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Into the Ashes

Into the Ashes (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squid and the Whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guilty

The Guilty (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lizzie (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Save the Green Planet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Mutants

The New Mutants (2020)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

The Possession of Hannah Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cam (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Legend

Urban Legend (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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


Obit. (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night of the Living Dead

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

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

His House

His House (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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