Category: Film

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.

Annabelle Comes Home

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Gary Dauberman’s “Annabelle Comes Home” is a series of missed opportunities. Instead of developing a fresh story surrounding a young girl who appears to have inherited her mother’s ability to communicate with the dead, the screenplay proves to be more interested in delivering the usual tropes and tricks of generic horror pictures. What results is a two-hour slog, a literal house of horrors in which the characters run around screaming as things pop out of dark corners, but not one of them ends up seriously hurt, dead, or even remotely traumatized. Here is a scary movie without consequences. By the end, one cannot help to ask, “What’s the point?”

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as Lorraine and Ed Warren, demonologists who travel the world and keep items that are cursed, possessed, or have been a part of rituals right in their own home. Although they retain their wonderful chemistry since their first appearance in James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” a significant difference can be felt in the obvious and simple script. Notice that no matter how hard Farmiga builds the mystique of her character, it is impossible to take Lorraine seriously because there is no subtlety in the words the performer is required to say. The beauty about Wan’s original film is that there is so much left to discover in the unsaid. I felt as though Dauberman did not understand this. It does not help that Farmiga and Wilson are only in this project for a total of about fifteen minutes—tops.

Judy Warren (McKenna Grace) should have been a fascinating character since, based on the movie’s premise, she is essentially Lorraine’s younger self. Judy is an outcast at school not necessarily because she’s weird but due to her parents’ reputation of possibly being con artists. Either that or her classmates’ parents believe that the Warrens are all about death, evil, and demons. Grace is a good choice as Judy; she is wonderful not only at looking scared but evoking an aura of wise beyond her years. During quieter moments, it is impressive that the young performer is able to communicate Judy’s fear of her childhood slipping away—precisely because the screenplay does not bother to tackle this potentially fascinating insight to this specific character. She does it on her own. I think she is one to watch.

Scares are neither creative nor inspired—with the exception of one scene. It is established early on that the Annabelle doll is a beacon for spirits. And so when it is placed in the same room as the other occult collectibles—a bracelet, a samurai armor, a wedding dress, and the like—it is especially dangerous since it may animate the relatively inert items.

The most memorable sequence involves babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) finding her way through the dark as coins drop on the floor all around her. We know—and she knows—that the coins were from the Ferryman case. According to the file that Judy, Mary Allen, and Daniela (Katie Sarife) read while Ed and Lorraine are away on business, these coins are placed on the eyes of the deceased so their spirits can pay the toll and be allowed to move on to the afterlife. I enjoyed the build-up of this scene, particularly in the effects of shining coins floating about in the darkness. The only weapon that appears to keep the spirit away is a flashlight. But we all know what happens to flashlights during the climax of such encounters.

The work is also guilty of sudden tonal shifts executed so poorly, it threatens to derail the experience. In order to lighten the mood, attempts at comedy are made. This comes in the form of Mary Ellen crushing on a boy at a grocery store (Michael Cimino), vice-versa. I was so far from entertained by the horror elements to the point where I wished I were watching a romantic teen flick about Mary Ellen and Bob. At least then the awkward but cute chemistry they share could have been used for a better cause.

Body at Brighton Rock

Body at Brighton Rock (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Situational horror picture “Body at Brighton Rock” inspires the viewer to look up the qualifications for becoming a part-time summer park ranger because the protagonist (Karina Fontes) has a tendency to make one mistake right after another, most often due to a lack of common sense and consistent failure to follow simple directions, that we question whether she is worth following all the way through the story. And so despite the film just clocking in under ninety minutes, it feels significantly longer. It is highly frustrating to watch a main character—one hired to be out in the wilderness and promote safety—who has minimal knowledge of survival skills. Imagine this: Wendy comes across a lighter and she still has trouble starting a fire. The screenplay by writer-director Roxanne Benjamin is the issue here; it lacks pragmatism, creativity, and imagination. It does not know where to go once Wendy comes across a corpse. There is talk among friends that the woods may be haunted. It is acknowledged that Wendy might be sitting in the middle of a crime scene. Cue shots of creepy-looking branches which suggest the woods may be alive. Is a hungry predator within the vicinity? Leaves make crunching noises but there is no one there. Likewise, ideas are introduced but never explored in meaningful ways. There is no suspense, thrill, or horror. Just a whole lot of waiting for nothing to happen.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although it presents the viewers with a colorful mix of wide-ranging subjects, from humorous byproducts of culture shock to a country in the grip of a grim military dictatorship, Cao Hamburger’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” never wavers from letting us absorb the story from the perspective of a twelve-year-old child. This great focus is especially effective during the most dramatic moments when lives are irrevocably changed. At one point the audience is left to wonder what will become of the boy, how his collective experience in the multiethnic district in São Paulo would shape the man he will become.

Not once does the film reduce the child into a stereotype. Compare this to American Hollywood pictures, especially comedies, in which children are almost always shown to be some kind of magnet for trouble and their biggest fear is punishment of some kind. It is significantly more subtle here, more relatable, and certainly more honest about how it is like to be a pre-teen. As children, we have all been in situations where we found ourselves in trouble and for a second or two we had no idea what we did to deserve proper scolding.

This effective snapshot of childhood is due to the director’s ability to make one smart decision after another to allow the audience to observe that at times Mauro (Michel Joelsas) fails to take into account possible repercussions of his actions even though he is a good kid. Hamburger commands a high level of control from behind the camera, particularly having the patience in allowing scenes to unfold organically. A child’s curiosity almost always trumps a child’s fear of punishment. It is exciting to watch because it breeds unpredictability.

Images are captured beautifully, particularly the early 1970s vibe of a country undergoing political turmoil. Although the story is filtered through the eyes of a child, there are serious implications to be discovered and digested given that one can be bothered to look a little more closely, especially in the background of a public space. Look underneath the veneer of football-obsessed culture and notice faces that are deathly afraid of being pointed out or being implicated as a communist.

I enjoyed small moments that capture a young person’s curiosity. An example is how the camera focuses on Mauro’s face for an extra beat as he wonders about why important adults in his life (Germano Haiut, Caio Blat) are whispering by the window. Could these secret conversations be about his parents who decided to go on “vacation”? We are provided numerous scenes that depict a child’s innocence being hammered by adult-oriented external factors and it is refreshing how Hamburger manages to find different ways to show how a young person processes a set of actions.

It is apparent that those involved in making “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” have true understanding of child psychology. Notice how so many scenes rarely have anything to do with the main plot. This is because the material is aware of what sort of things create lasting impressions on a child. Playing with other kids in the neighborhood, creating social contracts with them; realizing that adults are not always strong, that they are vulnerable, have weaknesses, yet seemingly ready at putting on masks of strength and perseverance; wrestling with one’s feelings of abandonment, that parents will not always be around for support. Here is a film that offers rich details for those willing to look.

After the Storm

After the Storm (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that offers a protagonist who is a loser in the beginning and by the end he is still a loser. More digestible works would have absolved their characters of important shortcomings—or, worse, granted flimsy, silly excuses for the audience to feel good. But writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda is not interested in this approach. Instead, he provides details about the character by showing us what is important to him. Understanding him does not change the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it does remind us to take a second and be more sympathetic before casting judgement. What is film, after all, but a medium by which we get a chance to walk in another’s shoes?

Hiroshi Abe plays Ryôta, a full grown man, divorced, so afraid of losing his son (Taiyô Yoshizawa) permanently—since his ex-wife (Yôko Maki) has begun to date a more financially secure man—that he decides to spy on them. Abe plays the protagonist with quiet desperation and we observe his deep yearnings seep into his work as a private detective. It appears as though each case involves a man or woman cheating on a partner. His escape is gambling. Asking people for money and attempting to pawn off various items for an an extra buck take up the rest of his time. Meanwhile, every time he gets a knock on his door, fear strikes him like a lightning bolt, fearing these might be debt collectors.

The camera has a habit of resting on Ryôta’s tired face. Abe executes a great balance between Ryôta being self-aware of his worthlessness and wanting to change something in his life—even though he doesn’t quite know what to change, or at least admit that he has a gambling addiction and it is a major contributor to his downward spiral. Since Ryôta has trouble defining himself, those around him tend to define him instead. Particularly interesting is the protagonist’s sister who does not mince words. She’s tough and she’s right. She knows he will never change. I found the material honest in its portrayal of someone who understands another down to the bone. Immediately we get a complete picture of these characters’ histories.

Despite an interesting but unexciting protagonist, the film is filled with beautiful moments. There is a series of scenes toward the latter half when the father gets a chance to spend time with his son (despite being unable to pay child support for three months). At first, they are in stores, surrounded by strangers, looking at items, buying them. But then they come to an area where the father spent his childhood. From here they begin to look at one another from time to time, excavating memories, forging a bond. Instead of the boy feeling guilty about which pair of shoes he’d like to have—the glossy, more expensive one versus the one on sale—he is asking questions about his father’s experiences as a child. The contrast between these scenes is stark but can be easily missed. Clearly, this is not a work for those uninterested in interactions between ordinary people.

Koreeda creates a portrait of a family where the audience is asked to observe and note discrepancies amongst what characters say versus what they do. It assumes the audience is intelligent and engaged. He is not afraid of quiet and slow moments. Instead, he uses these moments to reveal disappointments, resentments, and, yes, even hope for the future.

The Turning

The Turning (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Henry James is turning in his grave because the latest adaptation of his novella “The Turn of the Screw” is brazen in sucking out the compelling human elements of the story and leaving the scraps to be modernized in a most uninspired, boring fashion. Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes are credited for supposedly writing the screenplay, but not only did they forget to bring original ideas to table, they have forgotten completely to give the film a third act. It ends so abruptly—offering no conclusion whatsoever—that the viewer is forced to wonder if the writers and director Floria Sigismondi actually cared about their project. It is offensive and a disgrace.

It is also a shame because Mackenzie Davis is quite watchable as Kate, a woman hired as a live-in governess in a massive estate that, as of late, has been plagued by mysterious deaths. Initially, it is Kate’s job to take care of a gifted little girl, Flora (Brooklynn Prince), but soon her brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), comes home from boarding school. Davis’ expressive eyes is fit for a role like this because Kate is required to investigate various areas of the dark, creepy estate on more than a handful of occasions. Those eyes, too, must relate to the children she is responsible for—even though at times her warmth is not welcomed.

The usual ghostly presences in the corner, our heroine walking down a corridor followed by a jump scare, creepy crawlers, and strange noises from nearby unused rooms are executed with minimal energy or glee. But because the setting is quite beautiful, particularly the foggy grounds of the estate—the maze, the stables, the fish pond—I didn’t mind so much; I found my eyes glued to the screen anyway because I imagined on occasion how it must be like to live in house boasting a hundred rooms but only four people around. I appreciated Flora’s loneliness; she is an orphan, her previous tutor left without saying goodbye, and her brother goes away for school. Before Kate, it is only her and Mrs. Grose (the committed Barbara Marten), a longtime servant of the Fairchilds who is wary of strangers and the children, specifically Flora, leaving the estate for whatever reason—even as simple as getting ice cream or doing a bit of shopping.

On the one hand, the work aspires to be just another haunted house movie—and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I preferred this approach. On the other hand, it introduces the possibility that the supernatural goings-on may be happening only in Kate’s mind. After all, her mother (Joely Richardson) is committed to a mental institution. (We are supposed to believe she is clinically insane due to the unwashed hair, lack of eye contact with her own daughter, and the fact that she cannot help but to create art—so reductive.) It fails on this level because the screenplay is not written sharply enough so that the paranormal happenings that unfold around the estate could have, for example, scientific or evidence-based explanations. Since it does not provide room for reasonable possibilities, like the script, we go on autopilot.

“The Turning” should not have been released because it is not a finished work. For a more effective adaptation of James’ novella, consider watching Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” It is superior in every aspect, including its approach in introducing the idea that perhaps the governess’ mind is fractured. There is genuine suspense in the late-night investigations and we become convinced there is powerful evil in the house. By comparison, “The Turning” is a cheap play thrown by people who pretended to read the novella when in fact they simply glanced over SparkNotes last-minute and called it a day.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A question: If there are zombies right outside and it is your intention to make a quick getaway with an automobile, would you put the car keys into your backpack where it could get lost among other items or right in your pocket for easy access? The answer is obvious, but the Christmas-themed zombie musical comedy “Anna and the Apocalypse,” written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, has a habit of playing dumb—real dumb—that the experience of sitting through it is a trial to be endured. It assumes that viewers do not possess more than five functioning brain cells and so we find ourselves five to ten steps ahead of it throughout its relatively short running time of ninety minutes. It is a complete waste of time.

For a musical, the majority of the songs not only sound the same, they are often about the same thing: alienated British teenagers who long for a life outside of high school. One wishes to travel, another looks forward to art school, a couple looks forward to taking their relationship to the next level. Due to the lack of variation, by the fourth or fifth song, I caught myself groaning inside—a way to mentally prepare my brain to try and process yet another one-dimensional two- to three-minute song.

There is one exception: a song called “It’s That Time of Year” performed by Lisa (Marli Siu), half of an enamored couple, during a holiday show at school. Parents watch wide-eyed. “There’s a lack of presents in my stocking / And my chimney needs a good unblocking”—it’s a dirty song and it is perfect for two reasons: it breaks the boredom and it fits the mindset of many teenagers at that age. If only the rest of the songs were as cheeky or well thought out.

The titular character is a complete bore. Although Ella Hunt plays Anna with some energy during dancing sequences, when the music stops and Anna is meant to connect with her friends, there is a desperate lack of chemistry. It were as if the actors had forgotten how it was like to be in high school. But more deserving of critique is the pallid writing. There is nothing cinematic or relatable about it. Compare the dialogue to the most awful Disney movies meant for television and notice the stench of mediocrity becoming all the more apparent. It does not possess an ear for dialogue; I didn’t even get the impression that the writers actually liked their subjects.

It is a poor survival horror film. Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” is perhaps its biggest inspiration, particularly the sequence in which Anna wakes up, steps outside, and fails to notice that her suburban neighborhood has gone to hell. But the difference between this picture and Wright’s modern classic is that the latter has an understanding of ramping up tension, the love for its characters can be felt at every one-time joke as well as recurring jokes, and there is dramatic gravity behind the fates of its characters. Here, when a character dies, it is met with a shrug and sentimental music. We are supposed to be moved while feeling cheated.

I would have enjoyed to have gotten to know more about Anna’s relationship with John (Malcolm Cumming). It is implied that the two have been best friends since they were children. But reliable, goofy, nice guy John is beginning to regard her as more than a friend. Anna notices. I felt the screenwriters’ fear and reluctance to tell this story—strange, and disappointing, because it is the heart of the picture. I believe the writers choose not to dig deeply into the friendship because they are not interested in characters, just blood and guts. Look at how there is more thought put into how a blood must squirt onto walls than how a friendship is navigated. The movie is not only without brain, it is also without soul.