Category: Film

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

I have always considered invisibility to be one of the lamest superpowers, and although Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” did not change my mind, it is an effective horror film nonetheless because the filmmaker behind it clearly loves the genre and has an understanding of the idea that in order for something visually undetectable to be scary, the suspense must be turned up to eleven. Pair the enthusiasm and understanding from behind the camera with a strong leading performance by Elisabeth Moss, what results is a work that demands attention.

Right from the opening sequence, the project is a nail-biter. Cecilia (Moss) must make her way out of her abuser’s posh home by making as minimal noise as possible despite Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a highly intelligent and financially successful tech entrepreneur, being drugged asleep. Although not one word is uttered yet, there is a certain level of desperation in the air, that Cecilia’s escape is in fact a life-or-death, one-chance situation. Notice how the sequence is protracted; within this high-risk scene, there is set-up, rising action, climax, and falling action. It is a strong introduction to a story that offers quite a few number of surprises.

Naturally, Cecilia must make it out alive in the opening scene. But what makes her character worth following? Cecilia is written in a way that represents different types of domestic abuse survivors while maintaining an identity of her own. More overt moments of distress or threats are contrasted against silent and still moments in which we languish in gray and pale blue colors. We watch her struggle to walk outside and fetch the mail, deathly scared for her safety.

Moss is more than capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions by employing her highly expressive face and body language. She goes all in. Even supporting characters—literal figures of support like Cecilia’s sister Emily played by Harriet Dyer and Emily’s ex-husband James played by Aldis Hodge—tend to reflect at times what our heroine needs or wants when she herself is unable to express what she needs or wants. This is a story of a deeply traumatized woman in recovery. But she must face her monster and destroy it in order to have a real chance of moving on with her life. The story just so happens to be told through the context of something that looks, sounds, and feels supernatural despite the screenplay offering a scientific explanation regarding the subject of invisibility.

When the invisible figure attacks, is it scary? To me, the answer is no. Still, I couldn’t help but feel impressed in the fact that in this movie a person thrashing about against an unseen force does not come across as silly. The reason is because a strong enough context is provided by the screenplay so that viewers have an appreciation of the literal, physical conflict. In addition, there are three or four neat visual effects meant to amplify the horror (like a floating knife—simple but effective: it is not enough to show the knife hanging in the air… it is actually utilized as a weapon to wring out horror from the audience). We forget we are seeing CGI—the complete opposite of modern horror films in which CGI is supposed to the spectacle.

The Rescuers Down Under

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Better than the original is almost every way, Hendel Butoy and and Mike Gabriel’s imaginative “The Rescuers Down Under” does not waste a second to dive head-first in its terrific Australian Outback adventure. How could it spare a moment when its running time is just above an hour and ten minutes? It is a movie aimed for children—but not solely for them—that is filled with rousing energy, good-natured jokes, genuine moments of peril, and a cast of memorable characters each imbued with a specific personality.

In under five minutes, it is established that the picture’s goal is to make the audience smile. A boy named Cody (voiced by Adam Ryen) is friends with the local animals and they inform him that a rare golden eagle has been trapped atop a cliff and in need of rescue. A wonderful flying sequence follows which truly captures the magic of being up in the clouds, wind all around, with a majestic vista of the land below. And in the middle of this magnificent, wonderfully animated sequence, the material takes the time to show how the boy and the eagle, named Marahuté, relate to one another.

A masterstroke: Unlike most of the animals we come to meet, Marahuté does not speak. And so animation and the music are required to be on point when it comes to showing specifically what Cody and Marahuté are thinking or feeling during their tender interactions. The picture is adventure overall and yet it is filled with small moments of creatures simply connecting with one another. It is not afraid of slow, quiet moments. When they do come around, they are highly effective—as if they’re critical moments of inhalation before another comic or chase scene.

The villain comes in the form of a poacher named McLeach and he is voiced with dark humor by the inimitable George C. Scott. He has a pet salamander—a reliable source of humor—named Joanna who is not very smart but loves to eat eggs. I enjoyed that every time McLeach and Joanna are on screen, their presence evokes a certain level of menace—appropriate because the screenplay does not shy away from pointing at the fact that they kill in order to survive. McLeach, in particular, is so despicable, he is not above kidnapping and trying to murder an innocent boy in order to achieve his goals: to get rich and to get rid of witnesses.

Another outstanding decision is the voice casting. Eva Gabor voices Bianca and Bob Newhart voices Bernard, the Hungarian and United States representatives of Rescue Aid Society, respectively. Miss Bianca and Bernard volunteer to rescue Cody once word reaches New York City that a boy had been kidnapped. Gabor enhances the refined elegance of Miss Bianca and Newhart injects an earthy and warm quality to Bernard. Together, they make a cute couple without the screenplay relying on the usual romantic tropes. To get to Australia, they recruit an albatross named Wilbur—voiced none other by the legendary John Candy. Yes, he makes Wilbur, already adorably animated, even more huggable. Naturally, Wilbur gets plenty of one-liners.

“The Rescuers Down Under” does not only provide energy, it proves proficient in shaping it depending on the specific mood of scene. There is a sequence here in which we spend time with caged animals desperate to escape their prison. Notice the difference in energy when we first meet them and how it changes once their personalities are revealed. The film is not simply a parade of cute animation; it is firing on all cylinders in order to provide wonderful entertainment with all the high and low points of a memorable story that has something important to say about animal rights and our duty to care for our environment, our planet, our home.

The Wind

The Wind (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Western horror picture “The Wind” tells the story of a woman (Caitlin Gerard) who claims there is something sinister on the remote land that she and her husband (Ashley Zuckerman) have moved onto, but he does not believe her, consistently dismissing her concerns as mere superstitions. When another couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), move into a cabin about a mile away, the supernatural presence appears to intensify, especially when Emma becomes pregnant.

Told with elegance, class, and patience, the film, directed by Emma Tammi and written by Teresa Sutherland, reveals its secrets like an engaging horror novel. It tasks the viewers to juggle details of two timelines: before and after Emma’s death, while pregnant, due to a gunshot wound to the head. The former is utilized to lay out the foundations of the four characters’ relationships and the latter is used to question and challenge the validity of Lizzy’s claims. Is there a psychological explanation to the increasingly bizarre occurrences or is there truly a supernatural presence that haunts Lizzy’s every waking hour?

The picture commands the most power when it relies on sounds or images to bring about goosebumps. Particularly creepy is how the isolation of these characters’ lifestyles are conveyed. At night, Lizzy and Isaac are able to see Emma and Gideon’s cabin only when there is fire inside their home. In between the two cabins is near-total darkness. Appropriately, the contrast between light and dark is employed to create eerie shadows: moving through a window, slithering on the ceiling, remaining still right next to a person’s bed while she sleeps. I admired its old-school approach to create heart-pounding situations. I believed that I was experiencing a specific story set in nineteenth-century American frontier because of the simplicity of its approach.

Less intriguing is how the new couple is portrayed. Hailing from the city, it is expected they do not know a lot about planting crops or maintaining a cabin in preparation for winter. There is supposed to be a sort of friendship that has developed between the couples during the flashbacks, but this is not convincing. When two characters converse, particularly the women, it is difficult to buy into their connection—a real friendship, a neighborly courtesy, or a test of tolerance. As for the two men, it is noticeable that they barely say twenty words to one another throughout the film. Perhaps words is not the point since it is not the picture’s strength, but at the very least Lizzy and Emma’s interactions must command believability and heft.

Another weakness is the final three to five minutes. I think these closing sequences, particularly the final shot, is meant to be open to interpretation, but—to me—the answers are clear enough to warrant a solid conclusion of what really happened. Shots of our heroine looking distant, disheveled, and drained of energy do not fit the central idea that Lizzy is a character worth following and rooting for since she is strong, resourceful, and knows how to think for herself. There are undeniable feminist ideas coursing through its veins. And so it comes across as a cheap way to end an otherwise terrific, slow-burn entertainment.


Yesterday (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For an amusing and original premise in which our main character wakes up in a world where The Beatles did not exist, it is most disappointing that there is barely convincing drama behind “Yesterday,” based on the screenplay by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle. At first glance, the picture is energetic, the actors appear to be having fun with their roles, more than half the jokes land, and the interpretation of classic rock songs and ballads retains the spirit of the originals. But look a little closer and recognize it is a challenge to care for any of the characters—even though (or especially because) we already know its ultimate destination.

The first half is stronger because it is willing to play with an original idea. A singer-songwriter who has failed to garner popularity and financial success in the past decade, Jack (Himesh Patel) has decided to give up on his dream of making a career out of making music. A strange phenomenon occurs during the night of his decision: a worldwide power outage lasting twelve seconds has erased everyone’s memory as well as physical and digital evidence that The Beatles ever existed. Having gotten hit by a bus during the blackout, it appears that Jack is the only person who remembers the legendary band. Desperate to become successful, he tries to remember The Beatles’ songs from memory and pass them off as his own.

This section of the film is very funny because Jack himself is in total disbelief of the impossible thing that had happened. In a way, he expects to get caught at any time because a world without The Beatles feels strange, emptier. Patel portrays Jack as a hardworking musician without a mean bone in his body—appropriate for a feel-good film about someone who gets the opportunity of a lifetime through sheer luck. Patel exhibits good timing when it comes to delivering punchlines, particularly when face-to-face with another who prefers a modern song from a modern band or artist over a classic song by The Fab Four. It is meant to be silly yet at the same time it works as commentary regarding the change of music, and music preferences of the masses, over the course of fifty years. Needless to say, there are plenty of jokes that rely on the viewer knowing particular Beatles songs, perhaps even a bit of background about them.

Far less effective is the love story that rots in the center of it all. Jack and Ellie (Lily James) have been friends since childhood. It is so apparent that they love one another from the moment we meet them… and yet there is no chemistry between them because the screenplay relies on recycling the same old tropes about one not coming to terms with his or her feelings until a significant or life-altering event is knocking on the doorstep. The romance is desperate for fresh ideas—and we wait for it because Patel and James seem game—but they never come. Notice during the second half that nearly every time the two are in a room together, one is required to deliver a would-be tear-jerker speech. I was not moved by a single one. They bored me.

I found myself more interested in Jack’s savage agent named Debra who is played by Kate McKinnon. McKinnon portrays the Debra with a sarcastic and slithery quality, so brazen when it comes telling his client that all he is a product (when she is not insulting his highly ordinary appearance) and she plans to make a lot of money off his success. Debra may be a walking exaggeration, but the character fits the film because the premise, too, is a hyperbole. The final forty-five minutes to an hour ought to have been rewritten with far more ambition and originality. Instead, what results is a film with a curious premise but one that fails to be memorable.

Dragged Across Concrete

Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.

This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.

These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.

Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.

Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.

The Survivalist

The Survivalist (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is about twenty minutes into the film until the first word is uttered in “The Survivalist,” intelligently written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, a thoroughly engaging and unsentimental look into a future after a steep decline in human population. The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed man (Martin McCann) who lives deep in the forest. We meet him while dragging a naked male body across the forest floor, seconds before pushing the corpse into a shallow grave. Based on the survivalist’s body language and his clockwork efficiency, this is not his first time throwing out the trash.

Fingleton dunks our heads into the main character’s daily routine. He wakes up, washes up, tends to the small farm situated right outside the front door, checks bear traps for intruders, forages berries, washes clothes in a neighboring stream, and checks on the crops some more. Although we hear not one word word from or about the man, we learn so much about him in how the camera fixates on his movements, his eyes when he attempts to solve a problem, his posture when he longs for human interaction. An intoxicating rhythm is established and we come to have an appreciation of a specific person’s lifestyle. It gets details exactly right. For instance, it is appropriate that our protagonist have dirty fingernails because he massages dirt every day; that his body leans toward the scraggy side since there are bouts of food shortages.

We also get a feel for the survivalist’s mental state. There is a suggestion early on that perhaps he is on the brink of losing his sanity. He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns around, in horror, and yet there is no one there. The writer-director makes the astute decision to linger on the face of our protagonist. He, too, wonders whether he is losing his mind. Again, we get an impression that this is not the first time it has happened. Keep in mind that up until this point not a single line of dialogue is provided yet. Despite this, however, we are able to extract a wealth of information because the screenplay, direction, and performance are so alive.

The plot does not take off until two women—mother and daughter—arrive at the small farm. The mother, Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), asks the man if she and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), could take some of the crops. The man is unmoved. Jewelry is offered. Some seeds, too. He holds his position, shotgun pointing at the intruders, waiting for them to slip. An arrangement is made eventually. We know precisely what it is our protagonist desires based on earlier observations. The well-written screenplay has provided exactly what it is we need to know about the survivalist for the entire film’s duration. But this is not to suggest he no longer has the ability to surprise.

“The Survivalist” is not for everyone. Although it adopts a dour tone similar to numerous post-apocalyptic films, the pacing moves at a snail’s pace—without compromise. It keeps plenty of valuable information from unobservant viewers. I admired this decision; by focusing on the humanity of the characters instead of the action, every decision comes across calculated and important. We are challenged to wonder and predict which choices would prove fruitful later on or haunt the characters ten-fold. While most post-apocalyptic stories tend to be glamorized, this particular story goes the opposite direction. Its world is so unforgiving, there is no place for the weak.

Gretel & Hansel

Gretel & Hansel (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that takes the Brothers Grimm fairytale as inspiration and forges an identity of its own. Unlike modern, lazy, and generic horror movies, Oz Perkins’ “Gretel & Hansel” is not interested in delivering the usual jump scares. Instead, the horror lies in its thick and portentous atmosphere. It takes its time to present beautiful and creepy details of being lost in the woods while starving, desperate, without parental supervision. There are figures in black watching from a distance. Wolves can be heard howling in the night. When siblings Hansel and Gretel (Samuel Leakey, Sophia Lillis) inevitably cross paths with the witch (Alice Krige), their interactions feel like icing on the cake already. The plot has not even taken off yet.

This is a movie with potential to earn a cult following five to ten years from now. The reason is because of its careful attention on how images are showcased. The horror is not always overt, but take any random scene and notice there is almost always something worthy of pause and admiration. A shot of a pointy roof—which likens a witch’s hat—with the moon hanging sadly in the background, how branches of trees appear look like old hands in the darkness, a delectable feast sitting on the table waiting to be ravished by unsuspecting victims. It is an inviting movie—even though the plot involves child kidnappings, human sacrifices, parental neglect and abandonment, witchcraft.

Lillis shines in this bleak, unforgiving movie about self-discovery. As Gretel, Lillis is convincing as a big sister who loves her little brother more than herself and must serve as his protector. Father is dead and mother seems to be driven to insanity; life is so tough for them that at one point mother knowingly sends her young daughter to a whorehouse—Gretel under the assumption that the place is simply hiring for a housekeeper of some sort.

Lillis evokes a relatable toughness, a warmth, resourcefulness, and intelligence and so her Gretel is interesting to watch when attempting to outsmart Holda the witch. (By the same token, I was mesmerized by Krige’s interpretation of the witch—her evil is multidimensional; this is not a stereotypical witch full of warts who cackles while making concoctions in her cauldron. This witch is like a snake waiting in the bush for prey to pass by. She has her own story.) Lillis’ Gretel is not the kind of girl who runs away while screaming for help. (Or worse, tripping on a branch and getting caught.) Life thus far has forced her to look at problems in the face and try to overcome them with the limited tools she does have.

I wished the picture had spent about fifteen to twenty minutes to expand the final act. It goes into an interesting direction regarding the fates of the siblings, but instead of exploring these curious ideas, the movie, in a way, promises a sort of sequel. That gave a slightly bitter impression. An argument can be made—not a strong one—that the story is incomplete. I think the story is complete—but it is just short of becoming fully satisfying.

I wondered if the filmmakers felt some pressure to stay within the ninety-minute mark in order for the work to be more digestible. It didn’t need to be precisely because it is not a commercial horror film. It is for those who value good storytelling regardless of duration. While stunningly beautiful throughout, I wanted more substance.