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Franz Patrick

Dark Light


Dark Light (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that offers plenty of strange noises in a farmhouse in the middle of the night and investigations in the dark using only a flashlight, Padraig Reynolds’ “Dark Light” commands no tension, suspense, or horror. It is strange and highly disappointing because the work is written and directed by the same filmmaker who helmed the little-seen gem “Rites of Spring,” a hybrid between crime thriller and horror, so confident in what it is and what it wishes to accomplish. This picture, however, is an obvious giant step backward, serving the audience a minefield of boredom and clichés on top of characters more uninteresting than tap water.

The plot is standard but not without potential to genuinely entertain. Annie (Jessica Madsen) and her daughter, Emily (Opal Littleton), recently move into Annie’s childhood home following a divorce (Ed Brody), a death in the family, and a mental breakdown. To Annie, the relocation from the city is a chance to start anew with her young child. But it seems that the mother’s once happy home is no longer. Doors open on their own. There is scratching and scraping noises in the walls. There are lights that turn on and off out in the cornfield. Emily begins to suffer memory problems. The mystery is laid thick and heavy, but not one of its elements manages to bleed into other territories—surprise, terror, a sense of impending doom—other than mild curiosity.

I became convinced that even the writer-director is aware of this. For a while, the story unfolds in flashbacks and flash forwards in order create a semblance of urgency. Instead, what we get is distraction and, eventually, annoyance because high-priority questions go unanswered for so long to the point where we no longer care. And when questions do get answers or solutions, notice it is almost always action-driven and noisy rather than thought-driven and silent. A more equal mixture might have been more appropriate given the story’s setting. Clearly, this is a sci-fi horror hybrid that wishes to impress ostentatiously when playing it simple is more effective.

Further, observe closely when Annie inspects areas she suspects an intruder to be hiding in. She is written to move like a soldier rather than as a mother who is afraid for her and her child’s safety. (She has no military background whatsoever.) The intent, I suppose, is to create a heroine who is worth rooting for. But it seems Reynolds did not get the memo that it makes for a far more interesting watch to create a protagonist who is tough on the inside rather than outside—and then allowing that inner strength to shine through. It certainly would have challenged Madsen more—who seems game at whatever the script wishes to throw at her.

“Dark Light” lacks a more elegant, light-handed screenplay. Because it fails to introduce enough wrinkles to an already familiar template, the result is boring, uninspired, and forgettable. Even the relationship between former spouses rings false. Feel the impersonality of their conversations surrounding their child. You get a sense that the actors have got their lines pat but not the emotions and the history of having lived and loved together once. This relationship is robotic and so is the movie. It’s a waste of time.

Code 8


Code 8 (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

At one point in the film, a young girl asks her father if she was going to be given away because she has started to exhibit superpowers. It is, after all, the pattern she sees on television: Those with supernatural abilities are feared and so the non-Powered do what they can in order to maintain their superiority. This is the universe of “Code 8,” based on the story and directed by Jeff Chan, written for the screen by Chris Pare, an ambitious sci-fi action-drama that takes risks. It is willing to put the humanity of its characters on the forefront and the flashy special and visual effects serving as support. What results is a work that may not be A-level adrenaline-fueled non-stop action, but it is nonetheless good entertainment for those who crave a different approach in telling a familiar story.

In a fictional city that brings to mind diverse Los Angeles, Connor (Robbie Amell) decides to take a job with a group of thieves (Stephen Amell, Laysla De Oliveira, Vlad Alexis) who serves under a drug lord (Greg Bryk) in order to get quick surgery money for his dying mother (Kari Matchett). Connor is considered an Electric due to his abilities and so he proves to be most critical in high-stake heists. Notice how we spend nearly equal time with Connor and his mother as well as Connor and his newfound team. And before we see the first job executed, we are provided crystal clear reasons, overt and subtle, how the protagonist is driven to financial desperation. And so despite the fact that he is working for the bad guys, and in some ways he, too, is a bad guy, we root for him and the no-good bunch to get away with their plans. We have an appreciation of Connor’s personal and professional lives, so we cannot help but to feel invested.

There is a certain irony to some of the abilities we come across. For instance, it is fresh that a character with super strength turns out to be a mute—loud in action but silent with words. Under the hands of a writer with lower level imagination, the material could have been just another action flick with characters who happen to have superpowers. Instead, I felt as though Pare is a big fan of the “X-Men” comics. Right from opening credits, for example, there is already commentary regarding left- and right-wing attitudes toward illegal immigrants. Within ten seconds, the work is able to communicate that it is going to be an Us versus Them tale.

It is the correct decision to keep special and visual effects at a minimum—as impressive as they are. I enjoyed that the police employ magnificent drones and how robots are utilized as tools for the frontline. Although created by technical wizardry, we have feel the weight and power of these machines. When robots jump from the drone and land on the street, they wield a fearsome presence. And so when a Powered decides to run, it is a survival response that makes complete sense. How can you go up against something seemingly indestructible and utterly unfeeling? The action scenes are calculated, used sparingly but effectively.

Relationships among the many colorful characters are not explored enough. Connor and Garrett, the leader of the thieves, are provided a sort of student-teacher connection, but the idea is thrown away just as quickly. It is expected that the student surpasses the teacher eventually, especially in a story of this kind, but we are not given that potentially important arc that leads to catharsis. Another potentially interesting angle is Connor’s bond with an unexpected Healer. The latter serves as a reminder of the former’s humanity, but their connection is quite lukewarm. These two examples do not take off in terms of meaningful character development—which drags down an otherwise terrific movie.

Some may claim that ideas overtaking action in sci-fi action picture is a handicap. I disagree; I would rather have ideas shine brightly than to have to sit through another loud, endless parade of noise with no nourishment for the mind. “Code 8” takes familiar superhero tropes and shakes them a bit. In parts it reminded me of Tim Kring’s wonderful first season of the TV series “Heroes.” I believed its universe and by the end I wanted to know more about the broken characters who lived.

Girl on the Third Floor


Girl on the Third Floor (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a haunted house movie that brings nothing new to table, but it does a decent enough job to warrant a mild recommendation. The first half of the picture is quite intriguing because the material appears to be interested in exploring and commenting on what it be means to be traditionally masculine in our modern times. It goes out of its way to establish atmosphere, introduce history, and has the required patience in order to achieve some effective jolts (and winces due to gross-out moments involving eye-catching practical special effects). And yet I found myself detached from it; I felt like I had seen it all before.

We observe Don, a soon-to-be father with a criminal past, renovating the suburban house that he and his pregnant wife just purchased. The camera makes the point of observing the subject’s body: how he is built, the details of his tattoos, how he carries himself with confidence and toughness. He looks like a man one wouldn’t want to mess with in a bar. Don is played by professional wrestler and mixed martial artist CM Punk (born Phillip Jack Brooks), and he does a solid job in ensuring that we do not grow bored of his physicality—a necessary element because it is not enough for the screenplay to simply say Don was a crook who got away with his crimes. We must experience that charm and magnetism firsthand because these might explain why he got away with what he did. Brooks fits the role like a glove.

Everyone in the neighborhood is aware that the house used to be a whorehouse. And so when Don interacts with neighbors, they exude a certain knowing. This bit is curious, but it is a shame that the writing avoids delving into the house’s sordid history. We are shown an extended look into the past toward the end that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s very own haunted house picture “The Shining,” but we are never drenched with rich details. Shocks, you see, are expected and common in this sub-genre. But what makes movies standout within this category is specificity, the lore, the world-building. It is a mistake to rely on the usual tropes of eerie figures appearing on mirrors, dogs staring into the darkness, and bizarre noises coming from the other room. While these are expected in a story like this, they do not elevate the material to the next level. In other words, what makes this story, this movie, special?

Taking a look at these elements, they are executed with some energy. There are instances when I thought, “Wow, that’s a well-trained dog. It even has the right expressions for this scene.” Less effective are moments in which ghosts or apparitions are invisible to the naked eye but can be glanced on mirrors. I wondered if people these days still find this trope to be scary. Here, the approach is utilized at least three times. It was already boring in the first attempt. The sound effects, on the other hand, are superior. Marbles hitting the floor and rolling about is never good news. Also enjoyable are the subtle sounds employed, for example, when strange viscous liquids come out of electrical sockets and such. It could have been silent entirely. But adding sound is smart because it creates an impression that the house is alive, breathing, in pain.

It is apparent that “Girl on the Third Floor,” written and directed by Travis Stevens, is given a lot of thought on how to creep out or scare the audience. I think it can be enjoyed by those who go into it with an open mind. Having said that, however, those who are well-versed in the genre are likely able to recognize not necessarily its shortcomings but its potential to become an even more potent experience. Thus, I can’t help but to feel excited for the writer-director’s next project. As far as directorial debut goes, it’s not bad at all.

Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to writer-director Taika Waititi to helm a daring comedy surrounding a ten-year-old boy who wishes so badly to become one of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers, he is beyond excited that the day has finally come for him to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth. Jojo has got blind Nazism on the brain, his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (Waititi). The satire is sharp, biting, and extremely funny (some might claim insensitive or offensive). And yet—the picture is not simply a parade of amusing gags, which range from recurring visual cues to anachronistic songs or phrases. When it really counts, it takes a serious look at having to wrestle against one’s racism, prejudice, and brainwashing. Its satirical jabs command power, but it is also surprisingly emotionally intelligent.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the memorable titular character in a wonderful debut. He exudes charisma and heart; he commits in every dramatic and comic scene as if he’d appeared in an array of projects before. That confidence translates well when he is required to hold a scene against great performers like Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Jojo’s mother, and Sam Rockwell, as a Nazi captain in charge of the Hitler Youth Camp. This is not a role in which a young actor can rely on looking cute because the subject matter proves to grow more complex as the story moves forward. I hope that Davis would choose to play equally colorful personalities with substance in future roles.

Perhaps on purpose, the first third of the film does not prepare the viewers for what’s about to come. Waititi makes the Hitler Youth camp feel, look, and sound like summer camp—only the children are made to go through militaristic obstacle courses, are given pocket knives and handed hand grenades. These segments are filled to the brim with vivid and warm colors, particularly yellow and green, and there is an exciting, anything-can-happen attitude in the air. In every scene and in just about every other line of dialogue, there is either a sight gag or a joke thrown on our laps. A few people might consider the gags or jokes to be offensive—and that is what makes the work a good satire. It’s not safe.

Fast-paced with seemingly a plethora of ideas to spare, the work confidently moves toward a more solemn tone just about halfway through. Its point is to show that Jojo’s desire to belong in a white nationalist hate group and kill Jewish people has dire consequences. When they finally come around, it is a like a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. I admired that even though the work is a satire and its main character is a child, it remains willing to show the evils of the Nazis. The easier choice would have been to show the mother telling his son that being a Nazi is wrong. The writer-director is correct to choose the more cinematic choice: to show how and why fervent antisemitism is a moral corruption, a cancer.

Another strong aspect of “Jojo Rabbit” is the relationship between the boy and the Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic. Their connection is handled with subtlety and insight with an occasional dose of cuteness—never hammy or syrupy. Their friendship is never about romance but reaching a common understanding. In lesser hands, the two young characters would kiss and everything would have turned out all right. But in this film, war has costs. And some costs you can never take back.

Mortal Engines


Mortal Engines (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Boiled down to its essence, “Mortal Engines” is a parable involving privileged whites who desperately wish to maintain dominance over the poor, many of whom are people of color. Those in power reside in a massive mobile city of London, obliterating everything in its path for resources. It is a predator city in which one of the citizens’ respected leaders is Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a man in search of putting together rare materials to create a power source similar to a nuclear weapon. As you see, the central plot and its moving parts are not subtle. But for some reason, the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, buries what could have been a potentially deep, thoughtful, timely story in place of a sort of love story between a girl with facial scarring (Hera Hilmar) and an apprentice historian (Robert Sheehan), which includes an awkward appendage of the former’s origin story. As one expository sequence reveals another… and then another still for about an hour, viewers yearning to be challenged are haunted by rawer images of Londoners treating war like sport. They gather and cheer with ecstasy as their gargantuan home threatens to utterly destroy another smaller and exponentially weaker moving city. Director Christian Rivers is given nothing to work with other than expensive special and visual effects—all smoke and mirrors, no substance.

Charlie’s Angels


Charlie’s Angels (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

A mere fifteen minutes into this generic reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,” I could not help but wish for the screenplay by Elizabeth Banks to drop the constant, in-your-face, obnoxious, try-hard, and superficial “female empowerment” message and just tell a good story with characters worth rooting for. It is embarrassing that the writing is reduced to a chronic case of ass-licking—for the lack of a better term—of the female gender instead of simply attempting to appeal to all viewers regardless of sex. This trend of “elevating” women by putting down males in the movies is getting old, especially ineffective when the strategy is as subtle as swinging a mallet to the testicles.

It is a shame because I enjoyed the casting of the Angels: Ella Balinska as Jane, the badass former MI-6 agent who copes by compartmentalizing, Kristen Stewart as Sabina, the goofy and sarcastic spice, and Naomi Scott as Elena, the engineer thrusted into the world of international espionage following her decision to become a whistleblower against the shady tech company she works for (Sam Claflin). All three actors bring something fresh and exciting to the table, particularly Balinska who is quite convincing in wearing the physicality that the role demands—a feat because experienced Stewart is capable of simply standing in one spot while doing nothing yet standing out like the star that she is.

Banks also directed the film, but the work fails to rise above its contemporaries. In fact, the approach, it appears, is to blend into them as to be forgotten completely. Pick any action sequence, for instance, and notice how it evokes the feeling of a music video: choppy, the sound tending to overwhelm the images, luxury over believability. While the movie is meant to be escapist, it does not mean that realism must be thrown out altogether. Otherwise, how would we come to believe the more dramatic turns?

Speaking of turns, there are numerous ludicrous twists that fail to make sense, from character motivations (especially the villains), head-scratching plot devices, to how one can so suddenly escape from what appears to be certain death. Eventually, we are trained not to trust what is unfolding on screen because we suspect a twist to occur at any given moment anyway. In other words, the reboot makes the elementary mistake of choosing immediate gratification over inspiring us invest into this familiar world with new characters. It seems that there is a lack of careful thought put into the project; this is a prime example of reliance on branding.

Had the writer-director been more ambitious and thoughtful about the story she wished to tell, “Charlie’s Angels” could have appealed to a whole new generation. The star power is there. Even the inimitable Sir Patrick Stewart graces the screen. And one or two of the extended chases—the sequence in Hamburg is a standout—aren’t half-bad. While a next installment is inevitable, it would be interesting to see a different filmmaker at the helm, one whose goal is to make a solid and memorable action movie first and foremost—with or without substantive social commentary.

Blinded by the Light


Blinded by the Light (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fifteen to twenty minutes into Gurinder Chadha’s Bruce Springsteen love letter “Blinded by the Light,” I was unmoved and unimpressed. It throws one cliché after another right onto our laps: a syrupy flashback—narration and all—of childhood friends who dream of escaping from their boring hometown one day, sixteen-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) living in a Pakistani household ruled by a patriarch (Kulvinder Ghir) with an iron fist, Javed walking down a school hallway—in slow motion, no less—during his first day of college… and then laying his eyes on a girl who would later become his first love (Kit Reeve). These are nothing special. Tired, dull. They are, at best, situations we come across on silly television pilots where half the viewership is gone even before the episode is over. But then the film comes alive the second Javed inserts the “Born in the U.S.A.” cassette into his portable player and “Dancing in the Dark” begins to play.

From here the picture shows an understanding of why this particular story, set in 1987 Thatcher era, needs to be told. It is not just about a boy who listens to Springsteen and falls in love with The Boss’ music. It is about how Javed comes to terms with his identity—as a budding writer, as a Pakistani living in Britain, as a son and brother, as a friend—Springsteen’s music just so happens to serve as catalyst. At the same time this coming-of-age story is not afraid to be political. Workers lose jobs as a result of specific government policies. Racists hold rallies demanding that they want their country back—whatever that means. There is threat of violence. At times violence is enacted. Even white children are shown urinating into their brown neighbors’ home.

We are given a thorough look into Javed’s home life. Malik, the father, is proud that he is able to leave Pakistan and start a family in Britain. He loves his family, but we also get an impression that he rules them. It is expected that money earned by his wife (Meera Ganatra), daughter (Nikita Mehta), and son be handed to him. No questions, no complaints. The camera fixates on his hands as money is handed to him. This Pakistani family adheres to tradition. Deviating from it would result in dire consequences—precisely why our protagonist is so moved by Springsteen’s songs because many of them are about rising up against The Man, the establishment, the norm, tradition. As a result, Javed and Malik are often at odds.

But because the screenplay by the director, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Paul Mayeda Berges makes a point to underscore the humanity of each character we meet, not once do we forget that the central conflict is rooted in love. To Malik, success is hand-in-hand with money. There is an amusing—and accurate—exchange between father and son when the former claims he gives the latter so much freedom because Javed is not required to become a doctor. He can choose to be a lawyer, an accountant, or a real estate agent. And so Javed should be thankful to his father for being so charitable. It goes to show that sometimes it is more compelling to see two characters who deeply love each other clash than it is to watch enemies. There is more at stake.

We come across the usual lip-synching and dancing in between comic and dramatic moments, but these are executed with high energy, infectious joy, and freshness. Look at the way the lyrics dance around characters, for example. These are presented differently with each song and depending on the mood of a scene. Notice that sometimes Kalra is actually singing the songs—his voice may not be particularly strong but it feels exactly right because the performer gets to interpret the feeling of the words and phrases instead of simply moving his mouth and allowing Springsteen to interpret for his character. It makes a whole world of difference. It is astute decisions like these that make “Blinded by the Light “ absolutely worth seeing.

Disobedience


Disobedience (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

So few films are able to show with crystal clear quality what they are about at just the perfect moment when their respective stories are about to enter their resolutions. In Sebastián Lelio’s visually spare but contextually elegant “Disobedience,” the scene involves an embrace with no words shared or tears shed, just a common understanding among those involved that life goes on and that sometimes we can choose to be in control of the challenges that befall us. The work is beautiful, occasionally heart-wrenching, and surprisingly hopeful—and it always underlines the humanity of those we meet.

Rachel Weisz plays a professional photographer, Ronit, who returns to her Jewish Orthodox community when her father, a beloved London-based rabbi, passes way. Given that Ronit has been shunned by her community for being a lesbian, it is made apparent her presence is not welcome but one to be endured because she is blood of the deceased. Notice the director’s control of the camera as strangers make a laundry list of judgment as they lay eyes on Ronit. It is no accident that numerous sequences involve entering and exiting rooms filled with people as public and private spheres are brought under the magnifying glass.

In a story like this, it would have been far easier to point at a religion and condemn its practices by, for example, exposing its hypocrisies, underscoring its limitations when it comes to exercising one’s personal freedom, or highlighting the moral inconsistencies that result from attempting to live a life based on a book that was written hundreds or thousands of years ago without taking into account how life or lifestyles have changed over time. Instead, the film chooses to respect the religion in question not by ignoring how it can hurt others but by providing a character so complex that by the end I wished to know more about him.

Alessandro Nivola portrays Dovid, the main disciple of the fallen rabbi. He is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman whom Ronit got involved with romantically, certainly sexually, many years ago. Instead of treating Dovid as clueless, the screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz allows him to evolve. We assume that just because he is a man of faith and continually shows that he values faith above all else, his capacity for feeling or understanding is limited. Nivola plays Dovid with a surprisingly healthy dose of humanity that even when he is at his headstrong, we understand his perspective, why he feels he must fight for what he believes is true—not just because he is pious man but also because he is a husband who genuinely loves his wife. Love can be devastating sometimes.

And so the material takes on several new layers which involves partnership, ownership, and patriarchy. Particularly telling is a scene that takes place at a dinner table with Ronit, Esti, Dovid, along with friends and family of a certain age. Nearly every line is a reminder that Ronit is an outcast not just because she is a lesbian, an unmarried woman for her age, or a daughter who did not stay to take care of her ailing father. No, there is a common understanding she is less than because of her gender. Even the women at that table—even when they choose to be silent—support the notion that men are a tier above.

Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” is teeming with information—should one decide to examine it. Its austere look, particularly in how it avoids showing bright colors or employing an ostentatious score or soundtrack, may quickly bore those looking for a traditional form of entertainment. But these are appropriate, you see, because the film is meant to be melancholy, ruminative, a chance to empathize with people who feel imprisoned by their religious communities. The film is about freedom and it reminds us how we take our own freedoms for granted.

Countdown


Countdown (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another supernatural horror film that takes a specific concept—this time a phone app called Countdown that predicts when a person is going to die down to the very last second—and does nothing special or memorable with it. Comparison to the “Final Destination” franchise is easy but a big mistake, an insult to the series because 1) those films offer rather creative, brutal, and occasionally amusing or ironic deaths and 2) the concept is turned into a minefield of twists and turns. The “Final Destination” films, especially the first two, actually try to be innovative. They’re entertaining.

In “Countdown,” written and directed by Justin Dec, we sit through highly repetitive scenarios in which an eventual victim almost always ends up panicking because his or her time is almost up, followed by a cloaked figure—often spotted on mirrors—being seen looming in background, and the victim being pushed, dragged, and tossed around by an invisible presence. Cue the neck-breaking and skull-crushing. It is exhausting to sit through because everything is so uninspired.

Dec’s idea of what makes a horror film effective is questionable at best. When someone’s body is thrown through a glass mirror, it feels like an action movie because of the way it is shot. When a person falls to his death headfirst from a couple of hundred feet, it feels like an exercise of visual effects due to its in-your-face approach to violence. So often the punchline is a person getting hurt or killed. Why? What’s the point of it? We might as well just sit through a YouTube video that has compiled movie death scenes from the past fifty years.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This picture is heavy on the bang to the point where horror flatlines eventually. There are some attempts at humor, however misplaced, which, for instance, involves a priest (P.J. Byrne) who dresses like a priest but doesn’t talk or act like one (he has tattoos and he listens to hip-hop—ha-ha, get it?). Father John offers some knowledge about the devils in the Bible and how their stories might be relevant to the app that cannot be deleted. The picture comes alive because Father John’s knowledge offers hope against a seemingly insurmountable villain.

The protagonists are neither charming nor interesting. Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who earned her nursing license just recently, is a bore at home and while at work. When faced with the app problem, she acts like any other person. And so it begs the question why she is our heroine when she herself is unable to think or act outside the box. What makes her worth rooting for? What makes her special? The writer-director fails to answer the most basic questions of creating a character worthy of our attention. He was too busy, I guess, thinking of ways to make a death look gruesome so viewers would flinch at the sight of a neck being broken.

Flu


Flu (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

It appears that one of the symptoms of Sung-su Kim’s disaster film “Flu” is identity crisis. It mixes comedy, romance, melodrama, gross-out body horror, and thrills in an attempt to grab the interest of all viewers—a losing strategy because it ends up failing to focus on what a viral outbreak should be: a terrifying, “what if” gut experience. When no longer bogged down by the winking cheesiness of the expository first half, the movie works for the most part—especially when crowds swiftly overwhelm a compact space, like a parking garage or a detention center, which usually results in a stampede. (It helps that CGI is kept at a bare minimum and actual people are cast to run around and cause chaos.) It proves there is energy and excitement from behind the camera as we are placed in the middle of the action; it captures the confusion, horror, and panic of being caught up in a wave of diseased persons. We follow three central characters: a good-hearted member of an emergency response team (Hyuk Jang), an anal-retentive doctor (Soo-ae Park), and the doctor’s adorable daughter (Min-ha Park). The approach is standard: have the uptight single woman fall for the laidback man after she recognizes how good he is with her daughter. It is as boring and uninspired as it sounds. I was far more interested in the uniformed, serious-looking men behind the action as they clash in regards to what to do with the infected (and potentially infected) before they reach Seoul. Based on the screenplay by Young-jong Lee and Sung-soo Kim.

Honey Boy


Honey Boy (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Honey Boy” is yet another story about a child who yearns to have a genuine relationship with his father, but what makes the movie special is that it has no qualms about showing reality and relationships as they are. It takes a look at an abusive relationship between parent and child in a way that not many movies are willing to show. The reason is because the screenwriter, Shia LaBeouf, is able to take specific details from his own childhood and harness them, in a way, so that he could come to terms with his troubled past. Coupled with director Alma Har’el’s vision and execution, what could have been a generic “therapy drama” is given cinematic language that rings true. Pick any random scene from the movie and notice it is worthy of examination.

Although a personal story, the picture is able to look at celebrity without the glitz and glamour. What better way to showcase this theme than in the opening scene in which twenty-two-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges) is seemingly blown away by a special effect explosion. (It looks to be a set for the movie “Transformers.”) For a second, the job appears to be thrilling and exciting. But when the harnesses and ropes are shown, followed by the director yelling, “Cut!” it looks just like another job. This theme is consistent with twelve-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe), a rising star in Hollywood, living in a seedy motel with his father (LaBeouf).

The work is at its best when simply taking a look at the father-son relationship. It is often sad and unblinking, always fascinating. For instance, Otis wishes to hold his father’s hand, but James is afraid to be seen by others as a “chickenhawk.” And so every time the boy reaches for his father’s hand, the father rejects the notion and walks away. Without relying on words, short but impactful scenarios like these tell us a lot about what the father considers to be more important: his tough guy image over the needs of his son. While in rehab due to an alcohol problem, Otis tells his counselor (Laura San Giacomo), “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain. And you want to take that away?”

At the same time, the emotionally and physically abusive father is never painted simply as an evil figure whose actions are worthy of condemnation. LaBeouf writes the father as a man who loves his son deep down despite how he treats the boy. Perhaps James doesn’t know how to show it. Or maybe, coming a long line of alcoholics, showing love in an overt way is not a part of their DNA. James has proven he does not like it when he appears weak or vulnerable. Whatever the case, the writer proves to find it important that James be considered to be a whole person in addition to his flaws. We can hate him but we feel sorry for him, too. LaBeouf plays James with a certain unpredictability; there comes a point when we flinch at the sight of the Otis getting too close to his father when James is clearly experiencing a manic-depressive episode.

“Honey Boy” does not offer easy solutions or typical closures found in dramas of this kind. Instead, it finds a comfortable place in excavating deep empathy and finding that to be enough to warrant telling its story. And for that, I found it to be a refreshing coming-of-age tale of a troubled talent who comes from a background of shame, rejection, and pain.

Gemini Man


Gemini Man (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

72 kills and Defense Intelligence Agency assassin Henry Bogan (Will Smith) wishes to retire in peace, but his final job involving the killing of a molecular biologist leads the preternaturally gifted sniper to the learn the truth about Project Gemini, a cloning program designed to create super soldiers. Beautifully photographed and with energy to spare, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” manages to stand out from other action pictures because it actually invites the viewers to appreciate the background as well as the foreground of a scene. Notice its willingness to set the highly choreographed violence, CGI and all, against bright colors and warm, open vistas. The work looks and feels international, not shackled to suboptimal Hollywood standards. And while I appreciated that the script is not above embracing a few comic exchanges between Bogan and his friends (Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge), an agent tasked to surveil him (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), or his younger clone (also Smith), the dialogue is not ironed out well enough as to not come across as too cheesy at times. Topics regarding identity, individuality, and nature versus nurture are touched but never explored in mature and meaningful ways. The movie may not be about the plot, but connections among the characters provide substance. Yet despite these shortcomings, there is good entertainment to be had here in terms of visuals. The chase in the streets of Colombia is a highlight.

Lost Girls


Lost Girls (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that by the end the police have found four corpses and at least ten to sixteen human remains in Long Island, but it is not about uncovering the identity of the infamous serial killer. Liz Garbus’ melancholic, angry, and focused “Lost Girls,” based on the book by journalist Robert Kolker, tells the story of sex workers whose deaths are treated cheaply by those whose job is to find truth and justice. It is a human story, interested in the flaws of its victims, their families, and the cops themselves. The work demands attention. It offers no easy or convenient solutions.

Amy Ryan portrays the mother of one of the missing girls. Her Mari is a force of nature, a fighter, the kind of person who speaks and demands others to listen to what she has to say. Ryan is not interested in vanity; she provides the audience raw anger—anger toward the authorities for their sheer incompetence (and disinterest) and also anger toward herself as a mother who knows deep down that she had not done all she could so that Shannan could fulfill her potential while growing up. It is fascinating that although Ryan is given strong dialogue by Michael Werwie’s screenplay, her strongest moments are entirely silent, when Mari must restrain herself from screaming, crying, or taking action that she might regret later.

We are provided details of the crime. There is a clear pattern in the victims’ profiles: women in their twenties, short stature, their line of work, their cause of death. And yet despite all the information that has come to light, the police, led by Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), has time and again fallen short of solid leads. The material shows us why. For instance, the investigators neglect to look (or simply choose not to look) at footages recorded by a residential camera the night of Shannan’s disappearance. And another: the hysterical Shannan called 911 and begged for help… but help arrived over an hour later. Why?

The movie does a good job in creating a sense of frustration. There is tension because the question of, “What if this crime happened to one of your loved ones?” is always in the back our minds. Wouldn’t you want justice? Wouldn’t you want to call out and root out incompetence? The first group of bodies found is discovered completely by accident. The police are not even trying to look for the missing Shannan. Again, why is that? Is there a cover-up? Throughout the film, we are inspired to ask questions about the players involved and also ourselves. How would we react if we saw the news and our sister, cousin, or friend is only referred to as a prostitute, a sex worker, an escort—as if she were to blame for being murdered?

“Lost Girls” could have been a syrupy melodrama that follows the usual beats and the same old boring dramatic parabola, but the filmmakers are too smart for that. The correct choice is made: To focus on showing the characters as messy, imperfect, and perhaps even unlikable. Because we are able to recognize real people on screen, we empathize even more with the crises they face. The film treats the story from which it is based upon with respect—which is more than what those in charge of the case at the time had given.

The Salesman


The Salesman (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

In the hands of a lesser writer-director, “The Salesman” would likely to have ended up as yet another revenge-thriller with an expected catharsis in the end. An argument can be made that this picture is worth seeing exactly because it provides no release of emotions, but it is nonetheless worth thinking about and discussing long after the movie is over.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi wishes to say something important about traumatic events. Although each incident may vary, I think he means to communicate that trauma is almost never an isolated event. It bleeds, it causes a flood, it takes over the lives of the people it touches. It is a stink that refuses to leave the room. It haunts us when we are alone, in our beds, when we are at our jobs, when we are sitting in the car and it is utterly silent on the outside but a raging storm in our heads. The material captures the brutality of trauma, how it cripples the body and the mind. And yet not once does the movie shows violence explicitly.

The plot revolves around Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher by day and an actor by night, who is compelled to find the man who attacked his wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) in the apartment they recently moved into. Although Rana is relatively all right physically, Emad feels it is his duty as a husband to find answers. We observe him in their home, at school, and at the play before and after the incident. The differences are subtle but informative. We understand the character through his silence and action, not words. Hosseini communicates paragraphs with only his eyes. Alidoosti, meanwhile, matches him with her extremely telling body language.

The picture has an eye for realism. I admired how it takes its time to let scenes unfold—especially those that may not necessarily advance the plot. Notice the extended scene in which the couple moves into their new apartment. It would have been easier to show them having already moved in and simply putting various knickknacks away like in most mainstream American films. Here, we feel a sense of community because we see friends helping to carry a mattress up the stairs; we get a mental picture of the place as the camera goes in and out of rooms; we notice small things like how used their clothes look; we infer about the weather since all windows and doors are open. It captures the insanity, excitement, and exhaustion of move-in day.

I always say that in order for dramas to be effective, the setting must be believable. Here is a picture with such a trait and it is beautiful how the story is told through action but a whole lot more can be learned by looking at the environment of the characters. Because of their worn belongings and the fading colors of their clothing, I began to wonder whether this is a couple that can withstand a horrifying, unfathomable, and ultimately devastating event. But, as in life, there is no certainty.