In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When was the last time you’ve seen a romance picture whereby a man and a woman eat dinner at the same table and the camera dares to focus its attention on the food being consumed rather than the words, looks, and impressions the two share? Yet the scene is not about the food but about the lonely pair, possessing knowledge that their respective spouses are having affairs, who are separated by that table. Although the attraction between them is palpable, they vow not to behave like their partners. And so the distance between the two sharing a meal might as well be from Venus to Mars. Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” works on this level all the way through. It assumes that those looking in are intelligent in the mind, heart, and spirit. By doing so, it avoids common trappings of the genre and forges a unique path of its own.

We are offered one fresh image after another. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) have spent time with each other on multiple occasions. And yet when they converse in public, the camera tends to hide—behind a stone pillar, metallic bars—as if it were spying on them. At times images are blurry, off-centered. Their backs face the camera. We are forced take on the perspective of a voyeur precisely because, in a way, we are.

Another example, five minutes into the film, involves move-in day for both Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. They are neighbors, whose spouses are often away on business, and so movers inevitably confuse which possessions belong to whom. But this scene is not played for simple or easy laughs. By placing the camera in a cramped hallway, it gives the impression that the story we are about to experience will be about people moving in and out of rooms and the items—offerings—they carry with them. Sometimes items are left in place. Other times items are taken somewhere else. It is a beautiful metaphor for the impermanence of time, places, and faces. Notice how the writer-director seems to have an affinity for showing faces of clocks.

This is not to suggest that the work can only be enjoyed by being observant. This can be appreciated by viewers who have lived and loved; those who have a penchant for self-reflection. Consider: Despite spending ample time with one another, we never, ever, get to hear Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow share laughter even though it is apparent they thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. We are not spoon-fed why. Rather, we inspired to look inside ourselves to come up with a reason, or reasons, why this might be.

I think it is because sharing laughter, joy, with another person is deeply personal. By not showing the pair laugh, the work is making a statement that even though we get to see glimpses of their interactions, many of which are sensual and intense, we remain outsiders looking in. To hear them laugh is an act of breaching the secret space they’ve created for themselves. Laughter would have overpowered the whispers. I also think doing so would have broken the picture’s mood. We’ve all been in a situation where we hear a couple laughing from several feet away and feeling a bit awkward. We wonder, “What’s so funny?” or “What are they laughing about?” We are meant to gravitate toward Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, not be repelled by them.

There is splendor within moments of pause. Here is a picture so patient that, for example, it is willing to show how rain lands on street lamps, on people, on stone roads. It demonstrates how rain can change people’s behavior. Many run away to find shelter, some hide under umbrellas, others remain still. Rain can be regarded as an act of renewal, of washing away sins, of evidence, and perhaps of memories, too. “In the Mood for Love” ends in an offbeat path, but it feels exactly right because it is helmed by hands who appreciates how it is like to yearn for a possibility so close to becoming reality, for a life not lived but to go on living anyway.

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

“If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like a king. You must be the king. There can be no doubt. Because doubt causes chaos and one’s own demise.”

Guy Ritchie—to date—has never been synonymous with subtle. Those signing up for “The Gentlemen” will know precisely what to expect: a relatively simple premise surrounding backstabbing criminals jutting off in many directions before the fifteen-minute mark; characters fond of talking, looking tough, sounding tough, pulling out guns, and making vulgar jokes; the casual use of the C-word; money, drugs, power play, and fighting over territories; the occasional self-awareness and fast editing… all of it propelled with energy to spare. Ritchie is no Tarantino, but sometimes a fake Prada bag does the job.

This is not a knock on Ritchie but an observation. I like his approach because he is comfortable with it. (So comfortable that at times I catch myself thinking he is capable of doing much more.) I would even go as far to say he is proud of it. And why shouldn’t he? His name, like Tarantino, is a brand. It’s not a luxury brand but one that serves as a good gateway for more fully realized works of the crime sub-genre. I found this picture to be immensely watchable due to its confidence, populated with character actors who play caricatures but have good fun along the way. And sometimes that’s enough.

A private investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) visits the home of Ray (Charlie Hunnam), the right-hand man of self-made cannabis businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), for a game of extortion. 20 million pounds in exchange for his silence in regards to everything he has discovered about the specifics of Mickey’s business, his personal plans for the near-future, what his rivals are up to, corpses, plans of double-crosses, possibly triple-crosses, and everything else under the sun. Grant plays the swindler with such joie de vivre that in the middle of his cooky performance, I was considered that it is perhaps his most colorful role in years—certainly one that’s most alive. He shares terrific chemistry with Hunnam even though the latter’s approach to his role is more controlled. Fletcher and Ray are fun to watch and listen to because both of them are calculating in their own way.

In a movie like this, it is not at all difficult to answer the central question: Who is the main person responsible for compromising one of Fletcher’s twelve secret underground cannabis laboratories? Focus on this question with unadulterated logic and everything else serves as mere decoration. And yet—this does not mean that the trimmings are unworthy of our interest. On the contrary, for instance, I found Fletcher to be curious, especially in how he wishes to retire from the business he built from the ground up. He is provided no compelling reason to walk away so… why do so? Another: the highly ambitious Dry Eye (Henry Golding) who works for a Chinese gangster. He is one of the two who wishes to buy Fletcher’s business. (The other is an American billionaire played by Jeremy Strong.) Dry Eye does not seem to be interested in the money or the business. This is a man who craves power for power’s sake. And that makes him dangerous.

Is it offensive at times in its depiction of people of color and women? For some, it might be. But it did not offend me considering that the material, I think, is able to establish its own universe whereby its characters talk, act, and behave like people in real life. Not once did I think, a subject is acting a certain way because one is Jewish, or Asian, or gay, or a woman. In other words, I did not feel as though certain character traits stem from a place of malice.

“The Gentleman” zips through one humorous scenario to the next without sacrificing an ounce of vigor. There is enjoyment to be had in watching a swimming pool filled with predators who try to outsmart one another for money, reputation, power, or unique reasons of their own. Who will come out on top? The answer is not always clear. But, in a way, it does not matter because the journey there is littered with fun and wicked surprises.

Blood Simple.

Blood Simple. (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The world is full o’ complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, ‘n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.

In its first five minutes, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen are able to separate their magnificent debut film from its contemporaries. In most thrillers, characters tend to start off mild. Circumstances pile up and the folks we follow are eventually driven to desperation. In “Blood Simple,” we meet the four main characters and already we sense they are in a state of distress. It feels that all it takes is one more push for them to reach a breaking point. By starting off high, tension need not accumulate for us to care. It is already present and so we focus on the chess game being played by characters who think they know what’s going on but in actuality not one of them has a complete idea. But we do. And that’s what makes the story a captivating experience.

The plot revolves around a Texas bar owner, Marty (Dan Hedaya), who suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), might cheating on him and so he hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow her around. Abby sleeps with Ray (John Getz), Marty’s employee, and soon photos make it onto the husband’s desk. The thought of his wife being in bed with a lowly employee eats up Marty so badly that he hires the same P.I. to kill them for $10,000. Mr. Loren Visser suggests that Ray goes fishing; he will get a telephone call once the deed is done. But this is not a straight murder story. And it isn’t even about revenge or the money.

The movie is about how one small mistake can become an avalanche so powerful stopping it becomes an impossibility. Soon people are making assumptions based on the limited—at times myopic—knowledge they have and even more mistakes are made. It becomes increasingly clear that the only way to survive is to make the smartest decisions you can and ride through it. But even if you do, you are not guaranteed to see the light of day. Bodies pile up in this story. Every single one makes an impact. A certain character knows how Event A is connected to Event B. How is the equation changed for the other characters who are in dire need of this knowledge so he or she can make the best decisions in regards to Event C? Does anything change? You bet your bottom dollar.

The Coens possess a preternatural ability to jolt us into paying attention, whether it be newspaper hitting a glass a window during a potentially revealing exchange or a shovel being scraped down a highway in the middle of the night, there is beauty and poetry in keeping us on our toes. Notice that even when characters are being shown at rest—on a chair, a sofa, a bed—the camera is angled in an uncomfortable way or an important object sits in the background staring right back at us. There is constant reminder that there is no escape from the problems at hand. Even one’s dreams are corrupted into nightmares by waking suspicions.

I admired its use of silence. Here is a suspense-thriller that does not rely on score to communicate what’s about to happen or to signal what the viewers should feel. Modern pictures across genres can learn a textbook’s worth of information on here. Joel and Ethan Coen trust the nature of their material and the manner in which they’ve put together the images so that we feel we have a stake in the matter every step of the way. Why use sound as a cue when the point is for us to be with the picture in every moment, not five or three seconds from it?

An unforgettable dialogue-free sequence involves a disposal of a body along a lonely road. There is blood but no overt violence is shown. Yet I caught myself looking away from the screen because I found it to be terribly sad that a character we come to describe as good and well-intentioned feels compelled to do something unimaginable. Because of a mistake, an assumption, we are forced to look at this character under a different light. When the chips are down and the pressure is up, perhaps we are all capable of the darkest feats.

“Blood Simple.” is filled to the brim with humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t care about the twists and turns and the ironic (and tragic) details imbued into their marrow. Using a typical murder premise, the Coens are able to make us feel their love for the movies. There is confidence and specificity in every breath of their feature’s entire running time. They take risks. They demand that their viewers be engrossed. This should be required viewing for aspiring filmmakers.

Come to Daddy

Come to Daddy (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Comedy-thriller “Come to Daddy,” written by Toby Harvard and directed by Art Timpson, is not without the ability to entertain. Looking at the work as a whole, there are darkly comic scenes dispersed throughout the morbid reunion story between father and son, but it leaves the audience longing for more substance both as a piercing character study and as a lavish genre exercise. Because it does not offer much in the way of both, the attempt comes across undercooked—almost good enough to recommend but not quite. When the end credits began to roll, a part of me wished it had chosen an extreme and let it rip.

Elijah Wood is Norval, a thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed artist from Beverly Hills, California who accepts an invitation from his father to visit his seaside home. They have not seen one another in three decades, so the man Norval meets at the doorstep (Stephen McHattie) feels like a complete stranger. Still, Norval so wishes to establish a genuine connection with his father that he tries to overlook the insults and cold shoulder. Wood is highly watchable as a man-child whose default is to try building himself up when facing criticism because Norval knows that deep down he is a loser. So when he admits that he has had issues with alcohol dependency and had been involved in a suicide attempt, we are ready to recognize and believe the sadness inside him.

If only the screenplay were as sharp as the lead actor’s ability to sell a story without relying on words. We have a potentially complex character established during the first thirty minutes, but when the action revs up about halfway through, putting a magnifying glass on Norval is no longer of utmost importance. Instead of maintaining our curiosity, it chooses to make us wince, cringe, and gag from the torture, violence, and murder. Although possessing a keen eye when it comes to creating natural lighting so we can easily buy into the realism of a moment, I found the overt use of violence to be less effective than its more restrained moments, its quiet (or disquiet).

There is a recurring theme involving traditional masculinity here. Right from the film’s opening seconds, we note how Norval dresses, how he moves, how he acts, how he speaks. Look at his posture, his frame. He is a not a typical alpha male; he isn’t alpha at all. Norval fails to recognize himself in the man that greets him at the door. And so our subject is thrown into a world of survive-or-perish. I will not reveal the twist that occurs halfway through because I feel it would do a disservice to the picture, but there is a way to comment on the toxicity of having rigid qualifications for masculinity without solely relying on showing brutality or violence. This aspect of the work is underwritten and one-dimensional.

At least for a while, “Come to Daddy” offers some creativity; it is difficult to guess where it is heading. At one point, we begin to wonder if it is heading toward the territory of supernatural horror given the inexplicable noises in the house at night, a figure blending in the leaves, a corpse seemingly moving on its own. And so it is most disappointing that the work fails to offer a strong and memorable punchline. It’s quirky and clever on occasion but not much else.

Red Dragon

Red Dragon (2002)
★★ / ★★★★

Remakes must exude a purpose for existing. Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon,” based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name which was adapted to screen in 1986 by Michael Mann, only truly comes alive during the final fifteen minutes. The rest of it, while watchable mainly due to the terrific performances by Edward Norton who plays a retired FBI profiler Will Graham and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins once again stepping into his iconic role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is merely a polished retread of Mann’s superior “Manhunter.” One of the key differences between the remake and the original is that in the latter, Graham and Lecter interact more often. But it is curious that their exchanges do not necessarily reveal more in regards to their symbiotic relationship in catching serial killers—before and after Graham discovered that Lecter was the notorious Chesapeake Ripper who ate his victims. There is no tease, no seduction. What results is a movie that is longer but not more informative—at least in ways that count. At times I found that Ratner’s film aspires to fill in some blanks that “Manhunter” left open for interpretation—a mistake because certain details, like specifics of a murder or crime scene, are better left to the imagination. Mann’s film may be rough around the edges and the performances not as strong when compared to Ratner’s picture. But the remake, while tolerable, fails to surpass the original because it comes across as yet another psychological thriller with minimal intrigue; everything must be shown or explained for the viewer out of fear that it may across as too oblique or strange otherwise. It is too safe when the material is far from it.

Surviving the Game

Surviving the Game (1994)
★★ / ★★★★

“He’s a homeless piece of shit. He’s nothing. He’s less than nothing.”

And so the hunt begins between predators and prey in “Surviving the Game,” an action-thriller directed by Ernest R. Dickerson that could have benefited from a more polished screenplay. There is an idea worth exploring here: the rich, most of them white, literally hunting down a poor black man like an animal in the woods for the sake of “therapy,” entertainment.

As an action picture, its chase sequences are only mildly entertaining. There are only so many ways to show Ice-T, playing Jack Mason, a military veteran who became homeless after the death of his wife and daughter, running away from the highly privileged men who wish to murder him for sport. About halfway through, not even Ice-T’s approach of embedding humor in Mason’s desperation—as if to acknowledge that the plot itself is preposterous—is able to keep the movie afloat. A pattern emerges: Every other scene a hunter drops dread punctuated by our protagonist sustaining a fall or a minor injury only to end up fighting back again. It becomes somewhat of a bore eventually because there is a flatness in how the chases are shot; there is only occasional catharsis to the much-deserved kills.

The screenplay by Eric Bernt is not written sharp enough for the work to be considered an effective satire. For instance, I enjoyed there is one black man (Charles S. Dutton) among the hunters who is the right-hand man of the ringleader (Rutger Hauer). He is not quite the Uncle Tom character, existing to serve his white master, but neither do we get a sense he is a completely independent figure who is above his black identity. Cole is somewhere in between which makes him rather dull. Why have a minority character among the villains when you are not willing to take it all the way so that there is power behind the punchline? It is a waste of a character; imagine this role being played by a white man and there is only minimal difference.

Another missed opportunity: There is a white teenager among the group who is shocked upon the discovery that this is no typical hunting trip. (His father, played by F. Murray Abraham, requires that he be there because his son is “becoming too much like [his] mother.”) This should have been a key character because a) he is white, b) he is outside of the average age group of the group and c) it is not his choice to attend. Derek (William McNamara), like Cole, is written in a middle-of-the-road fashion and so he has nothing to do other than to utter lines showing disapproval. These potentially curious characters are wasted in terms of the big picture, the message that the movie is trying to communicate in regards to race and class in America.

Or is it actually saying something? I marveled at this question somewhere in the middle because none of the balls being juggled in the air are particularly interesting. Surely there is tension during the setup—up until Gary Busey’s scene-stealing performance where his psychiatrist character, also one of the hunters, explains to Mason why he considers the scar under his eye to be a birthmark—but the latter half is a drag for the most part. For a story that promises thrills and excitement, I witnessed a lack of energy and craft.

Other People

Other People (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Other people uproot their lives from the city to move back home in the suburbs. Other people lose out on dream jobs. Other people’s relationships crumble and find themselves starting over. Other people must put their lives on hold in order to take care of their loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer. That is, until it happens to you. This is the situation that David (Jesse Plemons) finds himself in, a gay man living in New York City as a comedy writer. Writer-director Chris Kelly is able to tap into the natural ebb and flow of comedy and drama in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and freeing. He is concerned with details, like his characters being Sacramento-based, and so when the expected comes around, there is substance behind the punches.

The story opens with a family bawling their eyes out while in bed after having discovered that their mother and wife (Molly Shannon) has passed away. “Oh, it’s another one of those movies,” I thought. But then the telephone rings. A voice of an energetic woman has just heard that her friend is sick—the word “cancer” is never used—so the voice wishes to know how Joanne is doing. The caller just happens to be at a drive-thru and attempting to get her order right. We sense her priority. To this woman, this friend, Joanne is “other people,” you see. “Oh, so it’s not one of those movies,” I thought. And it turns out to be much more.

I enjoy movies that throw us into the middle of the action and it is up to us whether to sink or swim. In this film, notice that if you walk away for a minute to grab some snacks from the refrigerator, it is entirely possible to miss a line or two that touches upon a character’s history. This is not a comedy that is funny because of the jokes. Rather, it is a comedy that is funny despite the jokes due to its observant nature. I felt as though the writer-director came from the suburbs and so he knows how people from small towns speak, behave, and express themselves. And yet the screenplay does not belittle them. It just shows.

Plemons is quite captivating in this film. He plays David as a painfully ordinary gay man who loves his mother deeply. Plemons walks on a tricky rope in that he must convince us that David wishes to be there—really be there—for his mother but at the same time being back home costs so much in terms of his personal and professional lives. That push and pull between what must be shown versus what must be hidden creates wonderful drama in the character. Plemons makes it look effortless; we sympathize and empathize with David all the way through even though at times we know (and he knows) he could have made better decisions in retrospect.

Shannon is also terrific. I saw my mother in her portrayal of Joanne as this loud, vivacious woman whom you cannot help but look at when she enters the room. The opening scene, which shows this woman’s death, is correctly placed so that we appreciate her more when watching her just living her remaining days. There is drama in the juxtaposition of a high-spirited woman and a wilting thing whose voice can barely be heard even from just six feet away.

Shannon may not be on screen as much as Plemons, but her role is key to David’s sense of self. In a way, Joanne is his compass even though their relationship when he came out of the closet a decade ago was far from perfect. (The Mulcaheys are religious and conservative.) David’s father, Norman (Bradley Whitford) still has not come to terms with his only son’s homosexuality. There is a lot of pain to be mined there, but I appreciated that the filmmaker has found humor in that situation, too.

“Other People” is more dynamic than the average comedy-drama—and far more observant. We meet some characters here who appear in one or two scenes and I wanted to follow them, to learn what they’re about. For example, David’s grandparents live in a mobile home. That visit is so awkward for David, but at the same time I wanted to stay for cookies and listen to gossip. The grandparents have a sense of humor about them that is unlike the rest of the characters we meet. Clearly, the movie is helmed by a filmmaker who loves the idea of family and how our histories shaped us as the persons we’ve become.

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008)
★ / ★★★★

Not three minutes into Marc Forster’s “Quantum of Solace,” the twenty-second entry in the “James Bond” series, I noticed my facial features scrunching together in an attempt to make sense of the would-be thrilling car chase along the highways of Italy because the editing is so choppy, so manic, that it repels viewers from appreciating the beauty within the chaos. The shortcoming that is visual illiteracy is pervasive in this egregious follow-up to the terrific “Casino Royale,” a Bond picture so focused and assured of what it wants to be and what it wishes to accomplish that it ends up standing strong among the best of the series.

Here, Bond (Daniel Craig) is reduced to just another action hero on a quest to avenge the death of a woman whom he had fallen for in the previous entry. Although Craig retains the basic 007 charm he established in “Casino,” he is quite robotic here—a bore because the screenplay simply requires him to march from one action piece to another. When he does get a break, he trades repetitive dialogue with M (Judi Dench), head of the Secret Intelligence Service, about the importance of trust and Bond’s inability to keep persons of interest alive. The agency wishes to know more about a shadow organization called Quantum that appears to have connections so far-reaching it is able to plant spies within the MI6. What is their end goal?

We are presented a villain so banal that at times he comes across as a walking caricature. His name is Dominic Greene, played by Mathieu Amalric, a businessman who uses environmentalism as a platform to upend governments and take control of their leaders. While I liked the choice of Greene looking ordinary that he can easily blend into the background, the face of evil can be Ordinary Joe after all, screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade fail to convince us why this character is compelling other than the fact that he is a member of Quantum. He is not Bond’s equal in any way—in intellect, strength, or resourcefulness—and so why or how is he a threat other than he is well-connected?

Even the Bond girl this time around is a bore. Like 007, Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is on a journey of vengeance. Her goal is get close enough to a dictator (Joaquín Cosio), a client of Greene, who murdered her entire family when she was a child. Instead of finding small but telling moments between Bond and Camille—obvious foils—so that we discover what revenge means to them before and after exacting it, these two are thrown into one standard action scene after the other. At times these sequences are so CGI-heavy (like the plane crash scene) that it becomes near impossible to buy into whatever is going on and, perhaps more importantly, the stakes propelling the conflict. It does not help that Craig and Kurylenko share no chemistry. Their exchanges lack flow or poetry.

The only action piece somewhat worthy of the Bond franchise is the second one—there are five total and four are forgettable—which involves a rooftop chase in Siena, Italy between two MI6 agents. Having said that, even such a chase is done better—certainly framed with a keener eye for action and reaction—in much stronger films like Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

Casino Royale

Casino Royale (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” consists of only three major action sequences and the rest is a high-stakes poker game. Yet it remains to be one of the most entertaining James Bond pictures—certainly the most emotionally complex because it humanizes our hero. One of the reasons is its confidence and skill and slowing down overt elements, at times to the point of minimization, that typically define a 007 movie.

It is willing to regale us with words—not just fun, cheeky repartees but actual conversations between highly intelligent and insightful characters, specifically between Bond (Daniel Craig), a newly minted 00 agent for the British MI6, and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an agent assigned to finance our protagonist during the titular poker game in Montenegro. At times listening to their dialogue is like being tickled with a feather. There is electric chemistry and a sensuality that emanates from the two. They can simply sit across a table while trading knowing looks and the silent exchange makes us smile. The longer this goes on, the more is revealed between James and Vesper while keeping us mindful of the stakes—why it is paramount that Bond must succeed in preventing a terrorist fancier named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning over a hundred million dollars. The screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis is alive and so we are receptive to every minute plot and character development.

Most sign up for a Bond picture due to the promise of impressive action pieces. It is without question the film delivers. The first big action scene takes place in Madagascar. It requires Bond to chase a bomb maker who is not only fast but also incredibly athletic. Just when you think the man is cornered, he finds a way to slither through the cracks. And so we observe Bond’s resourcefulness in trying to make up the distance. A surprise is thrown onto our laps every ten seconds. Comic moments are thrown in there for good measure. It becomes so ludicrous that Bond and the person of interest are climbing and jumping off cranes like spiders. The level of energy builds and builds until no longer tenable. Fight choreography grows more complex. But also notice the beauty of these sequences, especially when at high elevations. A person with acrophobia is likely to experience a gut reaction.

This is only one action scene. There are two others that are equally terrific to sit through. But they are entertaining in different ways. Notice, too, the type of chases do not repeat. And the immediate stakes are always different. Even these adrenaline-fueled scenes tend to reveal something new about our main character. This is the strength of “Casino Royale.” We are seemingly presented one thing, but so many gears are working together that the experience is informative and enthralling. The punchline is never having to shoot a gun. It is about the mission; success or failure is a given and so repercussions are treated with real gusto.

It would be remiss of me not to compliment the wonderful performances. Craig possesses a knack for being cold-hearted one minute and the next there is a vulnerability to him that you wish to get to know. That’s critical because I believe that is one of the traits that made Vesper curious about the assassin. Green, too, is exquisite. Every line uttered is like silk caressing the eardrums. There is a knowing in those eyes that makes you want to lean in and study her. And speaking of eyes, Mikkelsen imbues an enigma to a villain with a simple goal: survival. When sitting at that poker table, we feel that desperation to win. Because if he loses, he dies—fitting for someone who brazenly uses his clients’ money to gamble with stocks.


1BR (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gated communities are meant to keep people out. In “1BR,” written and directed by David Marmor, they’re designed to keep people in. Executed with a specific vision and a whole lot of patience, the picture does not waste any time in making viewers feel off-balance. From the moment Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) enters the Asilo Del Mar apartment complex for an open house, there is a creepiness to the community that’s bubbling just beneath the surface. Residents are too smiley, too friendly, too accommodating—to the point where it almost feels staged, a charade. Bloom is terrific as a lonely young woman who has run away from a painful past, which involves her mother’s passing from cancer, to try and make it in Los Angeles as a designer despite a lack of support from her father. There is a translucent quality to her face; when Sarah comes up with a specific thought or feels a certain emotion, it is right there for us to absorb. We sympathize with Sarah’s yearning to connect and be accepted. (Her only friend is her cat named Gyles.) Bloom is someone to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, the picture comes alive about a third of the way through—almost thirty minutes in—when it is revealed to us what’s really going on in the heavenly Asilo Del Mar. As our heroine is subjected to brutality and humiliation, we become increasingly angry for her and wish for her to fight back. But how can she when being a pushover is Sarah’s nature? Although the work tackles the dangers of group-think and conformity on a superficial manner, it is consistently entertaining. This is a solid debut film. I look forward to what Marmor will come up with next because I feel he has even more twisted stories up his sleeves.

The Gleaners and I

The Gleaners and I (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Toward the end of Agnès Varda’s fascinating and compassionate documentary “The Gleaners and I,” we meet a man in the streets of Paris who visits outdoor markets to pick up thrown away food and eats them right there on the spot. He consumes about six to seven apples a day, is a vegetarian, and mindful of his health. Despite his lifestyle of sorting through the trash for food, he is not homeless; in fact, he is educated in Biology and possesses a Master’s degree. He makes a living selling street magazines, and he lives in a shelter that houses immigrants, many of whom are illiterate. So, he takes it upon himself to teach a class for his neighbors. They are taught how to read, write, and speak French—free of charge. This is only one of the many compelling persons in this entertaining and most educational film about second lives—of the people, including the director’s, and the objects they come into contact with.

To watch a Varda film is like being caressed with joyful surprises. In its opening minutes, the word “gleaner” is defined as “pickers,” “those who follow the harvest,” and for a while we go along with this definition as we visit all sorts of farms across France. In one farm, several tons of potatoes are discarded for being too small, too big, too misshapen, too hard—these, we are told, have no commercial value. And so the “odd” ones must be thrown away. I watched wide-eyed and jaw agape as mounds and mounds of potatoes sit on the ground, in the cold left to rot. Later, the poor—adults and children alike—come along to “pick” or “glean” these so-called trash so they and their families can have something to eat. It is not surprising that most of them eventually talk about sharing their harvests with their neighbors. These people are wired to think in a collective way. I wondered about the sorts of recipes they had back home. Sadly, Varda did not follow them for a taste.

The fearless and creative director takes her camera and swims with the potatoes, the grapes, the cabbages, the oysters, the people that society choose to ignore or forget about. She puts the camera so close to potatoes, for example, that we can appreciate the dirt sitting in between the grooves. By using the camera as a magnifying glass, she trains the audience to look at inanimate objects—food, refrigerators, televisions, clocks—from the perspective of what insights or stories these things can tell us. And so when the camera focuses on the people, we look at them through this lens, too. Clearly, Varda wishes for us to 1) understand and empathize with the poor and 2) to recognize our own privilege and acknowledge the waste we create. There is not a second where we feel lectured since her technique is so organic.

Eventually, a woman claims there is a difference between “gleaning” and “picking.” And so the movie evolves. We do not just look at fruits and vegetables. We look at kitchen appliances, electronics, and all sorts of knickknacks. We even get to meet people who take these broken, inedible things—scraps—and create art out of them. There is an older gentleman who loves dolls. His work is towering in a literal sense; his wife claims he is not “just” an artist. As curious as Varda is, at times she is wise in avoiding to ask, “What do you mean by that?” The reason is because there is beauty in the mystery; maybe it is more appropriate for us to provide answers instead of the subjects. In this way, we participate in what is being presented to us. I will not forget about the boot-donning man who has “a job, a salary, and social security number.” For more than ten years he has acquired his food from dumpsters. I loved that he gave us a non-answer (“a matter of ethics”) when asked why.

“Les gleaners et la glaneuse” shows that a hand-held digital camera can be employed and tell a thoroughly captivating story of pickers, psychoanalysts, teachers, lawyers, farmers. And even when Varda is just at home simply showing her hands and suspecting that “the end is near” due to the numerous brown spots on her skin, we watch spellbound because the person behind the camera is full of experience, wisdom, thoughts, and longings. She has a talent for placing whatever technology is in her hand so that we are inspired to look deeply and ask questions. And if there so happens to be no answer to our questions, we are motivated to extrapolate based on what we have seen, felt, imagined.


Re-Animator (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that embraces H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West—Re-Animator,” and injects it with wild enthusiasm. What results is a bloody, in-your-face, nearly genius horror-comedy so wildly entertaining, it is impossible to look at without being enraptured by the bizarre images: a cat in pieces still wiggling about, a headless neurosurgeon (yes, ironic), giant intestines seeming to have a mind of its own… It’s totally bonkers. But it’s a good movie, certainly worthy of a cult following, because director Stuart Gordon, who co-writes the screenplay with Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, commits to the idea all the way to the finish line.

Herbert West is one of the most memorable mad scientists I’ve come across in the movies. He is played with gusto to spare by Jeffrey Combs. When Herbert enters a room it feels as though he sucks on all the air from it. He is so rigid, so stern, so unrelenting when it comes to achieving his vision of defeating death, you take one look at the medical student and you are convinced morality and ethics are of no importance to him. What matters is results, and he will get it. And so when he answers a roommate ad posted by Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), one of the most promising young physicians in Miskatonic University, it is expected that Dan’s future is sealed.

Love can be felt in every touch of makeup and special effects. Whether it be a rotting hand or eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and then exploding, the filmmakers consistently frame these images in such a way that they look disgusting and beautiful—you want to cringe at the sight of them yet at the same time want to study them closely. I was especially tickled by the more realistic effects like when the superstar scientist Dr. Hill (David Gale) gives a demonstration on how to extract a whole brain from a corpse. His students are unfazed—with the exception of Herbert who despises the man for being a plagiarist. The sight of Dr. Hill still being in science, and thriving, enrages Herbert. He must get on with his late-night experiments.

The picture is peppered with deadpan humor, from the way characters respond to the reality that, yes, the dead can be brought back to life (with certain… concessions) to how a head severed from its body is still able to control the body and perform rather complex tasks. The writers are correct in allowing the more improbable occurrences happen later on because by then we are engrossed by the story’s mental universe. We grow curious of what else the work has in store. And how left-field happenings can surprise us in delightful and horrific ways.

Filmmaker James Wan has claimed that horror are the best-made movies in terms of craft. This is highly applicable in “Re-Animator” because so many pieces must be controlled to create a believable and fun experience, not just in terms of blood—how much to use, when to use it, getting just the right consistency to be convincing, and how to make it look good as it spatters on the wall—but also when to use a real head versus a mannequin, how to best angle the camera so that a mechanical effect can look more natural, down to the appearance of the zombie serum so that it looks portentous and capable of standing out amidst the chaos.

Police Story

Police Story (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right from its opening sequence which involves a sting in a squatter area, “Police Story” proves to be no ordinary action picture. Director Jackie Chan, who also stars as Ka Kui, a cop for the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, demonstrates his keen eye for location, the people who take up space in a particular area, and how they move, whilst interacting with the environment, when chaos is turned up to 11. This sets the tone for the film. On the surface, there appears to be pandemonium. But look closer and realize there is great control—discipline—in how action is set up and executed while incorporating happy accidents along the way to create an exciting, fun, and unique final product. There is plenty to appreciate here.

One is Chan’s penchant and talent for doing his own stunts. There is electricity and intention behind every move: whether he’s throwing a punch or the one avoiding it, whether he’s dangling off a double-decker bus with an umbrella, or whether he’s sliding down a pole—smashing glass along the way—several stories high. The eye-popping and jaw-dropping sequences demand attention. Even more impressive is when Chan is required to lug another actor around as their characters get themselves in sticky situations.

But the magic is not just the actor doing his own stunts, you see. Observe a little more actively and note how Chan always accompanies his physical prowess with easily readable emotions on his face. His expressions help to amplify the mood of a scene. Compare the silliness that unfolds in the apartment of a key witness (Brigitte Lin) Ka Kui must protect so she can testify in court the next day to the desperate, nail-biting final confrontation in a mall. Chan delivers a real performance; he steps on set not as a stuntman but an actor who just so happens to do his own stunts. It makes a whole world of difference, especially considering the fact that the work is prone to sudden shifts in tone.

For the most part, the picture commands a comic feel: mistaken identities, the ennui of the every day while on the job, ironic details among cops, lawyers, and crooks. It is a movie that works hard to make us smile. In just about every scene, a wink can be found. Even when Ka Kui steps on manure, the obvious comedy is never treated as the punchline. But when it changes gears suddenly—a cop who struggles to shoot at suspects in the middle of an operation, when a girlfriend is thrown down a flight of stairs—it is jolts us into paying attention. Chan is the anchor—as actor and director—that holds the ship together. He doesn’t rely on charm.

I wished we got to know more about the main woman in Ka Kui’s life, particularly the girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung), who appears to have more in her than simply looking concerned. Our protagonist seems to love her, but we never get a chance to see them engage in real conversations. At times I felt annoyed that just when May is about to say something of substance, possibly about his safety (or lack thereof) in his occupation, she finds herself cut off by the more dominating personalities. This is not a knock on Cheung, but I felt her talent can be utilized better in slower, thoughtful stories. This one zips along with energy to spare.

Despite this shortcoming, “Police Story,” delivering astonishing practical effects right after another, is a delight from start to finish. Even the final minutes dare to hint at a deeper conversation surrounding limitations cops come across when facing men who possess considerable wealth, power, and influence. There is suggestion that everyone is just dancing around the fire. Ka Kui makes a decision. And there is catharsis.


#Alive (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The title points to the possibility that this undead picture will explore the role of social media following a rapid spread of a virus infection, but screenwriters Cho Il-hyung (who directs) and Matt Naylor set this curious angle aside in favor of typical isolation humdrum that we’ve seen countless of times before in American and international films alike, from the experimental indie to the mainstream variety. What results is a likable but disappointing traipse through the familiar instead of a daring foray into new horizons. There is nothing special to see here.

The opening sequences show promise. We meet a young man, possibly in his early- to mid-twenties, named Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in) who is supposed to be the stereotypical male Zoomer (Generation Z—zombies, get it?)—obsessed with video games, very much in tune with technology and social media, whose alarm goes off at 10 o’clock in the morning. We observe Joon-woo as he learns about his new reality, from news on television to YouTube videos. So far, so good. But in zombie apocalypse films there is a certainty: internet will go down, news will go off air, cell phones will be of little use. This is the point in which the writers ought to have exercised their wildest imagination. They do not rise to the task.

Instead, we go through the usual (but necessary) motions of the character running low on essentials like food and water. (But there is plenty of spirits in the liquor cabinet.) Eventually, our protagonist begins to feel lonely in his high-rise apartment considering that his parents and sister have not returned for days—likely to be dead due to an ominous voicemail. These standard trappings are almost boring—but nearly every moment is elevated by the highly expressive Yoo. There is an air of effortlessness about him; he has a prodigious talent for finding just the right rhythm and conjure entertainment out of ennui, humor, and desperation. In the middle of his one-man performance, which lasts until about the forty-minute mark, I became convinced he should be cast in major Hollywood productions—especially in smart romantic comedies.

A major plot point is his interactions with a neighbor who lives across the building. Her name is Shin-hye (Kim Yoo-bin) and she no typical damsel-in-distress. I enjoyed that Kim portrays Shin-hye with a certain toughness but one that is never off-putting. We get the impression that, in terms of survival, Joon-woo needs Shin-hye more than the other way around. When these characters are apart—with zombies waiting below—there is a slight tonal shift from survival horror to an unlikely romance—curious but it has nothing at all to do with the picture’s thesis regarding the role of social media while self-isolating in the face of a pandemic.

Zombie cosmetics are nothing memorable. I’ve seen better makeup work from the early seasons of Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.” However, there are a few inspired moments. For instance, the undead are able to remember things they knew how to do when they were alive like opening doors. They are sensitive to noises so anything above a certain decibel triggers them to run like hell to the source of the sound. Perhaps the best is a terrifying scene involving a fireman who remembers how to climb. I wish there had been more of these genuine thrills in order to make up for its thematic shortcomings. By all means, distract us by using adrenaline-fueled encounters and creative kills. Many who sign up for zombie movies want to be scared. Social commentary done well is icing on the cake.

“#Alive” is as limp as a zombie that hasn’t had its pound of flesh for weeks. While I found some enjoyment out of it, mainly due to the performance by the lead actor, most of what’s at offer is neither fresh nor inspired. There are countless zombie flicks out there. Here, the filmmakers underachieve on two fronts: a) to make their work stand out and b) inject enough inspiration so that it stands the test of time despite the familiar trappings. Like so many other films, including the ones outside the undead sub-genre, those shaping the picture have failed to ask themselves what makes this story worth telling—and sitting through.