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18
Aug

Ice Age: Continental Drift


Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

In his never-ending quest to secure the perfect acorn, Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge in the cutest grunts and various expressions of surprise) manages to fall into the Earth’s core and accidentally triggers extremely fast tectonic shifts that eventually leads to the formation of the seven continents. The sudden movement of land masses separates Manny (Ray Romano) from his family, Ellie (Queen Latifah) and Peaches (Keke Palmer), and the only way for them to reunite is to catch a specific current. However, the mission is made more difficult when Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a power-hungry ape, and his motley crew seize Manny and his friends to try to force them to join piracy.

Based on the screenplay by Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, credit must be given to “Ice Age: Continental Drift” for still trying to be creative with its images and dialogue despite being the fourth film of the series. It provides a fun, harmless adventure for children and kids-at-heart who like to watch extinct animals interact and get into all sorts of trouble.

The picture balances slapstick humor with lines of dialogue propelled by great delivery. Although the characters we are more familiar with do not break any new ground, so to speak, the new ones are welcome additions because each has a distinct personality coupled with jokes specific to their species and why they did not survive over time such as anatomical structures that simply do not match the changing environment. The voices behind the animation are present and excited even if they are playing a villain. There is often a danger of being one-note from wanting to be taken seriously. Instead, there is an equal mix of menace and joy so it is enjoyable to hear all of the characters speak.

The images grab our attention especially during its action sequences. As an alternative from showing us a pirate vessel that we come to expect, Captain Gutt’s ship is a huge chunk of ice. It looks sturdier than a typical ship with rotting insides, masts, and sails. Meanwhile, the battle scenes between the good guys and bad guys are allowed to unfold with feverish energy. I highly enjoyed looking at the weapons utilized by the pirates. For example, since they are pirates, most of us expect them to use arrows and swords. They do not. When the weapons make contact with wood or ice, the camera lingers for a second at what has just been thrown or swung and we are reminded of how much our brains rely on archetypes.

What works less effectively is Peaches’ struggle to be accepted by a crew of mammoths, one of which is her crush. The lesson about friendship and staying true to oneself are not only preachy, they lack any special dramatic gravity because such scenes are inconveniently inserted between Manny and the pirates. When it comes to the pirates, Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a sabertooth, is predictably played as the eventual romantic interest of Diego (Denis Leary). Their subplot traverses similar elements from the first film about belonging to a pack versus a herd. Whenever Peaches and Shira are front and center, the story feels slow and the immediacy of the action is lessened, respectively.

It is easy to feel cynical toward “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, because one might think a fourth entry is tantamount to cashing in. On the contrary, the images are more alive than ever even though select aspects of its story could have been sharpened or given more originality.

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16
Aug

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek


Standoff at Sparrow Creek, The (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.

It is proud to be a film for cinéphiles. Right from its excellent opening scene in which we observe Gannon hunting an animal but instead the quiet, meditative moment is interrupted by a muffled but terrifying assault rifle going off in the distance, followed by well-paced opening minutes in which the curious faraway event feels as though it is encroaching toward Gannon’s isolated existence, writer-director Henry Dunham proves to be in complete control of all the gears and machinations of his material. For instance, he is fully aware that men gathering in an enclosed space and pointing fingers is not fresh, and so he is quick to unearth character details—to show from the get-go why his subjects, and therefore his story, are special. This is Dunham’s first feature film. And I suspect, should he continue to deliver high caliber work, it will be one of many.

Gannon is neither the toughest nor the smartest man in the room. But we get the feeling he is most principled, the one who is likely to do what is right. Dale plays the protagonist with quiet but commanding charisma; he evinces a certain goodness, trustworthiness. As our kind-of moral compass, we bond with Gannon as he interviews those who may have done the crime. By asking questions, and the manner in which he asks them at times, not only do we learn about the suspects, we also learn about the interviewer. It is most fascinating when he—inevitably—loses control of the interview process. There is not one dumb person in the group, but some are certainly smarter than others. A few are quite cunning, particularly the one who treats J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as his bible. He does not speak.

The dialogue-heavy script is fun to listen to, to drill into, and to look back on and connect the dots. On this level, the script is worthy of being in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino for it inspires those who love words and conversations to lean closer and listen a little more heavily, to determine whether something is being said in the unsaid. Each character has a specific voice, a perspective we may not agree with but nonetheless fascinating. Furthermore, those who are well-versed in good mysteries are certain to catch red herrings. The challenge, however, is determining how each “misplaced element” fits into the plot. There is not one wasted image here. Each one has its place. Even quick flashbacks usually treated as throwaways in lesser hands. I admired that.

I found “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to be riveting from start to finish. Even when I knew, for example, that a certain thing simply could not happen because doing so would betray the material’s themes, I caught myself feeling anxious anyway because what if turning certain themes inside out could end up more revealing than what is already in front of us? And therein lies Henry Dunham’s ability to play the audience like a piano. On the surface, the film is Tarantinoesque. But I’ll take it a step further and claim that, on the inside, it is Hitchcockian.

14
Aug

Two Family House


Two Family House (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) could have been a successful singing sensation. Invited by a popular TV personality to appear on his show during his military service, Buddy chose to refuse the once in a blue moon offer because Estelle (Kathrine Narducci), his wife of eleven years, disapproved.

Buddy’s thirst to make something of himself does not wane, however. After several failed business attempts—pizza delivery, house painting, and limo service—Buddy’s most recent venture involves buying a dilapidated two-story house and turning the first floor into a bar. But there is a problem: the current tenants on the second floor, drunkard Jim (Kevin Conway) and very pregnant Mary (Kelly Macdonald), would not move out.

Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, “Two Family House” is a surprisingly funny, delightful, sometimes sad but always engaging peek at a 1950s Italian-American community in Staten Island, New York and how one man repeatedly attempts to break out of the stifling limitations of his culture in order to reach his goal of opening a bar.

Rispoli is magnetic in playing a character who effortlessly oozes so much goodness, watching him made me wish Buddy was my uncle so we could hang out and discuss the things he could do to make his bar stand out from his competitors. Because he is so determined to achieve his dream, brimming with energy as if a switch had been flicked on in his head whenever the bar becomes the topic of conversation, I found myself on his corner even if there are moments when I felt that he is doing someone wrong.

One of the key relationships in the film is the constant headbutting between Buddy and Estelle. It is easy to detest Estelle for several reasons, one of which is her willingness to hide the fact that their savings is on a sudden steep decline as the bar is being built. She figures that if they ran out of money, they would have no choice but to sell the house and they would inevitably move back to her mother’s.

I enjoyed that the screenplay does not simply make her out to be the target of our hatred. In small ways, the material communicates to us some of her needs. For example, during the majority of the time she is on screen, she is shown to be constantly around other people. It makes sense that she is the kind of person whose self-esteem relies on friends and family’s approval. And that is all right. People like her exist. It does not make them good or bad, just easily susceptible to others’ influence at times. She just wants a so-called normal life which, for some people, is a dream in and on itself. This is a fundamental difference between the married couple.

Buddy does not care much about people talking or whispering as long as he is partaking in something that feels right for him. It makes sense that he is eventually drawn to Mary, a pariah for giving birth to a baby who is half black, forming a friendship with her, and perhaps something more. I enjoyed that it is not easy to guess whether Buddy will choose to remain with his wife or start a new life with Mary. Buddy cares about the two women deeply. Is our “right” answer for him parallel to what he considers to be right for himself?

“Two Family House” deals with adult emotions and circumstances with proper dosages of intelligence and heart. I especially admired its mature ending because it shows that decisions are not always as so clear-cut as losing or gaining it all. It is about being at peace with the cards that we choose to have in our hands for one round with hope that the next cards that come our way will change the tide completely.

13
Aug

Giant Little Ones


Giant Little Ones (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Keith Behrman’s “Giant Littles Ones” is not a reductive LGBTQ picture in which the main character simply learns to come to terms with his sexuality by the end of the story. While it does end on a hopeful note, the messages it imparts—about teenage sexuality, friendships, romantic feelings, and even one’s relationship with parents—are far more nuanced than mainstream films that just so happen to have queer elements in them. It is effective precisely because the characters we meet are specific, layered, and flawed. And, like real people, they do not always express what they feel or think even when situations demand that they do.

The main conflict sprouts from two best friends, Franky and Ballas (Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann), who engage in a sexual activity. The latter feels so guilty about it afterwards that he chooses to tell his girlfriend (Kiana Madeira) a lie that inevitably goes around school. The former, on the other hand, does not consider what occurred to be embarrassing or something to feel ashamed about. For the majority of the picture we observe Franky and Ballas’ friendship crumble at first in small ways then in significant ways just as suddenly. Great tension builds as the two formerly inseparable teenagers, both clearly hurt by the snowballing turn of events, learn to find and forge their own paths.

There are times when the screenplay is so sharp that we become convinced that the friendship is possibly forever broken. Yes, we see intense homophobia, ugly words, and violence, but there is a constant message that sometimes a friendship must die in order to give rise to new, healthier ones. Some are played for laughs, like Franky’s connection with Mouse (Niamh Wilson), a classmate who tends to dress in what is considered to be masculine clothes—in addition to wearing a strap-on or tube socks beneath her jeans in order to create the illusion that she has a penis. Not once is she labeled as transgender. It is refreshing; it fits the theme surrounding the teenagers attempting to find themselves.

Others are shown under the light of great sadness. I was particularly moved by Natasha (Taylor Hickson), Ballas’ younger sister, who has a reputation at school for being promiscuous. Derogatory names are written on her locker. Ballas, although a popular athlete respected by his peers, never comes to her aid or to provide emotional support—not even at home. We see her drink alcohol as if it were water; there is a detached look in her eyes. Her parents, although they mean well, seem to be unaware of how incredibly sad and lonely she is. But Natasha is not at all incapable recognizing when somebody needs someone to talk to, to lend a helping hand. Her conversations with Franky are standouts because the words and feelings they share sound and feel real. There are instances when silence communicates more than enough.

The most compelling performance on screen is delivered by Kyle MacLachlan, Franky’s gay father who lives with man. We are reminded more than once that Ray is an observer who has more than a handful of things to say—he wants to protect his son so desperately—but must restrain because his relationship with his family is precarious. For one, his former wife (Maria Bello) still feels betrayed for having married a woman who turns out to be attracted to other men. (Notice it is rare for the two to make eye contact.) Secondly, Franky, too, disapproves that his father is gay. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is because he feels abandoned due to Ray choosing live with someone else and lead a non-traditional lifestyle. Or that maybe he feels such a close connection to his mother that he, too, feels her feelings of betrayal. Or maybe it is all of these things. Therein lies the strength of this film: it is complicated, messy, painful, and real.

The writer-director makes the correct decision to leave the story on a satisfying note without succumbing to the pressure of solving every conflict in a way that is neat or proper. It is not a straightforward coming out story like “Love, Simon” but the two would make a strong double feature because they are so different—in look, mood, feeling, the characters we come across—that they beg to be compared side-by-side.

More discerning viewers, however, would recognize that, in a way, they complement one another. Both contain beautiful details. In this film, for instance, a genuine moment of connection occurs between father and son in a walk-in closet—the father just outside of it and the son standing inside wearing blazer—a gift from Ray—that might as well be a suit of armor.

12
Aug

6 Souls


6 Souls (2010)
★ / ★★★★

In the middle of the would-be supernatural horror picture “6 Souls,” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Julianne Moore, playing psychiatrist Cara Harding who is presented a bizarre case of what appears to be dissociative identity disorder (DID), because despite her efforts of elevating the material, the screenplay by Michael Cooney falls flat every step of the way. Whether it be discussing ideas within the realm of science, particularly abnormal psychology and behavior, or craft when it comes to scaring the audience witless, the approach is painfully pedestrian, lacking in energy, creativity, or even a modicum of personality.

It suffers from an identity crisis. On the one hand, because our protagonist is a woman of science even though she believes in God, the first third of the film attempts to be somewhat realistic. We spend a lot of time in an interview room where Dr. Harding asks David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) a range of questions meant to trigger a response. During these scenes we are supposed to gauge how the patient with DID processes information, but the writer forgets that these sequences, too, are an opportunity for us to observe how good Dr. Harding is at her job. Although Moore excels at emoting even the most minute emotions since she is a dramatic performer first and foremost, nothing interesting is revealed about her character until an hour into the picture. Instead, she is reduced to just another career woman who becomes obsessed with cases. Boring.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Meyers. I did not believe any of the “personalities” that take over. At first I thought it was due to Meyers’ limited range of facial expressions. Notice that when a personality of a different gender or vastly different age is in control, he relies on changing his voice without an effective body language to go with it. Eventually, however, it becomes obvious that there is a deeper problem: Because each personality is introduced only on a surface level, the changes that unfold before our eyes are neither interesting nor horrifying. I am convinced the filmmakers are aware of this shortcoming because nearly each time something “scary” occurs, we are pummeled by loud music as if the intent were to beat us into submission. It is an annoyance.

The special and visual effects are third rate at best. The supposed spirit that floats in the air and goes on attacking people looks like it is made using a computer program in the ‘90s. It looks so grainy, almost unfinished. In order to hide the more laughable textures and other subpar qualities, a lot of shadow is employed. As a result, not only do these scenes look ugly and uninspired, it becomes a struggle to appreciate the images on screen. At least B-movies are proud of what they have to offer. In this film, one that is meant to be taken seriously, the filmmakers appear to be ashamed of what they paid for. If so, then why showcase the effects in the first place? The reason is because it takes more work on a script level to leave something in the viewers’ imagination.

“6 Souls,” directed by Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind, offers a hollow and depressing experience. There is not one effective scare, let alone one that is memorable or inspired at the very least. The picture can be summed up by its ending: nonsensical, frustrating, lazy, entirely predictable. Perhaps the filmmakers were not convinced themselves that their work is anything more than a straight-to-DVD endeavor. Maybe they just needed to make something—anything—to pay the bills.

11
Aug

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” based on a book series by Alvin Schwartz, tells the story of a group of friends who come across a book in a hidden room inside an abandoned mansion—a place with a reputation for being haunted. The teenagers realize later it is no ordinary book; whatever is written on it, in blood, comes true. Although the work, directed by André Øvredal, offers a watchable cast who share good chemistry, the monsters are memorable, and some scares manage to land, as a whole it remains a disappointment because one cannot help but suspect it is holding back.

The target audience are those in their early to mid-teens. I found this to be quite strange because the story takes place in 1968 on the eve of Richard Nixon becoming president. We see posters of Nixon all over the small town of Mill Valley (he is not liked there) and the subject of the Vietnam War is broached several times. “Night of the Living Dead” is shown at the drive-in theater. While I admired its specificity in terms of images, music, and dialogue, the work does not commit fully in delivering scares. It is a shame because it is strong when it comes to establishing build-up, but when gruesome violence is required, for instance, it only shows about half of what feels right. As a result, the experience, too, is halved. Clearly, the picture is tailored to receive a PG-13 rating.

The young cast is composed of memorable faces but not performances. Zoe Margaret Colletti plays Stella, the only girl in the group who is so obsessed with horror that she decides to take the mysterious book home so she could study it further. (Stella aspires to become a writer.) Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur portray Auggie and Chuck, respectively, and their characters are meant to provide comic relief. Last but not least, Michael Garza takes the role of Ramon, a Mexican-American who happens to be passing by Mill Valley, an outsider who must endure racism from some of the white residents and authority figures.

Each actor is given a moment to shine exactly because every character is provided a demon or monster to face. We may not know Stella, Ramon, Auggie, and Chuck in a deep or meaningful way, but we always hope for their safety when pressure is up. Unlike mean-spirited horror films, the audience is consistently on the side of those being hunted.

I found the creatures to be inspired. It is expected that when actual masks and body suits are utilized, the encounters feel all the more effective. However, I was surprised that even the CGI creatures are almost as powerful, especially the so-called Jangly Man that is capable of taking apart its limbs at will. It is one thing that The Jangly Man looks and sounds demonic. It is another that we become convinced it is unstoppable. I also relished Harold the scarecrow who appears early in the film. The manner in which it lumbers about leaves an imprint in the mind. Notice the picture’s appropriate use of silence as tension increases. At times hearing only the wind caressing the cops can be just as deafening as desperate screams for help.

There is an undercooked backstory which involves the former owners of the aforementioned abandoned house. It is the weakest link in the film; it doesn’t help that the repercussions of their actions propel our characters into a drawn-out investigation. The problem is, however, Stella, Auggie, Ramon, and Chuck are not written to be especially resourceful, intelligent, or pragmatic. They are simply ordinary teenagers who just happen to get caught up in something bigger than themselves. Thus, the investigatory sequences come across painfully contrived.

9
Aug

Enough Said


Enough Said (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a masseuse, and Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet, meet at a party. The two get on so well that Marianne hires Eva to be her masseuse. But at that same party, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini). They, too, get along very well that they agree to go on a date. Eva and Marianne become friends while Eva and Albert become lovers. Eventually, Eva learns that Marianne and Albert are formerly married.

“Enough Said,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, could have taken a television sitcom route: harmless, constantly going for easy laughs, sentimental turn of events, easily solvable problems. Instead, the picture accomplishes a small feat. It does so by taking a sitcom-like premise and telling a story that is human. It has funny and sad moments. We are frustrated with the characters at times. We come to recognize the good and the bad in all of them.

We get details of the blossoming relationships. First, the connection between Eva and Marianne is allowed to go beyond girlfriends who gossip. We get a sense that Eva is envious about certain aspects of Marianne’s life: the gorgeous house, the unconventional but very cool career, recognition for the work she produces. Meanwhile, Eva has a more simple life… but perhaps a more harmonious one. While the inner workings of the poetess’ mind does not get ample screen time, the difference in their moods and perspectives are significant enough so that we are able to make knowledgeable conclusions.

Second, and perhaps more obvious, is Eva’s relationship with Albert. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini share great chemistry, she with her infectious laugh and he with his outpouring of compliments but meaning every single one. Since each performer is charming in his or her own way—sometimes on the same level, other times on competing wavelengths—it is easy to root for Albert and Eva being and remaining together. We know that the elephant in the room will have to be recognized eventually. I wished the screenplay has done it sooner.

Not only is putting the revelation near the end of the picture predictable, it circumvents a further opportunity to dig deeper into the characters. The fallout of the discovery is less powerful than it should have been. Furthermore, though the last twenty minutes remain well-acted, I could not help but feel slightly disappointed because the material went exactly to places I had expected it would go. It should have gone with a path that is less traveled because the material is more than good enough to take on a risk so it can be memorable.

There is a subplot about mother-daughter relationships. While tolerable, it feels too much like a distraction. It would have been funnier if it were shown that the teenagers—hormonal as they are—were more secure with themselves than their parents.

8
Aug

Five Feet Apart


Five Feet Apart (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Make no mistake that the romantic drama “Five Feet Apart,” based on the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is a fantasy. It is for those who wish to see something romantic on the surface with occasional sad moments involving life and mortality surrounding a disease we do not yet have a cure for. Keeping in mind that the protagonists—patients with cystic fibrosis, one of them infected with the highly resistant bacteria B. cepacia—engage in dangerous practices, like not following protocol of maintaining a distance of six feet and engaging in all sorts of physical contact, it is, for about half the time, a tolerable experience. The leads sell the movie.

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse play Stella and Will, respectively. Stella is adamant, some would say obsessed, when it comes to keeping up with her regimen so she can live until she gets a new pair of lungs which, in theory, may prolong her life about five years. Will, on the other hand, appears to not care about taking his medication on time, if ever. Of the pair, he is the one infected with the formidable bacteria which makes him ineligible for a lung transplant. Currently, he is participating in a trial that may eliminate B. cepacia. Richardson and Sprouse play their roles with gusto. While I felt their chemistry is forced initially (there is a meet-cute at the neonatal intensive care unit), I found myself invested in their relationship eventually. It may have something to do with how the performers look at one another. They know how to speak with only their eyes.

Elements surrounding the leads function as a sledgehammer to the face. Notice that each time something even remotely sad occurs, you can bet an indie folk song will or has already begun playing in the background in order to escort us on how to feel or what to think. It is unfortunate because there is a convincing drama here that goes beyond young people who are sick coming across romance. Because numerous potential distractions are introduced, like sappy music and cringe-worthy one liners (rubbish like the human touch is almost as important as the air we breathe—I’d like to test that theory), the power of the experience is lessened. Not to mention characters constantly coming up with elaborate surprises that may compromise other patients’ safety.

I found the picture at its most interesting when it is willing to show how it is like to live with cystic fibrosis. It may look ugly or unappealing at times, but showing a person cough up thick mucus, struggling to breathe, and looking extremely ragged is what makes the work human. We look at Stella’s room, for example. While it is well-decorated, it looks lived-in despite her having moved in recently. We get the impression then that she spends the majority of her time in that room. Although she has her computer, cell phone, and handy-dandy to-do list, she must feel so trapped in that space. She FaceTimes with her friends while they are on vacation and we feel every bit of Stella’s jealousy. She puts on a happy face anyway.

“Five Feet Apart” is competently directed by Justin Baldoni, but it is not a work that stands out among medical romantic teen dramas because it fails to offer enough narrative surprises. As clichés pile up like Tetris blocks, it dares to test the patience. The final thirty minutes, for instance, is especially weak. I found the musical chair involving who may live or die to be a grave miscalculation. Instead of feeling invested, I felt like I was being toyed with.

7
Aug

Le dernier des injustes


Dernier des injustes, Le (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

In 1975, director Claude Lanzmann had the chance to interview Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi chosen by the Nazis to become one of the Elder of the Jews and lead Theresienstadt, a concentration camp built to house seven thousand soldiers but fifty thousand Jews were sent there to die from various diseases and malnutrition. The place came to be known as a “model ghetto” as the Nazis used it for propaganda—like it was some kind of town ideal for a vacation.

“The Last of the Unjust” offers a wealth of information from a primary source. Hearing from someone who was actually there and survived the horrors is an unreal experience. But the way the material is presented at times is very dry. There are plenty of long takes, from Murmelstein attempting to recollect the events that happened thirty years prior to the interview to long intervals of the camera scanning the place from left to right. It tests the patience but those who stick with it will take away something valuable. Though a necessary viewing, it is not for everyone.

Away from the interview, the camera is utilized in such a way that we are inspired to ponder about the holocaust. We visit various places like a crematorium, a Jewish cemetery in Prague, and what is now known as the Old New Synagogue. It takes its time to look at works of art. We even see areas that were once places of death but are now establishments where people go to drink and dance. The camera is used to place an emphasis in history and our role in preventing something like the holocaust from happening again.

We watch videos of Nazi propaganda. I felt as though I was transported back in time. Observing the dejected faces, I felt disgust and anger that a systematic extermination of human beings could be conceived—let alone be executed. We are then shown, in present time, of the train tracks that lead to Auschwitz. I imagined thousands of people boarding the trains, packed like sardines.

The documentary is most powerful when Lanzmann asks Murmelstein the difficult questions. The subject talks about his important role in embellishing Theresienstadt, the power he had there, and his relationship with Adolf Eichmann, one of the men responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. “Were you acting to save the ghetto or yourself? Do you consider yourself a hero?” These are two questions I also wanted to ask Murmelstein.

After World War II, he was accused of being a collaborator. And for good reasons, I think. Notice the manner in which he speaks and the changes in his body language when delving into the details of his role in the “model ghetto.” Was he proud of what he had done? If so, which aspects of his actions? He spoke very confidently, as if he held a very prominent position there. He might have been a leader but certainly the Nazis were always in charge. He discloses enough details—he is an undoubtedly engaging storyteller—and yet we suspect that certain secrets went to the grave with him.

5
Aug

Anon


Anon (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The high concept sci-fi thriller “Anon,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, possesses a curious idea, but the execution is so dour and so slow that at times experiencing it feels more like a chore than entertainment. In the middle of it, one considers the possibility that the story might have been better off had it been shaped as a tight episode of “Black Mirror” instead of a feature film. At times the pacing is not at all appropriate for the type of technology or future it attempts to criticize.

Niccol presents a future without privacy in which the government has complete access to every single thing that nearly every single person does every second of every day—with the exception of a select few, most of them hackers, who have found rather creative ways to remain anonymous. Should investigators wish, they are able to review records of past events taken from people’s recollections. No warrant is required. Initially, this level of access appears to be highly beneficial because there is a killing spree in New York City.

Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a man still mourning his young son’s death, is assigned to the case. The prime suspect: an anonymous hacker named only as The Girl (Amanda Seyfried) whose speciality is in removing or altering memories of her clients. The police force aims to capture her, but she is consistently one step ahead. Clearly, it requires more than ingenuity to take her in.

The picture is fond of detours when the story is best told straight: Frieland’s grief and alcoholism, pressure from high-ranking officials to protect the sanctity of a technology currently on the verge of being utilized nationally, a suspect possibly a misunderstood persona. With every left turn, which is meant to become an interesting subplot, notice how the pacing tends to slow down. The reason is because these elements are nothing new or compelling; they are simply plugged into this particular world and unnecessary plotting is written around them. Remove the futuristic world altogether and realize there is nothing worth seeing here. Therein lies the problem.

Owen and Seyfried are fine; they try to do what they can with the material. I am almost certain they have been instructed to speak in a low-key way in order to amplify the mystery of the setting. Normally, these are expressive and emotive performers. It feels like they hold back here. When their characters show more varied expressions, particularly during the final act, it comes across as false because they are quite muffled throughout the picture’s duration. The sudden disparity took me out of the supposed drama.

“Anon” wants to be taken seriously and the photography reflects this yearning. The images are drenched in neutral colors. Primary colors appear to be banned. Voices must be kept under a certain decibel. The sun’s rays are barely seen despite numerous shots of skyscrapers. I suppose this level of control should be applauded, but I wished the same effort was made to create an extremely efficient screenplay. There is more style than substance here.

4
Aug

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw


Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Intelligent people will most likely get bored of “Hobbs & Shaw” about twenty minutes in because it reveals its hand too early. Instead of consistently finding new or creative ways to entertain, it offers only two tricks: loud and busy action set pieces and rapid-fire banter between the titular characters (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, respectively) who despise each other. The strategy suffers from diminishing returns and by the end one cannot be blamed for finding any excuse to get up from his seat without the intention coming back. I stayed all the way through and regretted it. I could have spent one hundred thirty-five minutes enjoying the outdoors.

The bombastic action film is directed by David Leitch and his penchant for complex sequences shows, whether it be a car-motorcycle chase across the busy streets London or hand-to-hand combat in a sanitized Russian underground laboratory. He proves to have an eye for what looks good during wide shots or, by contrast, shots that are up close and personal. However, it is surprising that there are screenwriters at all (Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce). Because for every well-lit and marginally impressive choreography, there is at least three cringe-worthy dialogue to go with them. It feels as though the script is written by people without imagination or at least an inkling of how people actually talk in every day conversations. Action movies must be grounded in some way; not everything must be elevated.

This is most problematic during the occasional dramatic moments, particularly when Luke Hobbs (Johnson), a federal agent, and Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an M16 agent who also happens to be Deckard Shaw’s (Statham) younger sibling, find similarities in each other. These exchanges are forced and superficial—awkward and uncomfortable at best. The dialogue also fails to work when the subject of family, particularly being estranged, is broached. These would-be personal moments lodged between action sequences are worthy of the biggest eye rolls. To say the quality is television-like would be an insult to good television with well-written dialogue.

Even the action scenes fail to command a high level of excitement despite increasingly elaborate skirmishes. Here we have a villain named Brixton (Idris Elba) who is part-human and part-machine. Despite all the talk surrounding Brixton being a formidable enemy, notice how he and his team loses in every key confrontation. As a result, especially during the second half, he becomes significantly less intimidating. Introducing science-fiction elements in the “Fast & Furious” franchise is not the problem; the issue lies in the lack of more profound or intriguing ideas behind them. Due to this shortcoming, the work comes across as just another lazy cash grab.

“Hobbs & Shaw” fires blanks. Although it is loud, busy, and appears to look expensive on the surface, it offers an empty, nearly joyless experience. It does nothing to push Johnson, Statham, Kirby, and Elba as performers. The work rests on the actors turning on their charisma and nothing else. At least they are getting a paycheck to sleepwalk though a subpar film. We, on the other hand, must pay money and put in the time to sit through it.

3
Aug

Pet Sematary


Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.

I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.

However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.

There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.

“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.

1
Aug

The Unspoken


Unspoken, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of “The Unspoken,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, it is a decent horror picture executed with deliberate pacing despite a familiar template of yet another family moving into house that is believed to haunted. But a twist offered during the final five minutes reveals that the picture could have been so much more intriguing because it actually offers something new to the genre. In this case, it would have been preferred had the surprise been revealed a little less than halfway through and then the rest of the time being devoted to exploring the daring idea it puts forth.

The mystery surrounds a house that sits away from an already isolated town where a family disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. When the police arrived, it appeared to be a crime scene given the blood stains on windows, walls, and various appliances. And yet—not one body was found in or around the house. As it turned out, their clothes were still in their closets and drawers, the car was parked at its usual spot, even dinner remained on their plates. It were as if they simply vanished out of thin air. The only person who made it out of the house, with the help of a police officer, was the babysitter, clearly traumatized from what she had seen. But what did she see? When a mother and son (Pascale Hutton, Sunny Suljic) move into the Briar house, locals recall horrifying rumors and legends.

Jodelle Ferland plays the recently hired babysitter named Angela. Although not a well-written character, Ferland plays Angela with a certain wholesomeness and so we cannot help but root for her despite a dearth of information about who she is and why she is our heroine. Ferland commands the screen during the strange happenings around the house, but I wished that the writer-director had done more with the character since the performer clearly can do more. There are dramatic scenes thrown around here and there—such as her interactions with her father (Lochlyn Munro), friend (Chanelle Peloso), and three town thugs (Anthony Konechny, Jonathan Whitesell, Jake Croker)—but the exchanges lack gravity and intrigue.

The picture can be quite graphic. At its best, it uses actual masks, rubber, and other tactile elements to create gruesome imagery. At its worst, however, we see CGI flies, flying knives and other weapons, people being thrown across the room by an invisible force. Had the picture been stripped bare of such ostentatious mumbo jumbo, a much more grounded and believable experience might have been created. Modern filmmakers really must learn not to use inappropriate visual effects when attempting to tell a small horror story.

Still, I appreciated certain pieces of the film even though I cannot being myself to recommend it. There are a few scenes that show characters moving so slowly toward a suspicious noise. The camera follows with precise patience. We anticipate what it might be. Also note there is a certain eerie quiet to these sequences. Inferior pictures of the genre are afraid of silence. And while this piece offers a few jump scares, it does not use them as a crutch.

30
Jul

The Favourite


Favourite, The (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

As an admirer of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ palate for the bizarre, I found the period comedy “The Favourite” to be impressive only during the second half, when fortunes have been turned upside down and inside out. It is then we get a chance to observe characters attempt to wriggle themselves out of very sticky situations, to scoff at them, to laugh at them, to consider their unhappy fates to be both ironic and well-deserved. It is clear, as he has shown in his previous pictures, that Lanthimos’ strength lies in looking at human nature through fractured lens and within those tiny crevices is a chance for us to see ourselves and ponder over the world around us.

The first hour is a waiting game as the initial moves of a long chess game are executed. I found them not uninteresting but not superbly inspired either. I liked the casting of Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, in charge of governing state matters given that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is almost always plagued with illness, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Lady Sarah’s cousin whose family has fallen on hard times and so she asks for employment within the estate. Weisz and Stone navigate the barbs of the warring cousins with a certain grace despite the ugly and delicious schemes. Meanwhile, Colman plays a queen who is so pathetic nearly every time we see her and yet the seasoned performer hits a different and fresh note with vigilance and purpose.

Despite the stellar performances, however, I found the machinations of early plotting to be rather generic. For instance, Lady Sarah’s nature of possessiveness and thirst for maintaining power is established right from the moment we meet her. And so when someone younger than her, certainly more likable, moves into the palace, her response is predictable. The same goes for the smart new resident who yearns to climb the social ladder. The standard writing is alleviated by performers who find ways to wrinkle the vanilla characterization. And take away Lanthimos’ proclivity toward awkward camera angles and habit of lingering at a shot for an extra second or two—sometimes ten—the content, at least during the first hour, is not all that special. The exposition is something I have seen from countless period films. The main difference is that the characters make no qualms about expressing their most inappropriate thoughts.

But when the consequences of Lady Sarah and Abigail’s competition is finally brought out to light, it becomes wonderful entertainment. The audience is not required to feel sorry for any of the players. However, we must understand them in order to have a more robust appreciation of double-edged ironies. With the exception of one figure, everyone else is proven to bite off more than what they are able to chew. They are convinced they are so intelligent and so experienced in navigating their way through labyrinthine gambles, the joy comes from seeing their big plans explode in their faces. Lanthimos, with his penchant for well-timed close-ups, ensures to capture the most minuscule facial expressions, at times in succulent slow motion.

The darkly funny farce “The Favourite” might have befitted from bolder screenplay decisions right from the get-go. One can argue that because the content is already for an acquired taste, it might have been stronger work overall had the writers been kind enough to spare us the usual motions and go straight for the jugular, to splash blood on posh, royal costumes.