Author Archives

Franz Patrick

Final Destination 2


Final Destination 2 (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t try so much to outdo the original in superficial ways. Instead, David R. Ellis’ worthy sequel to “Final Destination” respects its predecessor by taking ideas from the source, expanding upon them, and then—this is key—introducing new wrinkles for us to examine. Most of the time sequels attempt to outdo the original in this way: increasing the body count, amping up the violence, and intensifying the gore. While this installment does exactly these things, I counted three twists (which I will not reveal) that play upon what we already know: Death will be coming after the survivors of a freak accident, this time involving a pileup on the freeway.

Viewers will remember this film for the logs falling off a truck which then triggers a chain reaction of sheer, unadulterated mayhem. It is a wonderfully brutal opening scene, almost the exact opposite of the impressive first scene of the film that came before. In the original, our characters are in an enclosed space and we watch the order in which they die following an explosion. The approach feels rather clinical. This time, however, characters sit in their own vehicles while in motion. The method is entirely different. Editing is more pronounced, more purposeful, more confident. It functions on a higher kinetic energy. Blink for a spit-second longer and one is likely to miss a bone-crunching, skin-melting death. It is a wreck one cannot—should not—look away from. Because in this movie, the order of death still matters.

A.J. Cook is Kimberly, a high school student on a road trip with her friends. She is the seer, capable of experiencing premonitions that could cheat Death’s plans… at least for a while. Cook plays the character with utmost conviction, but I never felt as though there is much fight in her. Thus, it is the correct decision to bring back Ali Larter as Clear, one of the survivors of Flight 180 in the former picture. Larter chooses not to play her character as the mousey type this time around. And so we believe Clear has endured hardships that took place after the first movie. It is an interesting decision by screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress to divide likability and strength between two characters. In horror films, especially splatterfests, one main character, usually female, possesses these two attributes. I appreciated the difference.

Here is a movie in which the violence paralyzes you. Twice or thrice I caught my jaw drop following a spine-chilling death scene, whether it is someone bring crushed by glass or a person bring sliced clean by barbed wires. I think it is because these death scenes almost always possess a dramatic parabola: the set-up, the false alarm, the climax, the resolution, the irony. Although we do not get to know any character in a meaningful way, the grim sense of humor is so sharp, the material is constantly pushed forward. In modern horror movies, it is uncommon for me to feel like I’m constantly trying to catch up to the screenplay.

“Final Destination 2” offers a good time. The script may be a weak point, but the sheep to be slaughtered are not meant to be articulate. It is all about the craft from behind the camera, the complex but clear choreography in showing the cause and effect of actions (or inaction) of doomed characters, and the breathless pace of a horror picture with numerous surprising ideas. It doesn’t always have to be about the blood. So it holds up upon repeated viewings.

Final Destination


Final Destination (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

James Wong’s “Final Destination” takes the idea of Death coming for souls whose times are up and commits to it all the way. It is not just another Dead Teenager Movie because the concept is explored quite seriously but at the same time the manner in which the victims die is so elaborate and so creative, entertainment is created from a rather grim premise. The material does not need to wink at the audience in hopes that viewers might recognize references from other works that came before. Nor does it need to poke fun of teen stereotypes. The filmmakers are confident that their work is strong enough to forge a path of its own.

Instead of barraging us with gruesome deaths, the screenplay by Glen Morgan, James Wong (who also directs), and Jeffrey Reddick takes its time to establish a sense of foreboding. Where better to start than with Alex (Devon Sawa), a superstitious high school senior who, while still at home, already senses that something might go awry during their flight to Paris. Something about keeping the stickers on the bags. We look at this character and recognize he’s just a tad ridiculous. But Sawa plays him with a straight face throughout and eventually we grow to like the kid even though Alex always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The killer opening sequence aboard the soon-to-be doomed Flight 180 is executed with a certain eerie energy and excitement. One could tell immediately that plenty of thought is put into where the camera is placed when the mood is calm and how the camera moves up and down the aisles when panic begins to take hold. The approach is almost clinical—and it must be because remembering where people sit, for instance, proves to be important during the latter events of the story. From minor turbulence to the terrifying final explosion, this plane sequence is a wonderful exercise in suspense and horror. Viewers tend to remember this movie because of this scene alone; it shows how the entire experience will be like.

But because the bar is set so high early on, a few of the deaths that befall the remaining seven “lucky” survivors fall short by comparison (Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, Seann William Scott, Amanda Detmer, Chad Donella). I enjoyed, however, that there is variety in the approach: some meet blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ends while others experience extremely painful and slow passing like being choked to death in the bathtub. Most haunting are those in which we hear a character’s final breath. The camera lingers for a beat or two and it works.

“Final Destination” introduces a formidable villain: one that cannot be rendered incapacitated by hitting it with a bat or a wrench, one that cannot be stabbed or shot dead. Nor can one run over it with a truck or speedboat. It can be outsmarted… but only for a while it seems. The premise captures the imagination. Notice there is no subplot to distract. Supporting characters are kept at a bare minimum. It simply takes one concept and plays with it enough in order to earn and maintain our attention from start to finish.

The Core


The Core (2003)
★ / ★★★★

Science fiction films need not be both fiercely intelligent and savagely entertaining, but director Jon Amiel’s “The Core” is neither. It boasts a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but the experience feels at least twice that. The reason is because the movie appears to be content in being a flat, soporific exercise in visual pageantry. It has aged like milk—a good example of why strong ideas and execution must take precedence over flashy special and visual effects. Consider: the story involves an apocalyptic situation—the Earth’s core has stopped spinning which has led to bizarre occurrences such as 32 people dropping dead at the same time, sudden violent swarm of birds enveloping London, superstorms causing unimaginable devastation in Rome. And yet despite all the razzle-dazzle, the movie lacks genuine excitement, tension, or horror. We are supposed to be seeing the end of the world, but our expressions do not change. An exception is when we cringe at the terribly cliché dialogue between scientists and astronauts. Surely it takes considerable effort to make smart people sound dead dull and stupid. There are at least three instances in which I guessed the next line to be uttered word-by-word. (Even the jokes fall flat.) Words shared among the characters are meant to be forgotten the moment the next scene begins. And so when they meet gruesome fates during their journey to the center of the planet, we cannot be bothered to care. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and Stanley Tucci. Based on the screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers.

Waves


Waves (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film for teenagers that does not make the mistake of condescending to its target audience. Put this right alongside commercialized coming-of-age films meant to capture how it is like to be a high school student in modern America and it shines—so brightly in fact that most of its contemporaries would fade into the background. The reason is because writer-director Trey Edward Shults is not afraid to show real consequences. In this movie, conflict is never solved by delivering rousing speeches or grand gestures in front or a crowd with an upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. It requires its subjects to stop, to be silent, to go deep into contemplation, and to really push themselves to make a change. It’s not easy.

The story takes a magnifying glass on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a senior wrestler with an excellent chance of earning a full college scholarship. He has one more season before graduation. In the opening minutes, we observe his daily routine, how he pushes his mind and body to their absolute limit. His father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), ensures that he does. And should Tyler ever strays from that path, even for a second, Ronald is there to correct the mistake of his son taking his eyes off the prize.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the father domineering, but the beauty of the screenplay is that it plays fair with all of its main characters—even the stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) who is less in control when it comes to discipline and the sister (Taylor Russell) who is present but has more of an observant role. There is no one-dimensional character here and all of the actors deliver layered and textured performances.

What I loved most about the picture is its willingness to show its subjects in real pain. I am not referring to characters simply responding to superficial conflicts required by the plot. The writer-director allows his characters to express how they feel on their own time with little regard to pacing. Most of the time, words are utilized to communicate. Notice how the dialogue flows, how words employed sound natural. But when an emotion is so painful, so frustrating, so unimaginable, still, Shults is there to capture his subjects’ misery. At times one finds himself or herself so helpless, there is little left to do other than to let out a wail or a whimper.

I think people whose families have undergone great crises will relate to this film—not because of the plot but because of its emotional and psychological landmarks, specifically traumas that stem from staring at crises in the face and enduring. One of the themes involves an action having a significant ripple effect, how one action is able to excavate issues laying just underneath the topsoil. Clearly, the story is not just about an African-American high school student who feels extreme pressure to perform and achieve success. It is about family dynamics and how each member influences one another. The work is not interested in blame, simply observation.

The structure of storytelling when it comes to coming-of-age movies rarely surprise me because most tend to follow a similar formula. “Waves” surprised me, but I will not detail why. I will leave it to you to experience and I hope it will also take your breath away, just as it did mine.

The Addams Family


The Addams Family (2019)
★ / ★★★★

This adaptation of “The Addams Family” is dead in the water. Clearly lacking imagination, surprises, and energy, it appears that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler have little to no understanding of what makes the Addams special. (I’m not convinced they were aware that the source material was meant to be a satire because this movie seems reluctant to take risks.) Yes, every member of the clan is in fact a caricature, but each person is not given a brand of humor or even (a black) heart. Instead, the movie relies on puns throughout its entire ninety-minute duration and it is stuck regurgitating one expository sequence after another. Content-wise it is boring and so are its visuals.

The animation is truly ugly to look at—like some cheap knockoff Dreamworks animation. Take note of the Addams mansion: it looks just like any other abandoned haunted house in a generic animated film. Cue the dark clouds and thunderstorms. It is supposed to be big, palatial even, but we see no more than five rooms. And in each room there is nothing especially memorable—not one macabre figure or creepy painting. Instead, the film busies itself with delivering unfunny visuals that it forgets to establish a believable atmosphere.

Not even the character designs are inspired. You look at Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) or Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and see animated models wearing clothes. Their eyes, postures, or the way they move command no personality. When in action—like Wednesday being whisked away by a tree branch or Pugsley maniacally throwing explosives at his father—observe how their expressions are devoid of even the slightest changes. It’s like watching mannequins… only mannequins appear to look creepier the longer one stares at them. These models look like first drafts that require further revisions in order to become alluring in a darkly comic way. I don’t think children would find the characters enticing in the least.

Its plot is also forgettable: Reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney) wishes to sell houses, but since the Addams mansion is such an eyesore (she prefers bright colors like pink and yellow), she takes it upon herself to remodel their gothic home free of charge. In order to be liked by their neighbors, Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) welcome the obnoxious homemaking guru into their home. In a nutshell, the movie attempts to impart lessons regarding acceptance—that it is all right to be weird or different. But it comes off as trite and disingenuous because the material fails to show examples of why negative stereotypes or prejudice can be harmful or flat out wrong. The movie offers not one heartfelt scene. It is because it possesses no emotional intelligence.

I think films like “The Addams Family,” directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, should not be shown to children because it has no entertainment value, just emptiness and noise in order to pass the time. Here is a strange family ostracized by their community. And the Addams are also guilty of self-isolation. Why not explore these ideas in meaningful ways? Aren’t the writers adults capable of complex thinking? Instead, the material inspires its viewers to watch passively. The bar for animated pictures has been raised considerably over the past two decades and what this work offers is simply not good enough.

The Sun is Also a Star


The Sun is Also a Star (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Daniel (Charles Melton) the poet believes in love, but Natasha (Yara Shahidi) the aspiring data scientist reduces the idea as molecular interactions occurring in the brain. So a proposal: Over the course of a single day, Daniel would prove that love exists by getting Natasha to fall in love with him—despite the fact that they had met less than an hour ago. It goes without saying that “The Sun is Also a Star,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon and adapted to screen by Tracy Oliver, proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. Naturally, love must win in a story like this. After all, the target audience is young adults who believe deep down that love is the great solution. But the real question is this: Is the journey to that conclusion worth it?

I don’t believe it is. The material does not provide good enough reasons why Natasha and Daniel are worth following together or apart. It isn’t the performers’ fault: Shahidi and Melton share good chemistry even though not a single person will be convinced that they are portraying high school seniors precisely due to their looks, how they carry themselves in movement, and how they appear to be much wiser than the words on the script. When the camera goes for the close-up, the pair hit their marks and are able to provide the necessary emotions in order to create at least a semblance of conflict that the screenplay fails to provide.

This is bizarre because the movie is strangely plot-driven despite the fact that its story unfolds over twenty-four hours. Natasha’s family is set to be deported to Jamaica the day after unless she is able to find somebody who could put on hold or reverse a judge’s decision. Meanwhile, Daniel, son of South Korean immigrants, is scheduled to attend an interview with an alumnus from Dartmouth University so that he could get a letter of recommendation. His parents have chosen for him to become a doctor, but he wants to be a poet. Natasha and Daniel’s chance meeting—or is it destiny, as the film argues?—fails to become thoroughly involving because we are often reminded of the time. Is Daniel late for that all-important interview? Are Natasha’s parents getting worried back home because she still hasn’t packed her belongings?

In addition, you can bet that every time the potential lovers arrive at a new spot and sit down, a would-be compelling revelation is about to thrown on our laps within two minutes. On the surface, these life lessons come across as wise. But think about it: If the person imparting these pieces of knowledge has been aware all along, then why is he or she still written as conflicted? Thus, the drama is a sham. The screenplay defies reason and common sense so credit goes to director Ry Russo-Young for still being able to maintain our interest at least some of the time.

I enjoyed looking at the movie. It is earnest and pretty. We see different spots of New York City even though the place is filtered through the lens of a fantasy. (In reality, NYC is grimier, louder, and a whole lot busier.) But the way it is shot serves the romantic nature of the story. And I did enjoy the actors; I wish for more people of color leading in romantic films. But the screenplay is all over the place, without question too saccharine for its own good. There is a compelling story about assimilation buried here. But the screenwriter couldn’t be bothered to excavate it.

Villains


Villains (2019)
★ / ★★★★

I suppose the main strategy is to flaunt the star power of its four leads—Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgård, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan—and hope it is enough to entertain because “Villains,” written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen is just another toothless, mindless, and forgettable black comedy. It is exasperating enough that the premise isn’t fresh—a pair of amateur criminals breaks into the home of married and deranged murderers—but there is also a drought of genuine surprises throughout its interminable ninety-minute run. The material hints at a darker underbelly on occasion—like keeping a child chained up in the basement from what it appears to be years—but the performances consistently function on a try-hard comic level; there is not one scene in which viewers are not reminded that we are seeing actors act. They might as well just sport funny hats while standing in one spot doing nothing and pass that as comedy. In the middle of it, a thoughtful audience is forced to wonder what the movie is about and if the writers themselves had an inkling. I think I know what it’s going for: an exploration between greater and lesser evils on collision course. But there is no tension here, no deep thoughts, and certainly no understanding of basic human nature. There is no drama and thus there is no movie worth seeing. Move along.

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.