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The Empty Man


The Empty Man (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

David Prior’s “The Empty Man,” based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, already clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, but I believe this is a rare instance in which a horror film might have benefited had it possessed a running time closer to three hours. It is a long journey, filled with curiosities, mysteries, and terror—which opens in 1995 as two American couples stumble upon an ancient entity in Ura Valley, Bhutan at the end of their five-mile hike. This pre-title sequence leads us to believe that the story will be supernatural horror in nature. But the deeper it digs, my mind couldn’t help but think about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Perhaps it is because there is a palpable sense of foreboding about it. Cut to 2018, we follow a former detective named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) who chooses to help a neighbor (Marin Ireland) when her daughter (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. “The Empty Man made me do it,” is smeared on Amanda’s bathroom mirror and it is written in blood. Despite this ominous message, the cops have reason to believe it is a straightforward runaway case. Yet something tells James that the scenario is a bit off and so he decides to interview one of Amanda’s friends at the high school. Again, there is the mention of The Empty Man.

According to urban legend, if you find yourself on a bridge in the middle of the night, come across an empty bottle, and blow on it, you’d hear The Empty Man’s footsteps on the first night. On the second night, you’d actually see it. And on the third, you’d feel it—because it found you. What’s brilliant about this picture is that we are presented the source of this urban legend—the extended pre-title sequence in the Himalayas. And so when the core is chiseled and misshapen by time and word-of-mouth, we remain to have a solid reference. I wished more horror movies that deal with modern urban legends possess the patience that this work offers.

I enjoyed watching Dale as a man who is both guilt-ridden and in mourning of his wife and young son’s passing. We see glimpses of his nightmares, how he wasn’t there when his spouse lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. Dale plays James as a man who wants to move forward—choosing to take on mysterious case on an unofficial capacity—but his past holds him back like a giant boulder. As the Amanda case gets more bizarre, we can read in Dale’s eyes that perhaps James had bitten off more than he could chew. But he cannot quit; he is too entrenched.

Here is a story in which an argument can be made that the supernatural angle is less scary than what is really going on. Because in the former, without giving important details away, only minimal evidence can be found, circumstantial at best. Myths, rumors, and urban legends—they’re just words that can be heard, read in books or online articles and blog posts. But when there is tangible proof that something sinister is afoot, one that involves people in your lives, this is far more chilling because it forces you to re-evaluate how you’re living your life, how you see random people in the street, and perhaps relationships closest to you.

This is the point when the movie begins to fall apart. The overall mystery is fascinating and the lead character is someone we wish to follow, but because the film, especially since it is of a certain genre, feels the need to wrap up under a time limit, the resolution is rushed to the point where it gives the impression that it is uninterested in tying up loose ends. Clearly, the writer-director is more than capable of doing so because the work has proven its patience and penchant for details. When the film is already nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the correct choice is to take the story to completion even if it requires an hour more.

“The Empty Man” misses the mark by a hair.

Death of Me


Death of Me (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Here is a story that takes place on a gorgeous Thai island filled with beautiful people and curious customs, but the screenplay by Arli Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish is left to sit under the sun to rot, as if setting alone were enough to save an elevator pitch: “The Hangover” but a horror film. It is lazy, uninteresting, not at all entertaining, and borderline offensive—both in terms of how the filmmakers expect that what they deliver is good enough for their viewers and its one-dimensional portrayal of an eastern culture whereby superstition and pseudoscience hold enough weight to challenge reality. A way to deal with the latter in a respectful manner is to provide complexity—the very element that this picture sorely lacks. It makes for a depressing experience.

The enigma is this: Married couple Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth), covered in mud and grime, awake in their Airbnb with no memory of how they got home. They wish to return to the mainland, but passport is required for travel. Theirs is nowhere to be found. Desperate to find answers, Neil figures that his cellphone might contain pictures of their wild night. He finds a two-hour video and hits play. It shows Neil not only choking Christine to death but also burying her lifeless body. But this cannot be. His wife is sitting next to him, very much alive.

This is a premise with potential because it promises an investigation: westerners navigating their way through a foreign land in which everything is challenge, from the geography of the island, having to think twice when taking action out of respect local traditions, down to the language barrier. But the film is a classic case of a movie that never stops beginning. Halfway through its running time, the couple remains flabbergasted about their memory loss and their progression in finding out the truth is pretty much nonexistent. We feel the work biding its time to reach the ninety-minute mark. It doesn’t respect us because it fails to value our time.

One of its circuitous approach is pummeling us with hallucinatory sequences so generic and dull that at one point I wondered if director Darren Lynn Bousman had actually seen effective, dream-like, horror pictures pre-1990s. Because to say that his approach being laughable is to be kind: “real time” events are presented in regular color and hallucinations are given a blue-green tinge coupled with quick, manic cuts. There is no flow, no rhythm, no flavor. It looks uninspired and downright ugly. One cannot help but to wonder, too, that perhaps Bousman made the picture under duress; it feels like a project helmed by a most jaded and pessimistic filmmaker who ought to find another career path. I was disgusted.

Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” is brought up at one point. Clearly, that is the inspiration for this drivel. But if one were to put that 1973 classic right alongside this film, the difference is night and day. The former is rooted in suspense. It involves a lot of genuine questioning—and at times we don’t know the sort of questions to ask because the events are increasingly bizarre. That movie is constantly evolving. “Death of Me,” on the other hand, is stuck with a premise that goes nowhere until the final act, if that. It wants us to ask questions but there is no sense of wonder or mystery. On offer is simply a parade of events in which the punchline often involves Christine screaming, yelling, passing out, and waking up in a different room.

I wished I was passed out before the movie started so I’d have no memory of it.

The White Tiger


The White Tiger (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.

Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” based upon the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga, is the type of rags-to-riches story that gathers quiet power. We know where it must begin—a poor child living in an obscure village who dreams of making it big one day—and where it must end—a man wearing an expensive suit and a solemn expression—yet when it is time to make a statement about modern India, particularly the ever-growing chasm between the privileged “masters” and the working class “servants” in relation to traditionalism, capitalism, political and moral corruption, it is consistently sharp, occasionally subversive, and surprisingly emotional. This is an angry picture that employs elements of feel-good entertainment as a mask.

Adarsh Gourav plays Balram who makes it his goal to become a driver for the family of a local coal baron—even though he does not know how to drive. Balram considers this job as a stepping stone for better opportunities therefore a means of pulling himself—and his family—out of poverty. Proving to be highly determined and a quick learner, Balram learns how to drive (with thanks to grandmother’s two hundred rupees) and is assigned as a chauffeur for the baron’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned to India, along with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), after having just finished his education in the United States. Balram looks to Ashok as a model for success: well-traveled, wealthy, educated; it is curious how this relationship develops. We know, too, how it might end for them.

Gourav portrays Balram with an infectious goodness and so we cannot help but to root for his success. But most wonderful about the performance are the quiet and telling moments in which those eyes remind us with stunning clarity that although there is an inherent lightness to Balram, he is an opportunist. This trait is ingrained in him because of where he comes from, the subconscious lessons he absorbs when the poor turns against its own, when even your own family can get in the way of your happiness and the great things you wish to accomplish. He is always watching, learning, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get ahead of the pack. Because we are provided a true understanding of Balram’s cunning nature, this character stands out from stories of this type.

The movie is not afraid to underscore the clear divide between the rich and the poor outside of where they live, the clothes on their back, the food they eat, and how dirty or clean they look. While also important, these are surface characteristics. Heartbreaking moments come in the form our protagonist time and again—like a dumb dog—somehow believing that he is considered to be a friend by those he serves because they have begun to treat him relatively well when things are good.

But when his masters feel the grip of their problems tightening around their throats, they lash out at the defenseless, at people like Balram who will take the blow—metaphorical and literal—because either they feel they do not have a choice (your replacement is always waiting) or that they feel it is simply a part of the job description. At times servants are treated worse than animals. I spent part of my childhood in Asia and I appreciated that this aspect of the story is observed with unblinking honesty without melodrama—as if to say, “Here’s the reality. Do what you want with it.” (The Chopra character, who grew up in New York City, provides the western voice/outrage, especially in regard to the employer-employee abuse.)

Although a rags-to-riches story on the surface, I loved how the picture does not necessarily leave all of us with a happy feeling. I think the final act’s emotional power lies in the sacrifices Balram has made to the point where we barely recognize the lively, optimistic boy we met in the village. Sure, he has the business, he has the clothes, he has the money… but what else? If your definition of being successful is divorced from money and luxury, the picture will leave you a sort of cold feeling. Balram may have pulled himself out of poverty, but it is demonstrated to us, in subtle ways, that perhaps he is stuck in another hole. Maybe he just doesn’t know it yet.

The Vanished


The Vanished (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Although a terrible miscalculation as a whole, you have to hand it to writer-director Peter Facinelli for flooding the screenplay with countless red herrings. Just when you think you have the mystery surrounding a possible child abduction all figured out, the material takes an outlandish step forward and introduces the idea that something even more sinister is at play. “The Vanished,” originally titled “Hour of Lead,” is like a freeway pileup: you know what has happened is awful and that it won’t get better despite your rubbernecking, yet still you cannot look away.

One of the most obvious problems is its lack of tonal control. The plot opens with the disappearance of a ten-year-old girl named Taylor (Kk Heim, Sadie Heim) when she and her parents, Wendy and Paul (Anne Heche, Thomas Jane) decide to go camping at a lake during Thanksgiving holidays. The campground is forty miles from the nearest civilization and it just so happens there is an escaped convict hiding in the woods. Cue the parents panicking when they discover that Taylor is not in the RV, the outhouse, or by the dock. She and her father planned to go fishing that afternoon.

Given the sub-genre, it is expected that the work will tiptoe the line between drama and thriller. What really happened to the little girl? Who is—or are—responsible, directly and indirectly? Can the couple’s relationship withstand this traumatizing event divorced from the outcome of Sheriff Baker’s investigation (Jason Patric)? Facinelli is so confident with the screenplay that he decides to take on a big risk: introduce darkly funny moments as the distressed parents choose to lead their own investigation right under the noses of cops scouring the grounds day and night.

Here is further proof that dark comedy is incredibly difficult to pull off. Wendy and Paul are not written as sharp as they can be and so when something amusing happens, discerning viewers will see through the seams almost immediately. An example is when they break into a neighboring RV. They are shown being nervous and alert as they search through drawers, closets, and secret hiding places. They suspect that the owners may arrive at any second. And yet the couple find the time to stop in the middle of their desperation to argue—all for the sake of giving us light chuckles. Not only does it ring false, it impedes the momentum of the scene.

When back in their own RV, they argue again. Sometimes they find themselves throwing objects at each other or making a mess just because. This formula is repeated throughout the picture’s nearly two-hour running time—which feels closer to three—and tension is slowly spirited away. The constant bait-and-switch, coupled with Wendy and Paul’s increasingly outrageous decisions, is so exhausting that we are conditioned to no longer care about the life of the missing girl; we simply wish for the body to be found so that the movie can end.

The real funny thing is, I can imagine this story working had it fully embraced the very element that makes it special or stand out. I got the impression, or some semblance of it, that the writer-director intended to make a statement about abduction or missing persons pictures. These movies tend to follow a certain trajectory, mood, or feeling and so he wanted to upend it in small ways. But the correct decision might have been to satirize the sub-genre completely: maintain a straight face on the surface but inside a riotous exploration of how parents’ fears can push them to entertain insane actions for the sake of preserving their progeny. Heche and Jane appear all in. They deliver the required emotions regardless of the incompetence manifested on the script. I wished the writer-director was, too.

There Will Be Blood


There Will Be Blood (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.

Given the choice between money and family, Daniel Plainview is the kind of man who would choose the former almost as an involuntary reaction. It isn’t because Daniel is incapable of feeling love or affection; he simply prefers to make money because, unlike people, money does not disappoint, it requires no guessing game when it comes to its motivation or intent, it does not tell or ask Daniel what to do, it simply is. Like the air we breathe.

This is made resoundingly clear when the prospector, whose business involves stripping the land of its natural resources, namely oil, must decide whether to stay with his injured and utterly terrified son or to run to the derrick and help to put out the gas blowout. This is a man hardwired to perform two tasks: make as much money as possible and minimize the loss of it. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson observes with a most perspicacious eye.

Daniel Plainview is played by Daniel Day-Lewis whose talent is put to terrific use during stretches of long silences when the character is left to deal with his indefatigable thoughts, repressed guilt, and seething anger. We look into those eyes and we wonder about the circumstances in Plainview’s life that turned him into a vehicle of greed. Because the screenplay is elegant and subtle, there are no flashbacks to be had—the story begins in 1898 and we work our way up to 1927 when it ends. There is no weary narration that can be employed as a clutch either.

Instead, we explore by carefully noting which situations, topics of conversation, and personalities that tend to get under our protagonist’s skin. And because Day-Lewis’ eyes are constantly telling a story, it is an enjoyable challenge to sort through numerous possibilities. A ticklish consideration: Is our evaluation of the oilman, whose journey possesses the hallmarks of the so-called American Dream, a reflection of us? A case can be made that children of modern society are more or less a product of capitalism. Thus, is it inevitable that we judge this character from the prism of privilege? After all, life a hundred years ago was an entirely different terrain.

Regardless, the picture’s assured pacing is demonstrable. There is not one wasted moment. Information can always be gleaned, whether from what is expressed outright or merely implied; from utter silence or slight pause; how the physical distance between subjects and camera reflects how characters feel toward one another; how Jonny Greenwood’s score is harnessed and utilized to knock us off-balance. Clearly, those who have a penchant for looking deeply will be rewarded beyond surface entertainment.

Indelible images abound. How silver is mined from the earth. A proud-looking boy unaware he is being used as prop so that the oilman can be regarded as a family man. The aforementioned gas blowout and the flame that shoots into the sky as day turns night and back again. A jaw-dropping murder attempt involving fire as folks sleep. On separate occasions, two con artists being forced into the earth. A well-deserved humiliation in a bowling alley.

The film is also darkly comic. In particular, it is critical of religion as a concept, the hypocritical leaders, and the mindless sheep that follow. Events that cannot be explained or things that are out of one’s control are left for God to determine or decide. Coincidences or bad luck cannot be left as they are; they must be interpreted as messages that only the most faithful can accurately decipher. The insanity of the charade is underscored by hyperbolic dialogue and performances. So, in a way, the picture summons laughter—and bewilderment—as a means of exorcizing what must be purged. This is a bold and unforgettable piece of work.

Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolf House


The Wolf House (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mulan


Mulan (2020)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire in the Sky


Fire in the Sky (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the Wire


Outside the Wire (2021)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Films of 2020


Below are my Favorite Films of 2020.

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



Sorry We Missed You
Ken Loach

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



The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Jim Cummings

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



The Forty-Year-Old Version
Radha Blank

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



Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee

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

The Forty-Year-Old Version


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunted


Hunted (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of the Chicago 7


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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