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Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Although Bev (Amy Adams) is shown to be an emotionally and physically abusive drug-addicted mother for almost the entire duration of this occasionally syrupy melodrama, the viewers still have an appreciation, however slight, of the fact that she loves her children. It’s just that there are times when she loves her demons more. “I’ve been doing real good. I just had a down month.”

“Hillbilly Elegy” is directed by Ron Howard, and just about halfway through one is forced to consider the possibility that he may not have been the ideal storyteller for the job. He is not comfortable in allowing the fangs sink in when rather grim subject matters, like addiction and abuse, move to the forefront. To circumvent this unease, Howard peppers the work with symbolic images of optimism—people touching each others’ hands just so, sunlight piercing through the darkness, a smile accompanied by a tear—that are so controlled, so calculated that we end up being reminded we are simply watching a movie.

The work is based upon J. D. Vance’s memoir and so it is supposed to be a personal and revealing look at white poverty, how your roots inevitably becomes a part of you, how your choices can have a direct influence on your future, and that family has the power to hinder or elevate you. On paper, the material hits every dramatic signpost designed to capture our attention and tug at our heartstrings. We wonder at the specific circumstances that led up to J. D. deciding to attend law school (adult J. D. is played by Gabriel Basso and young J. D. By Owen Asztalos). However, the picture fails to keep our interest. At times it comes across disinterested.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay is so busy laying out foundations of dramatic confrontations that it neglects crucial details. Other than the fact that J. D. has always been drawn to watching the news as child, what is it about law that drew him to study it? It is established that Bev has had a history of drug addiction, but when did it start? Bev’s mother, played by Glenn Close, also had her share of living with someone who was abusive. Naturally, we wonder about the flavor, strength, and elasticity of her relationship with her daughter. These are basic questions that must be answered on screen. Otherwise, what results are scenes of people raising hell but we fail to connect with them in meaningful ways because we are not provided the full context.

The story jumps between 2011 and 1997. It achieves a flow, and I enjoyed Basso and Asztalos’ performances. Notice that if you look at one actor long enough, you end up seeing remnants of the other—quite neat and amusing. Credit to casting director Carmen Cuba for choosing performers who evince a natural goodness. I wished Haley Bennett, who plays J. D.’s sister, and Frieda Pinto, as adult J. D.’s girlfriend, are given more to work with other than looking sad or concerned. Particularly interesting is the former, how Lindsay is able to overcome what she had to go through alongside her brother. In 1997, she emits so much light. In 2011, her light has dimmed but you can tell she’s still a fighter. She has the fight that her mother lacks. Thus, I wanted to know more about her story. Bennett is the quiet weapon here.

“Hillbilly Elegy” had the potential to become a potent portrait of poverty. When the end credits started rolling as photos and videos of the actors’ real-life counterparts are paraded on screen, my mind went to the idea of what filmmakers like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Mike Leigh, or Agnès Varda might have done with this particular story. These storytellers have considerable experience telling stories of the working class. More importantly, they have a thorough understanding of the value naturalism, the art of allowing or being. Instead, this movie is like a closed fist. The more curious bits end up trickling through its fingers.

The Wolf House


The Wolf House (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those starved for new images should make it a priority to watch Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “La casa lobo,” a stop-motion animated horror film so bizarre that it is impossible not to stop, stare, and admire the visual acrobatics displayed on screen.

Without the proper context, a viewer might summarize the story this way: Fearing punishment, a girl named Maria (Amalia Kassai) runs away from her village and finds refuge in a house in the middle of the woods; she spends some time there and eventually decides to return home. But this unique film is inspired by an actual case of Colonia Dignidad (“Dignity Colony,” later renamed Villa Baviera), a cult founded by a German pedophile who emigrated to Chile. Residents were tortured and killed, males and females were segregated, children were sexually abused and drugged, and communication from the outside world was prohibited. Nazis and other war criminals were welcomed there.

The picture commands a specific perspective in that it is meant to be a tool for indoctrination. This can be supported by the opening and closing minutes. In the former, which is told using “live action” images, we get a sneak peek of the village. People appear to live simple lives; their lifestyle seems to be peaceful and inviting. The narrator emphasizes the community’s relationship with the earth, the animals, nature. But notice: Although we see people walking about, there are no close-ups of faces. Images are shot from a distance—far enough to hide or blur certain elements that may prove revealing. An illusion of tranquility is created.

In the latter, stop-motion animation on full throttle, the movie just… ends—unsettling in a different way because the happy ending comes out of nowhere. It feels wrong. This is purposeful; we are meant to be shocked, to question, to wonder what really happened. We cannot help but to feel lied to. Think of a fairy tale like “The Little Riding Hood” where the wolf eats the grandmother whole and suddenly a title card appears with the message, “And Little Red Riding Hood decides to turn back and head home.” Clearly, the screenwriters León, Cociña, and Alejandra Moffat put a lot of thought into what they wish for the viewers to feel and consider.

They also put a lot of thought, patience, and energy into the incredible animation. We are so used to stop-motion animation that comes across clean, sanitized, expensive. An animation studio like Laika, for instance, does an excellent job hiding strings and wires, making sure that camera movements feel smooth and natural, that themes and messages to be conveyed are fully ironed out. Naturally, the vibe behind the animation must appeal to children.

“The Wolf House” throws such expectations out the window and spits upon them. The story takes place mostly inside a house and so the filmmakers are forced to be creative. I loved it when characters are presented as paintings on walls. When they move—keeping in mind the stop-motion approach—we see the tracks and gradations of their movement; the more they move, the more we see painting spatters on the floor—elements that would be eliminated or hidden in a work designed to appeal to the mainstream. Another: when creepy 3D models are required to make either sudden or slow, carefully controlled movements, wires jutting from their bodies can be seen from the moon. Leaving out such “flaws” doesn’t matter because what counts is how convinced we are of the action once the wires are pulled.

The rawness of this film allows it to stand out among its contemporaries. At the same time, it made me appreciate the astonishing effort put into this type of animation regardless of whether the work is meant to appeal to millions or a select few. Sure, jump into it for its strange appeal. But it is likely that you’ll find yourself sticking with it for the small but wonderful details, both in terms of story subtext and execution on how best to engage us visually.

2D or 3D, observe how the characters’ eyes are always expressive. When you feel lost, and more than a handful will because the screenplay is uninterested in stating the obvious, look into the eyes. They are the anchor.

Mulan


Mulan (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Niki Caro’s interpretation of the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan” is the kind of movie in which it takes no effort to spot the antagonists because they sport dark clothing and wear black eyeliner. Their skin lean toward darker coloration as well. I would be laughing if the film weren’t so insulting, reductive, passé, and, perhaps most importantly, damn boring. Although a Disney vehicle, it did not need to follow Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft’s 1998 animated feature in any way. However, it must offer something else—something special—in order for the journey on this new path to be considered worthy. On this level, it fails nearly every step of the way.

“Mulan” is a story of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to enlist in the Imperial Chinese Army following the Emperor’s decree (Jet Li) that every family must submit a son so that these soldiers can be trained to fight against foreign invaders. Although a curious premise, one in which a lot of fun could be had regarding mistaken identity and the like, the screenplay, helmed by four writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin), neglects to explore what’s compelling about it. Notice that once Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is in the army, there is a palpable lack of tension and drama. The reason is because the material relies upon one element: Mulan’s gender must not be discovered by her peers and superiors or risk expulsion. Cue lines of dialogue that involve bringing “dishonor to family” stated fifty different ways.

There is some humor injected during the training sessions yet the overall effect is negligible because the material fails to underscore the bond that Mulan forms with her supposed close allies. Only one is memorable because there is an undercurrent to the relationship: Honghui (Yoson An) who gets off on the wrong foot with Mulan (who names herself—cue forced deep voice—Hua Jun) but eventually grows to like her… or him? The rest of the recruits—Chien-Po (Doua Moua), Ling (Jimmy Wong), Yao (Chen Tang), and Cricket (Jun Yu)—are given only surface personalities, merely there to serve as weak comic punches. Their jokes rarely land. When the lives of Mulan’s allies are threatened late in the picture, it is difficult to care because we did not get to know them outside of how they look, act, or behave. A cardboard cutout has more dimension than the four of them combined.

Going back to what Honghui and Hua Jun share, I get it: this is a Disney-produced movie and, for some reason, there is this nonsensical notion to “protect” younger audiences from the idea or mere suggestion of homosexual feelings in 2020. Look closely. Because the screenplay tries its darnedest to circumvent the precise nature of the relationship, later events whereby Honghui tries to show overt affection to Mulan (after, of course, she is revealed to be a female), like giving a knowing glance or softly touching her hand, are awkward and laughable. There is irony: If the relationship were dealt with honesty in the first place, then the romance as a whole would be considered true. It is clear that this is a movie so afraid to take risks it fails to consider what is right for the story being told. Authenticity is nowhere near it.

Another underwritten and underutilized character—in connection with Mulan—is a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who works with Böri Khan (Jason Scott), leader of the Rouran army and hellbent on killing the Emperor. Xianniang is a clear foil for Mulan. Both characters are demanded to suppress their innate abilities in the battlefield (“chi”) because only boys can wield such power. However, the work forsakes to detail how the two women ended up on opposite sides. It is not enough to say, “I was abandoned, I had no home, I had no one.” That insults the intelligence of all viewers. How about people in the audience who were abandoned, who had no home, who had no one there to support them and yet were able to come out the other side without hatred in their hearts? Here is a movie that functions in black and white.

For the reasons detailed above, it is without question that this live-action “Mulan” exists simply to rake in money. Word has it that there were plans of making the movie since 2010. They had nearly a decade to get the screenplay in order and yet we get this… whatever this is. Not even the action sequences are memorable. The war between the Rouran and the Imperial Army looks and feels small in scope. The film’s imagination, vision, and execution is limited across the board.

Fire in the Sky


Fire in the Sky (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right at the end of the opening credits, “Based on a True Story” appears on the screen. But what’s brilliant about Robert Lieberman’s “Fire in the Sky,” based upon the novel by Travis Walton, about an alleged alien abduction that took place in the White Mountains of Arizona in 1975, is that it doesn’t matter whether the viewer thinks that the events portrayed on screen actually happened. What counts is the picture’s terrific ability to make us not want to look away from its images, with or without an extraterrestrial being front and center.

A forestry crew of six are hired by the government to clear trees next to an Apache reservation. Six go up the mountain in the morning, but only five make it back down by sunset. Mike (Robert Patrick), David (Peter Berg), Dallis (Craig Sheffer), Greg (Henry Thomas), and Bobby (Bradley Gregg), clearly in shock, enter a restaurant and decide to call the police about what they witnessed: That their friend Travis (D.B. Sweeney) has been abducted by aliens. This is a strong way to start the film. Although there is a sense of urgency in the action, it is played quiet. Voices increase in decibel, especially when a person is taken for a fool, but the score never penetrates the conflict. Thus, the portentous atmosphere is amplified.

The initial report is so bizarre that the local sheriff (Noble Willingham) feels compelled to request the help of Lieutenant Frank Watters (James Garner), an investigator with a record of having solved all of the cases he’s been assigned. Little do these men know that this missing person case is about to capture the country’s wildest imagination. The story goes for the expected trappings of family members, friends, and other community members’ suspicion and disbelief, but the central performance by Patrick, who plays the leader of the crew, elevates the otherwise tired and predictable dramatic parabola. He plays Mike as a man who wishes to do the right thing even though he is flawed and conflicted. Mike, after all, was the driver when the group decided to leave Travis in the clearing as light from the spacecraft rendered him unconscious.

When focus turns back on the five being pressured to change their story for the “actual” one, the film is gripping. Surprisingly compelling is the lie detector scene. We hang onto every word of each question, fearing that it might be misleading. We stare at the polygraph and the marks made by the examiner. What does a single line mean? A double line? A cross? “M”? Should the examiner be trusted? We have reasons to doubt because it seems as though the investigators, who picked the examiner, have already made up their minds about the case and the men involved. Is confirmation bias at play here?

“Fire in the Sky” offers a most memorable sequence of a man waking up inside a spaceship and enduring all sorts of horrors. We see the aliens eventually, but notice how they’re not front and center for very long. Instead, attention is on how a person processes what’s happening to him: what he sees when he wakes up in a claustrophobic cocoon, how it must feel like to have jelly-like substances on his back and hands, how he struggles to move in a zero-gravity environment. Clearly, the work is concerned with providing details, which do not always have to be gruesome, and commands great control of timing.

Outside the Wire


Outside the Wire (2021)
★ / ★★★★

There is a lot going on in the sci-fi action “Outside the Wire,” but a strong case can be made that not much of value of happens. The reason is because the screenplay by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale fails to hone in on the human element of their story, one that involves Ukraine being a war zone in 2036, artificial intelligence, cyborgs, terrorists, and a drone pilot with minimal field experience sent to the very battlefield he launches missiles toward. To say that this picture is mechanical and formulaic is generous; I go as far to say it vacillates between near utter boredom and a waste of film. Not one element it offers is memorable.

Anthony Mackie co-stars in this waste of an opportunity to make a genuine and objective statement about the United States’ role as “peacekeepers” between warring nations as a machine that takes on the appearance of a human. Leo is an android that feels pain, sadness, empathy, but the work never bothers go out of its way to explore the depth of what the character is truly capable of outside of his agility and super strength. When it is not busy laying out exposition through dead dull dialogue, it inundates us with loud and flat shootouts that run longer than they should. Mackie’s charm can only elevate the picture to a certain level; every time he is front and center, we are reminded how much of his talent is being wasted.

Although the android is feeling, he is not the heart of the picture. Instead, we see through the eyes of Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), the aforementioned drone pilot punished for disobeying direct orders that led to the demise of two Marines. Although there is always life in Idris eyes and he is able to emote when necessary, the script never gives him a chance to deliver upon his potential because Harp is written as a bland protagonist who always strives to do the right thing: one-dimensional, repetitive, and uninteresting. Combine this with the material’s lack of a defined fulcrum in terms of what warfare means as a concept, those who call the shots, and those on the ground, the mixture proves soporific. Who is the movie for?

It is not for those who have a penchant for war films. There is a glossy feel about it but not enough shots of dead and dying soldiers, of civilians suffering, of obliterated homes, of the true repercussions of war. In other words, it does not embody the horror of standout war pictures. It is not for sci-fi fans either. We are provided some neat special effects—robot soldiers, robot dogs—and visual effects, but these are not utilized in a way that creates a thoroughly captivating world. They function more as props, either something to laugh at when human soldiers abuse them or something to fear when activated to kill.

It seems director Mikael Håfström does not have a thorough understanding of how to extract entertainment value from an action film and make it his own. Having said that, I wished he had a hand on the screenplay because he penned and directed “Evil,” an effective examination of the effects and cycle of violence which focuses on teenage boys in a boarding school.

“Outside the Wire” is a miscalculation nearly every step of the way. I was going to write that perhaps it is an all right movie to allow to play in the background while doing chores. But on the second thought, this film is filled with empty noise. Consider how often our eardrums are pummeled with the busy-buzzing of the every day. Why not clean the house or apartment in silence? Enjoy the moment, enjoy the exercise, enjoy putting things in order. Because there is no enjoyment to be had from this hooey. Why was this made?

Favorite Films of 2020


Below are my Favorite Films of 2020.

It must be noted that the list may change slightly if I happened to come across great movies I had missed prior to this post. The same rule applies to all of my annual Favorite Lists. In other words, my lists are updated continually. Underneath each picture is an excerpt from my review. Entire reviews can be found in the archive. In the meantime, dive in and, as always, feel welcome to let me know what you think.



Sorry We Missed You
Ken Loach

“Ken Loach proves once again that a filmmaker with a keen eye for detail can make any subject feel fresh and engrossing. In “Sorry We Missed You,” the veteran director fixes his lens on a British family of four who are neck-deep in debt and up to their eyeballs in stress. It is told with deep humanity, scalding honesty, great empathy for the working class, and seething anger toward a system that values profit over lives—a system that has somehow become the norm in our modern society. The picture makes the case that working people to the bone isn’t sustainable. Something has got to give.”



The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Jim Cummings

“[Jim] Cummings writes, directs, and stars in this gem of a horror-comedy: riotously funny one minute, horrifyingly gruesome the next, and lodged in between are moments of genuine humanity. John is a father, a son, a police officer, and a man whom the town looks up to for leadership and assurance when things go horribly wrong. Although John has these roles, he is unable to fulfill or excel at them—not even a single one. And so, feeling most inadequate, he goes home and turns to what he knows best: being an alcoholic. Down he goes the rabbit hole. The next day begins and he finds himself a foot deeper into the unsolved case. The vicious cycle continues.”



The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank

“[Radha] Blank also writes and directs “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” autobiographical in nature and reeking of Spike Lee ‘80s joie de vivre. It is shot in black and white. Very talky. Humanist to a tee. Its humor is pointed and its love for the working class shines through. Neighbors are interviewed and they look directly at the camera. Then they electrify us with attitude and authenticity. When these vivacious personalities move out of the frame, like the sassy old lady or the homeless man across the street, we feel there is more to their stories and so we wish to follow them. The same can be said about the multi-ethnic women engaging in rap battle in the Bronx. Or Radha’s students. Or the actors in Radha’s play. It is such a joy that although some characters are provided fewer than ten lines, they pop and we remember them. Here is a film that leaves a strong impression.”



Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee

“It goes beyond politics. There are jabs against Donald Trump, his presidency, and his racist remarks (and actions) against African-Americans and other minorities, but the screenplay by [Spike] Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Neo, and Kevin Willmott is correct to treat it as a symptom of the malignant tumor that has been wreaking havoc within the veins of US of A since its inception. The plot revolves around four Vietnam war veterans who return to the country that, for better or worse, have shaped who they are. They wish to retrieve a case full of gold. But this being a Spike Lee Joint, this shiny thing is metaphor: of ghosts, of corrupted souls, of what has been stolen or denied by a country that used, abused, and sold slaves so it could become what it is—a world leader, a superpower, a bully, a mess… yet somehow still regarded as an ideal by most nations. It is a story, too, about contradiction and hypocrisy.”

The Forty-Year-Old Version


The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The movie begins with a series of funny situations as we follow Radha (Radha Blank), an NYC-based black playwright who is struggling artistically and financially, from the moment those expressive eyes open till her cracking bones hit the hay. The next day begins and the cycle repeats. But just when we think we are accustomed to the formula, the picture disarms us by revealing nuanced layers about the artist, particularly how sad feels and how lost she has become due to the recent passing of her mother. Here is a story of a woman, three months shy of turning of forty, who is driven—desperate—to fill a void. Writing doesn’t work. Teaching has staled. Perhaps this time it can be filled by becoming a hip-hop artist. Her persona is RadhaMUSPrime.

Blank also writes and directs “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” autobiographical in nature and reeking of Spike Lee ‘80s joie de vivre. It is shot in black and white. Very talky. Humanist to a tee. Its humor is pointed and its love for the working class shines through. Neighbors are interviewed and they look directly at the camera. Then they electrify us with attitude and authenticity.

When these vivacious personalities move out of the frame, like the sassy old lady or the homeless man across the street, we feel there is more to their stories and so we wish to follow them. The same can be said about the multi-ethnic women engaging in rap battle in the Bronx. Or Radha’s students. Or the actors in Radha’s play. It is such a joy that although some characters are provided fewer than ten lines, they pop and we remember them. Here is a film that leaves a strong impression.

We are provided a clear vision of what’s important to Radha. Surface viewers will claim her play belongs on this list while thoughtful viewers might say otherwise. The play, originally about how gentrification has affected black lives in Harlem but has morphed into something else for the sake of appealing (read: being more palatable) to the masses, is but a product of Radha’s artistic expression. Blank commands the camera in such a way as to focus on the character’s detailed facial expressions thereby emphasizing that Radha finds pleasure—no, exhilaration—in the process. The joy of work and working. The value of creating. The reward of living up to one’s potential or promise… outside of receiving a “30 Under 30” award.

The work goes on like this. Those who sign up to be entertained will be entertained; those who wish to peer into a life of a person will recognize the great wealth she has. For instance, observe how Radha’s students regard her. Although it is no secret that their teacher has not produced anything “substantial” in almost ten years, in that classroom she is the apple of their eye. They look up to her because even though she carries a deep sadness, and I think a few of them have picked up on it, she works hard to to evince a positive, welcoming energy. Many amusing exchanges (and confrontations) occur in that classroom, but it is a haven for those students.

Is RadhaMUSPrime any good? You have to see for yourself. To make a mixtape, Radha collaborates with a twenty-six-year-old music producer named D (Oswin Benjamin). The connection is amusing, refreshing, surprising, and revealing. The material could have easily gone down a romantic comedy route but refrains; it is far more sophisticated and understated than that. Confident, smart, and human every step of the way, I very much look forward to what Radha Blank will come up with next. I hope it’s just as beguiling.

Hunted


Hunted (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The revenge-thriller “Hunted” tells the story of a woman who meets an alluring man in a nightclub. When the flirtation is over, she believes they are about to head to his place. Goal. But no, they end up in the woods instead. You think you know where this is going—“revenge-thriller,” a random hook-up, “the woods”—and you’d be partly correct. You see, these elements must be present to get us to think a certain way and therefore expect specific plot developments to unfold.

It is a clever little tale, in parts, which opens with another woman—credited only as The Huntress (Simone Milsdochter)—telling her young boy (Vladimir Ryelandt, Ryan Brodie) about the woods they’re camping in. It is breathing, it is sentient, spirits reside in it. It is a protector of the innocent. Director Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote the screenplay with Léa Pernollet, leaves the gate with enthusiasm, vision, and a wonderful sense of visuals: The Huntress’ story is told through a curious mix of live-action and animation, like a comic book that’s alive. The bar is set so high, the rest of the picture, while peppered with inspired moments, struggles to catch up to it.

The charming man is never given a name. He is played by Arieh Worthalter. The performance reminded of a Jack Nicholson-lite, unafraid to look ugly, crazy, and savage as long as we are terrified. (And the performance would not be Nicholson-like if humor—dark humor—were completely removed.) Particularly interesting is when the man converses with other people and attempts to put on an act of normality. As hard as he tries, Worthalter portrays the man as incapable doing so, his mask of what he believes is a friendly person always on the verge of slipping. This psychopath is uncomfortable watch—which makes him a fascinating specimen.

The woman in danger is named Eve. Lucie Debay is given the more controlled performance of the two leads although there are instances when she is required to equal his insanity. I enjoyed that Debay’s Eve always has something going on in those eyes. We learn only a few details about Eve’s personal life during the exposition and, like most heroines in revenge-thrillers, she is written to make unwise decisions from time to time for the sake of building another opportunity for yet another extended chase sequence, but I felt annoyed of the protagonist. Like the antagonist, there is a curiosity in her. I wished their twisted relationship were explored further, outside of a classic cat-and-mouse game.

Paronnaud takes risks during the latter half. By then our expectations are in place and then he subverts it—not completely but just enough for some who remain hanging on for the ride to let go and get engorged in the pandemonium. There are symbolisms with animals, hallucinatory sequences, slow motion. Lodged in between are moments of violence: throat slashing, a finger in a gash that requires stitches, broken noses, hands around another’s throat.

Although I felt there is a rhythm to it, I never bought into the dance. I admired it, like I would a well-executed scientific experiment, but I did not feel connected—deeply—with all the goings-on. I smiled at the fact that the writer-director created a film that need not be made but he did anyway because perhaps he needed to exorcise something. Is the work making a feminist statement? Does it wish to comment on the corruption of sexuality between genders in modern times? Is the goal quite simply to create a lovechild between revenge-thriller and arthouse? I don’t know, and I don’t care. But I sure am I glad I sat through it.

The Trial of the Chicago 7


The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people.

Aaron Sorkin writes and directs “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” an indictment of the rot within the establishment. On the outside the establishment dons American idealism of truth, fairness, equality, and justice but in actuality it is a well-greased, well-funded machine designed to keep the powerful in place and those who challenge it at the heel. Although this story takes place in 1968 and 1969, it is striking how this case remains relevant today: progressives having to fight tooth and nail—both the right and the left—just to have a say at the table, black Americans being treated as lesser people, and the denial or repression of facts when convenient in order to tip the balance toward an agenda.

As expected from a Sorkin project, the screenplay is awash with beautiful words with real attitude and perspective behind them. Simply listening to the dialogue makes the viewers smile. Although occasionally overwritten—like inserting a witty joke or clever wordplay which at times disrupts the flow or feeling of a scene, perhaps even messages it wishes to impart—I couldn’t help but admire its intelligence, insight, and willingness to entertain not through action but by means of presenting and tackling complex ideas. Therein, we take the side of the defendants. But it is not required that we agree with the decisions a few of them make to achieve their goals. This is a film for mature audiences, certainly for those who have a penchant for courtroom dramas.

Leaders from various organizations—Students for a Democratic Society (Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp), Youth International Party (Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong), National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (John Carroll Lynch), and the Black Panther Party (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)—organize what is supposed to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, namely to demand the U.S. government to end the war in Vietnam. Those who know their history will know it ended in violence.

For the majority of the picture, which takes place in 1969 when eight defendants—not seven—are on trial for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot, we are provided pieces of the puzzle and it is a wonderful challenge to make sense of them for two reasons: the crackling screenplay jumps between the past and the present as if were on stimulants and the characters are almost never on the same page. The latter is especially interesting because every single defendant is left-leaning but they vary in their approach on how to come out the other side—or if they even want to. This leads to conflict within the group, which creates entertaining drama, particularly when the scene-stealing Cohen is involved. His physical presence is pronounced, but he ensures that what his character must express is communicated with urgency.

The former element is what I anticipated from Sorkin—and so I wasn’t that impressed with the familiar technical maneuverings. In general, I prefer filmmakers who try to do too much rather than too little, but it would have been a breath of fresh air for this writer-director to have slowed it down and really honed in on the characters of the defendants. I walked away from the picture feeling like I knew two or three of them well enough—Abbie Hoffman (Cohen), Tom Hayden (Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Abdul-Mateen)—but the others remain somewhat of a mystery.

There are moments during the trial when I caught my eyes darting toward the quieter characters, to observe how their body languages react to lines of questioning when the plaintiff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) examines witnesses; how their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), attempts to defog a situation and underscore their innocence; how the biased judge (Frank Langella—inspired casting choice because he had played Richard Nixon more than a decade ago in Ron Howard’s terrific “Frost/Nixon” in this Nixon-era trial) looks at and treats them with disdain at every opportunity—his courtroom, his rules, forgetting he works for the United States of America.

I was entertained by “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but it did not captivate me like the best courtroom dramas: Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” and “The Verdict,” Stanley Kramer’s “Inherit the Wind,” and Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” quickly come to mind. I did not feel as though I were in the seats of those progressive activists. I wanted to touch their sweat, to feel their hearts palpitating, to see the pupils in their eyes dilating. No, I did not even feel to be a part of the jury. I suppose… I felt I was a part of the gallery, about three or four rows behind the partition—not a bad place to be: good enough, but not ideal when I wish to get down and dirty.

Words on Bathroom Walls


Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is a moment in “Words on Bathroom Walls” when I knew it is a superior film about mental illness. Yet this exact point in time is only tangentially related to our protagonist, Adam (Charlie Plummer), having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Instead, the focus is on Maya (Taylor Russell), a classmate and private tutor whom Adam has developed romantic feelings for, entering her home and realizing that her secret—that she comes from a poor family and that she lives in a small house in a bad neighborhood—is out. The camera remains still as we capture her wrestle with utter humiliation but at the same time she must retain her composure because a boy she really likes is standing a few feet away. This moment is special because it is a rare instance in which we are taken out of Adam’s head… yet Maya’s situation is strongly connected to Adam’s own struggle as a young person who is deeply ashamed of something that he cannot control.

Based on the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the screenplay by Nick Naveda is peppered with disarming honesty, from the way Adam sees himself, how people who love and care about Adam sees him, to how Adam perceives how others might see him. It is a complicated romantic drama, certainly mature especially given its target audience (late teens), and I admired its willingness to challenge our notions about the sub-genre: syrupy, unrealistic, pregnant with easy answers. Notice that the point is never about delivering a sad or tear-jerker moment; it is required that we have an appreciation of the tricky why’s and how’s, that people are in conflict—sometimes with themselves—because they are human. And being human comes with certain rules or expectations, especially in regard to the concept of normality or social belongingness.

Plummer proves once again he is one of the best performers of his generation. Those familiar with his work already know he excels in dramatic pictures, but I say this role is different for him. In his prior films (“King Jack,” “Lean on Pete,” “The Clovehitch Killer”—intimate dramas one way or another), his characters are thoughtful in a quiet way. Pauses between words, subtle changes in the eyes, and body language communicate plenty. In this picture, his character is thoughtful in a verbal way. Through the way he outwardly expresses Adam’s thoughts and longings, Plummer makes us care for Adam as if he’s a friend we’ve known since childhood. And so when the inevitable psychotic episodes occur, we can discern between the hopeful young man who dreams of becoming a chef and the mental illness of which there is no cure.

CGI is employed at times to create a portrait of Adam’s visual hallucinations, the kind that you might encounter in superhero flicks where glass come flying at the audience and the like. Yet ostentatious visual effects do not get in the way of telling this tale because of Thor Freudenthal’s assured direction; he never forgets that this is a story of a person who has schizophrenia and so every decision, however wild or—yes—humorous (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian play visual hallucinations with distinct personalities), must circle back to to the subject’s painful personal experiences. What results is a confident and heartfelt work that inspires viewers to consider, “Is this how it might be like to have schizophrenia?” In addition, the material is not afraid of staring into dark corners, of acknowledging the reality that, according to “Schizophrenia Research,” suicide rate among people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders is one hundred seventy times higher than the general population.

I admired “Words on Bathroom Walls” because you can feel its intention to provide a complete picture of schizophrenia: its positive and negative symptoms; the stigma that comes with it as a concept and when someone is diagnosed; the effects of standard medication and experimental drugs. Do not expect a clear-cut story of love swooping in to save the day. Love is but one aspect. And because this is so, sometimes this alone may not be enough. Illness, wellness, hope. This film shows, quite astutely, there is no linear trajectory; they’re intertwined.

Uncle Frank


Uncle Frank (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Alan Ball makes a curious decision to tell this story through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl even though the heart of the picture is a gay man who yearns acceptance from his southern, religious, and deeply conservative family. But it is the correct choice because early on in the picture, the man, Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), is able to give the then fourteen-year-old, Beth (Sophia Lillis), something that his own immediate family couldn’t or wouldn’t give: wings—the encouragement necessary to become whatever it is she wants to become or be. Beth is who Frank might have become had his father (Stephen Root) loved him without condition.

Although “Uncle Frank” does not push the LGBTQIA+ sub-genre in new directions, it is able to hit enough fresh notes to be amusing, dramatic, and heartfelt. In particular, I enjoyed Lillis’ clear-eyed performance as a young woman who is intelligent, strong, enthusiastic, always open to new experiences and lifestyles. But it doesn’t mean she isn’t naive; she is—Beth, after all, hails from a sheltered bubble in South Carolina. It is 1973: the majority of the town is white, right-leaning, and the word of God is considered law. Homosexuals can be arrested for being. People of color are met with certain glances and whispers. Beth, an avid reader just like Uncle Frank the associate professor, belongs in New York City. She is a freshman in NYU.

When the picture is focused on showing how Beth perceives the world around her, its puissance is undeniable. She is a fast-learner. Those eyes are alert, hungry. A strange detail or a secret is an opportunity to widen her world view. Especially amusing is when she comes for a surprise visit to Uncle Frank’s while he and his live-in partner named Wally (Peter Macdissi), who is an Arab, host a party. We can almost feel Beth’s mind exploding due to the diversity of the guests (their skin color, creed, and sexuality), the alcohol, the drugs, the joy of being unshackled from the usual rules of niceties of middle-of-nowhere, SC.

But the story must focus on Uncle Frank eventually. Although still interesting, it is less strong by comparison. I felt for Frank constantly chasing for his father’s approval. He may be a man in his 40s who has found his stride in The Big Apple but when he is back to his childhood home, he feels as small and powerless as he did when he was a boy. Not only does Daddy Mac treat Frank as the black sheep of the family, Frank is the black sheep carrying the plague. The father’s hatred for his son’s homosexuality inspires rage and deep sadness.

However, in the latter half, we also get flashbacks of Frank’s first love as a teenager and the tragedy that occurred. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been the wiser choice to allow the characters, namely Frank and his niece, to talk to each other about what exactly happened—allow us as listeners to paint images in our minds just as one would when reading a novel. The dialogue and chemistry among the performers, after all, are strong. Jumping from the present to the past then back again distracts more than illuminates on occasion. The approach is too busy in a movie like this, one that thrives in relaxed pacing and overall presentation.

A case can be made that the past is so traumatic for Frank that to excavate the past by means of flashbacks might have been inappropriate. These flashbacks, however, are innocent and beautiful, particularly sequences shot in and around the lake. It is like an old painting: the yellow-dominant color scheme is so warm, it inspires a smile on the viewer’s face. I thought about my childhood when I used to hunt for bugs amongst the tall grass, underneath logs and rocks.

The Frozen Ground


The Frozen Ground (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie that tells the capture of the most notorious serial murderer in Alaska, “The Frozen Ground” is bland, uninspired, a bad compilation of detective movies set in snowy small towns. There is a disconnect between its cold but unimaginative approach and its subject matter that inspires outrage. After all, since it is based on a true story, we know that to this very day corpses of young women remain buried across the state. A case can be made that although the killer, Robert Hansen (John Cusack), died in prison due to natural causes, he went to his grave victorious. And so why isn’t the film more layered, more haunting?

In the middle of it, I couldn’t help but wonder how the film might have turned out differently had a director like David Fincher been at the helm. While Scott Walker, in his debut picture, proves capable of presenting relevant facts and moving important figures across an event board, there is a lack of flavor in his approach. Particularly noticeable is a lack of rhythm between suspense and thrills. Observe how something must always be moving—the camera, the characters—for the movie to command a semblance of tension and excitement.

This is a problem considering that following subtle clues and paperwork is critical. A standout scene, for instance, involves a prolonged search for hard evidence in Hansen’s house, but it contains a wrong approach: For the most part, it places viewers out of the action. A director of high caliber, like Fincher, would likely have chosen to place us in the middle of that search, with emphasis on desperate hands of those performing the search.

Switching perspectives between state trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), two weeks from retirement due to his occupation taking a toll on his family, and Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens), a seventeen-year-old prostitute who passes as twenty-three, is often rushed and off-putting. Although the screenplay briefly touches upon the relationship through the lens of a substitute parent and a child who lost her way (but wants to be found), there is a lack of realism in their interactions. When all else fails, it is ensured that we catch the teardrop rolling down one’s cheeks. I snickered at its blatant approach.

Cage and Hudgens are committed, but the dialogue is like pulling teeth at times. It feels like every small but deeply personal moment they share functions as setup for the next chase or big plot development. As a result, we regard the cop and the prostitute as mere chess pieces to picked up and dropped off rather than real people who are desperate for closure. Cindy should have been especially compelling considering the fact that she is the only woman to have escaped from Hansen’s clutches. What makes her special?

Even the movie fails to reach a boiling point when Cage and Cusack are finally in the same room. Here are two performers who can read the same lines in a hundred different ways. But line readings that made it onto film are generic, occasionally boring, colorless. At least the actors retain genuine emotions in their eyes. When all else fails, I found myself looking into their eyes and I felt as though I knew precisely what they characters wish to express despite a limited script. At the same time I felt the leads wanting scream and break out of the shackles that hinder them.

I think the writer-director wished so badly to make a movie that passes off as respectable to the point where nearly all of its life marrow is sucked right out of it. Debut features that fail to take risks are almost always dead on arrival. There is some interest here—why Hansen is drawn to prostitutes, placing us into the mindset of a victim who knows she’s about to die, the many frustrations (and dangers) of gathering physical evidence—but these moments are pushed to the side just when things are getting interesting.

Why is this the case when specificity is the life blood of procedurals?

Sound of Metal


Sound of Metal (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Imagine waking up one day and you must grapple with the reality that you can no longer take part in something that you love. How might you react? For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), he is advised by a medical doctor to minimize his exposure to loud noises because his hearing is deteriorating at a rapid rate. At the time of the auditory examination, results reveal that Ruben’s ears are functioning at 23-25% and the hearing that he’d lost is never coming back. This is a problem because he, along with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is a musician, the drummer that goes with her vocals. Their metal band, Blackgammon, is currently on tour and they have an album on the way. Once given the news, not only is Ruben’s sense of self threatened but so is his way—their way—of making a living. Sacrifices will have to be made.

“Sound of Metal” is a story about acceptance. It presents a life-changing situation with a handful choices but no easy solutions. The screenplay by Darius Marder (who directs) and Abraham Marder is perceptive enough to avoid offering right or wrong answers thereby circumventing tired generalizations about being deaf and the deaf community. There is not a single instance in which we are made to feel sorry for those who are hard of hearing or those without the ability to hear.

They are shown to be people—men, women, children—simply living their lives; they just so happen to have their own language. Like people of hearing, they, too, have their own stories. I was particularly curious about Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam War veteran and the leader of a deaf community in which residents are recovering addicts. Joe is tough but fair, very selective and protective of those he chooses to become a part of their growing family. I wished Diane (Lauren Ridloff), an American Sign Language teacher, were fleshed out a bit more. I felt warmth from her radiant smile and welcoming eyes.

Focus is consistently on our protagonist, how he receives and processes information then moving on from there. Ruben is a man who believes that being deaf is a handicap and therefore something that can be fixed. It must. We don’t blame him for thinking this way because our society ingrains this belief in us. How can this be undone? Is there even a way? What I find intriguing is that the picture doesn’t provide clear-cut answers. How could it when in reality a person can be born deaf, that a person can lose hearing as a child, as a teenager, or as an adult; by biological means like an autoimmune disease or environmentally related such as drug abuse, warfare, or a high-impact accident? One size surely does not fit all. This story correct to be specific to Ruben and we observe him unblinkingly.

Ahmed is terrific as a drummer who is absolutely terrified of facing the cards he’s dealt with. He is fascinating to watch because on the one hand, we realize early on how music is so important to him, that being a musician is not just a profession or a way of making money but a state of being. We get a real sense that Ruben’s relationship with music is directly tethered to his sobriety (four years sober from drugs) alongside his love for Lou.

Once given the knowledge that Ruben is going deaf—permanently—Ahmed’s eyes is a deep well of fear, doubt, and desperation. I appreciated that there is one or two moments in which observant viewers can pinpoint the exact moment in which Ruben considers the possibility of other people perceiving him to be defective. Once upon a time, he found joy in drugs. Now, he finds joy in music. But since that is being taken away, where to next for this character? Joe suggests silence and stillness; Ruben recoils. We grow anxious for him. We examine his decisions very carefully even when he himself jumps into choices rather haphazardly. He prefers quick solutions. Just like he was addicted to achieving quick highs.

It is without question that “Sound of Metal” is a character study, a way for us hearing persons to gain an appreciation of how it might possibly be like to be deaf or go deaf. It is not perfect in regards to accuracy of the steps that must be taken should one choose to have cochlear implant, for example, nor is there such a clash between those who choose to embrace being deaf versus those who wish to regain some hearing via surgery. Despite this, the film is worth seeing because it tells a specific story and it places deep humanity above all.

Pieces of a Woman


Pieces of a Woman (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Sometimes a baby just… dies and there is no medical explanation for it. “Pieces of a Woman,” based on the stage play by director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, is an examination of what happens when a couple is unable to face this reality and move on from their loss as a unit. They cannot comprehend it. Or don’t want to comprehend it yet because the experience is too raw, too painful, out of their control, insurmountable, and perhaps there is a bit of shame there. Here is a film that asks, “What’s wrong with that?” and moves forward.

Although a story of loss, it does not dictate how a person should grieve; it is uninterested in showing what is right or what is wrong; and it does not bother when to separate order from the chaos for the sake of the next plot development. In a way, everything bleeds together. I felt a freedom in this work that I wished were more prevalent in American films.

Everybody wants to talk about the twenty-three minute, single-take birth scene, how impressive it is technically. What’s funny is that I didn’t even notice until the scene is nearly over because I was so engrossed with what was happening: Martha (Vanessa Kirby) going into labor at home while her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), telephones Barbara, their midwife. It turns out that Barbara is helping with another labor and thus unable to make it. And so a back-up midwife named Eva (Molly Parker) is sent in her place. Blame will be placed on Eva for the death of the infant.

Because Eva is not the couple’s first choice, the scene becomes an examination. I found myself watching like a hawk, noting every single thing—right and wrong—that may possibly lead to the death of Martha and Sean’s daughter. Tension-filled right from the moment Martha announces she is feeling intense contractions, the work does not bother to mask its final destination. The intrigue, you see, is in the details presented within the single-take, not the fact that the technique is employed or the technical maneuverings themselves. The point is the experience—the terror and beauty of it—and Mundruczó places us right in the middle of the action. We observe, helpless.

What happens after is equally curious, days later and then weeks at a time. Because we are provided mere snapshots of the physical and mental states of Martha and Sean, I found it almost impossible to take sides. Discerning viewers will likely remind themselves that they are not being provided a complete picture. At times it is up to us to fill in the gaps and so we put a bit of ourselves, our experiences, into the work so we could have something more to work with while considering the big picture. As a result, your interpretation of a character will be different from my interpretation of the same character.

Consider: it is clear that the couple is so different from one another, almost polar opposites. On the one hand, Martha comes from a wealthy family (Ellen Burstyn), clearly well-educated and well-connected. On the other, Sean is poor, ill-tempered, a former drug addict, and, in his own words, boorish. We never meet his side of the family. We watch how they cope not only in regard to their child’s death but also when it comes to their withering partnership. Just about every snapshot is an opportunity to observe their defense mechanisms in action.

What I found fresh about this couple is that it comes across as though the director did not bother to capture the performers having or sharing chemistry. I appreciated this laid back approach because if you take a real close look all around you are bound to find more than a few couples who choose to be together even though we, as outsiders, feel they do not have or share chemistry. Or much in common of anything. But the more we observe Martha and Sean, together and apart, we come to appreciate small details that may illuminate why they forged a relationship. But this isn’t to suggest that the screenplay goes easy on either character. I loved that it is more interested in their shortcomings than their triumphs.

Some tools of manipulation are overt: the camera panning over dead or dying plants in the household, a melancholy score that never lets up, a mangy dog making its way through the snow and the character it makes eye contact with is meant to be informative. But because I was able to get into the picture’s unusual rhythm early on, I didn’t mind so much. There is a genuine sadness to this story I was able to connect with on a gut level, and I was always curious as to how Martha might make it out of her silent rage, her crippling depression, her private shame.