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.

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.

Low Tide


Low Tide (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Low Tide,” debut film of writer-director Kevin McMullin, brings to mind coming-of-age pictures from the ‘80s, especially in how it captures the look and feel of living in a seaside vacation spot, but it lacks the necessary human depth for it to be truly compelling and memorable. This is particularly strange because the lead actors, Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson who play brothers, Peter and Alan, left to fend for themselves while their father is away for work, possess the ability to deliver convincing dramatic performances. The screenplay is not written deeply enough in order for these actors to be able to create subjects worthy of further exploration.

It begins as a story of three seemingly close friends (Johnson, Daniel Zolghadri, Alex Neustaedter) who break into people’s vacation homes to steal drugs, booze, and various items they could sell for petty cash. We watch them hang out at the boardwalk, scout for girls, get high, and pick fights with Bennys—a nickname they give to summer tourists. Meanwhile, a local cop, Sergeant Kent (Shea Whigham), suspects them as the ones responsible for the recent break-ins. He did not have a single evidence… until one of the teenagers ends up leaving a shoe at a crime scene. The boys’ relationship is tested and at one point we are meant to.wonder whether what they shared was friendship at all. Perhaps it simply a case of birds of a feather.

The plot also involves finding a dead man’s gold coins, but I think this is less interesting than the relationship between two brothers who look, sound, and act so differently when placed side-by-side, it takes a bit of persuasion to buy into the fact they are related at all. These highly valued coins is but a conduit to Peter and Alan coming together and admitting to one another that they are tired of being poor. And so their most recent asset must be protected at all cost. It is disappointing then that the writing fails to establish their desperation—how much each of them is willing to sacrifice—out of fear that one or both may come across as too unlikable.

There is sweet subplot involving Alan and an out-of-towner named Mary (Kristine Froseth). Although the cuteness of their chance meeting and going out on dates does not quite fit the overall foreboding feeling of the picture, I still found some enjoyment in these detours. I would have preferred for their conversations to have run longer since Alan is not a character who makes it a habit to talk about his personal life and the future with his so-called friends. It helps that Johnson and Froseth exhibit effortless chemistry when sharing a frame.

The picture may be low on thrills, but it is not short on consequences. It is not a clear-cut case of bad guys being punished and good guys prevailing. We get the impression that the brothers have learned something about themselves, about each other, and the world around them—expected from a coming-of-age film. Although the work left me wanting more depth, I am optimistic that McMullin can deliver stronger, more urgent content in future projects.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette


Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The consistently aggravating comedy-drama “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is adapted to the screen (along with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo—from Maria Semple’s novel of the same name) by humanistic writer-director Richard Linklater, but the final product is a soulless, meandering one-note joke in which the protagonist’s eccentricities are displayed on an unending parade as if these are enough to generate great entertainment. Cate Blanchett plays the titular character and because she is a veteran at playing a spectrum of notes, often in one scene, there are a few seconds here and there in which the movie feels somewhat tolerable. But not even a performer of her caliber could save this sinking ship, a true waste of time for viewers interested in worthy character studies.

Bernadette is supposed to be a genius architect who gave up her budding career twenty years ago after getting married to an animator (Billy Crudup), a genius himself, who now works for a branch of Microsoft. But instead of the screenplay finding ways to show us her gift in small or big ways, we are simply made to sit through an online video which summarizes her career. It is supposed to be funny—I guess—that the figureheads in the documentary are famous faces such as Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, Steve Zahn, among others. But I was not at all amused by this lazy approach in building what is supposed to be a compelling character—a person who has become a menace to society (especially toward her neighbors and fellow mothers [Kristen Wiig, Zoë Chao]) precisely because her need to create has been suppressed for two decades. And whose fault is that, really?

Above is only one example of the many poor choices of establishing character. As a result, we never believe that the personalities on screen are truly drenched or dedicated in the eventual drama of a woman suddenly going missing after so many problems (one of which involves the FBI) come knocking at her door. They must simply make their way across the checkerboard in a predetermined way simply because the plot demands that they do. There is no feeling, just a death march to the finish line. Since there is a disconnect between people’s thoughts and actions, there is nothing believable about generic responses to specific conflicts. Everybody is playing pretend; our boredom evolves into frustration.

Particularly painful to sit through is in how it showcases the marriage between Bernadette and Elgin. Right from the moment we meet them, there is no chemistry between Blanchett and Crudup. And so when the connection between the characters become colder or more desperate, the difference is negligible. The Crudup character is especially maddening. There are times when the performer acts as though something amusing is occurring on screen when it is supposed to be serious. Thus, Elgin is painted as if there’s a meanness to him, that he is a husband who appears concerned about his wife to her face but is actually mocking when she isn’t looking. This should have been recognized and corrected by Linklater—he has shown in his best works that everything on screen must work together in order to sell the drama of a relationship on equal footing, especially when there are numerous plates being juggled.

The disappearing woman act occurs way too late in the picture, when viewers likely have tuned out. A lot more attention (with slow as molasses pacing) is given to warring neighbors, a psychiatrist explaining psychological concepts, and mother-daughter bonding like singing in the car then eyeing one another dramatically. The would-be humanity in the picture is so planned, so forced, so fake. I could not wait to walk away from these intolerable cardboard cutouts and forget about them. The third act is especially clichéd. Of course it involves a teary reunion. Give me a break.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite all the dragons, the Vikings, massive ships, and stealth rescue missions gone wrong, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” written and directed by Dean DeBlois, excels during wordless moments when entertainment is created only through stunning animation and carefully crafted music. These instances, like a dragon courting another or longtime friends coming to terms with the inevitable, are beautiful and moving, appealing to both children and adults who appreciate storytelling more than empty and busy action. Although a third installment in a trilogy, the film is not bereft of introducing ways to dazzle.

This time, the central conflict revolves around Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) learning to become an effective leader of a community of Vikings who have grown reliant on dragons—so reliant that their island has gotten overcrowded. Due to the minute details of animation, we recognize that something has got to give from the moment we lay eyes on their island home of Berk. It is admirable that the answer to the main question is not simply moving to bigger, newer lands offering fresh resources. The screenplay offers long-term solutions both in terms of the needs of humans and dragons. As a result, there is finality to the story and it feels right.

Moving on with life is a recurring theme and it is executed with wonderful perspicuity. I think most important is the fact that the material assumes children are smart. For instance, when Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon companion, comes across a female dragon of the same species, their connection is not reduced to a silly love story or romance. Sure, there are cute moments which involve Toothless’ many attempts to impress the white dragon (with whom Astrid, Hiccup’s betrothed, voiced by America Ferrera, refers to as “Light Fury”), but the point is to generate laughter and to communicate a creature’s sheer joy for having discovered he is not the only one in the world of his kind, rather than to simply introduce a limp romance that merely functions as padding to the story.

Observe closely during these sequences. It is stunning how much range of emotions is communicated through the dragons’ eyes, their body language, how fast or slowly they move, how their nostrils flare at moments of surprise or curiosity, how their limbs relax when they hover the air. One could watch Toothless and Light Fury on mute and yet not much would be taken out of the experience. It is that effective in delivering precise thoughts and emotions. It is here that it becomes readily apparent the film is superior than most animated movies, especially those that rely too much on noise and color to create junk entertainment.

The villain is formidable. Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is a dragon hunter who takes pride in killing dragons, especially Night Furies. He does not hate these creatures, but he enjoys playing games with them before going for the kill. On more than one occasion, the character is shown to be intelligent, always one step ahead, and experienced in the art of the hunt. However, the final confrontation with Grimmel lacks a certain level of catharsis. For such a detestable character, it would have been preferred if Grimmel had gotten his comeuppance. At the same time, however, an argument can be made that taking on a more expected approach surrounding heroes and villains might have lessened the point that the story is trying to make. It is not about good versus evil.

Demon


Demon (2015)
★ / ★★★★

The late Marcin Wrona’s debut picture “Demon” tells a story of a man from London named Piotr (Itay Tiran) who goes to a rural area of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) a woman he met online. The day before their wedding, while digging in the yard, the visitor comes across what appears to be human skeleton. Although alarmed by what he has seen, he decides to keep his discovery a secret out of fear that it might derail the wedding. Late that night, due to heavy rain and mud, Piotr manages to fall into the pit. He wakes up the next day in his car with no memory of what happened after he was swallowed whole.

Although it is obvious that Wrona wishes to make a respectable and low-key horror film about the Polish’ relationship with the Jews before and after World War II, the work is far from cinematic. It is a bore for the most part because the exposition is so drawn out—there are images on screen but none of them are particularly unique or interesting. We learn about the wedding and we are introduced to some colorful personalities, but we never get to know any of them, particularly Piotr, in a deep or meaningful way. And so when the usual razzle-dazzle regarding demonic possessions move toward the forefront, it comes across like another inert horror movie meant to be forgotten even before the end credits roll.

It is especially frustrating to sit through because the director proves to have an eye for capturing images so stark that at times it feels like looking at old forgotten photographs. Notice shots of the outdoors. For instance, we see miles of grass… but there is no cattle grazing on meadows. There aren’t even birds making their way across the sky. There is construction in the middle of walls of sand and rocks… but there is minimal human activity, if at all. A similar observation can be made indoors. The house Piotr is staying in looks extremely run down. It gives the impression that the place is being renovated… but there are actually pictures hung on walls and decorations sitting on various corners. This Polish town is a depressing place. I would go as far as to claim it is meant to be a dead place, where people go to die. If only the screenplay by Pawel Maslona and Marcin Wrona functioned on the same level as the latter’s observant photography.

Events happen during and around the wedding, but not one is particularly compelling. There is a lack of balance in tone. Right after the wedding ceremony, Piotr begins to experience visual hallucinations. Eventually, he starts to lose control of his own body. These are meant to be terrifying. Sandwiched in between Piotr’s suffering is Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) and brother (Tomasz Schuchardt) trying to cover up Piotr’s “embarrassing mishaps,” like his seizure, which is supposed to be darkly comic. There are also tablespoons of absurdist humor in how wedding guests behave after having seen apparent medical emergencies.

However, there is no synergy established between horror and dark comedy. Usually, in order for the two to work together effectively, we must understand the characters thoroughly. In black comedies, for example, we laugh not at the events necessarily but at the people whom we know so well that we are tickled by their desperation. Within that desperation we recognize a part of ourselves. And so we laugh because perhaps we feel uncomfortable precisely because of that recognition. Here, the dark comedy is purely circumstantial. It becomes highly repetitive.

The spirit that possesses our protagonist is categorized eventually. I will not reveal it, but I can say that it has been introduced and explored in other, better horror movies. I enjoyed that the spirit is not the kind that inspires jump scares. In fact, it is treated as a rather sad entity. This is another avenue from which Wrona could have separated his work from other horror films. I’m afraid that by the time viewers get to this point—which is in the last twenty minutes of the picture—either they would be sleeping due boredom or given up completely that they’d have decided to walk out of it. And I wouldn’t blame them for doing either.

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Mirai” proves to be the kind of picture that sneaks up on you. Its plot did not impress or surprise me in any way: A four-year-old (voiced by Jaden Waldman) is unhappy with the fact that his parents (John Cho, Rebecca Hall) must now divide their attention between him and his newborn sister. It is a template from hundreds of movies aimed at or for children; during the first twenty minutes or so, I questioned whether the material would be daring enough to veer off into a different, unexpected, or more interesting direction. Somehow, almost miraculously, it did—not just in one direction but many. The work is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda with insight, empathy, and perspicuity. Here is an example of a story with a simple plot but the depth of what it is actually about is filled with great emotions and wonder.

The story unfolds in an episodic manner—appropriate because 1) it captures how we, as adults, tend to remember our childhood and 2) how children can relate most to overpowering emotions, even when they do not necessarily comprehend them, particularly when in conflict with siblings or parents. In a way, Kun’s journey toward becoming a more self-aware individual must be executed precisely as such because our lives are composed of fluctuating and colorful impressions. And although the storytelling unfolds this way, there is a distinct rhythm to it, the pacing is constant, tension builds, and the wisdom it imparts are precise but never preachy.

There is magic in the film which comes in the form of an oak tree in the backyard. It has the power to send people into the past, present, and future. It seems to be triggered by intense conflict among family members, particularly the boy’s relationship with his parents and baby sister. Ironically, however, this is the least extraordinary element. More astounding is, for instance, how simply going through a family album demands curiosity despite the medium being animation.

Patience is employed, combined with a relaxed energy, when we must observe characters remembering who they were or loved ones who have died. When someone points at a face on a photograph, we cannot help but wonder about him or her because each picture is vivid with both details and personality. Even when a group photograph is shown, notice how each expression is different even just slightly. It feels like going through an actual photo album. Kun’s family history feels vibrant, alive. There is a moving sequence when Kun meets his great-grandfather as a young man who loves horses and motorcycles.

Perhaps the most enchanting chapters involve the boy realizing that his parents were once young, too. They had lives before he was born, they had dreams, they nurtured hobbies, they grappled with failures and sadness. Kun throws temper tantrums when he does not get his way—but not always. The decision to write the character in an unpredictable fashion forces us to anticipate how he might react given a set of challenges. The sharp screenplay possesses subtle ways of reminding us of his growth—incremental most of the time but with occasional leaps forward. The boy keeps silent about having the chance to peer into his parents’ youth, but we recognize the exact moments when he begins to regard them differently.

Told at a child’s eye level, figuratively and at times literally, “Mirai” inspires us to love our loved ones a little more, to consider why they are the way they are at times. It is a work that can be enjoyed by the entire family. I think children would not only enjoy it, it might inspire them to look through photo albums and ask about each person’s story. The film is a celebration of life.