Category: Film

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Released six years after the fourth installment swan song that is “On Stranger Tides,” Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is barely a much-needed electric shock to the rotting “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. The action sequences are familiar and formulaic, the jokes are obvious and dead dull, even the performances come across as though the returning actors are merely cashing in. It is depressing how far this series has fallen.

There are two new faces in this unimaginative entry: a suspected witch named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) whose made it her life’s work to find Poseidon’s trident using her father’s diary as a guide and a young sailor for the Royal Navy named Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) whose mission is to set his father free from a curse that tethers him to the bottom of the ocean. Although Scodelario and Thwaites possess promising movie star faces and they look good together (from the first moment Carina and Henry meet it is hammered to us that a romantic connection will brew between the two), their characters are not written with a sharpness, freshness, or memorability. We never get a chance to measure their intelligence or resourcefulness. They’re just in it for the ride.

Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson makes the mistake of drawing numerous parallels between this new couple and the old pair we’ve come to know, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (played by the effortlessly charming Orlando Bloom and the luminous Keira Knightley). Banters are forced, awkward, and unconvincing because it is assumed that the performers share chemistry. (They don’t.) The picture is so busy either bombarding us with expository dialogue or drowning us with poorly choreographed action sequences that it forgets to approach Carina and Henry’s possible romantic connection with a genuine humanist angle. When they finally share a kiss late in the picture we ask ourselves what they see in one another.

Johnny Depp phones it in yet again as Captain Jack Sparrow. You’d think that throughout the course of five pictures, there would be some growth to the character—not only on paper but also in terms of performance. Depp is given the expected one-liners consisting of puns, dirty jokes, and the freedom that comes with being a barely functioning drunkard—but this had run its course by the second or third film. What makes Jack Sparrow a worthy hero of this storyline? We are not provided a strong answer, but we are handed a flashback with young Depp made possible using CGI. (It’s not as exciting as it sounds.)

Young Sparrow managed to outsmart and outmaneuver Spanish pirates aboard the Silent Mary, whose captain is Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), into the Devil’s Triangle—a cursed place where souls of the shipwrecked remain there for eternity. Salazar wants revenge. Like his co-stars, Bardem is given nothing interesting to do. He glowers and growls yet fails to create convincing menace due to a screenplay so malnourished, it verges on skeletal. I was so bored by Bardem’s villainous character that at some point, I found myself staring at Salazar’s hair, how it moves as if he were constantly underwater. This picture is so recycled from previous entries that not even this visual effect is improved upon.

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” should have remained submerged in the deep. Nearly everything about it reeks of exhaustion. It peaks early on when Sparrow’s bank heist goes awry. I chuckled at this scene because it reminded me of Justin Lin’s “Fast Five,” how something so ridiculous is shaped into bona fide entertainment. But when the characters are aboard the ship, the film rocks us to sleep despite the swashbuckling score booming in the background.

Enola Holmes


Enola Holmes (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the chases, ciphers to be deciphered, a missing persons case, a murder plot, and political chess maneuverings, Harry Bradbeer’s “Enola Holmes” is astute enough to remain tethered to an emotional core: a child’s feelings of abandonment when her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to leave their home one day without any warning. Although the titular character knows she is loved by her surviving parent, there remains doubt she is wanted. Because the story possesses an emotional crux, it requires minimal effort to be drawn to it. Notice how the adventures that tyro detective Enola Holmes manages to get herself into tend to stem from her need to prove she is good enough—that she is at least equal to her elder brothers, Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) the government official and Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) the acclaimed private detective.

Millie Bobby Brown is an excellent choice to play the vivacious Enola. Possessing a high level of luminosity and charm, she portrays the young detective as plucky, intelligent, resourceful, and quite resolute. When she breaks the forth wall to address the audience—whether it be through a sarcastic look or using a string of words—it feels natural, that this is the exact shenanigan we expect for this character to pull off. Not even the screen can box her in. I enjoyed Brown’s performance so thoroughly, I was left feeling hungry for more Enola Holmes stories. The work’s darker turns toward the latter half—albeit evanescent—hint at what the filmmakers have yet to offer. It’s quite exciting.

“Is the central mystery strong?” is a question I make a habit to ask myself in a movie of this type. The answer is no—but I think it is interesting that it doesn’t have to be. At least not yet. It’s curious but nothing particular compelling. A case can be made that this film’s purpose is to introduce another type of Holmes, one who we are not as accustomed to. Like her famous brother, Enola has the talent for spotting clues, putting them together, and recognizing how they relate to the main question to be solved. But unlike Sherlock, Enola is quicker to employ martial arts when facing danger.

The picture possesses feminist leanings, sure, but I appreciated that when it comes to the character, the material is not so heavy-handed. (A subplot involving a Reform Bill that must be voted on is painfully vague—which I consider to be a misstep because the approach sucks the flavor out of what Enola’s mother is fighting for.) There is a joviality to folks—often men—lowering their defenses precisely because Enola is a young girl (not even a woman) in their eyes. There is a running joke involving our heroine offering to swap—for a price—her traditionally female garments for traditionally male clothing so that she is able to blend in or taken more seriously when necessary. Her gender is used to show a different angle to the overall Holmes brand. It is done is a fun, funny, and fresh way—never to lecture or chastise.

Even the romantic subplot is handled with a fine touch. I am especially tough with movie romances because a lot of them are so fake, they border on caricature. Not here. Brown shares wonderful chemistry with Louis Partridge who plays a young viscount who runs away from home. Enola takes the privileged boy for an idiot at first, but Jack Thorne’s screenplay proves to be a step ahead. Viscount Tewkesbury is revealed to have quite a bit more substance to him. And this neatly ties into the idea of appearances: Enola judges without knowing him, just as the world judges without learning first what she’s all about. In the end, we recognize precisely what they see, like, and love in one another. We actually root for them to remain together should there be a sequel.

In the Mood for Love


In the Mood for Love (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When was the last time you’ve seen a romance picture whereby a man and a woman eat dinner at the same table and the camera dares to focus its attention on the food being consumed rather than the words, looks, and impressions the two share? Yet the scene is not about the food but about the lonely pair, possessing knowledge that their respective spouses are having affairs, who are separated by that table. Although the attraction between them is palpable, they vow not to behave like their partners. And so the distance between the two sharing a meal might as well be from Venus to Mars. Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” works on this level all the way through. It assumes that those looking in are intelligent in the mind, heart, and spirit. By doing so, it avoids common trappings of the genre and forges a unique path of its own.

We are offered one fresh image after another. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) have spent time with each other on multiple occasions. And yet when they converse in public, the camera tends to hide—behind a stone pillar, metallic bars—as if it were spying on them. At times images are blurry, off-centered. Their backs face the camera. We are forced take on the perspective of a voyeur precisely because, in a way, we are.

Another example, five minutes into the film, involves move-in day for both Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. They are neighbors, whose spouses are often away on business, and so movers inevitably confuse which possessions belong to whom. But this scene is not played for simple or easy laughs. By placing the camera in a cramped hallway, it gives the impression that the story we are about to experience will be about people moving in and out of rooms and the items—offerings—they carry with them. Sometimes items are left in place. Other times items are taken somewhere else. It is a beautiful metaphor for the impermanence of time, places, and faces. Notice how the writer-director seems to have an affinity for showing faces of clocks.

This is not to suggest that the work can only be enjoyed by being observant. This can be appreciated by viewers who have lived and loved; those who have a penchant for self-reflection. Consider: Despite spending ample time with one another, we never, ever, get to hear Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow share laughter even though it is apparent they thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. We are not spoon-fed why. Rather, we inspired to look inside ourselves to come up with a reason, or reasons, why this might be.

I think it is because sharing laughter, joy, with another person is deeply personal. By not showing the pair laugh, the work is making a statement that even though we get to see glimpses of their interactions, many of which are sensual and intense, we remain outsiders looking in. To hear them laugh is an act of breaching the secret space they’ve created for themselves. Laughter would have overpowered the whispers. I also think doing so would have broken the picture’s mood. We’ve all been in a situation where we hear a couple laughing from several feet away and feeling a bit awkward. We wonder, “What’s so funny?” or “What are they laughing about?” We are meant to gravitate toward Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, not be repelled by them.

There is splendor within moments of pause. Here is a picture so patient that, for example, it is willing to show how rain lands on street lamps, on people, on stone roads. It demonstrates how rain can change people’s behavior. Many run away to find shelter, some hide under umbrellas, others remain still. Rain can be regarded as an act of renewal, of washing away sins, of evidence, and perhaps of memories, too. “In the Mood for Love” ends in an offbeat path, but it feels exactly right because it is helmed by hands who appreciates how it is like to yearn for a possibility so close to becoming reality, for a life not lived but to go on living anyway.

The Gentlemen


The Gentlemen (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

“If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like a king. You must be the king. There can be no doubt. Because doubt causes chaos and one’s own demise.”

Guy Ritchie—to date—has never been synonymous with subtle. Those signing up for “The Gentlemen” will know precisely what to expect: a relatively simple premise surrounding backstabbing criminals jutting off in many directions before the fifteen-minute mark; characters fond of talking, looking tough, sounding tough, pulling out guns, and making vulgar jokes; the casual use of the C-word; money, drugs, power play, and fighting over territories; the occasional self-awareness and fast editing… all of it propelled with energy to spare. Ritchie is no Tarantino, but sometimes a fake Prada bag does the job.

This is not a knock on Ritchie but an observation. I like his approach because he is comfortable with it. (So comfortable that at times I catch myself thinking he is capable of doing much more.) I would even go as far to say he is proud of it. And why shouldn’t he? His name, like Tarantino, is a brand. It’s not a luxury brand but one that serves as a good gateway for more fully realized works of the crime sub-genre. I found this picture to be immensely watchable due to its confidence, populated with character actors who play caricatures but have good fun along the way. And sometimes that’s enough.

A private investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) visits the home of Ray (Charlie Hunnam), the right-hand man of self-made cannabis businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), for a game of extortion. 20 million pounds in exchange for his silence in regards to everything he has discovered about the specifics of Mickey’s business, his personal plans for the near-future, what his rivals are up to, corpses, plans of double-crosses, possibly triple-crosses, and everything else under the sun. Grant plays the swindler with such joie de vivre that in the middle of his cooky performance, I was considered that it is perhaps his most colorful role in years—certainly one that’s most alive. He shares terrific chemistry with Hunnam even though the latter’s approach to his role is more controlled. Fletcher and Ray are fun to watch and listen to because both of them are calculating in their own way.

In a movie like this, it is not at all difficult to answer the central question: Who is the main person responsible for compromising one of Fletcher’s twelve secret underground cannabis laboratories? Focus on this question with unadulterated logic and everything else serves as mere decoration. And yet—this does not mean that the trimmings are unworthy of our interest. On the contrary, for instance, I found Fletcher to be curious, especially in how he wishes to retire from the business he built from the ground up. He is provided no compelling reason to walk away so… why do so? Another: the highly ambitious Dry Eye (Henry Golding) who works for a Chinese gangster. He is one of the two who wishes to buy Fletcher’s business. (The other is an American billionaire played by Jeremy Strong.) Dry Eye does not seem to be interested in the money or the business. This is a man who craves power for power’s sake. And that makes him dangerous.

Is it offensive at times in its depiction of people of color and women? For some, it might be. But it did not offend me considering that the material, I think, is able to establish its own universe whereby its characters talk, act, and behave like people in real life. Not once did I think, a subject is acting a certain way because one is Jewish, or Asian, or gay, or a woman. In other words, I did not feel as though certain character traits stem from a place of malice.

“The Gentleman” zips through one humorous scenario to the next without sacrificing an ounce of vigor. There is enjoyment to be had in watching a swimming pool filled with predators who try to outsmart one another for money, reputation, power, or unique reasons of their own. Who will come out on top? The answer is not always clear. But, in a way, it does not matter because the journey there is littered with fun and wicked surprises.

Blood Simple.


Blood Simple. (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The world is full o’ complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, ‘n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.

In its first five minutes, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen are able to separate their magnificent debut film from its contemporaries. In most thrillers, characters tend to start off mild. Circumstances pile up and the folks we follow are eventually driven to desperation. In “Blood Simple,” we meet the four main characters and already we sense they are in a state of distress. It feels that all it takes is one more push for them to reach a breaking point. By starting off high, tension need not accumulate for us to care. It is already present and so we focus on the chess game being played by characters who think they know what’s going on but in actuality not one of them has a complete idea. But we do. And that’s what makes the story a captivating experience.

The plot revolves around a Texas bar owner, Marty (Dan Hedaya), who suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), might cheating on him and so he hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow her around. Abby sleeps with Ray (John Getz), Marty’s employee, and soon photos make it onto the husband’s desk. The thought of his wife being in bed with a lowly employee eats up Marty so badly that he hires the same P.I. to kill them for $10,000. Mr. Loren Visser suggests that Ray goes fishing; he will get a telephone call once the deed is done. But this is not a straight murder story. And it isn’t even about revenge or the money.

The movie is about how one small mistake can become an avalanche so powerful stopping it becomes an impossibility. Soon people are making assumptions based on the limited—at times myopic—knowledge they have and even more mistakes are made. It becomes increasingly clear that the only way to survive is to make the smartest decisions you can and ride through it. But even if you do, you are not guaranteed to see the light of day. Bodies pile up in this story. Every single one makes an impact. A certain character knows how Event A is connected to Event B. How is the equation changed for the other characters who are in dire need of this knowledge so he or she can make the best decisions in regards to Event C? Does anything change? You bet your bottom dollar.

The Coens possess a preternatural ability to jolt us into paying attention, whether it be newspaper hitting a glass a window during a potentially revealing exchange or a shovel being scraped down a highway in the middle of the night, there is beauty and poetry in keeping us on our toes. Notice that even when characters are being shown at rest—on a chair, a sofa, a bed—the camera is angled in an uncomfortable way or an important object sits in the background staring right back at us. There is constant reminder that there is no escape from the problems at hand. Even one’s dreams are corrupted into nightmares by waking suspicions.

I admired its use of silence. Here is a suspense-thriller that does not rely on score to communicate what’s about to happen or to signal what the viewers should feel. Modern pictures across genres can learn a textbook’s worth of information on here. Joel and Ethan Coen trust the nature of their material and the manner in which they’ve put together the images so that we feel we have a stake in the matter every step of the way. Why use sound as a cue when the point is for us to be with the picture in every moment, not five or three seconds from it?

An unforgettable dialogue-free sequence involves a disposal of a body along a lonely road. There is blood but no overt violence is shown. Yet I caught myself looking away from the screen because I found it to be terribly sad that a character we come to describe as good and well-intentioned feels compelled to do something unimaginable. Because of a mistake, an assumption, we are forced to look at this character under a different light. When the chips are down and the pressure is up, perhaps we are all capable of the darkest feats.

“Blood Simple.” is filled to the brim with humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t care about the twists and turns and the ironic (and tragic) details imbued into their marrow. Using a typical murder premise, the Coens are able to make us feel their love for the movies. There is confidence and specificity in every breath of their feature’s entire running time. They take risks. They demand that their viewers be engrossed. This should be required viewing for aspiring filmmakers.

Come to Daddy


Come to Daddy (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Comedy-thriller “Come to Daddy,” written by Toby Harvard and directed by Art Timpson, is not without the ability to entertain. Looking at the work as a whole, there are darkly comic scenes dispersed throughout the morbid reunion story between father and son, but it leaves the audience longing for more substance both as a piercing character study and as a lavish genre exercise. Because it does not offer much in the way of both, the attempt comes across undercooked—almost good enough to recommend but not quite. When the end credits began to roll, a part of me wished it had chosen an extreme and let it rip.

Elijah Wood is Norval, a thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed artist from Beverly Hills, California who accepts an invitation from his father to visit his seaside home. They have not seen one another in three decades, so the man Norval meets at the doorstep (Stephen McHattie) feels like a complete stranger. Still, Norval so wishes to establish a genuine connection with his father that he tries to overlook the insults and cold shoulder. Wood is highly watchable as a man-child whose default is to try building himself up when facing criticism because Norval knows that deep down he is a loser. So when he admits that he has had issues with alcohol dependency and had been involved in a suicide attempt, we are ready to recognize and believe the sadness inside him.

If only the screenplay were as sharp as the lead actor’s ability to sell a story without relying on words. We have a potentially complex character established during the first thirty minutes, but when the action revs up about halfway through, putting a magnifying glass on Norval is no longer of utmost importance. Instead of maintaining our curiosity, it chooses to make us wince, cringe, and gag from the torture, violence, and murder. Although possessing a keen eye when it comes to creating natural lighting so we can easily buy into the realism of a moment, I found the overt use of violence to be less effective than its more restrained moments, its quiet (or disquiet).

There is a recurring theme involving traditional masculinity here. Right from the film’s opening seconds, we note how Norval dresses, how he moves, how he acts, how he speaks. Look at his posture, his frame. He is a not a typical alpha male; he isn’t alpha at all. Norval fails to recognize himself in the man that greets him at the door. And so our subject is thrown into a world of survive-or-perish. I will not reveal the twist that occurs halfway through because I feel it would do a disservice to the picture, but there is a way to comment on the toxicity of having rigid qualifications for masculinity without solely relying on showing brutality or violence. This aspect of the work is underwritten and one-dimensional.

At least for a while, “Come to Daddy” offers some creativity; it is difficult to guess where it is heading. At one point, we begin to wonder if it is heading toward the territory of supernatural horror given the inexplicable noises in the house at night, a figure blending in the leaves, a corpse seemingly moving on its own. And so it is most disappointing that the work fails to offer a strong and memorable punchline. It’s quirky and clever on occasion but not much else.

Red Dragon


Red Dragon (2002)
★★ / ★★★★

Remakes must exude a purpose for existing. Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon,” based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name which was adapted to screen in 1986 by Michael Mann, only truly comes alive during the final fifteen minutes. The rest of it, while watchable mainly due to the terrific performances by Edward Norton who plays a retired FBI profiler Will Graham and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins once again stepping into his iconic role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is merely a polished retread of Mann’s superior “Manhunter.” One of the key differences between the remake and the original is that in the latter, Graham and Lecter interact more often. But it is curious that their exchanges do not necessarily reveal more in regards to their symbiotic relationship in catching serial killers—before and after Graham discovered that Lecter was the notorious Chesapeake Ripper who ate his victims. There is no tease, no seduction. What results is a movie that is longer but not more informative—at least in ways that count. At times I found that Ratner’s film aspires to fill in some blanks that “Manhunter” left open for interpretation—a mistake because certain details, like specifics of a murder or crime scene, are better left to the imagination. Mann’s film may be rough around the edges and the performances not as strong when compared to Ratner’s picture. But the remake, while tolerable, fails to surpass the original because it comes across as yet another psychological thriller with minimal intrigue; everything must be shown or explained for the viewer out of fear that it may across as too oblique or strange otherwise. It is too safe when the material is far from it.

Spiral


Spiral (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When Kurtis David Harder’s “Spiral” is at its best, it is reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” From the moment same-sex couple Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen), along with their teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), arrive in the unnamed small town, the paranoia in the air is palpable; it is too clean, too quiet, too suburban. This is a much-needed change of pace from what the trio is used to. Malik, a black man who remains traumatized from a hate crime he experienced when he was a teenager, suspects something is off. Soon a welcoming white neighbor comes to visit and claims, “Nothing ever changes around here.”

The minimalistic approach feels right in a movie like this. We get the usual events like a character waking up in the middle of the night due to a noise coming from downstairs (naturally, he is compelled to investigate), looking out one’s window and witnessing a bizarre sort of gathering (could a cult be afoot?), and penetrating looks from neighbors as a new face—a black face—jogs down the street. But when the picture gets specific—like when Malik comes home and discovers that someone had broken into their home and spray painted “FAGGOT” on the wall—this is when the work is most powerful—and immediate—because it is a specific attack. It is so personal and so hurtful that the N-word might as well have been spray painted, too. “People don’t change,” Malik tells Aaron, who is white, “They just get better at hiding [their hatred].”

But is there something sinister going on or is Malik simply hallucinating? Eventually, Malik begins to see ghostly figures (which I find to be lame attempts at jump scares). He even exhibits problems with processing time. Aaron believes everything is fine, that his partner is simply having trouble adjusting to their new life. (Aaron leaves for work early while Malik works at home as a ghostwriter. Perhaps Malik has been too cooped up in the house of increasing horrors.) Meanwhile, Kayla has found a friend (or maybe more) in Tyler (Ty Wood), a charming teenager who lives across the street with his parents, Marshal and Tiffany (Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West). The screenplay by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin takes far too long to provide a definitive answer—which comes with a cost.

The work’s exposition and rising action slap viewers into paying attention. And so it is critical that we are provided a climax that delivers—preferably one that surpasses expectations. We are given neither. The climax is creepy but expected and nothing special—a disappointment because there are numerous instances that point to the community’s fear of The Other. The Other, in this case, is a same-sex couple whereby half is a black man. The big reveal offers minimal flavor despite the meat of the film having marinated for so long. Why isn’t it more specific? It would have been a perfect opportunity to tap into the zeitgeist of the ‘90s when gay men were feared not only for their sexuality and lifestyles but also the possibility of them having AIDS.

Even events after the revelations come across rushed. There are ways to make viewers want to know more without the material being reduced to an incomplete story. It comes across as though the writers forgot that this is Malik’s story and so the denouement must be specific to him. We follow him, and so his desire becomes our desire; his needs, our needs. Malik’s trauma, sadness, and anger for having been a victim of hate crime in the ‘80s propel him to discover and, if possible, expose then uproot a potential nefarious plot. The picture goes for a haunting ending but it is not at all satisfying.

Surviving the Game


Surviving the Game (1994)
★★ / ★★★★

“He’s a homeless piece of shit. He’s nothing. He’s less than nothing.”

And so the hunt begins between predators and prey in “Surviving the Game,” an action-thriller directed by Ernest R. Dickerson that could have benefited from a more polished screenplay. There is an idea worth exploring here: the rich, most of them white, literally hunting down a poor black man like an animal in the woods for the sake of “therapy,” entertainment.

As an action picture, its chase sequences are only mildly entertaining. There are only so many ways to show Ice-T, playing Jack Mason, a military veteran who became homeless after the death of his wife and daughter, running away from the highly privileged men who wish to murder him for sport. About halfway through, not even Ice-T’s approach of embedding humor in Mason’s desperation—as if to acknowledge that the plot itself is preposterous—is able to keep the movie afloat. A pattern emerges: Every other scene a hunter drops dread punctuated by our protagonist sustaining a fall or a minor injury only to end up fighting back again. It becomes somewhat of a bore eventually because there is a flatness in how the chases are shot; there is only occasional catharsis to the much-deserved kills.

The screenplay by Eric Bernt is not written sharp enough for the work to be considered an effective satire. For instance, I enjoyed there is one black man (Charles S. Dutton) among the hunters who is the right-hand man of the ringleader (Rutger Hauer). He is not quite the Uncle Tom character, existing to serve his white master, but neither do we get a sense he is a completely independent figure who is above his black identity. Cole is somewhere in between which makes him rather dull. Why have a minority character among the villains when you are not willing to take it all the way so that there is power behind the punchline? It is a waste of a character; imagine this role being played by a white man and there is only minimal difference.

Another missed opportunity: There is a white teenager among the group who is shocked upon the discovery that this is no typical hunting trip. (His father, played by F. Murray Abraham, requires that he be there because his son is “becoming too much like [his] mother.”) This should have been a key character because a) he is white, b) he is outside of the average age group of the group and c) it is not his choice to attend. Derek (William McNamara), like Cole, is written in a middle-of-the-road fashion and so he has nothing to do other than to utter lines showing disapproval. These potentially curious characters are wasted in terms of the big picture, the message that the movie is trying to communicate in regards to race and class in America.

Or is it actually saying something? I marveled at this question somewhere in the middle because none of the balls being juggled in the air are particularly interesting. Surely there is tension during the setup—up until Gary Busey’s scene-stealing performance where his psychiatrist character, also one of the hunters, explains to Mason why he considers the scar under his eye to be a birthmark—but the latter half is a drag for the most part. For a story that promises thrills and excitement, I witnessed a lack of energy and craft.

Other People


Other People (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Other people uproot their lives from the city to move back home in the suburbs. Other people lose out on dream jobs. Other people’s relationships crumble and find themselves starting over. Other people must put their lives on hold in order to take care of their loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer. That is, until it happens to you. This is the situation that David (Jesse Plemons) finds himself in, a gay man living in New York City as a comedy writer. Writer-director Chris Kelly is able to tap into the natural ebb and flow of comedy and drama in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and freeing. He is concerned with details, like his characters being Sacramento-based, and so when the expected comes around, there is substance behind the punches.

The story opens with a family bawling their eyes out while in bed after having discovered that their mother and wife (Molly Shannon) has passed away. “Oh, it’s another one of those movies,” I thought. But then the telephone rings. A voice of an energetic woman has just heard that her friend is sick—the word “cancer” is never used—so the voice wishes to know how Joanne is doing. The caller just happens to be at a drive-thru and attempting to get her order right. We sense her priority. To this woman, this friend, Joanne is “other people,” you see. “Oh, so it’s not one of those movies,” I thought. And it turns out to be much more.

I enjoy movies that throw us into the middle of the action and it is up to us whether to sink or swim. In this film, notice that if you walk away for a minute to grab some snacks from the refrigerator, it is entirely possible to miss a line or two that touches upon a character’s history. This is not a comedy that is funny because of the jokes. Rather, it is a comedy that is funny despite the jokes due to its observant nature. I felt as though the writer-director came from the suburbs and so he knows how people from small towns speak, behave, and express themselves. And yet the screenplay does not belittle them. It just shows.

Plemons is quite captivating in this film. He plays David as a painfully ordinary gay man who loves his mother deeply. Plemons walks on a tricky rope in that he must convince us that David wishes to be there—really be there—for his mother but at the same time being back home costs so much in terms of his personal and professional lives. That push and pull between what must be shown versus what must be hidden creates wonderful drama in the character. Plemons makes it look effortless; we sympathize and empathize with David all the way through even though at times we know (and he knows) he could have made better decisions in retrospect.

Shannon is also terrific. I saw my mother in her portrayal of Joanne as this loud, vivacious woman whom you cannot help but look at when she enters the room. The opening scene, which shows this woman’s death, is correctly placed so that we appreciate her more when watching her just living her remaining days. There is drama in the juxtaposition of a high-spirited woman and a wilting thing whose voice can barely be heard even from just six feet away.

Shannon may not be on screen as much as Plemons, but her role is key to David’s sense of self. In a way, Joanne is his compass even though their relationship when he came out of the closet a decade ago was far from perfect. (The Mulcaheys are religious and conservative.) David’s father, Norman (Bradley Whitford) still has not come to terms with his only son’s homosexuality. There is a lot of pain to be mined there, but I appreciated that the filmmaker has found humor in that situation, too.

“Other People” is more dynamic than the average comedy-drama—and far more observant. We meet some characters here who appear in one or two scenes and I wanted to follow them, to learn what they’re about. For example, David’s grandparents live in a mobile home. That visit is so awkward for David, but at the same time I wanted to stay for cookies and listen to gossip. The grandparents have a sense of humor about them that is unlike the rest of the characters we meet. Clearly, the movie is helmed by a filmmaker who loves the idea of family and how our histories shaped us as the persons we’ve become.

The Devil All the Time


The Devil All the Time (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”

Religion is like medicine. For some, it is taken like vitamins: as maintenance, a way to keep impure thoughts and sins at bay. It is a guide, a way of living, perhaps even serving as inspiration to become a better person. For others, however, it becomes an addiction; like cancer, it takes over the whole being. It kills you from the inside, slowly but surely. You live and die by the rules of the Bible. The addiction becomes so overwhelming, it may seep out of you and take others along for the ride. In “The Devil All the Time,” the subjects are taken for a ride.

The work is based upon the novel by Donald Ray Pollock and we follow almost a dozen characters who have been touched by religion in some way. We watch how belief in God, the importance of prayer, and keeping faith get passed down, like DNA, from one generation to another… and as people move across states from Ohio to West Virginia—then back again. On paper, it is a fascinating story of people simply living their lives and dealing with the cards they’re dealt with. It is survive or perish out there. But as a film, it is dramatically inert. Notice that halfway through the picture it remains so busy in laying out foundations as why we should care for the individuals being paraded on screen that it forgets to answer the question, “So what?”

A boy named Arvin Russell (played by Michael Banks as a nine-year-old in 1957 and Tom Holland as a teenager in 1965) is the fulcrum of this ambitious tale. His father (Bill Skarsgård) is a U.S. Marine veteran who served in World War II. In Japan, Willard witnessed a bloodied marine hanging from a cross as thousands of flies eat him alive. Willard shoots the man dead as an act of mercy. But something inside Willard died along with that marine. We follow him as a single man, a husband (the wife played by Haley Bennett—a real presence) and later as a father who feels as though he is just hanging on by a thread. Skarsgård convincingly carries the man’s mental heaviness in the eyes, his body, his entire being.

There is a memorable sequence in which Willard teaches young Arvin how to stand up for himself (he is bullied in school)—and the ones he loves. Violence sometimes being the answer is a lesson that Arvin chooses to carry with him. I appreciated how in some scenes, whether it be through lighting, framing of a face, or movement of the camera, looking at the increasingly desperate young man is like laying eyes once again on the tormented father.

But the supporting characters are not given the amount of time and depth as they should have if the story were to be complete. We meet the likes of Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough, Jason Clarke) who murder hitchhikers (and take pictures for souvenirs), Preston the tyro preacher (Robert Pattinson) who is a walking hypocrite to a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan) who values his reputation above all. But they remain just that: figures that Arvin the good guy must come across eventually.

But why must he come across them? Does each encounter unveil something new about Arvin? Does it awaken or solve past traumas? Will these experiences shape the man he will become? In addition, as corpses pile up, I found myself feeling apathetic. “Well, there she goes,” I caught myself thinking at some point, instead of feeling specific and powerful emotions due to the fact that a person’s journey has been cut short, the rest of her life un-lived.

Antonio Campos directs the film in an unhurried manner, conscious about providing event and character details that will prove to be crucial later on. He also has a grasp of how poor people live, how it is like to be inside their homes, the clothes they wear, their occupations, the kinds of food they serve. There is without question that the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paulo Campos) cares about telling a human story with all the complexities that come with it. But he is not successful in mining the drama once all the pieces are in place to deliver knockout blows. It fails to show why this specific story is worth telling.

“The Devil All the Time” might have been better off as a two- or three-part miniseries. It certainly would have allowed more time for details about the supporting characters to be fully ironed out. And so when the inevitable crossing of paths occur, we’d have a better appreciation of every single moving part. But at its current state, it is unrealized potential, a disappointment.

Quantum of Solace


Quantum of Solace (2008)
★ / ★★★★

Not three minutes into Marc Forster’s “Quantum of Solace,” the twenty-second entry in the “James Bond” series, I noticed my facial features scrunching together in an attempt to make sense of the would-be thrilling car chase along the highways of Italy because the editing is so choppy, so manic, that it repels viewers from appreciating the beauty within the chaos. The shortcoming that is visual illiteracy is pervasive in this egregious follow-up to the terrific “Casino Royale,” a Bond picture so focused and assured of what it wants to be and what it wishes to accomplish that it ends up standing strong among the best of the series.

Here, Bond (Daniel Craig) is reduced to just another action hero on a quest to avenge the death of a woman whom he had fallen for in the previous entry. Although Craig retains the basic 007 charm he established in “Casino,” he is quite robotic here—a bore because the screenplay simply requires him to march from one action piece to another. When he does get a break, he trades repetitive dialogue with M (Judi Dench), head of the Secret Intelligence Service, about the importance of trust and Bond’s inability to keep persons of interest alive. The agency wishes to know more about a shadow organization called Quantum that appears to have connections so far-reaching it is able to plant spies within the MI6. What is their end goal?

We are presented a villain so banal that at times he comes across as a walking caricature. His name is Dominic Greene, played by Mathieu Amalric, a businessman who uses environmentalism as a platform to upend governments and take control of their leaders. While I liked the choice of Greene looking ordinary that he can easily blend into the background, the face of evil can be Ordinary Joe after all, screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade fail to convince us why this character is compelling other than the fact that he is a member of Quantum. He is not Bond’s equal in any way—in intellect, strength, or resourcefulness—and so why or how is he a threat other than he is well-connected?

Even the Bond girl this time around is a bore. Like 007, Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is on a journey of vengeance. Her goal is get close enough to a dictator (Joaquín Cosio), a client of Greene, who murdered her entire family when she was a child. Instead of finding small but telling moments between Bond and Camille—obvious foils—so that we discover what revenge means to them before and after exacting it, these two are thrown into one standard action scene after the other. At times these sequences are so CGI-heavy (like the plane crash scene) that it becomes near impossible to buy into whatever is going on and, perhaps more importantly, the stakes propelling the conflict. It does not help that Craig and Kurylenko share no chemistry. Their exchanges lack flow or poetry.

The only action piece somewhat worthy of the Bond franchise is the second one—there are five total and four are forgettable—which involves a rooftop chase in Siena, Italy between two MI6 agents. Having said that, even such a chase is done better—certainly framed with a keener eye for action and reaction—in much stronger films like Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

Casino Royale


Casino Royale (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” consists of only three major action sequences and the rest is a high-stakes poker game. Yet it remains to be one of the most entertaining James Bond pictures—certainly the most emotionally complex because it humanizes our hero. One of the reasons is its confidence and skill and slowing down overt elements, at times to the point of minimization, that typically define a 007 movie.

It is willing to regale us with words—not just fun, cheeky repartees but actual conversations between highly intelligent and insightful characters, specifically between Bond (Daniel Craig), a newly minted 00 agent for the British MI6, and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an agent assigned to finance our protagonist during the titular poker game in Montenegro. At times listening to their dialogue is like being tickled with a feather. There is electric chemistry and a sensuality that emanates from the two. They can simply sit across a table while trading knowing looks and the silent exchange makes us smile. The longer this goes on, the more is revealed between James and Vesper while keeping us mindful of the stakes—why it is paramount that Bond must succeed in preventing a terrorist fancier named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning over a hundred million dollars. The screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis is alive and so we are receptive to every minute plot and character development.

Most sign up for a Bond picture due to the promise of impressive action pieces. It is without question the film delivers. The first big action scene takes place in Madagascar. It requires Bond to chase a bomb maker who is not only fast but also incredibly athletic. Just when you think the man is cornered, he finds a way to slither through the cracks. And so we observe Bond’s resourcefulness in trying to make up the distance. A surprise is thrown onto our laps every ten seconds. Comic moments are thrown in there for good measure. It becomes so ludicrous that Bond and the person of interest are climbing and jumping off cranes like spiders. The level of energy builds and builds until no longer tenable. Fight choreography grows more complex. But also notice the beauty of these sequences, especially when at high elevations. A person with acrophobia is likely to experience a gut reaction.

This is only one action scene. There are two others that are equally terrific to sit through. But they are entertaining in different ways. Notice, too, the type of chases do not repeat. And the immediate stakes are always different. Even these adrenaline-fueled scenes tend to reveal something new about our main character. This is the strength of “Casino Royale.” We are seemingly presented one thing, but so many gears are working together that the experience is informative and enthralling. The punchline is never having to shoot a gun. It is about the mission; success or failure is a given and so repercussions are treated with real gusto.

It would be remiss of me not to compliment the wonderful performances. Craig possesses a knack for being cold-hearted one minute and the next there is a vulnerability to him that you wish to get to know. That’s critical because I believe that is one of the traits that made Vesper curious about the assassin. Green, too, is exquisite. Every line uttered is like silk caressing the eardrums. There is a knowing in those eyes that makes you want to lean in and study her. And speaking of eyes, Mikkelsen imbues an enigma to a villain with a simple goal: survival. When sitting at that poker table, we feel that desperation to win. Because if he loses, he dies—fitting for someone who brazenly uses his clients’ money to gamble with stocks.

1BR


1BR (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gated communities are meant to keep people out. In “1BR,” written and directed by David Marmor, they’re designed to keep people in. Executed with a specific vision and a whole lot of patience, the picture does not waste any time in making viewers feel off-balance. From the moment Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) enters the Asilo Del Mar apartment complex for an open house, there is a creepiness to the community that’s bubbling just beneath the surface. Residents are too smiley, too friendly, too accommodating—to the point where it almost feels staged, a charade. Bloom is terrific as a lonely young woman who has run away from a painful past, which involves her mother’s passing from cancer, to try and make it in Los Angeles as a designer despite a lack of support from her father. There is a translucent quality to her face; when Sarah comes up with a specific thought or feels a certain emotion, it is right there for us to absorb. We sympathize with Sarah’s yearning to connect and be accepted. (Her only friend is her cat named Gyles.) Bloom is someone to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, the picture comes alive about a third of the way through—almost thirty minutes in—when it is revealed to us what’s really going on in the heavenly Asilo Del Mar. As our heroine is subjected to brutality and humiliation, we become increasingly angry for her and wish for her to fight back. But how can she when being a pushover is Sarah’s nature? Although the work tackles the dangers of group-think and conformity on a superficial manner, it is consistently entertaining. This is a solid debut film. I look forward to what Marmor will come up with next because I feel he has even more twisted stories up his sleeves.