Yesterday


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.

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.