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19
Jun

Somewhere Between


Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.

One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.

She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.

Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.

The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.

I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.

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17
Jun

Nobody’s Fool


Nobody’s Fool (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Having to sit through “Nobody’s Fool,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, should be considered a form of punishment. For a comedy in general, it is deeply unfunny, lacking comic rhythm, and filled with empty silences simply added to take up time. (This brand of torture lasts for nearly two interminable hours.) For a romantic comedy, there is minimal chemistry between the man and woman with whom we are supposed to want to get together. And for a female empowerment picture, its contradictory messages are not only confusing, they are downright offensive at times. Here is an example of a comedy that is dead on arrival.

I felt embarrassed for the performers who chose to participate in this disaster because they are not without talent, from the highly energetic Tiffany Haddish who plays the motormouth hood sister who has been just released from prison, Whoopi Goldberg as the pothead mother with wise-sounding lines to impart during dire times, to Tika Sumpter as the financially successful sister struggling to find the perfect man. There are individual scenes that showcase the star power of these women, but the poor writing consistently lets them down.

Nearly every scene, for instance, must end with an exclamation point even when it is completely inappropriate. Observe closely as the Sumpter’s character, for example, begins to realize late in the picture that perhaps she is to blame for her own impossible expectations when it comes to romance. (She has a list of what a man must offer her in order to be considered boyfriend-worthy.) The moment of self-assessment is almost immediately eradicated by a desperate attempt at comedy. Observant viewers will be quick to catch that the writer-director is not interested, or even remotely curious, of the human condition that his project attempts to tackle.

Instead, Perry proves to excel in regurgitating appallingly familiar scenarios: sisters with opposite personalities having to live together, a romantic interest overhearing a private telephone conversation and feelings getting hurt, one’s career being in danger because her love life is in turmoil. It is all so tired. One gets the impression that the filmmaker could not be bothered to create intelligent characters with something real to say, do, or fight for just as long as there are images moving on screen. I found its pessimism to be quite insulting. What results is a limp piece of work that is not even worth showing on cable. Or even on the Lifetime channel. Yes, given that it is a Perry picture, you can bet there are melodramatic turns that are both ludicrous and unearned.

With at least ten films under his belt prior to this movie, Perry should be further along now when it comes to delivering entertainment that works even in the most elementary level. While I appreciate that he casts mostly black actors to tell black stories and thereby selling black entertainment, must he be reminded that his target audience deserves better? I could not help but feel angry while watching “Nobody’s Fool” because he treats the audience exactly like one.

16
Jun

Ma


Ma (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

In the middle of the camp-lite psychological thriller “Ma,” directed by Tate Taylor and written by Scotty Landes, I wished the focus were on the adult characters instead of the teenagers. The reason is because veteran performers like Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, and Allison Janney can effortlessly elevate a tired plot toward a legitimate good time simply by injecting a fresh line reading, giving out pointed looks, and controlling body movements a certain way. These are qualities that the young cast is lacking. They provide passable performances, but their characters are clearly, and quite simply, lambs lining up for a slaughter.

It is apparent that Spencer is having a good time with her role. As Sue Ann, known by the party-loving teens as Ma because she allows them to lay back and let loose in her basement, she is almost always creepy and quite diabolical when triggered. And yet at times we are provided glimpses of her lonely life at home and how powerless she is at work. When she is humiliated, it is difficult to determine how she will react. Following this woman over the course of one day might have made a curios short film: veterinarian’s assistant by day, stalker and deadly killer by night. She is as quick to give a smile as she is at slitting someone’s throat with a scalpel.

Flashbacks involving Sue Ann being tormented by her peers in high school are uninspired. It might have been the wiser choice to remove these completely and focus on enhancing the script. Simply referencing traumatic details from the past could have been enough given the caliber of its experienced actors. Notice the power of reunions. For instance, we feel Erica’s embarrassment of having to cross paths with a former classmate after it was believed that she moved to California to live a life of success. Erica’s sense of failure is written all over Juliette Lewis’ face. Her body does not want to be on that casino floor, skimpy clothing and all. Even though she is a mother who is strong and proud to raise her daughter by herself, at that very moment she feels like trash.

Maggie, Erica’s daughter, is played by Diana Silvers, the new girl that the popular crowd (McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown) welcomes into the their group. She has a memorable face, but the screenplay fails to create a memorable heroine. For too long she is shown as a passive observer; she begins to notice strange things at Sue Ann’s home and yet she continues to return and party in the basement. When the third act rolls around, we are supposed to care about her fate simply because she is the main girl and nothing else. Never mind the familiar horror tropes of being drugged and waking up to be tormented.

It is rare when solid performances manage to save a generic screenplay. “Ma” is no exception. While entertaining on the surface, I found little value—or excitement—in it. It is one of those movies that you allow to play in the background as you perform chores, check texts, or browse social media while occasionally looking up as decibels begin to rise.

14
Jun

On Chesil Beach


On Chesil Beach (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sometimes love is not enough. I admired the ferocity of this picture because it begins like a generic romantic drama where newlyweds spend their honeymoon on a hotel by the beach. Their backgrounds, when together and apart, are told in flashbacks, carefully calibrated by director Dominic Cooke. A comic moment here and a touching moment there—yet every time we look into the past, he provides just enough detail to keep us wanting to know more. All the while there is a growing suspicion that he isn’t telling us everything, especially when close-ups become more dominant as the couple start to consummate their marriage.

The couple is played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle who share an awkward but interesting chemistry—which makes for a fascinating watch. Florence and Edward’s moments of warmth are certain to make the audience feel good, but perhaps more powerful, and more intriguing, are instances when they fall into intense arguments, one culminating at the beach which involves a devastating confession and a life-changing decision. In particular, Ronan is at her element here as she is able to change the shape of her face depending on the emotion the scene is about to lay out before us, further proof she is one of the greatest performers of her generation.

But the centerpiece of this slow-moving but most surprising picture is the screenplay by Ian McEwan. He is not interested in creating a boring, picture-perfect couple only to be regarded or envied from afar (or through the screen). Instead, he allows the subjects to be human, flawed, by daring to open up the dialogue toward extremely hurtful situations. They are allowed to be petty, to deliver blows so low that at times we feel ashamed for them. This couple, like real-life couples, is able to use words like daggers and actions like explosives. Because of their sheer chemistry, we wish for them to be together, to work through their problems somehow, to push blame and anger to the side, to start anew. Because the material ultimately makes us feel this way, that is what makes it a romance, not necessary through the lens of the story—or type of story—presented.

Perhaps its weakest portion is the jump in time to 2007. (The story begins in 1962.) Instead of casting age-appropriate actors, it becomes another example of a drama that suffers from ridiculous cosmetics. It is so bizarre when we see heavy makeup on a face (which is unconvincing in the first place) and yet we look down on the actors’ hands only to recognize youth. When I noticed this common mistake, I felt angry because I taken out of a film that I found myself to be emotionally invested for the most part. Overlooking details like the hands being flawless, not having a single age-related spot, is such an amateur mistake. Do not get me started on how the ace performers are so buried in cosmetics that they find themselves unable to control their facial expressions. Even the eyes do not look old or experienced.

“On Chesil Beach” is based on the novella by Ian McEwan. It helps that the creator of the original work is also the screenwriter because it feels as though not a thing is filtered upon its translation from text to screen. Especially interesting is the theme regarding ignorance, how at times such ignorance is actually motivated by societal norms of a specific time period, what is expected of a certain sex, of how a married couple ought to live together. There is beauty and searing honesty that I fear might easily be overlooked because the story begins one way. But I trust the more discerning viewers will find something worth pondering over.

13
Jun

Ausente


Ausente (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Martín (Javier De Pietro) hurts his eye during swimming class so his coach, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), drives him to the doctor. It seems to be only a minor irritation so the teenager is discharged. By the time Martín and Sebastián finish at the hospital, however, everyone has gone home. This is a problem because Martín is supposed to spend the night at a classmate’s house—who did not bother to wait—and his grandmother has already left town. Martín is not given a spare key. After a few hours of exhausting avenues to get rid of the student, it seems as though Sebastián has no choice but to allow Martín to stay in his apartment. Unbeknownst to Sebastián, this is all a part of Martín’s plan so they can be alone.

Written and directed by Marco Berger, “Ausente” is a very confused movie about an adolescent attraction toward someone twice as old and eventual feelings of guilt that surface. It lacks a bridge between the two extremes and so the internal and external conflicts fail to translate in a way that is moving or, at the very least, sensible.

We are supposed to have an understanding of Martín’s attraction to his coach, but he is made to be a master manipulator until well past the halfway point. While De Pietro is strong at exuding a mix of menace and sexual desire with his glances to the point where we can almost feel like his eyes are undressing his victim, his capacity for darkness is not what the film is ultimately about so it is curious why the writer-director spends so much time making him out to be someone he is not. It is confused tonally because the story is a drama at its core but it utilizes thriller elements to capture our interest. As a result, the conflict between Martín and Sebastián appears phony.

The film seems unable to discern between true sensuality and cheap sexuality. For example, when the coach finally invites his student over to his place, as the material attempts to build attention through the neighbors’ prying eyes, there are a handful of shots of Martín’s body parts, from his groin area to his buttocks. If the goal is to titillate, which is fine, it is not handled in a way that feels right to the material. The fact that the student is underage is always in the back of our minds. It is neither sexy nor seductive. It is creepy.

After an awkward night, never mind that the material does not go in any interesting direction. It fails to take off completely. There are at least half a dozen wasted scenes where Sebastián and Martín eye each other from across the room and we are made to wait and wonder whether the screenplay has something else up its sleeve. Since we do not know the two main characters as people, the twists and realizations feel nothing but creaky machinations of a plot that is desperate to end but does not know how.

The problem in experimenting with different genres is that it is easy to create an imbalance with the ingredients. “Absent” tries to do something different but since key elements do not complement each other, it meanders well past the point where we stopped caring.

11
Jun

When They See Us


When They See Us (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The four-part mini-series “When They See Us” is the kind of experience that envelops the viewer so entirely, it is impossible to walk away from it without a strong reaction. I walked away from it twice—not because of its running time of almost five hours but because I felt that the emotions it created inside me became so overpowering, I felt it was my responsibility to take a break, process what I had seen thus far, and go back to it once I was clear-headed. I can sit through movies that are eight, ten, or even twelve hours long. But it is rare when I feel compelled to self-evaluate because the work in front me is so overwhelming, so rich with purpose and ideas. It should be seen by everybody, especially by high school students who are learning about racism in America, specifically our flawed justice system and its relationship with black and brown people.

Most would say that the work tells the story of the Central Park Five—boys whose ages ranged between fourteen and sixteen years of age who were convicted of raping a white woman in 1989 even though numerous evidence point to the fact that they were indeed innocent. But I say—and credit to the writers Ava DuVernay, Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Michael Starrbury—the series is more than that because the screenplay proves it is able to find ways to tell the boys’ individual stories, including that of their families, and then contextualizing their specific personalities, how they think, how they react, through the details of the crime and the repercussions of being a black or brown person who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that is not all. The work is confident, too, in showing the biases of cops, detectives, lawyers, judges, and other individuals who are supposed to protect and serve with objectivity. Even the wrong decisions by parents and loved ones are not overlooked.

Most impressive about the work is that although it is angry, every situation is presented in a focused, clear, and elegant way. I admired that no detail is treated as unimportant. No scene is too long. No shot is too awkward as the camera lingers on a face for what feels to be an eternity. Observe closely as the boys are interrogated by the police, for forty-six hours without food, water, or even a restroom break. How the questioning evolves into verbal harassment. How words are turned into physical acts of violence. How being slapped around leads to false confessions. Without the patience and the time to use every beat wisely, the piece could have been just another crime drama where we see actors act and we respond. Not here. I felt that the boys on screen were actually being mistreated; that the barrier between the audience and the screen was not there.

Consider how it employs music to support the story being told. Whether it be hip-hop, blues, rap, or R&B, song choices breathe life into the events. This is noticeable from the very first exchange between two key characters. Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” is playing on the background as father and son discuss basketball and the like while eating fast food at home. This is the only time when we will see them truly happy. The contradiction between lyrics and reality perfectly set the tone for what’s about to come. The score, too, is used intelligently—during important revelations, not when people are speaking or clashing. A score on top of a dramatic exchange would have cheapened the material, you see.

The work is directed by Ava DuVernay whose enthusiasm for telling this story can be felt in every minute of the project. It is apparent that she is a filmmaker who loves people of color’s faces. And through that love—that passion—comes understanding on how to light them, how to frame them, how to push or challenge them. And through that love, too, brings out inspired performances from her actors: Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo as Antron McCray (young and adult, respectively); Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk as Yusef Salaam; Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham as Kevin Richardson; Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares as Raymond Santana; and, last but certainly not least, Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise—the boy who decides to accompany his friend to the police station. Each of these performers inject painful authenticity to the role, particularly the young actors who must deliver realism in the face of an impossible situation.

“When They See Us” shows a miscarriage of justice in stages in a most mesmerizing manner. It is a very angry movie. And it should be. Yet I think its message is empowering: Stay awake. Because if physical evidence and scientific evidence—facts—could be denied then, it could very well happen again. Especially in this day and age when “alternative facts” are treated as a thing—by the mainstream media, by some “journalists,” by politicians more loyal to their donors than they are to the people who elected them—as if it were all right to tolerate such nonsense. Keep those eyes widen open, especially if you are a person of color, or a minority, in America.

9
Jun

Dark Phoenix


Dark Phoenix (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Given that both pictures attempt to tell a version of the Dark Phoenix saga, is “Dark Phoenix” better than “X-Men: The Last Stand”? Without question—but not by much. It does not nullify the fact that although Simon Kinberg’s film offers beautiful special and visual effects, especially during battle sequences, it is quite joyless for the most part—a curiosity because its universe is filled with mutants wielding unique powers and cheeky personalities. What results a finale that feels like a death march. Obviously, it does not need to be a comedy. But the screenplay fails to allow the material to breathe from time to time so that fluctuations can be felt throughout the experience.

Like numerous underwhelming superhero movies, this film, too, has a villain problem. An argument can be made that there are two enemies: the powerful cosmic force that possesses Jean Grey’s body (Sophie Turner) and the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), extraterrestrials capable of shapeshifting. With the former, the character’s evolution is not taken to an extreme length—which could have worked given a more intelligent and humanized writing. But in this case, hyperbole, I think, might have been the better choice: Make Dark Phoenix’ actions truly dramatic, epic, or evil. Continually reverting to Jean’s guilt after she has done a bad thing forces the material run around in circles. We get it: Jean is not a bad person, she simply is unable to control her amplified powers. But the self-pity is rife with tedious moments. It does not help that the dialogue often comes across as flat, especially when the X-Men disagree with how to deal with their ally.

With the latter antagonist, although Chastain is an alluring icy blonde, both in look and personality, the character is not given depth or dimension. There are three lines that describe her motivations (“its” is really more appropriate because the human body is simply a facade), but there are no layers to her yearning or desperation to acquire the Phoenix’ power—one that would allow her near-extinct race to be restored. I was more curious about the idea of this formless force, how it could be harnessed to do good or evil. It nicely ties into the exchange between eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) involving a pen which occurs early in the picture. While the screenplay is not without good ideas, they are not fully realized.

Aside from Jean Grey and Charles Xavier, other members of the X-Men come across as mere pawns (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters). They are shown reacting to a problem and other major turn of events, but the material does not bother to slow down so we can appreciate how they think or how they feel. And so when an actor is in pain or tears are running down his face, we feel it is nothing but a performance. The barrier between film and the audience is incredibly apparent; clearly, the film is not an enveloping experience. I got the impression that the performers were not given the freedom to go above and beyond. Meanwhile, we are handed yet another tired apology—or worse, a speech—from Professor X. Perhaps the best snark comes from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) acknowledging exactly this irritant.

When one looks back at “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” there is wonderful energy and creativity that propel these stories. Familiar characters feel fresh. There is drama and intrigue; we feel every second of what is at stake. Then one considers “Dark Phoenix” and the fall from grace is massively disappointing. It does not feel like an appropriate finale, just another installment to be made and released because contracts were signed. I felt no passion here.

7
Jun

Support the Girls


Support the Girls (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Slice-of-life comedy-drama “Support the Girls” looks great on paper. Although it offers feminist messages regarding family and sisterhood in the workplace, it is adamant in showing the more unpleasant aspects of working in a Hooters-style local restaurant. It is told from the perspective of a black woman, Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager, who gets no respect from her white, quick-tempered male superior. And yet at the same time respect is what she consistently offers to those who work under her. It is a story of a professional whose job is to turn a negative into a positive in order to keep a business running. And through her example, young women who look up to her would be inspired to do the same should hard times befall them. However, the details of the writing is not as strong as its premise.

I appreciated its unadorned photography. The interiors of the sports bar Double Whammies is familiar. Most of us have been inside one: the matching wooden chairs and tables, the big screen television, random but happy chattering, occasional boisterous laughter, drinks being poured, utensils clattering on plates, swooshing of cars along the highway.

The point is that the place is ordinary, nothing special at first glance. The food may be good, but we, as the audience, have no appreciation for it. Notice there is not one shot of food being served on a plate. We do recognize, however, that this particular place is pretty special for one reason. It is because of Lisa who goes out of her way to make someone’s day a little better—not because it is her job but because that is who she is. The lack of decoration in how the picture is shot reflects that of the subject and how she presents herself to everyone else. She is a superhero in ordinary clothing.

Less effective are moments when the picture, for some reason, is compelled to deliver comic moments. Take the car wash sequence as an example. There is already comedy in the women cajoling money from their customers’ pockets. They know that wearing tight and short outfits puts them at an advantage. They know, too, that laughing a little harder and bending a couple of extra degrees means getting ten or twenty dollars more. But must they jump onto the hood of the car? Must they place their breasts on the windshield? Sometimes less is more—particularly true in slice-of-life films. These moments of exaggeration belong in a mainstream Judd Apatow project.

Lisa’s girls are not fully realized characters. Perhaps one that comes closest in Danyelle (Shayna McHayle) who hates her job (it is in her voice, her body language, how she walks through the door during the beginning of her shift) but loves working with Lisa. Although not one detail of their past is mentioned, we feel their history through their dance of give-and-take. At one point, I caught myself considering the possibility that Lisa and Danyelle did not start off on the right foot. Both women command strong personalities, but somehow they have learned to function on a similar wavelength. But most of the other girls, like Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), are only there to be silly and generate shallow chuckles. There is no dimension to them, let alone subtlety.

As the film draws to a close, it comes across as though it is pushing forward on an empty tank. Gone is the realistic charm of the strong opening twenty minutes, subtler jokes of working in a casual restaurant are nowhere to be found, and the overall energy it exudes is that of confusion. Even moments of silence that should inspire rumination are simply dull, oftentimes just awkward.

Still, credit to writer-director Andrew Bujalski for telling a story with and from a specific perspective. Although the picture does not reach its full potential despite a solid lead performance, I could tell “Support the Girls” is made with joy and passion. That is more than what I can say about other generic workplace comedies where it is all fun and games without the actual pains and moments of shame or embarrassment that compel viewers to look deep and unblinking.

6
Jun

My Straight Son


My Straight Son (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Diego (Guillermo García) receives a call from the woman he got pregnant in college that she is heading to London for an opportunity to earn her degree. This means that their fifteen-year-old son, Armando (Ignacio Montes), must come and live with him for a while—a problem because the two have had minimal contact in the past five years. In addition, Armando does not know that his father is a proud gay man with plans of moving in with his partner (Sócrates Serrano) in the near future.

Written and directed by Miguel Ferrari, “Azul y no tan rosa” is an LGBTQ dramatic film with a story worth telling despite its flair for soap opera-like situations and larger-than-life personalities. This is because even though a few of the supporting characters are archetypes, the main characters—the father and the son—are written as real people who make mistakes and are sometimes able to learn from them. We root for the father-son dynamic to reach a similar wavelength not only because the characters are of blood but also since they truly need one another at this point in their lives—at times more than they realize.

I found this Venezuelan film to be refreshingly honest. It is brave in showing a society that does not quite embrace homosexuality. We hear remarks like, “I’d rather my son be a thief than gay” and “I’d rather my son be dead than gay.” While these lines are hurtful and ugly, the script strives to add a layer of complexity by separating the remark from the person by introducing contradictions of what we might think of them when things go bad.

The father-son relationship is moving at times. Diego is far from a perfect father and we see the repercussions of his absence from his son’s life. Armando is very self-conscious about his appearance and we surmise that it might be rooted from the feeling of abandonment he felt as a pre-teen. I found it refreshing that the father giving his son a pep talk is not enough to overcome years of self-doubt.

I expected the script to go on the route of pitying the father because of his circumstance. Instead, he is shown as flawed and I think I was interested in getting to know him more because of it. We meet him as a father who does not know how to be one and we leave him as a father who tries. Sometimes that’s enough.

Hilda Abrahamz is the scene-stealer, riotously funny at times, confidently playing a post-op transgender who loves to perform in public. Delirio del Río is interesting not because she had undergone a sex change but because she is the most confident, most sensible, most normal of them all. Once again this is an example of a contradiction elevating the material.

“Blue and Not So Pink,” also known as “My Straight Son,” gives us a taste of a Venezuelan culture: the good, the bad, and the imperfections. Although the picture does have issues with its pacing—it feels longer than an hour and fifty minutes—its willingness to tell the story in unexpected ways keeps our interest throughout.

5
Jun

Always Be My Maybe


Always Be My Maybe (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another romantic comedy with a mostly Asian cast that stinks of cable TV quality. In the middle of it, although I was enjoying the chemistry between Ali Wong and Randall Park, I could not help but wonder why the material must consistently rely on the same old tropes that white Hollywood has recycled thousands of times before. There is nothing original about it. And so despite all the delectable soup, the spicy ramen, the spam and rice, and the fact that characters leave their shoes by the front door when entering a home, the overall experience that “Always Be My Maybe” offers is vanilla, unmemorable, and a big disappointment.

It is not without some redeeming qualities. For a while the screenplay introduces the possibility that because Sasha and Marcus, friends since childhood but had grown apart after a big fight during senior year of high school, have become so different from one another after sixteen years, there remain signs that the story may not end up the way we think or want. The former has gone on to become a celebrity chef who lives in Los Angeles while the latter has chosen to remain in San Francisco in order to take care of his aging father. The tension between a highly ambitious individual and someone who has found happiness in his hometown brings up the question of whether the two—although they are cute together—are actually right for each other in the long run.

However, this question is not dealt with enough focus, clarity, and consistently intelligent or refreshing writing. Instead, we are bombarded with the usual clichés involving the protagonists having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is clearly not right for either of them, snarky supporting characters who make an appearance to say one amusing line of dialogue only to disappear again for long periods of time, and the usual drama about having to win back that special someone by traveling across the country and making a speech in front of everyone. It is all so tired, exhausting, boring, and interminable. I checked my watch at least three times.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is a cameo of an actor who has done great work from the mid-80s till today. He graces the screen for about fifteen minutes and completely pulls the rug from those who are supposed to be the main stars. It is such an unexpected small role, but it stands out. The character he plays is a walking exaggeration… but his approach, for the most part, is far from it. He internalizes the comedy and combines it with pitch-perfect comic timing. And that is why the funniest scenes are the ones with him in it. Too bad the rest of the picture is a drag.

“Always Be My Maybe,” directed by Nahnatchka Khan, lacks authenticity that runs deep—and not just in terms of the romantic aspect of the story. There are jokes, for instance, about gentrification in San Francisco, highly affluent people dressing down, and the types of ridiculous food served in posh restaurants. It all feels so forced; these are low hanging fruit served to the audience without much creativity or enthusiasm. Jokes about the lifestyles and the people with whom we are supposed to care about would have been more appropriate. The story, after all, is supposed to be about them.

4
Jun

The Prodigy


Prodigy, The (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

There are a dime a dozen horror pictures that leave such a terrible first impression, they never recover. Right from the opening shot involving a creepy-looking door and jump scare, I knew immediately where it was heading: a kidnapped woman (Brittany Allen) goes sprinting through the woods and onto the highway. A driver, enjoying a peaceful night drive on the road, makes a sudden movement to swerve in order to avoid hitting the anguished woman. There is pause and silence. The camera moves slowly toward the passenger window. It is so predictable, we know the exact point on the frame from which the escaped victim would appear suddenly. Cue the booming score. I rolled my eyes; I braced myself for a likely torturous ninety minutes. Then it proved me wrong.

Those looking for creepy children horror movies will get exactly what they expect from “The Prodigy,” written by Jeff Buhler and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, and then some. I refuse to reveal the precise machinations of the plot, but trust when I say that the material takes a concept and simply goes for it—not half-heartedly but all the way. Some viewers may scoff at it, especially since some developments are so ludicrous, but those who are open for a suspenseful and thrilling ride are certain to notice the steady rising action, that each turn of event is becoming increasingly unsettling. Eventually, we begin to detect a hopeless feeling because the challenge involving the boy comes across as seemingly insurmountable.

The boy is named Miles and he is played with great energy by Jackson Robert Scott. The young actor impresses not because he must deliver two performances but because of the way he tends to muddle the line between good Miles and bad Miles. No, the film is not a simply an extreme case of bipolar disorder or dissociative identity disorder. It is much worse, if you can believe it. Scott’s performance, to my surprise, matches that of Taylor Schilling, who plays the mother, the latter on the verge of breakdown due to the nightmare that has taken hold of her once happy home. It is required, for the sake of believability, that the two performances function on a similar level.

The titular character is highly intelligent and an exceptional liar. Tension accumulates because there is always the possibility that Miles is already two steps ahead of his parents (the father played by Peter Mooney) who realize they do not feel safe in their own house. When Sarah and John whisper in the middle of the night, for example, we squint at the carefully framed shadows. Could Miles be lurking there? The director is wise to employ numerous wide shots in order to arouse suspicion among the environment. We already know how terrified the parents are and so focusing on close-ups would have taken away from the rising action. I enjoyed, too, that there are moments when Miles does not have an inkling that his parents might be up to something. By changing it up once in a while, it keeps us on our toes.

“The Prodigy” surprises, too, when it comes to its level of brutality. There are implied violence… and then there are those that are so in-your-face, I caught myself looking away suddenly due to a mix of horror and utter shock that certain images are actually, daringly, shown. And yet it does not come across as gratuitous, you see. The reason is because the filmmakers actually care about telling a particular story first and foremost. The inevitable violence is a byproduct.