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Force of Nature


Force of Nature (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Not even twenty minutes into this mind-boggling interpretation of an action-thriller, I wondered what the likes of Mel Gibson, Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth, and David Zayas saw in Cory Miller’s lifeless screenplay. Surely they read the material and realized it is dead on arrival… right? Did they owe somebody a favor? Is this a part of a movie deal? Appear on this train wreck in order to have the chance to make or work on a project they’re actually passionate about? There must be a reason. There just has to be. As I rummaged around in my mind for answers, I found myself tuning out at times. And yet when I snapped myself back into paying attention, characters remain sitting in the same room, taking about the same thing five minutes ago.

Michael Polish’s “Force of Nature” offers not one fresh idea in terms of plot, not one good twist, not even one standout chase or shootout. It involves running around an apartment complex in Puerto Rico during a Category 5 hurricane. A man named John the Baptist (Zayas) figures he could use the chaos to his advantage to perform another heist (they had a successful one earlier that day—the greedy bastard)—for a painting worth $55 million. There is a safe in the basement.

The Baptist proves to be unlucky, however, when cops, Cardillo and Peña (Hirsch, Stephanie Cayo), happen to be in the building because they have been assigned by their superior to evacuate those who choose to stay behind. This building is without personality—one cannot help but think of a movie like John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” because so much is accomplished there while close to nothing is accomplished in this interminable boredom. No, I’m not referring to the budget, flying bullets, and explosions. Rather, the imagination, creativity, and energy injected into a place so we feel as though it is also a character in the story being told.

There is nothing wrong being an action picture that wishes to get in, deliver the goods, and get out. No need for social commentary. Simply provide entertainment that we cannot help but remember hours after the movie is over. Even on this level, the picture fails. Consider hostage situations. Distance among our heroes, villains, and the camera is so tight, it is impossible to appreciate the moment. As a result, tension fails to build. On occasion, based on where the camera is placed, we know precisely how the situation will play out. It is predictable both in content and execution.

Attempts at humor are lame and out of place. Despite the pandemonium, Cardillo happens to fall for a cantankerous old man’s daughter (Bosworth). We roll our eyes as they send each other knowing glances and smiles, as if the material were a romance picture. Hirsch and Bosworth share no believable chemistry; what does a doctor like Troy see in a police officer like Cardillo, a man who feels guilty for having lost his partner in New York—all because of a prank call? Meanwhile, Gibson grumbles his way through danger. It’s one of his worst roles in a while.

“Force of Nature” is not even good enough to play in the background as you perform chores around the house. That would require specific scenes worthy of watching in between having finished dusting and starting up the vacuum. The whole thing is a gargantuan miscalculation.

Loveless


Loveless (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless” is no ordinary divorce story for it demands the viewer to look a little while longer and to consider more deeply. It is analytical, pragmatic, some might claim a bit impersonal or cold. But it works so beautifully despite its uncompromising approach. Once you’re in, it is impossible to look away. Place this film right alongside what’s considered to be the best Hollywood movies that deal with the subject of divorce. By comparison, what this work offers is much closer to reality because it abstains from traversing the expected dramatic parabola, the standard story beats, and the sudden sentimental realizations concerning the value of relationships regardless of the subjects deciding to stay together or not.

It seems to start off like a typical tale of divorce. From the minute the husband gets home from work, it is apparent he and his wife despise each other. They are not required to express their hatred overtly through screaming or yelling. It is in the sharp words they use to wound, the rate and delivery of unfair insults, the fact that they can’t even look at one another in the eye. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) deciding to sleep in different rooms is a natural conclusion. Clearly, both are eager to move on with their lives. But there is a question of what to do with their twelve-year-old son (Matvey Novikov). Neither of them wants him. He overhears. The next morning, he runs away.

Notice how the work takes its time. Following Alyosha’s departure, we spend ample time with the husband and wife—first while at work and then with their lovers. When with Boris at work, we experience his heavy anxiety because his boss is a devout Christian. Word has it that those who get divorced are let go from the company. And so he asks a co-worker how others who did get divorced circumvented getting fired. When with Zhenya at work, it is more relaxed. She works in a salon and so she feels freer with her girlfriends. We get a glimpse of a woman whom Boris might have fallen for once upon a time.

When Boris is with his lover (Marina Vasileva), we adopt the perspective of the woman. The sex scene is sensual, romantic, hidden in shadows. We note her youth and energy. She is several months pregnant. By contrast, when Zhenya is with her lover (Andrew Keiss), we see through the eyes of a man. The sex scene shows more skin. Positions are more overt. Breathing and moaning are louder. Shadows are not utilized as much. As with the former, there is an obvious age difference. The man is older and successful financially.

The director (who co-writes with Oleg Negin) employs these extended scenes not just to provide information about Alyosha’s parents or how they are with other people. It gives us time to consider how the lovers regard or value Boris and Zhenya. Is what we’re seeing real or just passing passion? How much do these lovers know about their partner’s home life? Do they even know about the child? I admired that the screenplay answers these questions in creative and sometimes elegant fashion. There is not a single awkward expository sequence in which relevant players sit down and divulge information.

Right in the center of this beguiling picture is Alyosha’s disappearance. From the moment a parent becomes aware that the boy might not have come home the night before, the work adapts the pacing, tone, and atmosphere of a procedural. We meet the detectives in charge. We get a feel of their personalities, their initial attitudes about the case in question, how they react to parents on the verge of lashing out. We sit through specific questions that require answers before an official investigation begins. We meet the volunteers. We learn about what they do, how good they are at their jobs, their energy and organization, how far they are willing to go to locate a missing person. Once in full gear, there is not a single minute wasted. There is an urgency to the search as well as exploring the themes of this particular story.

“Loveless” goes way beyond husband and wife who loathe one another having to put their differences aside and work together. It is about the passing of time and the increasing melancholy after every lead that ends in disappointment. Set during a Russian winter, I found it curious that whenever a scene happens to be unfolding indoors I couldn’t help my eyes darting toward a door or window and check whether the snow is falling. My heart ached for the boy—how cold, hungry, and miserable Alyosha must be out there, abandoned, unwanted.

The Rental


The Rental (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Dave Franco has been in the movie business for nearly a decade a half, but one sits down with a movie like “The Rental,” which he directs (and co-writes with Joe Swanberg), and feel no passion emanating from it. Memorable directorial debuts tend to inspire conversation because passionate filmmakers tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their projects due to the possibility that they may not get another opportunity to helm a second feature film. This thriller, which involves two couples who decide to rent a seaside house which unbeknownst to them is teeming with hidden cameras, is barely alive. It is so boring at times that the dog in the movie checked out in the middle of it. I wish I did, too.

Early on we are subjected to dull, one-dimensional dialogue. From the moment we lay eyes on business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), their attraction to one another is like a punch to the face—no subtlety, no tease, no intrigue. Both have partners waiting at home: Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) who is Charlie’s brother, an ex-con. Those experienced with dime a dozen mumblecore pictures that began in the early 2000s will know the precise trajectory of the film: a whole lot of circular talk that eventually derails in time for salacious revelations. However, this is supposed to be a thriller.

Franco’s picture is bankrupt of suspense, thrills, and inspired jolts. The only time the movie becomes somewhat alive is when the host named Taylor, played by Toby Huss, makes an appearance. Taylor is a racist prick and proud of it. When confronted by Mina, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, as to why he had rejected her application to rent the house, which she submitted an hour before Charlie, a white man, sent his application (which, needless to say, was accepted), his response—or non-response—is so matter-of-fact that it is the first time in the picture when we feel there is a true character on screen. Taylor may be despicable but at least he isn’t boring.

For a thriller, one that involves recording and observing other people going on about their business, there is a lack of inspiration. The most obvious would have been to take Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and make it modern, alter its perspective, or both. Instead, creativity is nowhere to be found. Franco employs the camera as is instead of a device to tell a story.

When dialogue is exchanged between two people, for instance, it simply sits on one spot. It offers no perspective, not a hint of insight or suggestion that perhaps words employed are hiding true meanings or intentions—which would be apt considering that there is sexual tension between Mina and Charlie even when their partners are mere feet away. I felt as though there is neither brain nor concrete plans when it comes to how certain scenes ought be executed. Its blasé nature comes across as lazy.

Even when violence finally erupts—predictably, during the last fifteen minutes—there remains a deadness. Characters receive a hammer to the head, they fall down the stairs, they get into an auto accident—shots are flat no matter the occasion. When the final girl is literally in the hands of the killer, there is no tension. We simply wish for the movie to be over.

I felt as though Franco learned nothing from the directors he worked with. Why did he feel compelled to tell this story? What about it spoke to him personally? Is this meant to be a one-time joke? I ask these questions because the work is devoid of personality. Imagine if another film were financed—one with a good script and an unknown director with a real hunger to prove himself or herself—instead of this drivel. This stinks of privilege and it shows, too.

House of 1000 Corpses


House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

Rob Zombie’s debut picture is not unlike most first-time features in that the writer-director attempts to include everything but the kitchen sink into the project just in case he never got a chance to make another one. It shows: the work is propelled by a mix of electric and morbid energy; it is amusing and satirical in parts; and the grotesque, disgusting, frightening, and strangely addictive images demand to be examined by a magnifying glass. I felt like I was on a high end house of horrors tour. And yet the picture does not work as a whole.

One of the film’s key shortcomings is a lack of a defined hero or heroine. Naturally, since the work is a throwback to ‘70s horror and exploitation movies, the group of friends on a cross-country tour must run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. On top of that, they must be driven to learn more about a local serial killer called Dr. Satan. Third strike: They choose to pick up a hitchhiker on a rainy night. Some might say they’re asking for trouble. They’re in for a long night.

We are introduced to Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostlyn), and Denise (Erin Daniels) and although they talk non-stop (especially the men), we are not provided at least one standout or interesting detail about each of them. It doesn’t help that the women look (and act) rather similar. Notice when Mary and Denise are covered in goop and blood later on, it becomes a challenge to tell them apart. The screenplay fails to provide good reasons why these four should survive other than the fact that they are prey to the backwoods oddballs.

Another limitation is a lack of range when it comes to the scares. It almost always relies upon violence to shock or disturb. While some may defend this approach because it is a slasher film after all, the project is supposed to be a love letter to a specific decade and a certain sub-genre of movies. Based on this fact and looking upon what’s provided on screen, I got the impression that the writer-director fixated on one way to entertain: in-your-face, gory shlock—disappointing because horror classics and exploitation pictures from the ‘70s are not at all one-note. At their best (and their worst), they take on so much risk that at times certain projects lean toward experimental.

So it is ironic that although “House of 1000 Corpses” offers hundreds of eye-catching (and, to me, beautiful) shots of severed body parts, lived-in rooms filled with tools for torture and blood rags, sequences of people being scalped while awake, a scene involving human fetus in a jar, cannibalism, and the like, it lacks the willingness to stretch the definition of horror outside of the images. Thus, the longer the film goes on, the more we feel restless; eventually the stench of staleness begins to overpower the picture’s enthusiastic energy.

There is one standout performance. No, it is not by Karen Black, veteran actress who specializes on portraying women with questionable ideals and morals. (She plays Mother Firefly, the matriarch serial murderer.) To me, she overacts and outstays her welcome. The title goes to Sid Haig who plays the clown and gas station attendant named Captain Spaulding. His presence and ways of line delivery reminded me of a tank: imposing and powerful. Captain Spaulding need not try to be scary. He just is. Those eyes can paralyze you. The rest of the crazies might have benefited from toning down the cartoonish vibe.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula


Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an abundance of claims that “Peninsula” is so different than “Train to Busan” that it fails to come across as a natural extension of what made the predecessor memorable. That is not my issue with the sequel. On the contrary, I think it is too similar. There is not one thematic element—whether the material is making a statement about what it means to be a parent or parent-like figure, dealing with guilt after having faced an impossible situation, individualism versus collectivism, or that the living is in fact worse than the twitching dead—that stands strong against the original which could give the follow-up a chance to become, at the very least, equally interesting.

As a result, Yeon Sang-ho’s feature is a mere exercise in redundancy. And it doesn’t stop in terms of context either. The visuals, too, are uninspired. Certainly they can be rather extreme like how members of a rogue militia not only force their starving and outnumbered captives to survive against the rabid dead in a caged arena, they place bets on who would live each round; how vehicles crash and pierce through hordes of zombies as a bowling ball would to a bunch of bowling pins; or how shootouts unfold almost in a cartoonish fashion whether the target is still a person or a living dead. These ostentatious sequences are busy and clearly made to inspire awe, but they possess a commonality. They are often loud; the approach is so consistently one-note to the point where the visuals’ extreme nature becomes diluted well before the final act. Yes, just like “Busan,” the final minutes is drenched in sentimentality.

But the waterworks is less earned here. The central plot revolves around four South Koreans who escaped to Hong Kong but are hated there out of fear that they may carry the zombie virus. (The screenplay by Park Joo-Suk and Yeon does not strive to be subtle, as you may have already guessed.) They are hired to go back to their country of origin to locate a truck that contains twenty million dollars. They are promised that should they make it back safely with the money bags, each person would be awarded two-and-a-half million—more than enough to start a new life. One of the four is a former Marine, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who left his sister to perish with her son in a room infested with recently turned zombies. Predictably, the final act must fuse movie spectacle and the man’s grief.

It is not effective because we are not given a chance to learn about the more intimate details of the Jung-seok character. He is wracked with guilt, yes, but what else? There is nothing else, you see, and that is precisely the problem. We follow a cardboard cutout traipse around the peninsula; he shoots guns good, he is good at feeling bad, he gets into the good graces of another survivor he wronged in the past. He is dead dull and compound that with a screenplay that is begging for an electric shock, it becomes numbing.

In the middle of it, I wondered if there was another character whose life story is more worthy in terms of perspective or angle that best tells this supposedly new tale. I became nearly convinced that it might have been better to follow Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), mother of two who had crossed paths with Jung-seok four years prior, when the virus was just beginning to spread all over the country. I say “nearly” because we aren’t provided rich details about the character either, but I found the performer to be more expressive. At least when I looked into her eyes, I felt specific emotions and her thoughts across her face made me want to ask questions.

I enjoyed some of the night sequences in “Peninsula,” especially in how sprinting zombies burst out of the dark to take a bite of their warm prey who stupidly made a loud noise heard from a mile away. It is usually pitch black mere yards from the nearest light source that it dares viewers to imagine what lies beyond. It is moments like this that the film needs more of. Clearly it is capable of genuine entertainment. Instead, the action is amplified to the point where, for instance, it feels like we are watching Justin Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” given all the preposterous, physics-defying vehicular acrobatics. At least in that film, it is all within context. Here, it is fish out of water. It is an excellent example of a sequel trying to outdo the original but not when it comes to elements that actually matter.

Le cercle rouge


Le cercle rouge (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It’s interesting because although Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volontè, a man having just released after serving five years in prison and a recently captured criminal being escorted from Marseille to Paris, respectively, neither of these performers play the most curious characters in the film. While the title refers to them specifically—a phrase off a fictitious quote from the Buddha in which people who are destined to meet are bound to cross paths regardless of circumstances—I found my attention focusing on the older men, at least ten or twenty years their senior, that surround them. It isn’t that Corey and Vogel are not compelling—they are—but the older gentlemen’s vast experience command a special magnetism.

“The Red Circle” is written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, so confident in his vision and execution that nearly every scene is precise and to the point. Although essentially a heist picture, there is no glamor in the posh jewelry store robbery. It is methodical, clinical, certainly cold and impersonal. It is the complete opposite of ostentatious modern heist films in that it does not feel the need to impress the audience with technologies that whir or gadgetries that light up. The writer-director trusts that viewers will find the sequence to be impressive as is because an audacious task is being performed. The threat of getting caught looms and we feel its inevitability creeping in with each second.

The robbery takes place during the second act and it is executed with great skill. There is no score or soundtrack that serve as signposts. In fact, silence is paramount; for example, each time a piece of clothing or body part makes contact with another object, a light scratching noise might as well as be sound coming from a French horn. Every movement counts and must be done with intention and accuracy. We watch in anticipation as Corey and Vogel climb down a relatively unstable ladder, how they slowly skip over sensors that will trigger an alarm, how they utilize shadows to blend in and take breath. They cannot afford one misstep. Meanwhile, the night guard thinks he hears suspicious noises.

Yves Montand and André Bourvil play Jansen and Mattei, a former cop who is recruited to the heist and a policeman in charge of recapturing Vogel since his escape from the train, respectively. These men offer intriguing motivations. Although apparent they have strict moral codes, they do not always follow them. And sometimes their occupation conflicts with their code. This creates great drama and infuses an unpredictability in a story that wears a certain formality. On the surface, there are chess pieces moving around the board. But look closely and observe the stresses that each man undergoes. One gets the impression that they enjoy the challenges simply because it is in their nature to relish danger.

Jansen the marksman is most enthralling. He is the final important character to be introduced; we do not meet him until just about halfway through. And when we do, we are underwhelmed. How can an alcoholic prove essential to the heist? We assume he is a liability, the person to make an egregious mistake that allows for everyone to get caught. But this is no ordinary heist film that is made for mainstream audiences. The story has a thesis that must be followed. This opens up interesting avenues to explore.

Montand stands in one place holding a certain posture. The performer communicates that the character is exhausted—not physically or that it is because he is an alcoholic. Jansen appears tired because he has seen it all, that nothing surprises him any longer. We sense that the man wants to die because there is no more excitement. We wonder later why he opted to join the heist in the first place. To him, bags of jewels or money does not lead to freedom—which separates him from his partners in crime. Perhaps the writer-director is correct in introducing this character last. He provides the grayest of gray. And yet when a specific task is at hand, his approach is that of black and white.

Into the Ashes


Into the Ashes (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Most will walk away from “Into the Ashes,” written and directed by Aaron Harvey, and consider it to be too slow a thriller involving a man who attempts to exact vengeance on a trio who killed his wife. Who can blame them when revenge movies are typically fast-paced? A case can be made that a third to about half of this project is exposition. But that’s precisely what I liked about it: the template is familiar but the approach is different, challenging, perhaps even off-putting. I go even further: I think the story provides no catharsis. And so why is it worth seeing?

The answer lies in its style. Clearly influenced by character-driven neo-noir pictures with some philosophical leanings, the film is silent, brooding, and interested in observing the every day of its subject’s life. Nick (Luke Grimes) is married to Tara (Marguerite Moreau) and they live an ordinary partnership in rural Alabama. The camera captures and stays still during Nick’s private’s moments. There is suggestion that this man is more complicated than the mask he puts on for others. Does he consider himself to be a monster in the past?

When he is by himself, it feels as though he carries a secret so heavy that he is suffocating. It also comes across as though he is waiting for something that he knows will catch up to him. This sense of inevitability prevents Nick from being truly himself. And so there is a wall—between him and his friends (James Badge Dale), him and his wife, certainly between him and his father-in-law (Robert Taylor, also providing narration), as well as him and the audience. If you expect that penetration of such wall is in the formula, you will be disappointed.

People around Nick think they know him. There is a level of sadness to this incomplete connection, but the screenplay does not make it a priority to explore or exorcise it. It’s just the way things are. Grimes plays the enigmatic man as if he wishes to be invisible. There is a gentleness to Nick but a danger, too. When faced with a former colleague who has just been released from prison (Frank Grillo), Nick need not be reminded of his guilt for it is always there. Nick exhibits no fear. Perhaps it is because his anger is so overwhelming due to what Sloan and the other two (David Cade, Scott Peat) did to his wife. “We used to be a family,” one of them claims, as if he, too, is on a quest to set things right. They share no blood. But by the end of this story, blood will be shed. It must.

“Into the Ashes” reminds me of Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” and Henry Dunham’s “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” not because of the content but in the senses they evoke while sitting through them. There is curiosity and excitement, yes, and there is violence. But what I love most is the feeling that the project is made without compromise—that the work is made with and driven by passion. It is not interested in meeting anyone’s expectation. What matters most is telling the story the way it ought be told. More filmmakers should follow suit.

The film is for those hoping to experience an alternative approach of telling a revenge story. It may not provide satisfaction in a traditional sense, but it offers an eye and ear for poetry. A heavy, portentous atmosphere. It gives images of action, but it is up to us to dig deeper and surmise what it is that propels each character and why. When the picture reaches moments of monotony, does a character on screen feel stagnant in some way? We are inspired to ask what makes sense for them instead of what feels right for a standard action-thriller. Do not expect to be spoon-fed here.

The Innkeepers


The Innkeepers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

The Yankee Pedlar Inn is no Overlook Hotel, but writer-director Ti West succeeds in making us feel as though we are regulars of the one-hundred-year-old hotel that’s about to go out of business. We learn how it looks from the outside and its neighboring businesses, the location of the front door relative to the front desk, the distance from the staircase to the haunted basement, and the varying vibes between the second and third floors. The filmmaker, who clearly loves horror movies, wishes to familiarize us in this creepy hotel so that when chaos is finally unboxed, we know precisely where characters should run toward for a chance at survival.

Divided into three acts, the middle portion lags. The exposition is a light comedy. We meet hotel attendants Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as they deal with guests with minimal enthusiasm. When there isn’t much to do, particularly at night, they investigate possible paranormal phenomena in the hotel. Luke runs a website that brings to mind Geocities and Angelfire webpages: nostalgic, funny (clipart and all), and curious (it contains videos of objects, like doors, moving on their own). Claire is happy to help gather content by means of recording strange noises. Word has it that a woman named Madeline O’Malley killed herself at the inn when her fiancé left her at the altar. Naturally, Claire finds her way to the basement.

This section of the picture is quite charming. Although Claire and Luke give off slacker vibes, they are never one-note. I felt the performers’ fondness for their characters, especially when the two relate not just as co-workers but friends. It is also enjoyable to meet the guests: the angry mother (Alison Barlett) and her young child (Jake Ryan), an actress-turned-psychic named Lee (Kelly McGillis), and a sad old man who looks as though he can drop dead at any minute (George Riddle). These supporting characters are memorable not because there are few of them but due to the fact that they are given something interesting to say or do at some point.

However, the second act—the rising action—is mostly a slog to sit through. This is a death sentence for most horror pictures. It isn’t that there is a lack of craft behind the moments that lead up to false alarms and genuine scares. Problematic is a lack of urgency when characters are required to move from one part of the hotel to the other, for instance. Not only do our protagonists move slowly, there is a lack of tension in their bodies. When performers utter lines, the tone is deadpan comic rather than comic on the verge of freaking out. At least three scenes needed to be reshot in order to get the vibe just right. Or perhaps it is also a script issue. There is a way to write funny dialogue when a character is scared. What’s at offer here isn’t it. Furthermore, other than the urban legend, we learn nothing new about O’Malley and the other spirits in the hotel. At times I felt bored.

It is a shame because the third act—the payoff—is strong. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” I was surprised that although insanity is unfolding, I found my eyes still taking note of the details of the carpet, the wallpapers, the black and white photographs hanging on walls. There is a mesmerizing feeling about it. I found that West is in complete control of the eye-widening visuals, the pulse-pounding score, and the tension that grips us by the throat. It is impossible to look away. Why is this level of filmmaking largely absent during the second act?

I give “The Innkeepers” a marginal recommendation despite its glaring shortcomings. The main reason is there are good scares to be had here. I admired the bitter ending—it doesn’t just end, it lingers. Like a stench. The secondary reason is that love I felt from those in front and behind the camera. When somebody enjoys what they’re doing, it really shows; it makes you want to root for the movie to be better than it ends up being sometimes. Lovers of the horror genre will find something to appreciate here. As for casual audiences, maybe not as much.

The Squid and the Whale


The Squid and the Whale (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

The funny and interesting thing about Noah Baumbach’s challenging but engaging “The Squid and the Whale” is its disinterest in its subjects’ likability. What matters is for the characters to come across as real as possible, and somewhere within that honesty—that directness—is our inspiration to want to study them a little more closely so that we understand why they behave the way they do, why they say the things they say (especially during most inappropriate times), what their silences mean when the occasion calls for them to speak up and defog the confusion.

The subjects are members of the Berkman family, led by Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) who hold doctorates in literature. We meet them in a tennis match: Bernard paired with Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Joan with Frank (Owen Kline). Mere seconds into the match, we come to have an appreciation of the family’s extremely competitive nature, that the pairs are closer in personality than the ones across from them, and how the opposite teams can combust at a drop of a hat. Competition tends to reveal true character, and this tennis match allows us to take a peek at what’s really going on in this family, especially the unhappiness that is Bernard and Joan’s marriage. A tidal wave called divorce is about to sweep them all away.

Baumbach’s screenplay is not afraid to get specific. He shows then tells. For instance, we observe Bernard’s pompous nature in how he describes the value (or lack thereof) of literary works, movies, girls that his elder son chooses to date. After we are presented a series of questionable (and at times downright condescending) behavior, we wonder how Joan could possibility have endured living under the same room as this man. He is unbearable. But a surprise: even though the relationship looks and feels irreparable, we are given small but important moments when Joan recognizes the traits he loved in the man—as self-important and controlling as he is.

The majority of picture goes on like this. We sit through incidences, which are occasionally quirky, and we are required to observe closely. So when personalities clash inevitably, there is catharsis. We feel sad for them, sorry for them at times, and wonder why they are unable to face their issues with another person head-on. Maybe they’re just exhausted. Or maybe they’ve lived together for so long that it is expected that they be able to read each others’ minds. Even though my family is not at all like the Berkmans, I found myself caring for them despite (or especially because of) their flaws. They try. But sometimes not on a level that they ought to. Perhaps it is their culture, the type of neighborhood they live in and the people they surround themselves with. Or maybe it is the very element that drew in Bernard and Joan seventeen years ago.

I have not even gone into the sons. Like Daniels and Linney, Eisenberg and Kline portray their characters with complexity. Walt captures the interest of a classmate (Halley Feiffer) who is drawn to his intellectualism. We sense it is doomed, but their youths inspire us to wonder whether it might work on the off-chance. Meanwhile, Frank becomes so lonely that he develops certain attention-seeking behavior, like spreading his ejaculate on school property. The divorce makes him feel displaced, like he doesn’t belong anywhere, and so his subconscious inspires him to mark his territory. I found it fresh that I did not feel a close bond between the two brothers.

Although a drama in its core, there is savage humor in “The Squid and the Whale.” But in order to recognize it, we are required to look at the subjects in the eye and truly understand them to the point where, for instance, we know when they are lying and why. The humor is in how human they are, how flawed they are, how we can recognize ourselves in them when shoved into a corner and defenses are up. This is a work for mature and thoughtful audiences.

The Guilty


The Guilty (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a portrait of a man who so wishes so badly to save a life. Is it simply because it is a part of his job? Written and directed by Gustav Möller, “The Guilty” takes place in two rooms of a police dispatch center. The rooms are nondescript and increasingly claustrophobic the longer one stares at a wall. And despite the type of calls police officers receive, everyone manages to go on about their mundane day. What they do has become such a norm, they can stomach eating a sandwich on their desk. The rest of the story, however, takes place in the viewers’ imagination. We hear the many voices from the other line and eventually we are groomed to assign a number for each call, from number one as minimal threat to number ten as immediate danger. Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) receives a level ten call from a woman who claims to have been kidnapped.

It is not a typical suspense-thriller in which the person who receives a call becomes so desperate that he ends up leaving his place of work to chase after a perpetrator. Instead, the work turns inwards. With a penchant for tight close-ups, we are forced to observe Asger as helplessness begins to take over his mind and body. Although clearly a trained professional who knows the rules—but not unwilling to break them—his moments of humanity, of controlled panic, makes for a compelling watch. Certainly we are meant to question what we would have done had we been in his shoes. He does not always do the right thing, and he knows it.

Notice how his hands shake more noticeably the deeper we get into the story without the help of the camera focusing on this particular body part. The attention is always on the subject’s face. We get a distinct impression that the unblinking eye aims to capture or reveal something. Less effective filmmakers tend to focus on the whirlwind all around instead of how inner turmoil creates intestinal knots within their subjects’ being. This is Möller’s first feature film and it offers a certain freshness that more commercial or Hollywood pictures tend to struggle with when it comes to race against time stories.

The woman on the other line is named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) and not for one split-second do we ever lay eyes on her. We only hear her voice, how afraid she is of being killed. The center of the picture is the connection between Asger and Iben; Asger finds purpose in her as does Iben in him. We learn about her children at home. We learn about Asger’s reputation at work. There is urgency in the plot and yet the material is willing to slow down just to give these characters time to forge their connection—critical because we must care about the people involved in a familiar story.

Its use of sound is particularly suspenseful. Shuffling footsteps, the closing of a car door, swooshing vehicles on a highway, the pattering of rain. The noise—and sometimes its absence—is so amplified that when another character explores a foreign room, for instance, we imagine the worst yet to be discovered. In this way, we are always ahead of the action.

Our minds go toward an imaginary place and yet the camera is transfixed on the police officer assigned to desk duty. We trace his evolution from a man who is so blasé about his job—it is revealed early on that it is his last day in the dispatch center—to somebody who actually wants to do right thing, to honor his occupation and his chosen path.

Lizzie


Lizzie (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Craig William Macneill’s approach of telling the famous 1892 double murder is interesting because it strives to avoid sensationalization of the material. Violence, whether it be physical or psychological, is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way; it creates a fascinating portrait particularly because it is told from the perspective of the title character, played by Chloë Sevigny, an unmarried woman in her thirties who is treated like garbage by her domineering father (Jamey Sheridan). And because the father is quite open to treating his daughter like she is worthless, others who are witness to his cruelty deem it is acceptable to treat Lizzie this way, too. We feel her growing rage, her every day humiliation. At one point, the film nudges us to consider whether the murders are justified.

Although I knew about the murder case and therefore what is in store fort Lizzie, the picture remains curious throughout. One of the reasons is its presentation. For the majority of the time, we are placed inside the Borden house; Lizzie feels trapped and so do we. (It could have been less heavy-handed with its metaphor of caged pigeons.) When the outdoors is shown from a window, for example, even having a peek at a verdant garden from a few steps away, we could taste the freedom. Notice, too, when a scene takes place outside, dialogue is minimal—like it is a crime to speak, laugh, and enjoy the outdoors. Being indoors is worse. There is horror in the way family members rarely speak to one another. And when they do, it often leads to some sort of confrontation. At night, unspeakable crimes occur.

Lizzie’s life is made a bit better when a new housemaid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), becomes a friend and soon a lover. Despite the fact that Stewart is solid in the role, I found her look and style of acting to be too modern. She is a walking anachronism in a straight-faced period drama—at times distracting but at the same time fascinating. When she is on screen, I found myself looking at her closely, observing minute details like how she breathes, even though I was entirely aware that her presence is a distraction.

I wondered if casting a performer who clearly does not fit the appearance of someone who lived in late 1880s was a strategy. Perhaps by having Stewart stick out like a sore thumb, it helps the viewer to recognize what Lizzie sees in Bridget. Because the plot is a murder story in its very core, a typical romantic parabola is inappropriate. I don’t think we are meant to process what they share as a love story. It opens the door to the possibility that Bridget, especially through the scope of a lesbian affair, is a mere excitement, that Lizzie wanting to have her is achieving freedom in a way.

The screenplay is written by Bryce Kass and the film is not for impatient viewers. I admired its willingness to take the time and putting in the effort to soak the audience in Lizzie’s miserable life. The criminally underrated Sevigny is supremely watchable because there is not one moment when she dials down Lizzie’s fierce intelligence. That is the correct decision because all of the men in the titular character’s life remind her, one way or another, that she is inferior simply because of her sex. Close-ups, especially unflattering ones, reveal the subject’s quiet desperation.

Save the Green Planet!


Save the Green Planet! (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Save the Green Planet!” can be described as “crazy,” “insane,” or “totally bonkers,” but none of these adjectives, individually or as a group, can fully describe the level of manic energy and visual creativity that writer-director Jang Joon-hwan manages to inject into his work. It is brazen in its liquid presentation: darkly comic by way of torture porn one minute, a nail-biting detective story the next, then it pivots to a melodrama of mental illness. It offers satirical elements, too, regarding conspiracy theorists, their habit of taking random or harmless information and shaping them into puzzle pieces that fit into their fantastic narratives. The film shouldn’t work, but it does. It is willing to make us laugh, terrify us, and offend even (or especially) the weak-hearted.

On the surface, it tells the story of a man on a mission to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Doing so requires him to kidnap the CEO of a chemical company whom he believes to be an alien leader from planet Andromeda. Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) is convinced that putting enough physical stress on Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik) would inspire his prey to divulge information that could prevent an apocalypse. Upon closer inspection, however, the kidnapping plot sheds light on a tragic character, a person who has had such a hard life—bullied by peers and authority figures throughout his life—that saving the world becomes a metaphor. He hopes to save what he has left. And it is up to us to figure out what that is. To do so requires looking a terrorist in the eye and being open to what he has to impart. On this level, I found the screenplay to be brave.

Shin is required to deliver two performances. First is the seemingly harmless, friendly young man that the world sees and chews up from time to time. When he is beaten, he takes it. He is even apologetic for getting in the way. But on the inside, his anger brews. Second is the madman who has transformed an old bathhouse into his base of “operations,” thoroughly convinced of a looming extraterrestrial invasion. It is amazing how Shin is able to change not only his countenance from one precarious situation to the next but also the aura he evokes.

One part of us wishes to get to know Byeong-gu, that he is or can be a good person. Another part of us wishes for him to get caught because he is a menace to society. Here is a specimen worthy of putting under a microscope but one that proves to be a challenge to study because he is constantly on the move—unsurprising because he is addicted to methamphetamines. Detective Choo (Lee Jae-yong), with his keen sense of smell, manages to find methamphetamine pills lodged in between the cracks of a parking lot where Man-shik is last seen. A hotshot tyro inspector (Lee Ju-hyeon) offers his aid to the reclusive detective. Surely it is only a matter of time until Byeong-gu and Choo cross paths. But it will not unfold in the way it leads you to believe. The screenplay smirks at its sinister streak.

It is without question that the writer-director loves film as a medium. He doesn’t allow the camera to sit; he uses it as a device to communicate ideas beyond what our eyes see. And despite allusions to numerous classics, from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” to Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Save the Green Planet!” possesses—and exercises—its own identity. It enmeshes itself in its eye-popping pandemonium, licking its blood during moments of deafening silence. Should you decide to see it, prepare for an experience.

The New Mutants


The New Mutants (2020)
★ / ★★★★

In the lounge of the secret facility where young adult mutants are confined so they can learn how to control their powers, Season 4 of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is constantly playing on television, arguably the show’s worst season. There is a reason for this. The film and the cult TV show’s fourth year tackle a similar theme: identity. Despite this, I found myself wishing I were sitting through Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang’s first year in college than having to endure another interminable minute of “The New Mutants,” written by Josh Boone (who directs) and Knate Lee, an insipid, boring, spiritless, and highly expository dirge set somewhere in the “X-Men” universe. I dub it “X-Men on Quaaludes.”

For a movie revolving around teenagers with budding superpowers, not much of interest happens. The problem isn’t the fact that the patients are stuck in one location. An imaginative and well-written screenplay finds freedom within physical confines. Creating compelling characters outside of their superpowers—abilities that we’ve all seen before within and outside of the “X-Men” franchise—is the biggest hurdle the work is unable to overcome. Through flashbacks, nightmares, and imaginings we manage to take a peek into our heroes’ tragic pasts. However, once we have the necessary information, awful memories remain just that: they haunt, they force their possessor to assume the fetal position. Their bearers never undergo convincing arcs and so when the movie is finally over, we wonder what point the story is trying to make, if any.

The enigmatic facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), a mutant capable of generating powerful force fields. Although there are no walls or fences around the hospital, there is no escape. The newest arrival is a Native American named Dani (Blu Hunt), the sole survivor of a mysterious attack against her tribe. No one knows her power, not even herself. There are four other patients: spitfire Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy, a scene-stealer) who possesses the power of teleportation (and her arm can change into a sword), the welcoming Rahne (Maisie Williams) who can transform into a wolf, the guilt-ridden Sam (Charlie Heaton) who can move faster than a rocket, and playboy Bobby (Henry Zaga) who can envelop his entire body into flames. These comic book characters are not translated in a way that works in a cinematic medium. As they clash and prance around nondescript hallways, I felt as though all of them are mere cardboard cutouts.

How can this be when the movie is so dialogue-heavy? There are at least three group therapy sessions with Dr. Reyes. A handful of moments where the teenagers hang out and measure each other up, particularly Dani and Illyana. And there is a budding romance between Dani and Rahne. It goes to show that just because characters are speaking to one another does not necessarily mean they are saying much. I felt awful for the performers because I felt their enthusiasm behind each portrayal. But they never stood a chance because the screenplay is dead in the water.

Of course the film must wrap up by employing visual effects extravaganza. I felt numb by all of it. It’s like walking into a room where a friend is attempting to defeat the final boss of a Japanese role-playing video game. It looks epic—Lights! Magic! Pulse-pounding score!—but it’s difficult to care because you don’t have the necessary context as to why that final battle is important for the avatars fighting. But watching the closing chapters of “The New Mutants” is actually worse because the visual effects are muddled at times and we did sit through the context yet it still fails to make an impact.

The Possession of Hannah Grace


The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It seems that every year an exorcism or demonic possession movie is released and it is called “The Possession of [insert name here].” They are so forgettable, one can take random scenes from these movies, shuffle them around, and I wouldn’t be able to tell which scene came from which picture. What they have in common is a lack of originality, a strong vision, and an execution so defined that common tropes can come across fresh in the moment of experiencing the story. “Hannah Grace,” written by Brian Sieve and directed by Diederik van Rooijen, is no exception. It had a budget of around 8 million dollars. It made 43 million. No wonder they keep making more of the same.

Despite an awful, CGI-heavy pre-title sequence that involves an exorcism gone wrong, I remained open to being entertained. The protagonist is named Megan (Shay Mitchell), a former cop with a recent history of drug addiction. She turned to chemicals to escape the guilt of her inability to protect her partner while on the job which resulted in his demise. Mitchell approaches the character, who had just gotten out of rehab, with a convincing level of solemnity and so I wanted to know more about her. It helps that the manner in which the performer walks and talks is similar to that of law enforcement. But facing criminals is one thing. How would she fare—or could she fare?—when faced with the supernatural?

And so we follow her get hooked up with a job in the Boston Metro Hospital as an overnight intake assistant, a person who receives corpses from ambulances and takes the bodies for further processing (taking photographs, scanning fingerprints, and the like). I enjoyed that we get a quick tour of the position and so we have an idea what is required of Megan when she is left on her own from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. She works in a morgue—down in the basement—and so there is an inherent creepiness to the place. It is only a matter of time until Megan is handed the body of a girl we see “die” in first scene (Kirby Johnson).

This is when the picture goes downhill at an alarming rate. Although we get the opportunity to get close to the cadaver possessed by evil, not one scene holds a candle against André Øvredal’s “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”—where the body in question is also not just a body. Sure, we see Hannah’s contorted figure, deep lacerations and bruises on her body, including an ominous blue color on her irises (Hannah’s natural eye color is brown), but none of these details are especially curious or chilling. van Rooijen employs the camera as is instead of using it as a device to tell a story of this body on a platter.

The corpse is provided telekinetic powers. (This is shown during the opening scene.) You read that correctly. It is not a joke. It’s a mistake to give the antagonist this ability—especially when Hannah can already crawl on walls and ceilings as if she were Spider-man. It’s simply too much. So instead of being horrified, we laugh at the movie crossing the line. And because our laughter does not come from a place of catharsis, we grow increasingly disconnected from the film. By the time the third act—as badly conceived as it is—rolls around, we no longer care what will happen. We’ve checked out.

“The Possession of Hannah Grace” and its ilk do not understand the value of restraint. There must always be something jumping from the darkness, or a creepy crawler coming out of a crevice, or a deafening score is used at the tiniest hint of something unexpected. One gets the impression that these writers and directors have not done the most basic homework: studying elements that make William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” so thoroughly effective and finding ways to improve upon them.