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Cinéologist

21 Bridges


21 Bridges (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Although occasionally entertaining mainly because of its A-list cast, “21 Bridges” is just another cop movie that attempts to say something about corruption within the police force, but it is not written deeply enough to garner serious thought or consideration. Chadwick Boseman stars as Detective Davis who has earned a reputation for killing “cop killers,” his anger rooted in the fact that his own father, also a cop, was murdered when he was only thirteen. Boseman welcomes the viewer to get to know the detective by playing the character as calm, patient, pragmatic; he strives to always do the right thing. Therein lies the problem: Because others around Davis are morally conflicted, even if only superficially, a case can be made that the protagonist is less interesting by comparison. His rage toward criminals is never explored, just referenced upon. At least the extended chase sequences are choreographed with some energy. I enjoyed the shootouts between between Detectives Davis and Burns (Sienna Miller) and the former war veterans turned criminals (Taylor Kitsch, Stephan James) whose late-night heist did not go according to plan. Directed by Brian Kirk. Screenplay by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan.

Howards End


Howards End (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Handsome-looking every step of the way, “Howards End,” based upon the novel by E.M. Forster and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a film to be admired from a sensory point of view but, for most, including myself, not one to invest emotionally despite first-class performances. Yet it is worth seeing at least once because there are numerous fresh choices here that modern dramas, particularly of the mainstream variety, that can learn from. More importantly, how these choices are utilized in order to make a rather old-fashioned plot feel new and engaging.

One of these choices is in the use of transition between scenes. The plot revolves around a wealthy family who owns various estates in England whose patriarch, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), strict in maintaining his wealth, reputation, and privilege, chooses to ignore his wife’s dying wish (Vanessa Redgrave) of the titular estate being passed on to Margaret (Emma Thompson), a middle-class unmarried woman who lives with her siblings (Helena Bonham Carter, Adrian Ross Magenty). Because the story unfolds in different houses, certainly of varying prestige, it is critical that the transitions do not come across as sudden or jarring. An interesting choice is employing seemingly random images like a group of horses clip-clopping their way down the street, a person reading out loud the words of the novel he is immersed in, or the camera moving away from the focal point of the action and toward a nondescript object that just so happen to be in the same room.

It is such a clever way to denote a movement in location, to highlight a passage of time, to underscore emotions felt but not expressed. A deep level of poetry can be found in these images which is most appropriate because Margaret and her siblings are the type of people who take pleasure in appreciating art, reading and discussing literature, listening to music and form theories about them. Thus, the artistic choice of making each transition special puts us into the mindset or lifestyle of Margaret’s family—which also serves as a contrast against the Wilcox clan: how they tend to value money and what people say about them over everything else. If there were love in the Wilcox’ household, it would be found in their bank accounts.

Another interesting approach is minimizing the drama—which may sound odd because the material is dramatic by nature. For instance, revelations about certain characters, especially their pasts, are almost treated as afterthoughts. We suspect that certain secrets will be a big deal when revealed, but more often there are no screaming matches, no yelling, no tears. There is, however, compartmentalization. Although it did not always work for me because I found that certain characters a not fully fleshed out, particularly in establishing thoroughly convincing relationships, especially the romantic variety, there is great drama in not expressing. Consummate performers like Thompson and Hopkins thrive in being quiet and letting us know how knowledge of certain things affect their characters. And that is enough to make us feel for them. After all, we have all been situations where we find ourselves at a loss for words, sometimes on purpose in order to maintain a level of control, even though coming across such information bothers us to the core.

To elaborate further, I felt that the relationship between Margaret and Henry is curious but lacking detail—that certain crucial elements are lost between novel and film. For example, I found no compelling reason for someone like Margaret to want to have anything to do with Henry. Did she enjoy the man’s attention because she herself is getting older yet she remains unmarried? Was she interested in his money? Being the central character, her motivation must be clear. Instead, the possible romantic connection felt rushed. Another example is the change in Margaret and Helen’s relationship. Again, it is hastily handled which felt contrived and unconvincing about half the time.

So, you see, I admired the film for its craft but not necessarily the human connections. Another example: The cinematography, the rural outdoors being juxtaposed against the metropolitan London, offers great beauty in different ways. Perhaps the intention then is to create contrasting impressions. It does, after all, tackle the subject of contrasting worlds.

Watching the work is like looking at a seemingly ordinary painting of a house sitting in a field but as you look more closely, its world opens up and speaks to you. It was a strange feeling and I urge others to see if they would have that experience, too.

Outbreak


Outbreak (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

Wolfgang Petersen’s medical thriller “Outbreak” is composed of two movies that do not mesh well. The first one, established during the former half, is a drama that tracks the origin of a new virus and how it comes to make its way to a small California town. The second, which dominates the latter half, is an action picture composed of helicopter chases, men in uniform yelling at each other over radio, and a bomb about to be dropped on the infected. The differences between the two halves are day and night and I wished screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool had chosen one path—the former which is vastly superior than its counterpart—and explored it without fear or shame that the material may not appeal enough to the mainstream audience.

Petersen commands a solid sense of pacing—very necessary because his all-star cast deserve to shine on their own, from Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo as divorced virologists who work for the United States government, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland as generals involved in a cover-up which cost innocent lives decades ago, to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey as a new recruit and veteran field scientist, respectively. Patrick Dempsey even makes an appearance as a young man directly responsible, albeit inadvertently, for allowing the host animal to infect even more people. The powerhouse cast is juggled with seeming ease and there is genuine chemistry among them, particularly Hoffman and Russo even though I did not care much about the whole subplot regarding the former couple finding that special connection again.

Notice the dialogue. These are strong and forceful, almost always to the point—appropriate given the urgency of the plot. For instance, when the Hoffman and Freeman characters are at odds, there is a convincing push and pull between the two figures. We believe that these men have experienced major medical emergencies prior to this one, an Ebola-like virus from Zaire called Motaba, and so they are willing to fight what they believe is the right thing to do given a set of specific circumstances. At the same time, Drs. Daniels and Ford share a friendship just underneath their professional rapport. It is a joy to watch Hoffman and Freeman clash.

However, as the picture unfolds, the looming threat of politics and power play getting in the way of correctly (and morally) dealing with a public health emergency begins to take over. And as it does, the story, while somewhat sizable in scope, also starts to feel less personal or intimate and more like a standard action-thriller. Uncontrollable virus infection movies are scary precisely because we tend to relate to the confused and terrorized characters on screen who fear for their lives. The fear lies in something unknown but natural, not because of a missile or bomb threat.

And so it is ironic that by introducing two things that could kill—a virus and a bomb—the film is rendered less effective. It is far more unsettling to fear the unknown, something we cannot see or imagine. Bombs, on the other hand, are found in every other action flick. Still, even then the more action-packed chases are not all that impressive because they neither offer nothing new in terms of visuals nor is the action being told from a different or fresh perspective. Thus, the generic action comes across like an awkward appendage in otherwise watchable disaster film.

The Dead Don’t Die


The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch takes the familiar idea of us being zombies to consumerism—a metaphor introduced in George A. Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead”—and does absolutely nothing new with it. What results is “The Dead Don’t Die,” a would-be horror-comedy without excitement or spark of originality—simply a parade of familiar faces like Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Glover, just to name a few, squeezing so hard to extract substance from a screenplay devoid of any. Even scenes of the undead coming out of the ground, lumbering about, and eating the flesh of the panicked living have been done much better in other movies—even those with considerably less budget. In the middle of it, I felt depressed, desperately wishing for the self-referential torment to be over, because I knew a filmmaker of Jarmusch’s caliber should be treading new ground instead of barely making a scratch on an overly familiar one. The material is so desperate by the end that at one point a character breaks the fourth wall. We are meant to laugh or be surprised by this—but I was not at all amused. It failed to earn this moment. Sometimes dead is better, according to the tagline of “Pet Sematary,” which is a most fitting admonition to this film.

The Hunt


The Hunt (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Make no mistake that “The Hunt” is provocative only on the surface: liberal elites kidnap supporters of the right-wing to be hunted and killed for sport. Twenty minutes into its cheeky violence and mayhem, I found myself still looking for good reasons for its existence. Trigger words like “deplorables” and “snowflakes” are thrown about like candy, but its ideas are not explored in meaningful ways. Here is a picture with energy but little substance, daring to take on a political stance but only willing to slap the wrists of both liberals and conservatives instead of hammering a rusty nail into their skulls. Satire-lite almost always never works in the movies.

It is a shame because Betty Gilpin is highly watchable as a hunted southerner whose mission is to kill every single person running the sick game. Her interpretation of Crystal is athletic and efficient in action; she may not be a talker but she is smart and quick-witted; and she is able to offer a few surprises when others attempt to get to know her. Although a formidable heroine, the screenplay by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof surrounds Crystal with boring characters—enemies and allies alike—who are meant to be murdered just as swiftly as they’re introduced. (Familiar faces include Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, and Ike Barinholtz.)

The point, I guess, is that we are supposed to be shocked or horrified by the rather quick deaths, but when every single one is meant to have the same fate, it is inevitable that the approach suffers from diminishing returns. Despite the film’s ninety-minute running time, the middle section lags and drags. The joke surrounding the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover” is highly repetitive to the point where we can figure out how a scene will work out exactly based on a new face’s overall appearance. How’s that for irony?

The mixture of satire and cartoonish violence does not work in this instance. I think it is due to the fact that nearly every aspect is given a tongue-in-cheek approach. And so we never take the material seriously. The thing is, the most effective satires tend to take the viewer on a wild rollercoaster ride. Slower moments, for example, allow us to stop and consider messages behind the obvious. The best ones inspire us to look within, to recognize and admit our own hypocrisies.

During its anti-climatic climax, when not feeling sorry for someone of Hilary Swank’s caliber simply chewing scenery in this mediocrity, I stopped to consider that perhaps director Craig Zobel shaped the movie with non-stop action precisely because he recognizes that there is nothing much to bite into. We are inundated, distracted by movement and loud noises. Discerning viewers will see through the charade. This is not to suggest, however, that “The Hunt” is without potential. The screenplay is still undercooked and reluctant. With a bit of daring, it could have turned into an entirely different beast worthy of buzz, controversy, and perhaps even censure from all sides of the political spectrum. I would rather have seen that movie.

Friday the 13th


Friday the 13th (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

By around the twenty-minute mark, the final girl (Amanda Righetti) is in the hands of Jason Voorhees (Derek Meers), the deformed son of woman who went on a killing spree at Camp Crystal Lake almost thirty years prior, and the title card finally makes an appearance. By doing so, this remake of “Friday the 13th,” directed by Marcus Nispel, makes a promise that the film will strive to be more efficient, more violent, and more intelligent than the sequels, perhaps including the original, that came before. After all, slasher films have evolved, been dissected, and spoofed over the years. In the end, however, it is just another disappointment.

It is a mistake to relegate the final girl’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), who remains actively looking for her around the camp after her sudden disappearance six weeks ago, as just another one-dimensional character. But unlike the fresh batch of friends (Danielle Panabaker, Travis Van Winkle, Julianna Guill, Aaron Yoo, Ryan Hansen, Arlen Escarpeta) designed to be gutted like cattle during the second half, he is meant to be the obvious good guy with whom we are supposed to root for to make it to the very end. But good guys in horror films, especially when they are not written well, get boring real quickly—as is the case here.

For instance, there is not one convincing scenario in which Clay is confronted with the possibility that his desperate search may be for nothing. And so we never get a chance to see or measure how he might cope in a situation that challenges his expectations. What is a villain like Jason, after all, but a metaphor for a seemingly unstoppable monster living in all of us? Instead, we are given a few confrontational scenes between Clay and the leader of the sheep to be slaughtered because the latter cannot help but to feel threatened when there’s a low-key alpha dog within a one-mile radius. Not only is it preposterous, it’s empty. It does not tell us anything of value about the protagonist or the figures we don’t want to see murdered in brutal fashion.

Or perhaps we do. An argument can be made that one of the points of slasher films is to provide catharsis in the form of violence. While the movie does provide blood and violence by the bucketloads, these are not particularly inspired. I enjoyed the scenes where characters find themselves getting dragged underground or being stuck there and must then find a way out, but a lot more deaths take place out in the open where a rigid formula must be followed prior to the killing blow. It gets old even before the title card is shown.

During my occasional boredom and consistent disappointment, I thought of ways how the screenwriters—Damian Shannon and Mark Swift—might have played upon the formula with minimal effort. Perhaps the most effective way is to tease with suspense. The closest it gets is a scene where a man can be heard begging for help outdoors as his remaining friends cower in fear indoors. This scene could have had a much stronger emotional punch had the material dragged out the man’s misery for one or two minutes. It is human to want to help… but it is also human to choose self-preservation. In other words, the writers have chosen to limit themselves when it comes to changing up the type of horror being tackled at a given time.

Due to the lack of daring and imagination, this remake of “Friday the 13th” is just another forgettable entry. It has the budget for gore, cosmetics, and neat special effects, but it lacks the aforementioned elements that matter most. Forget the bad or non-existent acting. This is a film that has learned next to nothing from previous entries—why one or two of them work and, more importantly, why most of them do not.

Onward


Onward (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Scanlon’s “Onward” is what it must be like if Pixar shed away the majority of its convincing rollercoaster of human emotions and taken on the more action-oriented Dreamworks mantra wherein the animation’s color and movement take precedence over telling a genuinely compelling story. This tale about two brothers who get a chance to spend one more day with their deceased father should have been far more emotional and worthy of contemplation. Instead, it is busy, loud, constantly on the move. It stops only when it is time to manipulate the audience into feeling something sad. I didn’t buy it at all.

I must admit I enjoyed looking at the animation initially. This marks the first time that Pixar employs fantasy elements—unicorns, trolls, elves, and the like—while mixing the old with modern touches—cars, cell phones, toaster ovens. It is fun to note the disparities between the past and present, especially since the story’s universe was once rooted upon magic. But because technology is more convenient than magic, it completely changed the creatures’ way of life over time. There are numerous amusing visual jokes that do not attract attention; they are simply there to be appreciated should the viewer bother to look a little closer.

But in Pixar films, being beautiful visually is not enough to warrant a recommendation. It must have a strong heart at its center and it must be explored fully. I think the overall appeal is lost on me because I was never convinced that Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are actually brothers in conflict. Yes, they are presented as nearly opposites in physicality, personality, and interests, but the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin fails to hone in on the complexities of being siblings who are several years apart.

If it did, it would have underscored that although they are different in many ways, these differences may actually complement one another at times. Or that their similarities are so potent, that these superficial differences may be negligible in the long run. Or both. Instead—observe carefully during the first fifteen minutes or so—we are inundated with dialogue that do not say much, slapstick and action that lead nowhere, and boring, barren busyness. And when the material does slow down eventually, note on how it relies on focusing on sad-looking Ian as he contemplates the father he’s never had. I found the formula to be obvious and mechanical.

Ian and Barley’s journey to restore their father’s body is uninteresting for the most part. Their quest involves learning how to cast and control magic, meeting curious creatures, gathering cryptic clues and making sense of them, and being thrown into moments of peril—but there is nothing particularly compelling about the journey. The reason is because the material fails to provide an answer to the question of why Ian and Barley are best suited to take on this quest. They simply… are. I suppose it is due to Ian having a natural talent for magic and Barley possessing knowledge about how mythic quests work (he’s a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons-style board games). But what else?

“Onward” may be intended for children, but Pixar has proven in the past that a movie can be targeted for kids—even very young kids—and still be savagely smart, emotionally true and complex, and wielding an intoxicating sense of adventure. This is why movies like “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Finding Nemo” (to name only a few) are modern classics. And conversely, movies like “Onward,” “Brave,” and all the “Cars” films feel like mere afterthoughts, existing solely to pass the time. We deserve better.

The Invisible Man


The Invisible Man (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

I have always considered invisibility to be one of the lamest superpowers, and although Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” did not change my mind, it is an effective horror film nonetheless because the filmmaker behind it clearly loves the genre and has an understanding of the idea that in order for something visually undetectable to be scary, the suspense must be turned up to eleven. Pair the enthusiasm and understanding from behind the camera with a strong leading performance by Elisabeth Moss, what results is a work that demands attention.

Right from the opening sequence, the project is a nail-biter. Cecilia (Moss) must make her way out of her abuser’s posh home by making as minimal noise as possible despite Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a highly intelligent and financially successful tech entrepreneur, being drugged asleep. Although not one word is uttered yet, there is a certain level of desperation in the air, that Cecilia’s escape is in fact a life-or-death, one-chance situation. Notice how the sequence is protracted; within this high-risk scene, there is set-up, rising action, climax, and falling action. It is a strong introduction to a story that offers quite a few number of surprises.

Naturally, Cecilia must make it out alive in the opening scene. But what makes her character worth following? Cecilia is written in a way that represents different types of domestic abuse survivors while maintaining an identity of her own. More overt moments of distress or threats are contrasted against silent and still moments in which we languish in gray and pale blue colors. We watch her struggle to walk outside and fetch the mail, deathly scared for her safety.

Moss is more than capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions by employing her highly expressive face and body language. She goes all in. Even supporting characters—literal figures of support like Cecilia’s sister Emily played by Harriet Dyer and Emily’s ex-husband James played by Aldis Hodge—tend to reflect at times what our heroine needs or wants when she herself is unable to express what she needs or wants. This is a story of a deeply traumatized woman in recovery. But she must face her monster and destroy it in order to have a real chance of moving on with her life. The story just so happens to be told through the context of something that looks, sounds, and feels supernatural despite the screenplay offering a scientific explanation regarding the subject of invisibility.

When the invisible figure attacks, is it scary? To me, the answer is no. Still, I couldn’t help but feel impressed in the fact that in this movie a person thrashing about against an unseen force does not come across as silly. The reason is because a strong enough context is provided by the screenplay so that viewers have an appreciation of the literal, physical conflict. In addition, there are three or four neat visual effects meant to amplify the horror (like a floating knife—simple but effective: it is not enough to show the knife hanging in the air… it is actually utilized as a weapon to wring out horror from the audience). We forget we are seeing CGI—the complete opposite of modern horror films in which CGI is supposed to the spectacle.

The Rescuers Down Under


The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Better than the original is almost every way, Hendel Butoy and and Mike Gabriel’s imaginative “The Rescuers Down Under” does not waste a second to dive head-first in its terrific Australian Outback adventure. How could it spare a moment when its running time is just above an hour and ten minutes? It is a movie aimed for children—but not solely for them—that is filled with rousing energy, good-natured jokes, genuine moments of peril, and a cast of memorable characters each imbued with a specific personality.

In under five minutes, it is established that the picture’s goal is to make the audience smile. A boy named Cody (voiced by Adam Ryen) is friends with the local animals and they inform him that a rare golden eagle has been trapped atop a cliff and in need of rescue. A wonderful flying sequence follows which truly captures the magic of being up in the clouds, wind all around, with a majestic vista of the land below. And in the middle of this magnificent, wonderfully animated sequence, the material takes the time to show how the boy and the eagle, named Marahuté, relate to one another.

A masterstroke: Unlike most of the animals we come to meet, Marahuté does not speak. And so animation and the music are required to be on point when it comes to showing specifically what Cody and Marahuté are thinking or feeling during their tender interactions. The picture is adventure overall and yet it is filled with small moments of creatures simply connecting with one another. It is not afraid of slow, quiet moments. When they do come around, they are highly effective—as if they’re critical moments of inhalation before another comic or chase scene.

The villain comes in the form of a poacher named McLeach and he is voiced with dark humor by the inimitable George C. Scott. He has a pet salamander—a reliable source of humor—named Joanna who is not very smart but loves to eat eggs. I enjoyed that every time McLeach and Joanna are on screen, their presence evokes a certain level of menace—appropriate because the screenplay does not shy away from pointing at the fact that they kill in order to survive. McLeach, in particular, is so despicable, he is not above kidnapping and trying to murder an innocent boy in order to achieve his goals: to get rich and to get rid of witnesses.

Another outstanding decision is the voice casting. Eva Gabor voices Bianca and Bob Newhart voices Bernard, the Hungarian and United States representatives of Rescue Aid Society, respectively. Miss Bianca and Bernard volunteer to rescue Cody once word reaches New York City that a boy had been kidnapped. Gabor enhances the refined elegance of Miss Bianca and Newhart injects an earthy and warm quality to Bernard. Together, they make a cute couple without the screenplay relying on the usual romantic tropes. To get to Australia, they recruit an albatross named Wilbur—voiced none other by the legendary John Candy. Yes, he makes Wilbur, already adorably animated, even more huggable. Naturally, Wilbur gets plenty of one-liners.

“The Rescuers Down Under” does not only provide energy, it proves proficient in shaping it depending on the specific mood of scene. There is a sequence here in which we spend time with caged animals desperate to escape their prison. Notice the difference in energy when we first meet them and how it changes once their personalities are revealed. The film is not simply a parade of cute animation; it is firing on all cylinders in order to provide wonderful entertainment with all the high and low points of a memorable story that has something important to say about animal rights and our duty to care for our environment, our planet, our home.

The Wind


The Wind (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Western horror picture “The Wind” tells the story of a woman (Caitlin Gerard) who claims there is something sinister on the remote land that she and her husband (Ashley Zuckerman) have moved onto, but he does not believe her, consistently dismissing her concerns as mere superstitions. When another couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), move into a cabin about a mile away, the supernatural presence appears to intensify, especially when Emma becomes pregnant.

Told with elegance, class, and patience, the film, directed by Emma Tammi and written by Teresa Sutherland, reveals its secrets like an engaging horror novel. It tasks the viewers to juggle details of two timelines: before and after Emma’s death, while pregnant, due to a gunshot wound to the head. The former is utilized to lay out the foundations of the four characters’ relationships and the latter is used to question and challenge the validity of Lizzy’s claims. Is there a psychological explanation to the increasingly bizarre occurrences or is there truly a supernatural presence that haunts Lizzy’s every waking hour?

The picture commands the most power when it relies on sounds or images to bring about goosebumps. Particularly creepy is how the isolation of these characters’ lifestyles are conveyed. At night, Lizzy and Isaac are able to see Emma and Gideon’s cabin only when there is fire inside their home. In between the two cabins is near-total darkness. Appropriately, the contrast between light and dark is employed to create eerie shadows: moving through a window, slithering on the ceiling, remaining still right next to a person’s bed while she sleeps. I admired its old-school approach to create heart-pounding situations. I believed that I was experiencing a specific story set in nineteenth-century American frontier because of the simplicity of its approach.

Less intriguing is how the new couple is portrayed. Hailing from the city, it is expected they do not know a lot about planting crops or maintaining a cabin in preparation for winter. There is supposed to be a sort of friendship that has developed between the couples during the flashbacks, but this is not convincing. When two characters converse, particularly the women, it is difficult to buy into their connection—a real friendship, a neighborly courtesy, or a test of tolerance. As for the two men, it is noticeable that they barely say twenty words to one another throughout the film. Perhaps words is not the point since it is not the picture’s strength, but at the very least Lizzy and Emma’s interactions must command believability and heft.

Another weakness is the final three to five minutes. I think these closing sequences, particularly the final shot, is meant to be open to interpretation, but—to me—the answers are clear enough to warrant a solid conclusion of what really happened. Shots of our heroine looking distant, disheveled, and drained of energy do not fit the central idea that Lizzy is a character worth following and rooting for since she is strong, resourceful, and knows how to think for herself. There are undeniable feminist ideas coursing through its veins. And so it comes across as a cheap way to end an otherwise terrific, slow-burn entertainment.

The Mountain


The Mountain (2018)
★ / ★★★★

The defiantly obtuse “The Mountain” could have been a humanistic story centering a young man (Tye Sheridan) who is recently hired by a doctor (Jeff Goldblum) to take pictures of lobotomy procedures and patients as they travel across the country. Instead, this simple plot is shoved into an experimental route: a minefield of characters staring into space as the irksome score wriggles like a worm in the eardrums; clichéd illusions, daydreams, fantasies; and blinding chalk-white interiors that look and feel like a movie set. Not one element is convincing—the acting, how people actually spoke in the 1950s, the clinically sanitized atmosphere—and especially the ill-paced and ill-placed histrionics of a French-speaking drunkard (Denis Lavant) who wishes for his daughter to be lobotomized. When he is front and center, one could feel the remaining curiosity of the picture shriveling into itself. Who is the movie for? Just as it is reluctant to look deeply into what makes its characters interesting and thus worth following, it, too, is afraid to stare at lobotomy in the face, particularly the long-term side effects that patients experience: incontinence, seizures, apathy. The work fails to take on a specific perspective and so a potentially worthy subject is reduced to an opaque exercise designed to test the patience. Directed by Rick Alverson—giving the impression he was half-asleep while helming the film.

Yesterday


Yesterday (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For an amusing and original premise in which our main character wakes up in a world where The Beatles did not exist, it is most disappointing that there is barely convincing drama behind “Yesterday,” based on the screenplay by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle. At first glance, the picture is energetic, the actors appear to be having fun with their roles, more than half the jokes land, and the interpretation of classic rock songs and ballads retains the spirit of the originals. But look a little closer and recognize it is a challenge to care for any of the characters—even though (or especially because) we already know its ultimate destination.

The first half is stronger because it is willing to play with an original idea. A singer-songwriter who has failed to garner popularity and financial success in the past decade, Jack (Himesh Patel) has decided to give up on his dream of making a career out of making music. A strange phenomenon occurs during the night of his decision: a worldwide power outage lasting twelve seconds has erased everyone’s memory as well as physical and digital evidence that The Beatles ever existed. Having gotten hit by a bus during the blackout, it appears that Jack is the only person who remembers the legendary band. Desperate to become successful, he tries to remember The Beatles’ songs from memory and pass them off as his own.

This section of the film is very funny because Jack himself is in total disbelief of the impossible thing that had happened. In a way, he expects to get caught at any time because a world without The Beatles feels strange, emptier. Patel portrays Jack as a hardworking musician without a mean bone in his body—appropriate for a feel-good film about someone who gets the opportunity of a lifetime through sheer luck. Patel exhibits good timing when it comes to delivering punchlines, particularly when face-to-face with another who prefers a modern song from a modern band or artist over a classic song by The Fab Four. It is meant to be silly yet at the same time it works as commentary regarding the change of music, and music preferences of the masses, over the course of fifty years. Needless to say, there are plenty of jokes that rely on the viewer knowing particular Beatles songs, perhaps even a bit of background about them.

Far less effective is the love story that rots in the center of it all. Jack and Ellie (Lily James) have been friends since childhood. It is so apparent that they love one another from the moment we meet them… and yet there is no chemistry between them because the screenplay relies on recycling the same old tropes about one not coming to terms with his or her feelings until a significant or life-altering event is knocking on the doorstep. The romance is desperate for fresh ideas—and we wait for it because Patel and James seem game—but they never come. Notice during the second half that nearly every time the two are in a room together, one is required to deliver a would-be tear-jerker speech. I was not moved by a single one. They bored me.

I found myself more interested in Jack’s savage agent named Debra who is played by Kate McKinnon. McKinnon portrays the Debra with a sarcastic and slithery quality, so brazen when it comes telling his client that all he is a product (when she is not insulting his highly ordinary appearance) and she plans to make a lot of money off his success. Debra may be a walking exaggeration, but the character fits the film because the premise, too, is a hyperbole. The final forty-five minutes to an hour ought to have been rewritten with far more ambition and originality. Instead, what results is a film with a curious premise but one that fails to be memorable.

Dragged Across Concrete


Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.

This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.

These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.

Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.

Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.

The Survivalist


The Survivalist (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is about twenty minutes into the film until the first word is uttered in “The Survivalist,” intelligently written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, a thoroughly engaging and unsentimental look into a future after a steep decline in human population. The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed man (Martin McCann) who lives deep in the forest. We meet him while dragging a naked male body across the forest floor, seconds before pushing the corpse into a shallow grave. Based on the survivalist’s body language and his clockwork efficiency, this is not his first time throwing out the trash.

Fingleton dunks our heads into the main character’s daily routine. He wakes up, washes up, tends to the small farm situated right outside the front door, checks bear traps for intruders, forages berries, washes clothes in a neighboring stream, and checks on the crops some more. Although we hear not one word word from or about the man, we learn so much about him in how the camera fixates on his movements, his eyes when he attempts to solve a problem, his posture when he longs for human interaction. An intoxicating rhythm is established and we come to have an appreciation of a specific person’s lifestyle. It gets details exactly right. For instance, it is appropriate that our protagonist have dirty fingernails because he massages dirt every day; that his body leans toward the scraggy side since there are bouts of food shortages.

We also get a feel for the survivalist’s mental state. There is a suggestion early on that perhaps he is on the brink of losing his sanity. He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns around, in horror, and yet there is no one there. The writer-director makes the astute decision to linger on the face of our protagonist. He, too, wonders whether he is losing his mind. Again, we get an impression that this is not the first time it has happened. Keep in mind that up until this point not a single line of dialogue is provided yet. Despite this, however, we are able to extract a wealth of information because the screenplay, direction, and performance are so alive.

The plot does not take off until two women—mother and daughter—arrive at the small farm. The mother, Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), asks the man if she and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), could take some of the crops. The man is unmoved. Jewelry is offered. Some seeds, too. He holds his position, shotgun pointing at the intruders, waiting for them to slip. An arrangement is made eventually. We know precisely what it is our protagonist desires based on earlier observations. The well-written screenplay has provided exactly what it is we need to know about the survivalist for the entire film’s duration. But this is not to suggest he no longer has the ability to surprise.

“The Survivalist” is not for everyone. Although it adopts a dour tone similar to numerous post-apocalyptic films, the pacing moves at a snail’s pace—without compromise. It keeps plenty of valuable information from unobservant viewers. I admired this decision; by focusing on the humanity of the characters instead of the action, every decision comes across calculated and important. We are challenged to wonder and predict which choices would prove fruitful later on or haunt the characters ten-fold. While most post-apocalyptic stories tend to be glamorized, this particular story goes the opposite direction. Its world is so unforgiving, there is no place for the weak.