Lucky


Lucky (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Natasha Kermani’s “Lucky” is more interested in delivering a message than it is about creating a movie that just so happens to have a message. Specifically, its goal is to make a statement about the every day violence—overt and subtle—that women experience, whether it be at home, at work, or out in public: that the female gender, in general, tend to compartmentalize and go at it alone even when it is apparent that they are in need of help or a friend who can listen and empathize. This is told through the guise of what appears to be a standard slasher film.

I say “appears” because the screenplay, written by Brea Grant (who also stars as our protagonist named May), has a self-awareness about it. For instance, when May, having noticed a masked man standing in the garden and looking through the glass door in the middle of the night, jolts her husband awake, groggy Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh) claims that it is simply the person who stops by every night to try and kill them—so calmly, so casually, as if it were the norm. Like washing the dishes or taking out the trash. The first act does a terrific job in snagging our attention. But May appears to have no memory of this masked man. What exactly is going on in this household?

Because the premise is so curious, we watch a little closer. For instance, we learn to hang onto every line of dialogue and how it is delivered. We readily spot strange images like cookies decorated with sad faces in an event that is supposed to be happy or celebratory or a reflection on mirror not quite matching the present action. Is the tone or mood supposed to be dream-like? There are even times when it feels as though satirical elements are present.

Herein lies the problem: Because we grow sensitive to the most minute details, we note the amateurish acting, the awkward pauses between exchanges, the lack of polish in how words are strung together. Look at the physical confrontations between May and The Man (Hunter C. Smith), how they tend to look overly choreographed—toxic when the editing takes a backseat. Instead of delivering horrifying or thrilling encounter, the dance leans toward comedy. Blood that spurts out of a character’s neck has the viscosity of vomit. Meaty chunks don’t leak out of veins or arteries.

And what about common sense? Time and again May is able to overpower The Man, but she never bothers to take his mask off, especially when the police has made a habit of asking, “Can you describe how he looks like?” She also knows that when The Man has been incapacitated, his body disappears. And so, for the love of god, why is our heroine compelled to look away from the body within two seconds of disabling him? The answer is so that the formula can be repeated again and for the movie’s running time to stretch all the way to eighty minutes. Need I go on?

You cannot introduce a level of self-awareness while also playing it dumb and lazy.

These could have been overcome, quite handily, had the screenplay offered new and compelling ideas in a breathless manner while at the same time managing to explore and connect the dots already introduced. Having a message is terrific. But everything else around it must be equally strong, if not stronger, because these tend to prop up or elevate whatever is being communicated. If the audience is distracted by the most elementary shortcomings, how can the message—however important, relevant, or urgent—be taken seriously?

The Wandering Earth


The Wandering Earth (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Wandering Earth” is China’s first full-blown space disaster flick extravaganza, but it is nothing special because it fails to offer a memorable element outside of visuals. It is a shame because the premise, based on Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name, is unique: Due to the expanding sun, humanity has decided to band together and create the most astounding technology to move Earth out of our solar system and toward another that is 4.2 lightyears away, a feat that is expected take around 10,000 generations to achieve. The template is ambitious, but the execution is as generic as it comes.

Right from the opening sequence, a whiff of melodrama can be detected. A father, Peipang (Wu Jing), must leave his four-year-old son, Qi (played by Qu Chuxaio as an adult), under the care of his father-in-law (Ng Man-tat) to work on a space station that would eventually help navigate the planet on its journey out of the current solar system toward a new one. Cue the longing looks, warm lighting, and syrupy score just in case viewers fail to appreciate the precious time about to be lost between father and son. Before we know it, the text reads, “17 Years Later.”

But perhaps there is plenty to be discovered about this duo after the time jump. That isn’t the case. This relationship is never given a chance to evolve in fruitful or meaningful ways. Qi is shown as angry toward his father for leaving and cries when his father’s life is eventually threatened. How are we supposed to care when their connection is never given the depth necessary so that we understand, with equal complexity and intensity, a. the turmoil raging within the son’s heart for having been abandoned and b. the astronaut’s sense of duty for mankind’s survival? They share not one genuine conversation. In fact, the dialogue is rooted upon two extremes: light humor early on in the picture and exclamation points when chaos ensues. Where is the humanity?

What results is a bore, beautiful to look at due to the stunning special and visual effects, particularly when Jupiter begins to absorb the Earth’s atmosphere which causes sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. Cue planes falling out of the sky and various skyscrapers on the dead, frozen landscape collapsing, causing all sorts of trouble for the inhabitants on the surface. The CGI overreaches at times, which makes some of the action come across as rather cartoonish, but the destruction is exaggerated enough that calamities lean toward eye-popping as opposed to laughable. I also enjoyed the overwhelming sound effects, especially when the cracking of glacial surface crescendos into full-blown collapse of all structures within the radius of about a mile.

Still, for a story set hundreds, if not thousands, of years into the future, the population lacks diversity—even if it does take place mostly in China. Although a different sub-genre, a space western picture as opposed to a space disaster movie, Jo Sung-hee’s “Space Sweepers” does it right: there is a collection of cultures within any specified location. In this film, I found it hard to believe that for a planet in which various cultures supposedly learned to work together and install engines over several continents (which, practically speaking, should all be uniform)—engines that could create a thrust so powerful, an entire planet could be moved, there remains to be a lack of amalgamation when it comes to ethnicities and languages. In other words, the picture fails to evince a convincing international feeling. In this way, it feels like a movie made in the 1990s, not in 3990s, or even 2055. I wager this movie’s age can be felt by 2030.

Regardless, I remain convinced that if the screenplay, in which seven writers are credited, had offered memorable characters who are written smart with uniquely fierce personalities combined with something genuine at stake outside of mankind’s possible extinction, the picture would have been terrific entertainment. But alas, we are provided a safe outing—expensive but dull.

Moxie


Moxie (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a wonderful story waiting to be told and explored in “Moxie,” based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, but it is ultimately bogged down by a most generic storytelling parabola which makes the work vanilla and safe rather than a riotous, rebellious step forward. Its goal is to empower girls and women through feminism by means of underscoring some of the more insidious but normalized rules, traditions, and events in a typical suburban high school.

While most of us can agree with its two-fold message—that a. in this day and age females (especially females of color) remain on an unequal footing when compared to men (i.e.: the way they are expected to act or behave in public spaces, at home, or in the bedroom; when it comes to jobs, level of education, student loans taken out, and wages; down to what is considered to be “acceptable” clothing at school or workplace) and so b. we must adopt active changes (in our thinking, in the way we phrase a point, in action) in order to fill in the gaps—it cannot be denied that the film loses steam about halfway through. A movie like this must be focused, angry, and propelled by fresh ideas all the way to the finish line.

It is astounding to me that screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer deem it necessary to surround our protagonist, a shy but otherwise average and likable high school student Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), with superficial drama when what she hopes to accomplish—to upend the sexist and toxic patriarchy in her school by starting an underground zine—is not only compelling, it requires time and layered subplots in order to reach its maximum potential.

Instead, we are bombarded with busy-ness: trouble with her best friend (Lauren Tsai) when Vivian expands her social circle, trouble with a boy she likes (Nico Hiraga) when drama at school bleeds into drama at home, trouble with Mom (Amy Poehler—who directs) when she brings a nice man (Clark Gregg) over for dinner. These are decorations, unnecessary padding.

Allow me to defog: This is a story about a girl who feels so bland, who feels she has attained nothing of importance by her sixteenth year, that when faced with an essay question for college applications, she has no idea what to write. Her fears—that she is inadequate, boring, without substance—pushed her to do something inspirational and aspirational. (That in itself tells us what type of person she is—why she is a protagonist worth following.) But that’s not all. There is a line dialogue toward the end of the film—easily missed but I choose not to reveal—that drives home her crushing feelings of not being regarded as critical or important.

And so I ask the writers: When our heroine has all these inner turmoil, why make her journey so conventional and predictable? I think the answer lies in packaging the picture in a way that is commercial or mainstream. It does not possess the confidence necessary to tell the story straight—to tell it as honest or as unique as it can be—because doing so might risk digestibility. This is most ironic because if you’re going to make a film about feminism—and a feminist film, too—fear of alienation should not be in the equation. Otherwise, it comes across as false. As is readily apparent here. The film is feminist on the outside but without edge on in the inside.

It is a shame because I liked a few of the performances. At times Robinson reminded me of Kaitlyn Dever’s energy; there is a sadness to those eyes that when the comedic plot pivots to the more dramatic beats, we remain with her because there is a story constantly being told through those windows. This is a necessary trait because Robinson is the anchor. I also enjoyed watching Hiraga as the romantic interest. He may not look like a typical Romeo, but he brings forth major nice guy ska energy that is so high school, so real, so convincing. You can’t help but smile every time he’s on screen. I wished the writers remained true to the potential of what they had in the first place; they managed to turn the treasure in their hands into coal.

The Devils


The Devils (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ken Russell’s “The Devils” is based on a true story that begins almost like a farce and then the farcical elements are taken to such an extreme that the work becomes a horror film. It is a fascinating movie: bizarre, daring, oddly paced, colorful in terms of images and performances, and certainly pointed with what it wishes to communicate about our society, specifically how indoctrinated we have become that more often than not many of us still fail to acknowledge facts even when they are slapping us around and spitting on our faces.

But what I loved most about the film is that it is filled with seething anger against those who take religion and use it as a weapon of manipulation in order to achieve one’s (or an establishment’s) own ends. Although the story takes place 1634, the messages it hopes to impart remain relevant today—and I believe will remain pertinent for another five hundred years.

It tells the story of a priest named Urbain Grandier who was burned at the stake at Loudun, France for supposed witchcraft, bewitching a convent, and making deals with the Devil. During the first part of the picture, we are shown that although Grandier is a soldier of God, he is very much human and therefore flawed: he sleeps with women, he is guilty of vanity, is prideful, and takes pleasure in having power. Grandier is portrayed by Oliver Reed and he injects the character with such machismo and charisma that when his character walks around the city, we can believe why women—even nuns—lust after him; Grandier is a walking movie star, a sex symbol. Although a man of cloth, the writer-director makes a point that the priest is an object to be possessed.

But it is not enough that we follow him around from the perspective of an adoring member of the public. I appreciated intimate and silent moments when it is Grandier by himself—or with a person whom he truly loves and values (Gemma Jones)—and we get to appreciate the respect he has for his faith regardless of his proclivity for self-indulgence. We feel his loneliness as he sits alone in his quarters, frustrations when he wants to do his job during confession but the people who come up to him simply want to bathe in his celebrity, and determination to keep some of Loudun’s independence from the French government. Even though Grandier can be understood superficially, the more perspicacious viewers will recognize that he is a person of substance, too—critical in order to completely appreciate the outrageous events that occur in the latter half.

The film could have easily been derailed. There is exaggerated clothing and cosmetics, the tone during the exposition is quite schizophrenic, some of the acting can be quite hyperbolic, and there is even a musical number. Instead, it is focused in the story it wishes to tell. Consider that we spend ample time within the famed walls of Loudun. But when the film steps outside of the city, especially when the attention turns toward Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and they discuss, in amusing and terrifying ways, how else to gain more power within France, pieces begin to fall into place. There is political intrigue: Although Louis XIII is king, Richelieu is the rattlesnake in the grass. The contrast between these two men quickly stands out. Just look at how they’re clothed, the way their hair is worn, or if they don makeup. One man may have the power to instruct, but power lies in action. Richelieu enacts.

Another curious piece of the puzzle is Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave—so terrific in creating both a despicable and a tragic figure) who claims to love Father Grandier even though they have never met. The most striking moments in the film are when viewers are shoved into her sick fantasies—which almost always involve twisting a recorded event in the Bible—like caressing the body of Christ (Grandier), bowing to his feet, and licking his wounds. Cue the moaning, moments of ecstasy and orgasm. It is paramount that we be aware of what about the priest that excites her, that turns her on, that compels her to take action so that he would pay the slightest bit of attention to her: she who is a nun, who is a hunchback, who is considered to be ugly or unwanted—even in her own eyes.

This woman’s incendiary desires—lust—will lead the city into mass hysteria.

“The Devils” is one of those films that make you smile right in the middle of it because it feels like a miracle that it was made. There is plenty to bite into and explore here. I have not even gone into, for instance, the role of the public in amplifying drama which then gives otherwise preposterous claims—claims without a shred evidence—some weight or false substance. False rape accusations quickly come to mind. Here is a multifaceted biographical drama/horror film; what a unique combination. Do yourself a favor and choose to see this if you ever get a chance.

Centigrade


Centigrade (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Survival thrillers that take place in an enclosed space can be especially tricky to pull off as demonstrated so clearly in “Centigrade,” a movie that lacks tension, creativity, humor, horror, or even a lick of common sense. It was supposed to be written by two minds—Brendan Walsh (who directs) and Daley Nixon—and yet the ninety minutes is such an ordeal of boredom that one would be confident to wager that the screenplay was drunk-scribbled by someone who had a quarter of a brain and half of that quarter was malfunctioning. I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could start something productive like run errands, exercise, or sleep. Here is a cure for insomnia.

Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matt (Vincent Piazza) wake up in their vehicle to discover that none of the doors would budge. The night before, they decided to pull over to the side of the road because the awful blizzard combined with the dark made it difficult to see where they were going. It could have been a savagely amusing twist on the phrase, “Better safe than sorry,” but the work is blind to irony. This is a premise with potential: two people whose relationship will be tested by an impossible situation. However, the material fails to evolve over time. Once the basic premise is laid out, the film becomes a waiting game: will the couple try to get out or simply wait for rescue?

The former is the more interesting angle because characters are forced to take action. It is not enough to introduce characters, show their situation, and let the viewers’ imagination fill in the rest. Consider a picture like Rodrigo Cortés’ “Buried” which centers around a man who is buried alive in a coffin. A lot happens in that one location because the character is written in a proactive manner. It isn’t that he is especially smart or resourceful; sometimes the lightbulb in his head is born out of desperation. Although he can communicate with the outside world, there remains an increasing sense of unease. We cannot help but to laugh at times because his situation becomes increasingly hopeless. In this film, Naomi and Matt are dead dull. They argue, scream at each other, give out pointed looks, and the like. They have attitude to spare but neither bite nor substance.

The writers fail their characters on two fronts: by not writing them as sharp protagonists and by not putting them through a wringer. Instead, the duo sit in the car and mope. Eventually, they are supposed to be dehydrated and yet their lips aren’t the least bit chapped. It creates a depressing experience rather than one we cannot help but watch. Even the pregnancy angle offers no suspense or excitement. When the predictable birth scene arrives, it isn’t even shot correctly. Yes, the vehicle is cramped. But there is no excuse for not finding the best angle so that viewers are on the edge of their seats, wanting to know whether the infant or Naomi will survive.

Had the screenwriters taken a real good look at the material, they would have realized that the story is about a doomed marriage. One is a drug addict and the other is oblivious to the fact (perhaps by choice). The survival thriller aspect is surface level drama. The excavation of their secrets, what they love and despise about one another, and how they deal with problems when things are at their bleakest are the meat and potatoes. A unique, odd, or quirky situation is not drama. It can lead to drama. But work must be put in so that the story can take off.

The Little Things


The Little Things (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things” gives an initial impression that it is going to be a certain type of crime picture: walk the grisly scene, gather evidence, interview witnesses, visit the lab, pursue suspects, capture the bad guy. Somewhere in between various complexities arise. Well, the writer-director has something else in mind: To take a look at those taking part in the investigation, officially or unofficially, and explore what it is that drives them. Here is a story about two men of the law whose identities are defined by their line of work.

Both wish to solve the same crime. Detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is in charge of a case in Los Angeles involving four dead women—plenty of documented evidence but not a single suspect. He is young, considered by his more experienced peers to be a good cop, professional, by-the-book, very promising. The other is Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) who lives in Bakersfield. He looks tired, bored of his work but does what he can, and lives in isolation. Even the dog he cares for doesn’t come home for weeks at a time. No commitments.

The two men meet when the latter is asked to return to L.A. and pick up evidence from the County Sheriff’s Department, his former place of work. From the looks of it, it seems Deacon misses working in homicide. But his reason for sticking around proves to be far deeper than nostalgia. He suspects that an old, unresolved case is directly related to current serial murders.

During the picture’s extended expository sequences, we are offered nothing new. Even the formula of a has-been cop crossing paths with a hotshot detective is not that exciting. But what is curious is that the movie wallows in the formula for so long that more thoughtful viewers will be forced to wonder why. Because the screenplay actively avoids hitting the familiar landmarks of a procedural, what is the movie actually about?

I think Hancock’s story is about men of the law so dedicated to their jobs that over time they end up losing pieces of their soul, regardless of whether they solve a crime or whether the right suspect ends up behind bars. It is an indictment of the current system we have in America, particularly the lack of emphasis when it comes to the mental health of people who put their lives on the line to try to make our society a little safer. It is a stressful profession, the pay isn’t great, and the ghosts live rent-free in your head. But putting the general message aside, is the movie successful? In this case, it is a tough call.

On the one hand, I appreciated that the material is sagacious enough to include the menial details of detective work. It involves going into establishments, asking questions, gathering lists, and the like. When there is a suspect, cops have to wait in their car for hours. Following a suspect’s vehicle can lead to a wild goose chase. Does he know he’s being followed?

On the other hand, these moments of ennui could have been injected with ample personality. For instance, just because Baxter and Deacon must wait inside their vehicle for hours does not mean that they shouldn’t interact in meaningful ways. Yes, tedium can be an aspect of the story. But it does not mean that viewers ought to feel the need to check out. And because this picture teeters on the verge, it creates polarity. This is not a movie that is meant to be entertaining in a traditional sense even though it can be entertaining in small ways.

“The Little Things” is for a select audience. I found value out of it because I tend to discover meaning in… well, the little things. However, those who wish to sit through car chases, shootouts, elaborate murders, rousing confessions, courtroom scenes, and the like should not bother checking in. For those who do, prepare to adapt to the slow rhythm of a dry crime-thriller.

The Dark and the Wicked


The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a horror story that thrives in delivering terror in the intimate quiet. Although its plot is not original—adult siblings returning to their parents’ home because their father’s health has turned for the worse—it is confident in what type of tale it wishes to tell: minimalistic, relentless, bleak. “The Dark and the Wicked,” written and directed by Bryan Bertino, offers a foreboding mood, an increasing feeling of dread, and a slow but deliberate pacing. Jolts are present, but they are almost never the point. Notice how the horror tends to escalate once an entity reveals itself from the darkness.

I appreciated that the screenplay does not bother to offer an explanation in regard to whatever is going on in the farmhouse. We know there is a sort of haunting, but we don’t learn why or how it came about. It just is. We are given clues but not the connective tissues and so your interpretation of what might be happening may differ greatly from mine. For all we know, the house is sitting on an ancient Indian burial ground. But because its horror elements are quite potent at times, the lack of information does not matter. It leaves enough for the imagination.

Of utmost importance is survival; there is a reason why Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is quite distraught when her daughter, Louise (Marin Ireland), and son, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), both feeling guilty for not visiting their parents more often, show up despite the fact that she admonished them not to come. From the look of Mother’s exhausted and desolate eyes, she has been dealing with the evil presence—or whatever it is—for months. She no longer flinches when a kitchen chair moves on its own while she washes the dishes or cuts up vegetables. In fact, she gives off the feeling as though it is merely a part of her daily routine.

The picture reminded me of Nick Szostakiwskyj’s overlooked and underrated “Black Mountain Side.” It isn’t because the two share a similar plot or setting—far from it. Bertino’s story takes place in rural Texas which might as well be light years away from the icy mountains of Canada. The mood of “Wicked” is mournful and solemn while “Mountain” is mired in paranoia and isolation. Although Szostakiwskyj’s work is more oblique, perhaps even insular at times, the two possess an unrelenting vision: that the horror the characters experience is terrifying precisely due to its incomprehensible nature. It is a challenge to discern whether what’s going on can be explained by psychology or something that is not yet within the grasp of our understanding.

Having said that, the picture is limited by the writer-director’s seeming inability to establish a smooth flow from one scene to the next. This weakness is especially noticeable when a terrifying occurrence reaches a zenith; observe that a quick cut is almost always employed. Perhaps the point is to leave viewers rattled. But when the trick is used again and again, one cannot help but suspect it is more of a crutch than a deliberate, artistic choice. Had Bertino mixed it up a bit, perhaps it would not come across as a shortcoming.

Still, “The Dark and the Wicked” captured my interest all the way through—despite a most generic ending. Like James Wan’s two “Conjuring” films, I felt a certain presence of evil here, not when a ghost or demon is shown… but when it is daylight, when everything is where they should be, when characters feel safer, more protected than they do at night. But this isn’t meant to suggest that nothing terrifying unfolds during the day in this story—far from it.

Secret Sunshine


Secret Sunshine (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lee Chang-dong’s story of loss ends with our protagonist looking in the mirror and cutting her own hair. A haircut may end up good or, well, a disaster but one thing is certain: Hair grows back. This is a curious but not entirely unexpected note to close the story for the material appears to track the progression of life: the relative highs and lows, the uneventful episodes, surprising zeniths, and darkest nadirs that crush the soul into a million pieces. “Secret Sunshine” takes its viewers through a long journey and takes many risks in the process. It is not for everyone.

It begins with what is supposed to be a new chapter. With her young boy in tow, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) decides to move to Miryang, the birthplace of her late husband. He perished in a car accident, and although it is not stated how long it had been, we can glean from the widow and the son’s sorrowful eyes that they have not had enough time to mourn. And so a part of us feel that the move from Seoul to Miryang is an act of escape. Shin-ae is optimistic that by sheer will and energy, the blank slate will pave the way for her and her son to thrive. Little does she know that her son will be kidnapped, compounding another loss.

The material breaks from the typical and expected three-act structure; this one offers four. The third is most interesting precisely because of its polarizing nature: Shin-ae turning to religion to put a band-aid over her anguish and depression. The easy route would have been to show faith and religion as preposterous, a sham, a form of socially accepted collective insanity that is insidious enough to affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from education and morality to ethics and politics. Instead, the film takes the time to demonstrate the positive and negative qualities of faith, the former angle more overt while the latter requires a bit of critical thinking.

Thus, it challenges the viewer on two fronts: a. the dramatic plot surrounding our protagonist relative to her place in a community that can be kind and cruel in equal measure and b. the messages it wishes to convey about organized religion and how, although it can be helpful, it is not the panacea that its followers purport for it to be. Like the annual cold virus, sometimes it is better to ride it out, to allow the body to do what it has evolved to do. Just as hair grows back with time. However, contrary to the popular saying, time may not heal all. Sometimes we simply must decide to move forward with scarring. Such is life.

As previously mentioned, the story is not all doom and gloom. Shin-ae earns an admirer in a local mechanic named Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a thirty-nine-year-old man who is a walking ray of sunshine. It seems as though he has made it his mission for Shin-ae and her son to grow comfortable in their new home and acclimate with their community. Whatever Shin-ae is into, he is there to follow. His dedication is noticeable and admirable… But it can also be a bit annoying and creepy, depending how you wish to see it.

And I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects of “Secret Sunshine,” an occasionally cynical story of awakening: it is up to the viewers to decide from which angle, or angles, they wish to absorb the tale from. It presents the complex reality of colorful personalities while at the same time the more minute details relating to the questions beginning with “why” are open to interpretation. Prepare to engage; you will not be spoon-fed.

The Blair Witch Project


The Blair Witch Project (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” scares its viewers by showing a bunch of trees, a pile of rocks, a river, a black screen, and a whole lot of suggestion. It is an excellent example of a horror film showing nothing overtly scary and yet it possesses the ability to terrify because all the necessary pieces are set in place. It relies on the idea that what we can come up with in our heads can be far more frightening than an actor wearing a mask, costume, or makeup. The brilliance of this found footage film, believed by many to be real upon its release, is that it functions as a mirror of what we find to be scary.

Three film students—Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams)—venture into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary about the so-called Blair Witch who supposedly bewitched a man to kidnap and murder seven children in the 1940s. That man’s home is rumored to be located somewhere deep in the forest, but no one really knows where it is exactly because over the years residents have learned to stay away from the area. The expository sequences of this project is handled beautifully. The most ordinary-looking locals are interviewed, and they project a most convincing realism. Notice the way they sound. It is amazing that although they are non-actors, it does not feel as though they have memorized a single line. In addition, they do not seem to be aware of the camera which works because they do not feel the need to act as someone else other than themselves.

Some of them believe the stories surrounding the fabled Blair Witch. And a few of them do not. Because we are provided a spectrum of opinions, the implication is that it is up to us to decide what to believe based on what Heather, Josh, and Mike will experience in the woods. And because somewhere in the back of our heads we hold onto this idea, we are inspired to pay very close attention. For a good while “nothing much happens,” so we lean a little bit closer to the screen. Perhaps we are simply missing some of the finer details. And when something finally does happen, it is like a fire alarm; we are jolted into paying attention, mouth agape, eyes as big as saucers. But since the thing to be feared is never front and center, we struggle and attempt to make sense of what is really happening. The cycle continues.

This movie should be required viewing for all aspiring horror filmmakers. Remove the Blair Witch angle completely and this becomes a story of young people being lost in the woods. What is more terrifying than the idea of walking around in circles and experiencing a slow death? The trio have limited food and water. But they have plenty of frustration and anger. The map doesn’t seem to be useful. The compass points that they’re going south and yet they appear to be walking around in circles. What if you can never go home, that you know you’re going to die but won’t get a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones? This is not a one-dimensional horror film.

Most disturbing about “The Blair Witch Project” is not the burial grounds, stick figures hanging off trees, or even the sounds of children’s voices in the dead of night. It is the mental anguish that Heather, Josh, and Mike undergo. They yell and scream at each other, even get into physical altercations at times. But we never lose track of the fact that they don’t actually hate one another. They’re just so helpless and afraid. Rats in a maze. At one point we are inspired to ask, “What might I do in that situation?” while taking into account that it probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps a person’s fate is sealed once one decides to step into the deep, dark woods.

Your Name Engraved Herein


Your Name Engraved Herein (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Different about the LGBTQIA+ romance “Your Name Engraved Herein” is its disinterest in showing how its protagonists fall for one another—they meet, they share a meaningful look, and then they just… are. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world—and that’s because it is. This is fascinating from a storytelling standpoint, especially given its sub-genre, because it avoids some of the more common trappings that lead to deadly clichés and tired sentimentality. As a result, the screenplay by Yu-Ning Chu, Jie Zhan, and Alcatel Wu frees itself to explore other curious aspects of the story like the iron grip of Christianity in late ‘80s Taiwan following the end of martial law.

Just because politics has undergone a shift on an official capacity does not mean that the people who have been conditioned to live a certain way could—or would—follow just as easily. This thesis is beautifully delved into through the scope of the “very close friendship” between A-Han (Edward Chen Hao-Sen) and Po-Te (Jing-Hua Tseng), the latter a transfer student whose nickname is “Birdy.” He quickly garners the reputation of being “crazy” due to his constant disregard for the rules and of those in power. Or perhaps his name is fitting precisely because he is free. Birdy is not afraid to be labeled as queer, to stand up for those who are down, to fight for what he knows to be right. Or it seems to be that way at first. The details are more complicated.

The camera watches closely, and it makes point that every act of rebellion is what attracts A-Han to Birdy. Perhaps A-Han, who has lived a life conformity (how he cuts his hair, how he carries himself in public, the “friends” whom he chooses to associate with, down the the subject he decided to major in), wishes to be more like the new guy. There is one thing A-Han cannot control or change: his homosexuality. On the one level, this is a story of a great love—the kind of love a person experiences and never forgets. And on the other level, this is a story of a young man who wishes so badly to be free but the times, the institutions in charge, and the belief of hate instilled in the Taiwanese society prevent him from taking flight.

Its themes of longing, yearning, and loneliness are beautifully laid out. It does not need to show someone being so sad or crying. Just look at how one character is always chasing another. At times a gesture is reciprocated, other times it isn’t. Observe how it is able to communicate so much by showing a pair reading each other’s minds while in a public space yet at the same time they are lodged in a little corner. There is intimacy in how they touch, play, or smile; they are at peace. By relying on images and the mood it evokes through pacing, music, and colors, it is as if the picture is whispering to us that it knows how we feel when we have fallen hard for someone.

And that makes all the difference between a romance driven by plot and a romance that just… is, a romance that can go whichever unexpected or unconventional direction and viewers would be happy to follow because it has something real to say about life and living. Congratulations to Director Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu for helming a film that is true to the topics and themes it brings up rather than simply satisfying the audience on a traditional sense. The time jump from 1988 to 2020 is risky but brilliant. There is a maturity in the way it tackles loss, acceptance, and renewal.

Open 24 Hours


Open 24 Hours (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Padraig Reynolds’ “Open 24 Hours” thrives in brutality. When it goes all in with its violence, like showing a sledgehammer splitting open a person’s skull like a juicy watermelon—Thwack!—it is near impossible not to flinch. It acknowledges that violence can be ugly, dirty, messy, and may not be for everyone.

But the movie is not simply a spectacle for gore or barbarity. I think its goal is to modernize the classic slasher—notice its slow buildup and willingness to allow private conversations to unfold. Still, I think it could have been a more potent piece of work had it gone further. For instance, employing unusual or interesting camera angles, playing with harsh or atypical lighting, circumventing the expected beats that lead up to scares, adding an extended heart-pounding chase sequence or two, crafting a killer score. Although I enjoyed the picture, and I am giving it a mild recommendation, I feel it is not special enough to be remembered ten years from now.

Perhaps it has something to do with that lazy, cliché, throwaway ending. Horror movies, especially modern ones functioning on a limited budget, have such a difficult time presenting a satisfying closure. Offering a final shock—even though it fails to make any sense or is completely inappropriate—has become the norm. I expected more from Reynolds, who wrote and directed the underrated but confident horror-thriller “Rites of Spring.” Why not simply end the story in a way that feels right for the character, or characters, we’re following? Why must there be a need to question whether a sequel might follow?

It is also possible that another reason why the picture fails to stand out among its contemporaries is because our protagonist, Mary (Vanessa Grasse), is not a heroine who can belong in the classic slasher films that the writer-director clearly admires. The interesting thing is we are ready for her to be a Laurie Strode (“Halloween”), a Nancy Thompson (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), a Sidney Prescott (“Scream”), or even a Ginny (“Friday the 13th Part 2”) because Mary has the backstory: she is a genuinely penitent ex-con, sent to prison for having set her former boyfriend on fire. And her ex just so happens to be the so-called Rain Ripper (Cole Vigue), whose modus operandi is kidnapping and murdering women when it rains. Mary was labeled by the media as The Watcher because for a time she knew about his… extracurricular activity but did nothing.

Grasse paints Mary as flawed but likable, still suffering from deep and unresolved trauma. Not to mention overwhelming guilt. There is one too many sequences where she experiences visual and auditory hallucinations even though these are executed rather well. When jolts come, you can tell that Reynolds is a fan of the horror genre. But it is most disappointing that when Mary is eventually hunted by the man she should have killed when she had the chance, we don’t quite feel that fight in her. Detecting that fire within our heroine is so important in slasher films. A case can be made that such fire can make or break a movie.

The body count is surprisingly high in this film—especially because it is filled with kind characters. There is Debbie (Emily Tennant), a true friend who decides to stick by her pal and actively root for her when Mary herself feels like she’s worthless. There is Bobby (Brendan Fletcher), a funny and caring gas station attendant who has been assigned to train recently hired Mary thirty minutes before her 10:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. shift. And then there is Tom (Daniel O’Meara), Mary’s parole officer. He is tough on Mary, but we never doubt his reasons. O’Meara portrays Tom as a man who is tired of seeing ex-cons get sent back to jail for being foolish. There is not one line of dialogue that suggests this possibility; it is all in the eyes and how he carries himself.

“Open 24 Hours” is a tough call from the angle of giving recommendation to the general audience. It may not possess an original story, but it does a handful of things right. However, it is an easy call for horror fans: It is likely you’ll find entertainment or value from it even though a. it is far from innovative from a storytelling point of view and b. it is not quite successful in shaping a modern slasher to be shortlisted as a standout for years to come. It has enough personality and flavor to sustain a hundred minutes—and sometimes that’s enough to scratch the itch.

Shook


Shook (2021)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Jennifer Harrington opens “Shook” in a tight frame: three ecstatic makeup influencers on a private red carpet event with adoring media asking easy, breezy questions meant to underscore the fab life of being an internet sensation. But then it cuts to a wide shot. It turns out that the “private red carpet event” is taking place in a random, dark, janky parking lot and that the red carpet itself barely fifteen feet long. It mirrors Rudy Giuliani holding a humiliating press conference in the back parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

It is a hilarious image and so viewers cannot be faulted for thinking that the rest of the picture will skewer the idea of controlled or filtered images, posted for the sake of likes, heart emojis, and self-validation. “Finally!” I thought, “A horror movie that steps out of the gate from a specific angle. This should be good.” But what a nosedive. Aside from this terrific opening scene, the rest fails to measure up. It turns out to be yet another the-killer-is-actually-inside-the-house movie.

Think of Wes Craven’s “Scream,” specifically the classic scene with Drew Barrymore answering the telephone and the killer wanting to play a game. Now, remove all the self-awareness, subversive humor, and creativity. Take away the likability, personality, and star quality of the lead, too. Then turn off the lights so that rooms are as dark as possible, making it difficult to make sense of the action at times. Lastly, turn the energy dial from 10 to about 1.5—2 if you’re feeling generous. Now you have an accurate idea of the torturous, redundant, interminable, worthless eighty-eight minutes that “Shook” offers. By the end of it, I wanted a shower because it was such a depressing and empty experience. What possessed the writer-director to make this movie? What’s the point?

Mia (Daisye Tutor) is supposed to be an influential figure, but we are never shown how or why. If her genre, or expertise, is cosmetics, then it is the writer’s job to make the viewer, who may not be interested in makeup, feel as though the subject’s occupation or passion is at least worthy of looking into. Makeup is creative, fun, and has an extended history across cultures. And if Mia were solely in it for money or fame, then that should be clear, too. In other words, it is the writer’s job to establish interest, curiosity, or intrigue outside what will eventually happen to the character. Because if there is no reason to root for the character, then why should we care whether she lived or died? This is not Horror 101, not even Storytelling 101; it is Common Sense 101.

Putting that aside, tension is non-existent in this boring and repetitive slasher. While social media is a crucial aspect of the tale, it is apparent that the filmmakers care more about how private chats or comment sections are presented rather than getting the feeling of a scene precisely right. Perhaps this might have worked if the material leaned more toward horror-comedy, but in either case its imagination has flatlined by the fifteen-minute mark. You sit there and wonder what the storyteller wishes to say about the protagonist, about our culture, about us as consumers.

My disappointment—and anger—stems from the fact that “Shook” could have been a movie of real substance. And yet minute after minute the choices made are lazy, uninspiring, and full of pessimism. It expects us to be brain dead, to consume its low-calorie “entertainment,” and tolerate it. Instead of elevating the horror genre—a genre that I love—it cheapens it, it spits upon it. I felt no passion in this work, no color, no flavor, no joy, no purpose. It’s just… there.

By the Grace of God


By the Grace of God (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director François Ozon takes real-life stories of adults sexually abused as children by a priest and fictionalizes them in order to make a cohesive whole in “By the Grace of God,” both a ruminative and angry film that demands justice and change from the Catholic Church. Although it possesses a dramatic core, it is fascinating that humanist filmmaker Ozon chooses at times to tell the story as if it were in fact a documentary by simply following the traumatized victims through their day-to-day lives in hopes of eventually connecting with the right persons of authority—within the church, the government, the media—to prevent future molestations of children in the hands of Catholic priests. It is told with clarity, confidence, and purpose.

Although hundreds of boys were sexually abused by predator Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), we meet three men who were in his care from 1988-1991: Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), father of five whose faith touches nearly every aspect of his life; François (Denis Ménochet), an atheist who has kept his guilt and trauma under wraps for so long that upon hearing legal action is actually being taken against Preynat, we come to witness a man with a renewed sense of purpose; and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a man with an IQ of 140 but suffering from a physical deformity linked directly to Preynat’s abuse.

We spend equal time with each of these men—and their home lives—and so we get a complete picture of what the legal battle means to them personally and as a unit. We even come to meet some of their aging parents; not all of them support the idea of going after the church because their faith is deeply ingrained in their identity. To them, why bother excavating what happened 30 years ago? After all, the statute of limitations has already passed. It must no longer be relevant or important. Just move on. Ozon makes the point that it is important to include such perspective in this story because embracing certain attitudes may be a contributing factor as to why there remains no justice to many men and women who have been abused by priests. These predators continue to be around children with impunity. Their “punishment” is simply being moved to another location, free to ruin another child’s life.

The director is not afraid to place a monster in front of the camera, and he dares us to stare at the subject’s face, his body, his movements, whether or not he looks at his victims in the eye. Not fifteen minutes into the picture, Preynat is front and center admitting, in front of a church official, that he did in fact molest Alexandre as a boy and in under what circumstances. Details matter and this work treats the viewers like mature, intelligent, and thoughtful adults; never is an opinion or insight painted in black and white. Even those who disagree with the victims’ methods of garnering media attention in order to pressure the Church. And so it leaves us room to contemplate and consider where a person might be coming from.

The greatest strength of “By the Grace of God” is its willingness to paint every character as a living, breathing person who is complex, full of inconsistencies, fears, insecurities, and redeeming qualities, too. It is impressive that all of the performers possess a story in their eyes. The writer-director shoots scenes so organically, there are instances when it feels like we are sitting in a room where we shouldn’t be. The picture is raw, direct, and worthy of the subject being explored. It is not interested in sentimentality.

Spontaneous


Spontaneous (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

For a movie in which the plot revolves around high school seniors who may explode out of the blue, “Spontaneous,” based on the novel of the same name by Aaron Starmer, is surprisingly human, a dark comedy that consistently strives to capture the unpredictability and drama of being on the cusp of adulthood. This could have been a one-note joke with ample guts and gore. But writer-director Brian Duffield, in his debut film, elevates the material by being willing to observe and listen to his teenage subjects, specifically their fears of death and not getting a chance to live the life they’ve imagined for themselves.

Spontaneous human combustion can be a hilarious visual gag. The idea is so ludicrous, you can’t help but laugh once it is actually executed. The movie opens with this expectation in mind, and it delivers. It leads viewers to believe that this will be the tone of the picture: silly, tongue-in-cheek, visually creative, shocking at times, but ultimately harmless. And so it is a terrific surprise when eventually it underscores the horror of human bodies suddenly exploding. It’s funny during the opening scene because we have not gotten to know any of the teenagers yet. It is another thing entirely when someone whom we learn to care about dies suddenly.

One of the sequences is shot as though there is a school shooting. We are led to believe it is just another day of boring lectures. Then student explosions commence left and right. Panic bleeds from the classroom and into the halls. There is deafening screaming and the handheld camera is right in the middle of a stampede. Students trip and fall, many covered in their peers’ blood. Exterior doors cannot be opened from the inside. Panic escalates further.

What triggers these students to explode? (This is later referred to as The Covington Curse, named after the high school.) We note for patterns: gender, skin color, sexual preference, location, who is around whom, mental and emotional state before combustion. Surely there must be an explanation. I will not reveal whether there is or isn’t. But what I appreciated is that it almost doesn’t matter. We follow Mara (Katherine Langford), her best friend Tess (Hayley Law), and the romantic interest Dylan (Charlie Plummer) just trying to make it through another day. We learn about their pasts, what they think of the insanity unfolding all around them, their goals for the future. Rumor has it that The Covington Curse should be lifted upon graduation.

The movie is occasionally political. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is uttered by a government official and angry students immediately shut it down, demanding that they be informed what precisely is being done to prevent another spontaneous combustion from occurring. There is censure of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, specifically what they represent when it comes to tackling America’s obvious gun problem: absolutely nothing. They don’t care as long as they continue to receive money from their donors. So it should not come to a surprise that there were more mass shootings than days in 2019 (CBS News).

“Spontaneous” functions on relatively high tension; it creates a sinking feeling that no one is safe. A few sections around the hour mark could have used a bit more fire, but Mara and Dylan’s romantic relationship manages to outshine the occasional sluggish pacing. If you’re craving for a different take on high school life and romance, give this one a try. But do not expect puppies and rainbows. Expect death, helplessness, and a whole lot of drinking to numb feelings of pain and loss. This is a dramedy, not a rom-com.