur only in Claire’s mind or dreams communicate a mental anguish which then contribute to more physical pain. The script hammers the viewer over the head with this idea which is most unnecessary.

It is unfortunate because the supporting characters are interesting. Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is Claire’s helper and friend. A standout scene involves a trip to Tijuana and Silvana is spotted by friends from the past. Here, we get to observe Silvana and Claire’s relationship at its rawest—that even though Claire may treat Silvana like a maid at times, deep down, Claire considers Silvana to be a good friend. Another character I wanted to know more about is Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina). There is a sadness about him as well but the screenplay does not explore this avenue.

To create an effective drama, the details must be present and alive. It is most curious then that “Cake” often seems reluctant to dig deeply into its characters and their circumstances. Claire is grieving but grief never not isolated. Because Claire is miserable, sometimes she lashes out and this is why it is worth getting to know those around her. Claire’s story could easily have been two and a half hours long and it would likely have been much more engaging.


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