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Cinéologist

Cam


Cam (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The psychological horror “Cam,” written by Isa Mazzei and inspired by her own experiences as a cam-girl, offers a handful of interesting ideas: being a live sex worker on the internet, voyeurism, personal versus private lives, how we measure our value based on social media approval, and how the next sensation is waiting just around the corner. It offers a curious premise, a watchable lead performance, and is suspenseful at times. However, precisely because it offers a wealth of ideas, it is expected that these—at least some of them—will be explored in meaningful or thoughtful ways. On this level, the picture does not deliver. Its throwaway ending is especially disappointing.

Madeline Brewer plays Alice, a woman who makes a living named “Lola” as a cam-girl on FreeGirls.Live. Right from its opening scene we are given a chance to appreciate Alice’s line of work. The chat may be full of men (and women) who are hungry to see Lola take off her clothes, tease, and engage in a range of sexual activities—accompanied by donations—but the picture always cuts to Alice hamming it up for her viewers in her dark and lonely room. I enjoyed how when Lola is on screen, there is an untouchable glamour to her. We understand why she has a number of loyal fans: she engages their fantasy using her eyes. Yet when we look at Alice away from the screen, she feels like ordinary young woman underneath all the heavy makeup. This duality drew me into the film almost immediately, way before the central conflict is revealed.

The premise revolves around Alice’s discovery that a woman who looks exactly like her (also played by Brewer) has taken over her channel. In a single swoop, Alice has lost her fans, money, and reputation. We get the expected harried phone call to the website in question, but after her problem goes unsolved by tech support, the film reaches a plateau. Instead, we shift to Alice’s home life, specifically her mother (Melora Walters) and brother (Devin Druid) discovering the nature of her work. It wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if this subplot actually had a point or offered emotional rewards during the last act. Instead, we never see Alice’s family come to terms with her occupation in a genuine or satisfying way.

Clever and penetrating investigatory sequences should have been front and center from the moment Alice discovers that someone else is pretending to be her. It is paramount that we experience her increasing desperation all the way to the finish line. The family drama hinders this work from becoming great. While we observe Alice perform research and take big steps to reclaim her identity eventually, it comes across as though this is done only because the story must soon be wrapped up. It lacks flow. I wanted to see Alice’s resourcefulness, her creativity, her level of self-reliance when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This story could have been told in one hour. It is not the most efficient thriller.

More specific information about how the double is made and how it works might have elevated the film. The screenplay glosses over this idea as if it is afraid to touch the realm of science-fiction. But the problem is, this detail is precisely what viewers will be most curious about. Who cares if the explanation is bizarre or out of left field as long as genuine effort is made to break down every step to the point where we can buy into the phenomenon? For a movie about an online sex worker, I was repelled a bit by its unwillingness to take risks that matter.

Urban Legend


Urban Legend (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

You’ve got to hand it to Jamie Blanks’ post-“Scream” slasher “Urban Legend”: It tries so, so hard to keep the identity of the killer hidden even though it is blatantly obvious who is wearing the hooded parka about halfway through. What results is a final act that is amusing more than horrifying—yet, strangely, the movie still works because it is able to maintain the high level of energy it introduces right from the opening sequence which involves a university student (Natasha Gregson Wagner) who finds out too late that there is an axe-wielding killer hiding in the backseat of her car. Yes, the picture is silly. But it delivers upon the promise of a good time.

There is an awareness to the film that is not quite as meta as Wes Craven’s aforementioned 1996 modern classic. In a way, it must be self-aware considering the fact that the murders—well, most of them anyway—are inspired by urban legends, from the grandmother who dries her dog in the microwave, a person waking up in the bathtub to discover that one of his or her kidneys had been taken, to the ankle slasher hiding under the car. Some urban legends can easily be missed. A few others are allowed to unfold in a most elaborate fashion, like a young couple being attacked in a wooded area and the man ending up hanging from a tree.

It is a shame that the characters are not written as smart as the picture’s premise. They’re outspoken and physically attractive but not especially sharp. Out of the group of friends, we meet Brenda first (Rebecca Gayheart). We assume she is the main character because her face is front and center following the tragic opening sequence and she takes contemporary folklores passed as true stories—urban legends—with a grain of salt. She thinks it’s all for a laugh. One night, she takes a friend in front of an abandoned hall—one that is said to have a history of murder back in 1973—and they dare each other to say, “Bloody Mary” five times. The friend, Natalie (Alicia Witt), turns out to be the central character—a left-field move considering she’s blander than her best friend. But Natalie is no typical “good girl.”

It’s too bad that similar tricks are not employed with supporting characters like Paul (Jared Leto), an aspiring journalist who is always hungry for the next big story; Damon (Joshua Jackson), the jokester of the group; Sasha (Tara Reid), the sexy late-night talkshow host; and Parker (Michael Rosenbaum), Sasha’s boyfriend who’s a bit up himself. These are memorable faces and personalities. They possess a certain presence. Surely the screenplay by Silvio Horta ought to have strived more by, for example, giving every character a reason to want to enact such grisly murders. Fame, popularity, ratings, the Pulitzer, or simply for laughs—had the writer been more ambitious and creative, it wouldn’t have been so easy to guess the identity of the killer.

Humor is peppered outside of the core group. I enjoyed Loretta Devine as the sole campus security who idolizes Pam Grier’s blaxploitation flicks. She brings fire to a straightforward role. Another is Robert Englund who plays a professor who teaches a course about urban legends. He is frustratingly underused. But when he is front and center, notice his timing, sense of humor, and irony. His character feels at home in this movie… Maybe that makes him a suspect.

“Urban Legend” offers a consistent forward momentum. Characters may make dumb choices more than half the time, but those who get into the picture’s groove will find themselves wondering about the next urban legend to be tackled—and changed just a bit so that it fits the college setting and lifestyles. Here is a slasher film in which stabbing, gore, and the like are secondary to the gimmick, atmosphere, and guessing games. It’s fun in spite of typical horror elements.

Obit.


Obit. (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although a documentary about the process of writing obituaries for the New York Times, “Obit.” is far from being about death. Its focus is on the colorful lives of the people who died, the writers who are tasked to write 400- to 800-word obituaries for the next day’s paper, and, in a way, ourselves—our own journeys, our accomplishments, the goals we have yet to achieve. Director Vanessa Gould helms a celebratory documentary, one filled with humor, energy, figures who have at least one interesting thing to show or say about their jobs or pieces they’re working on, and a reminder that life is long until it isn’t.

It takes us through the process of writing obituaries. We meet the writers. Names followed by faces. I enjoyed that we get to know them mainly through how they work, not necessarily only when they turn toward the camera and answer questions. Notice that not ten minutes into the picture, we observe writers simply doing their jobs, like picking up the telephone to interview loved ones of those who died—we listen to the sorts of questions asked and how. The camera is right there as names are jotted down, boxes are filled, and notes are written on margins.

We get a sense of the writers’ culture and therefore their passion for their jobs. (We even learn about the line of work they hoped to get into, or did get into, when they were younger.) Many of them, if not all, sit in front of their computers to write obits that capture the way their subjects lived their lives—a way of honoring them beyond the pages of a renowned publication. They make a point not to write old-fashioned, predictable, boring obituaries. We even watch them getting up from their desks to fetch yet another cup of coffee as the six o’clock deadline looms. They smile. Perhaps by nature or for the camera. But look a little closer and capture the exhaustion in their bodies, their eyes. Some are required to work over time or during weekends. (Turns out death doesn’t take breaks even on weekends.)

We are provided more details. Who makes it to the obit section of the New York Times? People who made an “impact” on the world, it turns out, from a politician that prompted the fall of 20th century Russia, John F. Kennedy’s TV aide (who is later credited by Kennedy himself for his electoral victory over Richard Nixon), an adman for Alka-Seltzer, to the inventor of the Slinky.

But impact proves relative. Which would you rather read about first: the person who invented the Slinky or a leader with a strange-sounding name who lived in some faraway land? The work follows this playful format: facts by way of words and images then allowing us, the viewers, to consider how such facts fit into the big picture of obituary writing. And then that big picture is approached from a different angle—the business side of publishing. (Although the work touches upon competition in terms of readership, it refrains from digging deep.)

A curious and amusing vignette involves The Morgue, a place that contains so many files of the dead (and those have yet to die—“advance obits”) that hundreds of cabinets filled with folders, paperworks, and pictures were never moved to the new NYT building. The lively Jeff Roth takes us on a grand tour. It is impossible not to watch wide-eyed with a silly grin plastered on your face. The place is so old-fashioned, a musty smell can be detected every time a drawer is opened. It is an impressive place—one that offers a treasure trove of history should one bother to look—but it is in desperate need of an upgrade. At one point I thought, “What happens when there’s a fire?” Surely these invaluable files must have electronic backups because it would be a shame to lose them forever. It must be seen to be believed.

“Obit” is a documentary for people like me—those who are interested in not only how things work but also the people involved in a specific line of work (what they find rewarding about it, the stresses that come with the job, how they relay information to others who may or may not be interested in the process of writing about the dead). The work is detailed but moves at a constant forward momentum, seemingly insular at first glance but quite fascinating when you open yourself up the humanistic elements of the job being explored. It educates and entertains.

Night of the Living Dead


Night of the Living Dead (1990)
★★ / ★★★★

Tom Savini’s “Night of the Living Dead” is a passable but far from a compelling remake of George A. Romero’s classic. Given that the director is a wizard in creating prosthetic makeup, combined with a more sizable budget, the look of the undead here is superior to the original. Some zombies look like they died mere hours ago while others appear as though they’ve been rotting in their graves for weeks. When the camera fixates on a gash or a severed limb, we can appreciate the insides glisten with blood. Even facial deformities are gross yet inviting. On the basis of visuals, the picture delivers. However, Romero, serving as screenwriter, is hit-or-miss when it comes to making what is essentially the same plot—a group of survivors seeking refuge in a farmhouse next to a cemetery—feel contemporary. Although I prefer this mentally strong and badass Barbara (Patricia Tallman) as opposed to the original Barbara who spends the majority of the story in a state of fragility, arguments between Ben (Tony Todd), a survivor who snaps our heroine into shape, and Harry (Tom Towles), a cowardly man who prefers to hide in the cellar with his wife (McKee Anderson) and ailing daughter (Heather Mazur), are reduced into screaming matches without convincing emotion behind them. We are shown that the noise due to hammering from inside the house (it is decided that windows must be boarded up) ends up attracting the undead, but I’m convinced it is due to the senseless and interminable yelling and screaming. The most pronounced deviation from the original is the third act. Racial and political statements are stripped away. Surely racism existed in the ‘90s and is very much alive today. So why not take the opportunity to discern racism between the late ‘60s and early ‘90s? Instead, it leans on general observations when it comes to the living’s monstrous nature toward things we do not fully understand or appreciate. It bears no teeth let alone bite.

His House


His House (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

You can tell a movie is coming from a specific perspective when every single white folk is captured giving a certain look to Rial and Bol (Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu), South Sudanese refugees who must prove to the UK government that they can adapt and assimilate. They must abide by three rules: report weekly, without fail, to their case worker (Matt Smith); live off a weekly allowance of seventy pounds without getting full-time or part-time jobs for extra income; and live in a house chosen by the government. Failure to follow these rules would risk their status as refugees and therefore their chance of becoming British citizens. The third rule is especially problematic for Mr. and Mrs. Majur because it appears as though their new home is haunted. It begins with whisperings and scratchings in the walls.

It sounds like a typical ghost story, but it isn’t. Writer-director Remi Weekes broaches concepts like race, ethnicity, culture, identity, color of one’s skin, among others, and gives them workable definitions. I appreciated the fact that he trusts viewers are intelligent and curious enough to wade through these ideas and then try to make sense how or why these are critical to the story. It is one thing to show that a ghost is a metaphor for our haunted pasts. It is another to make a statement that sometimes a ghost is born of our own creations. Then it begs the question: Because it is a part of us, how can it be defeated? Or can it be overcome? In terms of plot, the ending is straightforward. But in terms of character, the ending is subtle. Here is a horror film that goes beyond the gut experience; it asks that we be aware of its themes.

Scares are strong in that every confrontation with an apparition is an invitation. For example, a character may be looking at a curious hole in the wall. He decides to explore, put his hand or arm inside it with the hope of grabbing onto something. Behind him the light flickers and grows dark. He isn’t aware of the change from a few feet away. So typical of modern horror pictures is to go for a jump scare. Boo! The ghost appears and the character is startled. End scene. Cue our laugh or sigh of relief. Not here. The ghost appears from behind. We are startled due to its terrific placement and timing. But the character does not see it; he is too busy examining the hole. The fact that we are aware of the threat but the protagonist does not is the very definition of suspense. I think Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud and regaled by this chiller.

Notice, too, that horror here is not always reliant upon menace. The majority of the picture may unfold inside a house, but the screenplay’s imagination tends to outmuscle the four walls. We get a chance to look inside dreams, memories, and imaginings. Sometimes these are mixed together and it is a challenge to untangle them. More impressive, on occasion it is not necessary to untwine them because the point is meant to appeal to big emotions rather than pragmatism. On other occasions, a character getting lost in her new neighborhood is the horror itself. No need to employ shapes in the night. There is a level of freedom here that so many filmmakers can learn from. And I hope they do.

Clearly, Weekes has sculpted an impressive debut film. Another positive trait: As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I believe that other immigrants will appreciate this film on a level that non-immigrants will not, especially if an immigrant is a person of color. This claim isn’t meant to be flippant or dismissive; it just is. Because the writer-director is courageous enough to be highly specific in regards to the immigrant characters’ experiences in a country (and with people) that is foreign to them, it paves the way for a superior work, one that is filled to brim with sharp angles.

Mary Shelley


Mary Shelley (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley is perhaps one of my all-time favorite literary works, a story about abandonment and desperate longing for human connection. It must be noted that this film, written for the screen by Emma Jansen, is not an autobiography of the author’s life before and after the novel was written despite the title. It is a curious film, certainly one worth watching, because although it takes crucial events from Shelley’s life as a sixteen-year-old with a strong passion for writing horror stories, it is also quite generous in taking liberties of fictionalizing certain elements in order to tell a story with more defined themes between the classic novel and the author’s formative years.

I enjoyed Elle Fanning as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, at first as a naive girl seduced by the idea of romance and escape. It is wonderful casting because Fanning is a type of performer who exudes a youthful aura and an intelligence beyond her years with seemingly minimal effort. Her interpretation of Mary is rooted in strength: misery may befall the figure she embodies, but we always feel as though she will weather the storm. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour is fond of close-ups—and Fanning delivers through her communicative eyes, using her ballerina-like body language as support, as Mary begins to learn that life is tough and tricky outside of her father’s bookstore. To escape from home is, in a way, to abandon a big part of who you are.

At times it comes across as though the picture is going down a checklist of what a period drama should be like. I enjoyed this aspect of the movie far less than when we are simply in a room—not of two people but three—and two individuals are clashing while the odd person out is simply listening and feeling awkward. It is because the material’s strength is in the dialogue. Oftentimes what is being talked about is not actually what the scene is about. To appreciate a scene fully, it is important that we have an understanding of the ones that came before.

For instance, consistently watchable is the tumultuous relationship between Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Both claim to believe, for example, that love is freedom—so much so that traditional monogamy may too restrictive for some couples. Mary and Percy may be reading the same progressive book, but they are not at all on the same chapter. Confrontations are dramatic (and occasionally off-putting because the pacing is willing to slow to a crawl when filmmakers wish to communicate how depression might be like, for example), but I was able to find bits of blackest humor in the seams. One says the other is being a hypocrite while the claimant is blinded by his own. We are reminded by how young the unmarried subjects really are when life demands that they pay the consequences for their actions—or inaction. (Mary and Percy met when she was sixteen and he twenty-one.)

I was most fascinated by Mary’s interest in the idea of the dead being brought back to life. One scene in particular is a standout: when Mary, Percy and Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) see a show called “Phantasmagoria” in which a headless frog’s limbs move following a jolt of electricity. It is not shot from a horror point of view but hope and inspiration. Also interesting is when Mary meets John William Polidori (Ben Hardy), physician and soon-to-be author of the novella “The Vampyre: A Tale.” I wished their connection were delved into a bit more because the performers share a certain warm, sibling-like chemistry. Maybe it is because Fanning and Hardy choose to play their characters as outsiders who find strength in silence and humility.

I Saw the Devil


I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kim Jae-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is no ordinary revenge story. I think the point of making a film as violent and as ugly as this is not only to touch upon what vengeance does to a person and of those around him but also to ask viewers how much blood, disfigurements, dismemberments, and other horrific images they can handle—all for the sake of entertainment. I admire and find value in it because the director takes an idea and goes for it without compromise. Needless to say, the picture is not for everyone. But it is for those willing to embrace the fact that within the depths of our humanity, our goodness, resides a monster. Some have no control of it.

The movie is dark, foreboding, and the morality it offers is quite bleak. It opens with a stranded woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) who calls her boyfriend, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-Hun), while waiting for professionals to arrive and fix her tires. She is approached by Jang (Choi Min-sik), a bus driver for a learning center with a penchant for kidnapping, raping, and murdering women, and offers to help. Joo-yun thanks him but insists that she prefers to wait for the servicemen. Soon Joo-yun’s severed head is found washed up under a bridge. Soo-hyun vows that he will find her killer and make him feel the suffering she felt before her death.

The opening act is beautifully operatic which culminates in a night time search for Joo-yun. The camera glides in and out of crowds as we strive to make sense of how much they know, if they have any leads or have found any clues, and get an overall feeling as to whether those aiding the search are optimistic or much less so. Of course, we already know Joo-yun’s fate so the outcome of the search is negligible. Still, there remains great tension because Soo-hyun is on the scene and he does not know what we know. How will he react? It is most appropriate that this tragic sequence ends while fixated on his expression. We are made to recognize the moment in which a part of him dies upon learning that his fiancée is dead.

Small but effective surprises pepper the story. One of them is that it does not require ample time for Soo-hyun to get to Jang. This is an astute decision made by screenwriter Park Hoon-jung. After all, this is a revenge story, not a detective story. But devil is in the details: What happens when a man who feels he is wronged gets his hands on the wrongdoer? Another surprise: the killer is not kept in a room to be tormented in every way possible. This would have been too ordinary, too easy, too generic. And it does not make a strong statement regarding Soo-hyun the secret agent, whom we assume to have a strong sense of justice and fairness, a professional who likely has planned out his life with a woman he intends to marry.

This is a classic character study in a sense that everything about our protagonist—qualities that make him Soo-hyun—is stripped away throughout the film. Like a fish flopping about as it struggles for air, we watch him try to survive when he has nothing else to hold onto other than his unadulterated and inconsolable rage. We then must ask: Which is the bigger monster—Soo-hyun the hunter or Jang the hunted? Then later: How do we define “monster”? Should the word be defined on a case-by-case basis? Is that even the right word? I enjoyed that the picture’s ideas are on constant state of evolution. We search for answers not for the film but for ourselves: our own understanding, our own fears and anxieties. This is a psychological thriller that inspires the viewer to look within.

Those who dismiss “I Saw the Devil” as nothing but extreme and violent are downright wrong. I mentioned its level of insight. But it is also disarmingly humorous on occasion, particularly the wacko visit to a pair of cannibals (Choi Moo-sung, Kim In-seo). Of course Jang would be acquainted with such folks. Naturally, there is an extended hallway sequence. Yet despite sudden fluctuations in tone, tension and curiosity persist. How will this specific story be resolved? Can it be resolved? Kim is in control of his material every step of the way.

The Warriors


The Warriors (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

It’s sort of a miracle that Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” manages to work as an action film because it is driven only by two factors: visual pageantry and unadulterated attitude. It thrusts us into a world of street gangs—communities—that constantly fight for their place in New York City. We are not informed when the story takes place, but I think it is set some time in the future when rule of law barely has a grasp on the rest of society. The movie is fresh, entertaining, at times episodic, and transportive in that we crave to know more about its universe and its characters who value belongingness and the idea of family above all.

The plot is straightforward. During a gathering in the Bronx, the beloved leader of the Gramercy Riffs named Cyrus (Roger Hill), who has just delivered a speech about the importance of maintaining peace amongst the gangs, is shot dead. Chaos ensues, cops arrive at the scene, and soon enough The Warriors are framed for the murder. The Warriors’ even-tempered leader, Swan (Michael Beck), decides that they must make their way home from the Bronx to Coney Island—which will be not an easy task considering the likelihood that they now have a bounty on their heads.

The Warriors encounter a handful of groups on their way home, but each confrontation is different and memorable. For instance, the first gang we meet, The Orphans, actually possesses the numbers to stop The Warriors and deliver them to the Riffs. Members are on the streets, inside buildings, atop roofs. But notice how the screenplay by David Shaber and Walter Hill underscores the personality of this group, how their toughness and grittiness is a mask (maybe that is their real costume), how most important to them is idea of being recognized and respected by other groups. And why is that? Because they grew up as orphans. They yearn to feel wanted, to belong, to be regarded as worthy. What could have been a standard fist-fight and the like is turned into something else worthy of thought and consideration.

Another example: Crossing paths with the a group who refer to themselves as the Baseball Furies. Unlike The Orphans, they are not given a chance to speak. However, the camera inspires us to study them: how they wear matching baseball uniforms, how they don various colors of paint on their faces, how their expressions are mostly blank. Clearly, these are men who are strong and not afraid of confrontation. Thus, The Warriors must deal with them in a different way than they did The Orphans. Throughout the picture, this level of thought and freshness is maintained—which creates an engaging experience.

There is one aspect of the film that should have been explored which might have helped to take it to the next level. Of the nine unarmed Warriors delegates sent to Van Cortlandt Park, there are two strong personalities: Swan, the natural leader, and Ajax (James Remar), the brute spitfire. Some level of respect can be felt between the two, but it is apparent that the latter genuinely believes he is the better leader. And so there is conflict there, beginning with what to do as a group following the assassination. Moments of conflict between Swan and Ajax are telling, but there aren’t enough of it. The Warriors must face other gangs, but there is also tension within the group. Surely there is more drama to be mined from two fronts than just one.

Nevertheless, what’s at offer in here is fun, creative, very much worth seeing at least once. It is consistent in drawing a smile on my face because although it is an action film, there is barely any visual effects employed. Explosions and shootouts are kept at a minimum. Here is an action picture stripped bare. And how it dares to top itself one scene after the next. Do not miss this.

The Grudge


The Grudge (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” is a most tepid a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on.” It is so uninspired that in the middle of it, I was compelled to check if this writer-director was the same person who helmed “The Eyes of My Mother,” a terrific debut film about how crippling loneliness and deep trauma can destroy the soul of a person. This remake, on the other hand, is not about anything—of substance or value. It contains plot, characters, and lame attempts to scare but it is hollow inside. Who is this movie for? Other than to make money, what is the point of it? Who can be proud of putting this junk out there and wasting people’s time and money?

We learn nothing about the vengeful ghost other than it possesses the ability latch onto a person once that individual visits the place it is haunting. In the opening scene, which takes place in 2004, we meet a terrified Tokyo-based American nurse (Tara Westwood) who calls home to inform her family that she’ll be returning. In 2006, we meet Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who moves to Pennsylvania following her husband’s death due to cancer. She is assigned to work with Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir) and soon they visit a possible crime scene involving an abandoned car with a rotting corpse inside. They find an address in the glove compartment: 44 Reyburn Drive. Another cop mentions the Landers case and soon the curious Detective Muldoon becomes obsessed in learning more about the triple homicide.

We meet almost a dozen characters between its 2004 and 2006 timelines. Although they are played by the likes of John Cho, Frankie Faison, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye, these performers are given nothing substantive to work with. And so, in order to create a semblance of intrigue, a few of them rely on histrionics, from yelling to extreme behaviors, and the rest utter lines in a most robotic fashion. Even they are unable to mask their boredom despite being in the movie—and being paid. It is clear that the problem lies in the screenplay. It commands no tension.

Consider: we already know the fates of most of the characters given that Detective Muldoon has a police file in hand. (While Westwood tries her best in looking thoughtful while staring at the photos, notice her character’s detective work is minimal at best. We do not get a sense of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and attitude toward her line of work.) And so it is most critical to present intriguing details specific to the unsolved case. Every scene must function as a step forward to a conclusion that’s sensical within the story’s universe despite its supernatural elements. You guessed it: This is a horror film so generic that mere ten minutes into it, one can surmise that it will offer a non-ending. It assumes that viewers are stupid enough to mistake its laziness for being chilling. This is most pessimistic filmmaking.

Even the special, visual, and make-up effects are not at all memorable. For example, when a figure pops out of the corner of the screen, it is so instantaneous that we never get a chance to appreciate the performance behind the would-be scary facade, the minute touches on dirty or bloody clothing, the look of death or anger on their faces. It gives the impression that the filmmakers themselves are not proud of their work. This “Grudge” lacks energy, an eye for what makes a scary situation effectively, basic pacing, and a distinctive vision. A cheap haunted house walkthrough is scarier than this. And a lot shorter.

A Dirty Carnival


A Dirty Carnival (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Yoo Ha’s “A Dirty Carnival,” we are given the impression that it is a gangster picture told through a romantic prism, yet another story of a young man who joins a gang in order to better the life of his family, sickly mother and all. It is quite surprising, and enthralling, how adding one character manages to shift the dramatic tone and plot parabola almost completely. Suddenly, the material is alive and crackling. Some familiar elements remain, like having to deal with rival gangs and the like, but we are kept on our toes as to how they might play out given that the screenplay proves to be malleable enough, readily changeable depending on what it hopes to subvert about hardcore gangster flicks.

The character that serves as spice is Min-ho (Namkoong Min), a childhood friend of Byung-doo, our central protagonist, who aspires to become a film director. Min-ho hopes to make a gangster film for his debut and he figures he needed to perform research by means of interviewing actual gangsters and being in the action when things go bad. It is so fascinating that without this character, Byung-doo is just another low-level thug with a good heart. Jo In-sung plays the boyish looking gangster with a transparency so accessible, it feels almost bizarre at first he is cast to play what we expect to be a rough role. But it is actually correct to make such a left-field decision because a) Jo is strong in the role and b) his youthful look strips away some of our defenses. And so when he is thrusted into sudden fits of violence, it is shocking, horrific.

I admired the work’s schizophrenic tone. In one scene, for instance, rival gang members are fighting tooth and nail under a bridge while increasingly covered in mud and blood. The next scene, we observe people having a quiet drink that leads to some karaoke. And the scene after that, a person is being bludgeoned with a bat. You never know what’s coming. It is exciting, amusing, and occasionally creative. I felt the writer-director’s fondness for experimentation. Some risks pay off, some do not. But what matters is that the work is never boring—especially since it has a running time of two hours and twenty minutes. It glides right through.

What I find most ironic about this odd gangster flick is that we get a handful of exchanges between Byung-doo and his superiors. There is much discussion about money, territory, who needs to be killed, and what favors need to be done should someone wish to climb up the ladder. But what’s even more tension-filled is Byung-doo simply trying to connect with a woman who works in a bookstore, Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young), a childhood friend and crush, how, in a way, he feels he must prove to her that being a gangster is not really who he is.

But is he not? How can Byung-doo expect to convince someone otherwise when a simple thing like getting a phone call from work can completely alter his disposition from a sensitive, loving man to a murderer who makes his victims “disappear”? I found a sadness in Byung-doo and Hyun-joo’s relationship—or whatever it is that they share. Our brains already know there is no way of it ever working out. But our hearts say otherwise. And I think that’s the crux of this film. Just as we fight against our instincts, so does Byung-doo. From this angle, the film gets the story precisely right.

But what of Min-ho? A case can be made that he fights against his instincts, too. Those eyes know that he is constant danger while being surrounded by killers who walk, talk, and laugh just like regular folks on the street. But the artist in him is compelled to tell his subjects’ stories. Surely there is a line he cannot cross. Is he blind to it? Every person we meet here has a blindspot, whether it be family, friends, money, or ambition. Min-ho uses his camera for living. What is he blind to and will it be his undoing?

Mayhem


Mayhem (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Joe Lynch’s action horror-comedy “Mayhem” is supposed to be a satire of toxic corporate culture. But what is the point of it when there is no venom behind its sting? What results is violent but pointless movie that finds itself unable to move past its initial idea; it is a classic case of a film that never stops beginning, a bore, redundant, in desperate need of rewrite. Halfway through, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for co-stars Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving, talented performers with charm to spare but are given nothing to work with and so they rely upon histrionics in order to create a semblance of character substance. Matias Caruso’s screenplay is not worthy of their talent.

ID-7 is a virus that readily infects people, rendering them unable to control their deepest, darkest impulses. It is also called the “Red Eye” virus given that those infected tend to exhibit pink eye. There is no cure; it goes away on its own or it can be alleviated using a neutralizing agent. This is all the information we get concerning this virus—presented during the first fifteen minutes. Just like the dead script, neither the virus nor the concept behind it fails to evolve. Because of this, the material is drained of intrigue over time. Eventually, we are left with only violence.

Even then the violence is not all that entertaining. Recently fired Derek (Yeun) must fight his way to the top floor in order to try to get his job back. Surely if he could get an audience with the CEOs, they would be sympathetic to this plight. Naturally, he must face-off against those involved with his firing, from those directly responsible for placing blame on him regarding a botched multimillion-dollar case (Caroline Chikezie) to those who have knowledge of the facts but decided to look the other way (Dallas Roberts).

Scissors to the hand, fire extinguisher to the face, saw into a chest cavity—bloody, brutal, shock and awe. The camera moves with energy and seeming purpose, but the screenplay and the editing lack the synergy (and rhythm) required for these sequences to actually be engaging. Since there is a constant air of superficiality, violence often comes across fake and forced. Its shortcomings are especially apparent when Derek and Melanie (Weaving), a client whose home is on the verge of foreclosure, must take on a horde of office workers. There is lack of discipline in the framing, action beats, and catharsis. It’s all so exhausting and boring.

Thoughtful viewers will pick up on the possibility that the filmmakers have failed to ask themselves, “What’s the heart of the story we’re telling?” This should have been an accessible, relatable movie because millions of people out there work in soul-sucking jobs, thankless jobs, unrewarding jobs—which is not limited to being in an office or sitting in a cubicle. And that breeds anger—in oneself, toward others… So why isn’t the picture more in touch with its humanity? That is because it is easier, you see, to create images of destruction than to show violence within. Since this film is afraid to explore the latter, what we do see—which is the former—offers nothing worthwhile. Just empty busy work.

Blood Vessel


Blood Vessel (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

One of the problems with the Nazis-messing-with-the-occult-yet-again story of “Blood Vessel” is a lack of forward momentum. There is a simple plot, characters whose sole purpose is to be slaughtered, and neat practical effects, but the first half is such a trial to be endured that most viewers will be compelled to check out before the undead in the coffin wakes. Why is it that in this day and age of horror films, screenwriters still think it is a good idea to require the audience to endure a barrage of wooden personalities arguing with what to do next after finding themselves in a life-or-death situation? How is that fun for us?

The reason, I think, is that arguments—superficial ones—are easy to write. Yelling creates an illusion of conflict. In this story, which takes place during the tail end of World War II, Americans, British, Australian, and Russians are added into the mix. They clash, decibels increase, and glaring intensifies—yet there is a heavy gloom of boredom. This is a film in which it is not a good idea to keep the monster hidden for so long because the characters are given nothing interesting to say or do. Why not simply cut to the chase?

Notice that as folks are killed off, there is an improvement in the flow of the movie. I wished to know more about the Teplov the Russian sniper (Alex Cooke), particularly the stories behind his scars, from bullet wounds, knife fights, to animal attacks; Jane (Alyssa Sutherland) and her motherly nature, even toward the cowardly spook that no one trusts (John Lloyd Fillingham); and how Sinclair (Nathan Phillips) becomes the de facto leader of the group when things go from bad to worse. Still, the script’s ear for dialogue, written by Justin Dix (who directs) and Jordan Prosser, could have used more polishing. The performers seem up to the task.

The Nazi vessel commands minimal personality. In the middle of it, I was reminded of Rob Hedden’s “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” because although that sequel is silly as hell, it is actually enjoyable to watch doomed characters running around that ship. We get a sense of geography, there are kills that take place in confined and open spaces, walls are slashed, doors are broken, glass windows shatter. In this film, characters touch objects as if they were in a museum. Are the props that fragile or expensive? There is a lack of rawness in the action. And so a level of urgency is sacrificed, too.

The living dead—whose precise nature I will not describe—looks good. I appreciated that heavy masks are employed to underscore the feral and otherworldly nature of the villains. Their powers are not new or surprising, but they get the job done. I would have loved to learn more about their history. A case can be made that, like the human characters, they are simply trying to survive. So is it fair to label them as monsters?

“Blood Vessel” fails to offer engaging content that would have allowed it to rise above its contemporaries. With its curious setting, a few badass protagonists (Teplov deserves his own movie), and formidable antagonists, clearly basic elements are present to make a superior work. But the magic proves to be in the details yet again. The writers made the mistake of putting more effort into creating shallow drama instead of enriching the story’s lore and mystique.

The Biggest Little Farm


The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm” is a nature documentary that should be required viewing in schools because it is able to show the interconnectedness of life so clearly. It is one thing to learn about it in books, but it is on another level to see it unfold entirely. The film, which encompasses seven turbulent years, is funny, surprising, educational, quite sad at times, and it possesses to ability to make the viewer feel small, to inspire us to think about our place on this planet through the microcosm that is Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California, an hour drive north of Los Angeles, a farm that was once so dead, the soil so dry, the new owners—John and Molly Chester—and their team had to build a station dedicated solely for composting in order to even have a chance of possibly reinvigorating 200 acres of land. I watched spellbound.

We are presented more than a dozen examples of interconnection and self-sustainability. For instance, the more cows brought and born into the farm, the more flies they attract since the cows produce more waste. The more flies there are, the more eggs they lay on excrement since the larvae requires nutrient-rich environment. And the more fly larvae, chickens could be brought in to feed on them. And so in the long run, farmers would spend less money on purchasing chicken food for hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens. The money could be used on other goods or investments… like bringing in more cows for meat, milk, and the like. It is amazing that although the picture offers a short running time of ninety minutes, it is incredibly efficient: we are provided one informative example after another without coming across like a lecture.

Also communicated clearly is why the Chesters decided to go for their dream of creating a traditional farm. “Traditional” meaning that diversity is paramount—a type of farm we see in children’s movies like “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web.” You see, most farms nowadays are monotype—an egg farm dedicated for raising chickens, for example. Most amusing is that an adopted dog named Todd essentially triggered the couple’s decision to start actualizing their dream. And it is quite astonishing how the Chesters’ lifestyle changed through the course of seven years, beginning from a small, cramped apartment in Santa Monica, CA to the wide open spaces of a farm full of life. The journey is fascinating and hard work—to say the least. Once there is a solution to a problem, more problems arise. It requires constant creativity to be able to keep up with creating a successful farm.

Prior to the making of this terrific documentary, Chester has had experience in film. He commands a keen eye for interesting and beautiful images like piglets and calves being born, butterflies leaving their cocoon to take their first flight, owls roaming the night sky, hundreds of ducklings squeaking in a tiny box. Beautiful, too, in my eyes, is manure filled with maggots—held by a hand wearing no gloves. We also see corpses of chickens having killed by coyotes during the night. I appreciated that the picture’s idea of beautiful is not defined; it is interested in showing what is real and it is up to audience how to process the images they are given.

There is a joyous, celebratory feel to “The Biggest Little Farm” that I believe would appeal most to people who find a certain connection to nature. What is the movie about? It depends. Looking at it as a whole, I think it is about a quest for happiness. In the middle of the movie, the Chesters find themselves encountering so many issues on the farm—like pipe issues, toxic algae bloom, overpopulation of pests—but at the same time we consider the alternative: They could still be stuck in their tiny apartment in the city, their dreams still just dreams.

May the Devil Take You Too


May the Devil Take You Too (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Timo Tjahjanto takes his sequel to “May the Devil Take You” in an interesting direction: Underscore the relationship between Alfie (Chelsea Islan)—our heroine and one of the survivors from the first feature—and the Devil in a way that promises there will more terrors to come after this installment. The reason why this chapter must exist is clear. Alfie has had extensive experience in dealing with what’s beyond the human realm. Such encounters tend to stick to her like a curse. She can save herself, her family, and strangers who ask for help. Although she is able to triumph in individual battles, is there actually a chance for her to win the war?

I enjoyed this follow-up a bit more than the original because I felt it is more ambitious with its ideas. Alfie is no longer the girl who just so happens to have a father who sacrificed his daughter’s soul to quench his greed. She is now a symbol, an example, and perhaps even hope of outsmarting the Devil in its own twisted game. Islan’s Alfie here is not only more confident, she is a fighter: for herself, for her little sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab), and everyone else who find themselves haunted by the beyond due to an adult figure making a similar deal with the Devil.

The setup is perfunctory but it does the job. A group of young adults who used to reside in the same orphanage kidnap Alfie and Nara. Some of them are convinced that Alfie may be able to stop an evil spirit from claiming their souls. The apparition is named Ayub (Tri Hariono) and he craves revenge. The children he abused murdered him and left his body in the cellar. Just like the previous film, this story unfolds in one place—an orphanage of physical, mental, and sexual trauma. None of the characters are well-adjusted; they’re barely even functional.

It is quite astounding that there is only a two-year gap between the release of the original and the sequel because the special, visual, and cosmetics effects are far more advanced here. Perhaps it is due to having a higher budget, but I wouldn’t put money on it. We’ve seen time and again that all the money in the world is no substitute for old-fashioned craft. I think Tjahjanto studied the first outing closely and took notes of elements that could be improved upon.

For instance, women with long, black hair wearing white gowns is so often used in Asian horror. At this point, it’s tired and dated. But look at how Tjahjanto handles them here. Instead of placing emphasis on the whole body, how it moves down hallways and the like, focus is from the chest upwards. The horrifying make-up, occasionally mixed with CGI, coupled with exaggerated facial expressions create terrifying, claustrophobic encounters. This is also a bit quieter than the original so there is more room for creepy, goosebump-inducing moments.

What prevents the picture from functioning on another level is, like the predecessor, a lack of convincing human connections. For example, Alfie and Nara’s interactions are often shallow reminders that they’re sisters. But we already know that. What else is there to their bond? How has their relationship evolved ever since the events in the first movie?

As for the orphans, there are far too many of them. Although we get the sense that a few are closer than others (like Budi and Leo, the suicidal and the alcoholic played by Baskara Mahendra and Arya Vasco, respectively), it is never shown to us how close they are as a collective. In a horror movie with a handful of characters introduced at once, it is paramount that the screenplay be thoroughly efficient in getting us to care about as many of them as possible. Otherwise, they’re just sheep to be gutted. At least majority of the practical effects are on point.