Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is nothing next level in this sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the first direct follow-up of the 1995 classic, unless you count mediocrity as a positive trait. It is try-hard in just about every aspect: its humor, characterizations of already hyperbolic characters, vague references to video games, and utilization of bad CGI in order to create a semblance of thrill and excitement. I was bored by its rotten offerings; halfway through I felt embarrassed for everyone on screen and wondered which projects they refused in order to appear in this misfire of an action-comedy.

It begins with potential because there is some form of human drama. Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a college student in New York City, the nerdy kid who we assumed would thrive in a college setting back when we met him as a high school senior in the preceding picture, appears to be experiencing college blues. He returns home for the holidays and, in order to escape, chooses to go back into the game and recapture that feeling of being strong, unstoppable, special.

But instead of really honing in on this character’s psychology or state of mind, the screenplay by Jake Kasdan (who directs), Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, merely introduces elements why he might be feeling depressed: a recent break-up, a thankless part-time job, feeling deeply insecure from having seen Instagram posts of all the adventures his friends are having, and the like. Once Spencer gets sucked into the game, all humanity goes out the window and never seen again. Naturally, when he is found everything is all right again. The movie is over, right? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, we are introduced to a number of eccentric characters both old and new. Particularly enjoyable are Eddy, Spencer’s grandfather who is recovering from hip surgery played by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and Milo, Eddie’s former restaurant co-owner played by the scene-stealer Danny Glover. Notice that no matter how familiar or connected we are to Spencer and his friends (Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain), not one of them is interesting by comparison when in a scene with the highly experienced DeVito and Glover. When the two character actors speak or simply be, our attention goes straight to them. At one point, I wondered why these young folks are required to appear in this next chapter since they are given nothing new to say or do. For easy continuity, I guess. Convenience.

And that’s the problem. This film has grown comfortable taking the easy route one too many times—whether it be the safe jokes (sometimes the exact same jokes we’ve already encountered in the previous movie which makes the expository scenes drag like no tomorrow), how characters tend to yell over one another which is often mistaken for humor, the way in which the action is presented in a chaotic and unappealing way, to the lame, surface-level nudges to video games, especially role-playing games. While understandable that the screenwriters try to strive for accessibility, it is a family picture after all, must the material be so consistently devoid of originality, creativity, and ability to take risks? This movie tastes like it was made in a factory.

You can tell that “Jumanji: The Next Level” is made too soon and too quickly. The central villain named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is bland and the mountaintop castle he resides in is without personality. In the end, of course, our heroes must break into the castle and obtain an artifact. Anybody who has played a video game can tell you that final bosses must be challenging. In this film, it is like a walk in the park. There is no sense of danger or mortality. No one even gets wounded. When our characters’ remaining lives dwindle down to one, there is no tension at all. You know what would have been next level? To discover what happens when a character’s final life gets used up. Because the film is so safe, we never get an answer.

The Bone Box

The Bone Box (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Luke Genton’s “The Bone Box” shows nothing we haven’t already seen before. Yet it might be worth seeing for what it is able to accomplish under a limited budget. The story unfolds in a two-story house right next to a cemetery, owned by the widow Aunt Florence (Maria Olsen), and scares come in the form of ghosts making themselves known to the guilt-ridden Tom (Gareth Koorzen), a gambling addict neck-deep in debt who decided to dig graves and steal from the dead for funds. A woman named Elodie (Michelle Krusiec), who works at the cemetery, is his co-conspirator.

Every other scene involves a paranormal encounter. It ranges from unsettling (a painting of Aunt Florence’s house with a black figure slowly approaching the front door) and overtly creepy (a bicycle bell ringing downstairs) to downright ridiculous (a bride who kills herself in a bathtub). Given the limited number of rooms, it’s quite astonishing how the writer-director is able to move from one set piece to another with a rhythm and flow. It is breathless at times but never flashy.

But not all ghosts are meant for scares. Tom is still grieving over his wife’s death due to cancer. This is the aspect of the screenplay that the story could have done without. I found the flashbacks and imaginings to be cloying and sentimental. It exists solely as Tom’s trigger to get into gambling. Remove this portion of the story and Tom remains the same character: greedy, desperate, possibly on the verge of losing his mind.

There are a few inspired images. Most of us have encountered scenes from other horror movies involving a mannequin moving on its own. But the mannequin encounter here pushes it a bit further in that the editing is so swift and skillful that it becomes difficult to tell whether the veiled figure is simply a dummy or a performer. We know it is going to move. That’s not the punchline. It is a manner of when. Another involves a shadow wearing a hat engulfing the silhouette of our protagonist. When I am thunderstruck with terrific images like these, it made me wonder what else Genton could have accomplished given a larger budget.

The dialogue could have used a bit of work. Expository lines should have been excised altogether; leaving them makes it difficult to listen to. We get the impression we are being told rather than being inspired to listen and feel deeply. I do, however, appreciate exchanges like Tom and Aunt Florence discussing their connection in terms of loved ones they’ve lost and how such deaths have changed the course of how they continued to live their lives. Genton is correct to introduce moments of pause from time to time so that we form a connection with the characters and to build tension. After all, we know there are spirits in the house.

Clearly, “The Bone Box” is not without potential. I admired it for its willingness to tell a focused and engaging ghost story even though the final act is as generic as it comes (ghosts appearing all at once—bad cosmetics and all—and the main character’s descent to madness which comes across so, so busy). It is for horror fans with an open mind who couldn’t care less whether a movie looks like it was made with $100,000 or a hundred times that. It’s about the execution.

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The essence of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to get right on film, and Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space” is yet another example. What should be an enigmatic, sad, and ultimately horrifying story involving a family whose matriarch, Theresa (Joely Richardson), has just undergone mastectomy is reduced to a series of “Did that just really happen?” shock moments—entertaining at first but eventually suffering from diminishing returns. While the special effects—CGI and practical—are visually impressive on occasion, especially eye-catching when the filmmakers dare us to look at the disgusting boils and rotting flesh, I found myself not caring at all about the family. Like their pet alpacas, they are treated merely as sheep to be slaughtered.

The picture shows initial promise, clearly having an eye for beauty. Observe the opening scene closely. We watch the teenage daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), an aspiring witch, partaking in a ritual that might help to strengthen her mother’s health. During her performance, we learn about her hopes for the family, how she feels about living in a posh but isolated estate, her yearning for independence. She is surrounded by verdant trees, the circle of rocks sitting right next to a pond full of life, how the bright sand allows everything on top of them to pop out. It creates the impression that the story is taking place somewhere far away, foreign, certainly not set during modern times. This fantasy, however, is broken when a curious stranger appears—Ward (Elliot Knight), the hydrologist, a potential romantic interest.

But the stranger is not the only outsider. In the middle of the night, a meteorite crashes on the front yard and creates an explosion. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and Theresa run out to investigate, imploring their children to get away from the crash site and stay inside the house. Bizarre events begin to happen… starting with the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard), who goes into some sort of shock or trance right after the crash. Soon, Benny (Brendan Meyer), the middle child, begins to encounter problems with time.

Although it is interesting that the family members’ strange experiences are directly tethered to their interests—for example, Benny enjoys smoking marijuana which can alter one’s perception of time, Jack enjoys pretend play so he starts hearing someone, or some thing, attempting to communicate with him from inside the well—it is frustrating that the story fails to take off.

The movie is reduced to showing grotesque incidents. The more this formula is followed, the more the work consistently fails to provide reasons why this particular story is worth telling. We are provided not one original idea. In the middle of it, I wondered what the picture was about. Is it about Lavinia becoming a woman, the meteor serving as metaphor for womanhood? Is it about how one family member’s illness (in this case, cancer) can become the whole family’s illness (emotional, financial, social stresses)? It is about how helpless or unprepared we are as a species when faced with new or ancient disease? These are just three examples. So as you see, this story could have been so much more. Yet it isn’t.

Even Cage’s histrionic acting gets old eventually. Because nearly every element is so hyperbolic—the colors, the sounds, the effects, the characters’ desperate circumstances—the hammy acting becomes groan-inducing. I was reminded of Panos Cosmatos’ avant-garde “Mandy”—in which Cage’s hyperbolic facial expressions, behaviors, and overall being feel exactly right. Here, the Cage brand of manic functions more as distraction from the malnourished screenplay.


Absentia (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s debut feature film proves that showing the monster completely is not necessary to construct an effective horror film. Instead, he drowns the viewer in tense and portentous atmosphere, creepy folklores, and genuine humanity. Only ten minutes into the picture—opening credits included—already we are presented with an emotional hook: Tricia (Courtney Bell) confesses to her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), what she forces herself to think or imagine in regards to what might have happened to her husband since his disappearance seven years ago. Here is a portrait of a woman so lonely, so sad, and so desperate to have some semblance of closure in her marriage that she is unable to move forward with her life. Her husband is not the only thing that disappeared seven years ago. So did her own light.

We meet Tricia putting up new missing person posters and right away we detect a melancholy about her. She moves rather slowly not because she’s pregnant but because she is pulled between past and future. The present is unbearable; she lacks purpose. It is quite possible she’s depressed. Bell portrays Tricia as a motherly and sisterly figure with seeming ease. We wish to get to know her character even though she is clearly not at her best. Flanagan makes the correct decision to allow Tricia and Callie to talk deeply—about Daniel’s disappearance, Tricia delaying to find a new place to live and start a new chapter, Callie’s history with drug addiction. What’s brilliant is the fact that these personal details are not simply utilized to garner our sympathy. These are tied into the mystery at hand: What is going on in this neighborhood, especially its track record of people suddenly being spirited away?

There are numerous creepy and downright chilling images, from bug-like shadow creatures skittering about, a shower curtain moving just a little bit when nothing is supposed to be behind it, ghostly Daniel appearing in the background when Tricia closes her eyes—and sometimes right in front of her when she opens them. Couple these with Flanagan’s expert use of silence. We learn to brace ourselves when all we can hear are footsteps and the sounds of our characters breathing. Notice, too, that when the unsettling score is employed, it is also overpowering. It is interesting that at times the score booms and we are forced to listen closely at the subtler sounds of a scene. Clearly, Flanagan wishes for us to engage with the material, to use all of our senses and turn on our brains—the opposite of many modern horror movies.

I enjoyed there is no explanation offered about the origins of the monsters. To do so would have eroded their mystique, possibly made them less scary. I would even go as far to say that going down that route would have made the story more pedestrian. Instead, we are given time to absorb and process the lies the characters tell themselves in order to try to make sense of seemingly inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. Because are provided rich character details, the various puzzle pieces can be put together so that rationalizations are pragmatic, “conclusive.” This is true to life, I think. We are biologically wired this way so that we can move on from tragic and/or traumatic events. The goal of this film is to put that idea into context.

“Absentia” may be low on budget but it is high on ambition, imagination, and entertainment value. Obviously a fan of the horror genre, Flanagan is aware of the usual rhythm and beat—he uses them as they are sometimes and there are instances when he turns them upside down. But most of his effort is put into creating humanistic and deeply flawed characters so that we care about them as if we know them personally. I grew so attached to Tricia and Callie, I found myself wanting a sequel… even though I know deep down that the story is complete as is.


Barbara (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

For the majority of the beautifully told story of “Barbara,” written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, directed with precision by the former, we become convinced that the titular character would do anything necessary to get out of the oppressive East Germany. She is so unhappy about having been banished in a rural town to work at a clinic as a doctor for simply filing a formal request to leave the east that from the moment we lay eyes on her, it is clear that this woman is angry at the government and the system that deny her freedom—and yet she must compose herself because anybody could be watching. A woman at a bus stop, an old man at a cafe, a stranger in his car—anyone is a potential informant. One wrong move could get her arrested. The core is a drama while the surrounding layers is suspense.

It requires the viewer to pay close attention. Notice the lack of score or soundtrack, for instance. Instead, the music is the wind, how it tends to blow hard and rattles the leaves and branches as Barbara acquires an item from a hiding spot. She is in contact with her beau (Mark Waschke), a man of money and influence, who lives in West Germany. The music, too, is the sound the bicycle makes, Barbara’s main mode of transport; the crashing of the waves, the ruckus a patient makes as she is carried to her bed; the alarming ringing of a telephone; a terrifying knock on the apartment’s front door. Because there is no music to guide us when it comes to how to feel or what to expect, small turn of events provide maximum impact.

Barbara is portrayed by Nina Hoss with intelligence, grace, and intrigue. She is one of those performers who can simply stand in one spot while smoking a cigarette and her relaxed stance conveys plenty. The character is challenging to navigate on paper because she does not say much—which is a requirement because Barbara must be careful from saying or even implying the wrong thought or intention. She suspects everyone around her to be a potential informant—and she is correct in doing so. Particularly painful then, in a longing sort of way, are her interactions with a kind colleague, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who appears to be genuinely interested in her as both a person and a potential lover. He recognizes her loneliness, but we have a reason to question his actions because the first scene involves André and a Stasi agent watching her through a window.

Barbara’s oppression is not localized to the Stasi dropping by at her apartment unannounced to search through her belongings, strip-searching, and cavity-searching her. Seemingly beautiful scenery can be considered oppressive should one chooses to observe closely. For example, while in broad daylight, notice how the wind blows so harshly as Barbara rides her bicycle to and from her “secret areas.” The gust is so strong that it ends up creating so much noise; not only must she remain control of her secondhand bicycle, it is a struggle for her to detect if anyone is nearby. Every second of action and inaction counts. Another example is when it is night and she is outdoors. Shadows cover her face and body most of the time, almost enveloping her, and it is especially a challenge to make out the faces of those within the vicinity. When Barbara is out and about, there is constant danger. Violence is not always at the forefront.

“Barbara” is not about overt thrills. We are presented detailed information in a clear and exacting ways. We choose how to process the information and based on what we have seen from other stories—from novels, television shows, or other films—combined with the specific characters we are tasked to understand, we extrapolate what must happen and what is likely to happen. One of the ways suspense is amplified is how our common sense might clash against what we hope to happen. I admire this work greatly for not settling on easy catharsis, such as chase scenes or shootouts. Here is a story involving a prison without bars.

The Burning

The Burning (1981)
★ / ★★★★

Clearly influenced by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th,” “The Burning,” too, takes place in a lakeside summer camp where a deranged masked killer slaughters hormonal teenagers one by one until a most predictable final chase scene in the dark—one last “Gotcha!” moment included. So it immediately begs the question: Does this film, penned by Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence, have something new or exciting to bring to the party? No, it does not. It is uninspired and underachieving for the most part… yet I did not find it to be completely worthless.

I found this picture capable of rivaling Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” when it comes to establishing a convincing camp setting. Young people are all over the place; there is almost always something happening in the background or on the side of the screen. Even posters on walls, magazines on desks, snacks and knickknacks on shelves are eye-catching.

Notice that during the first half, time is taken to introduce the main players: The mature and kindly camp counselors Todd and Michelle (Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres) who clash at times in terms of how to handle their charges when they misbehave; the bully Glazer (Larry Joshua) and his constant target of ridicule Alfred (Brian Backer); Alfred’s energetic bunkmates (Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, J.R. McKechnie) who see Glazer more as a big lug instead of a tormentor (they are not afraid to fight back); and various girls who swoon every time a boy pays them the most modicum amount of attention. There is a sense of joy in simply watching these characters be while in summer camp. There were moments when I thought the material could work as a comedy.

However, the handling of the killer is completely wrong. His name is Cropsy (Lou David), once the caretaker of a neighboring camp, Camp Blackfoot, whose body is so badly burnt due to a prank gone wrong that it took him five years to recuperate in the hospital. Skin grafts did not take. This figure is supposed to be so angry, so thirsty for revenge that a prostitute, who had nothing at all to do with the prank, triggers him, not yet an hour into his release, to impale her with a set of garden shears in cold blood. We hear urban legends about Cropsy and how evil he was even before being barbecued. But not once do we get to really feel this monster’s mean streak, his wickedness. He has a mask but without a personality.

Strange, too, is the fact that we rarely get a chance to have a good look at him. Watch closely: Director Tony Maylam has a curious habit of putting us in the perspective of the killer, hiding real low in the bushes like an animal. However, it is apparent that Maylam roots for the young characters to make it and so allowing the viewers to see the action—even the murders themselves—from the killer’s eyes is completely inappropriate. I felt an awkwardness, a disconnect, a lack of a defined vision. It might have been the better choice to show the antagonist—full-bodied—from time to time no matter how ridiculous he looked. Confidence goes a long way while insecurity is blinding.

I enjoyed the make-up effects by Tom Savini. Particularly memorable is the raft scene when Cropsy attacks and disposes of five teenagers within seconds: throats are slashed, fingers are cut off, a number of them impaled. It is violent, shocking, well-edited, and the convincing practical effects amplify the horror. If only the rest of the material functioned on this level.

Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” does not hide the fact it has been inspired by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th.” Both are slasher films with some psychological leanings. Both take place in a summer camp. Both contain an archery kill scene. Similarities stop there, however. This is a bit more versatile with its horror in that terrible happenings are not solely reliant on somebody getting stabbed, slashed, or maimed. On the contrary, the first time a typical murder weapon is employed occurs at around the hour mark—more than two-thirds of the way through. The other side of that violence comes in the form of bullying. The target is Angela (Felissa Rose), a first-time camper in Camp Arawak whose extreme shyness rubs others the wrong way. They don’t know how to deal with her silence.

The movie is not interested in parading one kill scene after another. Surprisingly, it goes out of its way to show how camp life is like for the male and female campers. They may live in the same area with similar cabin layouts, but their experiences are different. Notice that the boys are often shown at play, very physical, there must always be a winner and a loser. To lose is to walk away with shame. Boys may clash but there is a general sense of camaraderie. Girls, on the other hand, are almost always shown in their cabins hanging out, drying and brushing their hair. Unlike the boys, when girls clash there is a meanness, particularly between Angela and Judy (Karen Fields), the latter the boys wish to get with because she has… matured physically since last summer. Although Judy commands many of the boys’ attention, she covets a special kind of attention that Paul (Christopher Collet) gives Angela.

In a way, the mystery is not reliant upon revealing the identity of the killer. Anyone who is paying attention half the time is bound to notice that whenever something unpleasant happens to Angela—for instance, a threat of molestation, humiliation in when it comes to romance, or being thrown into the lake fully clothed—the incident is conveniently followed by a kill. Clearly, the murderer is someone who is either close to Angela (her cousin Ricky played by Jonathan Tiersen who gives a natural but standout performance), someone who admires her from afar or nearby (Collet who shares cute chemistry with Rose), or it could be Angela herself. I enjoyed that who is doing the killing is not all that important. What matters more is why.

And therein lies the picture’s biggest shortcoming: the screenplay fails to dig deeply enough when it comes to the psychological angle of its curious story. We are presented two or three flashbacks that may hint at a possible motive, but the connective tissues among these scenes are neither written nor executed in such a way that is truly compelling, however unique. It is a shame because gender roles coupled with societal expectations is one of the main themes of the story, but the screenplay is either undercooked or not as informed as it thinks it is. Without revealing too much, I believe that in order to subvert an idea, it must be understood fully.

Regardless, I found “Sleepaway Camp” to be worthwhile. I admired its ability to take risks (even some of the robotic and awkward acting can be very amusing) and its willingness to take a strange idea of a twist and run to the finish line held high. It could have used ten to fifteen more minutes to explain, but argument can be made that it isn’t necessary because the punchline has been delivered. What is there to say when the point itself is to shock or horrify? Another element I liked: not only are kills quite varied but the cosmetics and special effects are quite eye-catching. I wanted to look closer at the burns, the bee stings, the face of a person who had drowned and been in the water overnight.


Emma. (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite being completely ignorant of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name, I had some idea of what I was in for due to the Austen brand: British high society, colorful and detailed clothing, beautiful estates and stunning outdoors, delectable food and expensive silverwares, posh dialogue that will bore most to tears. But something I did not expect: a titular character so unlikable, I likened her, at least initially, to a snake slithering in tall grass—always on the lookout for her next romantic project because she considers herself to have a such green thumb when it comes to matchmaking. In reality, she is terrible at it; not only are her chosen pairings devoid of chemistry, the futures we imagine for them is bleak and miserable.

Clearly, the work is a satire of class. From the opening frame it appears hyperbole is in its marrow as we follow the young and wealthy Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) sniffing flowers in the greenhouse while accompanied by help holding some sort of lantern—in broad daylight. This picture is peppered with so many quirky details that at some point I had to wonder if such elements were simply meant for laughs or if these were in fact accurate depictions of lifestyles at the time. In either case, I found entertainment and engagement in what is shown on screen; the direction by Autumn de Wilde is energetic, the script is witty, and there is terrific timing in the execution of the jokes—visual, aural, and what is simply felt given what we come to know about the characters and what they don’t know about one another.

The first half is an orchestra of Emma’s vanity and sheer ignorance of romance and romantic feelings—there is a difference—when she herself has never been in love and has declared never planning to marry. Taylor-Joy plays Emma with a certain slyness, an intelligence far beyond the character’s age and experience, and so I felt compelled to catch up to her and try to figure out her long-term goals when it comes to lovebirds she’s cramming into a cage.

Her arrogance is disgusting at times, especially when she looks down on the people whom she considers to be lower than her, whether it be in terms of money, reputation, education, or biology. (She is especially disapproving of the farmer that her most recent project, Harriet [Mia Goth], has her eyes on.) Despite Emma’s bad behavior, those within and outside of her social circle still feel obligated to look up to her, trust her, respect her. I think there is honesty in that depiction of the character. The privileged tend to get away with a whole lot.

Given she is our heroine, it would have been far too easy to overlook or excuse Emma’s wrongdoings after just one incident that blows up in her face. No, the screenplay by Eleanor Catton is correct to give the audience plenty of time to watch Emma feeling like—and realizing—the rotten person she has become (no matter how well-intentioned she is at times). Catharsis comes in the form us seeing the character we wish to root for finally realizing the errors of her ways. It does not depend on whether or not she finds a man to fall in love with (Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner)—although this subplot is present and possesses some level of predictability.

I think those who dive into the film with an open mind will find themselves surprised at some point. “Emma.” is not a tight-lipped, straight-faced, deoxygenated period comedy-drama. There is a risk-taking modernity in how Austen’s progressive source material is translated on screen. Choose to look beyond the heavy clothes, palatial homes, and how people speak. You’ll recognize a number of the things we still struggle with, individually and as a society, two centuries later. Only in this and age toxic influence is amplified by social media.


Harriet (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Daddy warned me, “Boy, having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, play with it, give it a name, but one day you might have to eat it or sell it. You know it, and the pig knows it. If you have to sell it, there’s no more guilt than separating piglets. And if you have to eat it, you’ll forget its name.”

When Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” demands to look at slavery in the eye, it is impossible for one’s attention to waver. Slaves are not people but animals. They are expected to be obedient, to be quiet, to work their skin raw. They are to be owned, sold, traded. They are even required to get permission on who to marry. When the picture simply shows the reality of black people living in the slave state of Maryland during the 1840s instead of dramatizing, it works. It is communicated to us with clarity and urgency why the story of Harriet Tubman, a slave who escaped from her master’s plantation to become a freedom fighter, is worth telling, why her legacy is worth honoring. I give the film a marginal recommendation—with crucial caveats.

It is historically accurate that Tubman was a devout Methodist. Her relationship with God was a part of who she was and this fact must be included in this film should the filmmakers wish to paint a complete picture of the subject. But must it be so ham-fisted? Notice there is a holy vision nearly every ten to fifteen minutes which hampers the momentum of the drama at times, particularly during the second half when Tubman is attempting to rescue her friends and family across a hundred miles of dangerous territory between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The terrific first half details at which point in her life she started receiving such visions and what her body goes through when premonitions go through her. But it becomes so recurrent later on that there are instances when it is almost a joke—deadly because the escape sequences are supposed to be harrowing, heart-pounding, even terrifying. There is no second chances when it comes to furious, gun-wielding slave owners looking for somebody to answer for their “stolen properties.” Surely there must have been a better way—subtler way—to tell us that Tubman’s spirituality helped to guide her decisions. It is so heavy-handed at times that on occasion all that is missing is a floating halo above Tubman’s head.

It is a shame because Cynthia Erivo is wonderful as Harriet. I’m convinced she is one of the best performers working today. Like the legendary Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, Erivo excels in quiet moments, effortless in just being the character instead of acting or forcing a thought or an emotion. A standout: Minty, now called Harriet since her freedom, returns to the Brodess plantation with the intention of rescuing her sister. Standing right outside the window, Erivo communicates paragraphs using only her face as Harriet watches her sibling, still a slave, do what she’s told. Although only a couple of feet away, they might as well be thousands of miles apart. It is a heartbreaking scenario which wonderfully captures what the movie is about: the value of freedom and why it is worth fighting for.

Another misstep involves the material’s treatment of important figures who helped Harriet in Philadelphia before she became a “conductor” (a person who leads enslaved African-Americans to freedom) in the Underground Railroad: abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a black woman who was born free and runs a boarding house for fugitives. We are provided only superficial details about them—a mistake because if it weren’t for their help, Tubman would not have gotten as far as she did. There are a number of emotional scenes in the second half involving these two characters, but these are unconvincing because we do not get a chance to get to know them outside of introductions.

“Harriet” is a well-intentioned biographical drama, but I feel as though a much better film about Tubman is yet to be made. Her story is already poignant. So just tell like it is—no need to cheapen it with sentimental score, otherworldly visions, and a formulaic three-arc structure.


Drive (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The carefully calibrated “Drive,” based on James Sallis’ novel, is not dissimilar to pulse-pounding thrillers like the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.,” Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia,” and the Wachowskis’ “Bound.” These four films not only start off slowly, their premises promise rather standard fares. About halfway through, however, their curious stories start to take shape and their true forms are revealed. The protagonists are people who have their backs against the wall. They must survive or perish. What makes these stories compelling is not the template but the manner in which they are told. A case can be made that “Drive” is a mood piece above all.

This approach is almost necessary considering that our protagonist is mostly silent. He has three part-time jobs: a mechanic, a Hollywood stuntman, and a getaway driver. He is given no name. (I will refer to him as The Driver henceforth.) He values his solitude. He minds his own business. Strictly professional. Cold. Impersonal. When asked questions, answers can be found in his eyes or his body language. On the occasion he does speak, he gets to the point. Less than ten words with real intention behind each one. I cannot image anyone else playing The Driver other than Ryan Gosling. He will be remembered for this role.

An expected plot device: The Driver is shown to be capable of caring for others. Specifically, he grows attached to his neighbors: a waitress (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). His relationship with Irene and Benicio is handled with genuine humanity and a real sense of style. For example, typical lines of dialogue, which is a potential minefield of clichés, are muted. Instead, a synth-heavy soundtrack is placed over the action—robotic and repetitive on the surface but listen closely: lyrics are filled with sadness and longing. They find a connection precisely because of their loneliness. Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. It is expected, too, that he will be released just when The Driver and Irene begin to consider taking what they have a bit further. Clearly, tension is not always reliant upon car chases.

Car chases demand that we hold our breaths. It is not interested in good guys and bad guys shooting guns at each other. No, emphasis is placed on stealth as The Driver attempts to get his clients (often thieves) to safety within five minutes after leaving the scene of the crime. Notice that in these scenes, we are locked in the car with our protagonist. No score, no soundtrack. We hear breathing, gasps, tires rubbing against the pavement. It gets so silent and so still at times, we feel our chests pounding from anticipation. Eyes wide open. The work offers a first-rate experience. It requires skill, great timing, a real eye for action and reaction.

By the end of the movie, more than half a dozen people are dead and there is blood money. I’m not interested in introducing the players, but know this: they are played by terrific character actors like Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. They know how to command a scene simply by standing in one spot and giving a look. There is wonderful chemistry among all the performers. I felt as though everyone had signed up for the film because they believed in it, that they actually wanted to be there and do the best job possible. It shows.

“Drive” is an ensemble piece. The chess pieces are moved into place in a way that is logical, exciting, and thrilling. Viewers might remember it for the violence—they are brutal, in-your-face, and real bloody. However, notice that these scenes often have a point. They are never gratuitous or glamorized; it shows, for instance, that a hammer to the hand is especially painful, that kicking one’s face in is ugly and gross, that one car crashing against one another is loud and disturbing. In this story, violence is a means of survival.

The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although this lo-fi horror picture does not push the satanic cult subgenre in new directions, its back-to-basics approach is a welcome change from the more ostentatious, loud, try-hard offerings from less disciplined filmmakers. Writer-director Ti West chooses an economical route: tell the story straight from the moment our heroine takes on a babysitting job up until she has lost everything—which unfolds in just under twenty-four hours. Although the pacing is slow on purpose, there are plenty of details worthy of soaking in should one be willing to look.

Before Samantha (Jocelin Donahue who delivers a terrific performance) sets foot in the house of horrors, we get to know her as a college sophomore who is in desperate need of cash. We learn precisely how much is in her bank account and how much she needs come Monday (the story takes place on a Wednesday) in order to secure a new place. We also get to appreciate why Sam wishes so badly to move out of her dorm; her roommate is a slob and doesn’t care that she gets in the way of other people’s space and time. Greta Gerwig plays Megan, Sam’s best friend who is full of personality.

The film commands a certain look of creepiness, a misty look about it that reminds me of horror films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is especially noticeable of scenes shot outdoors. As Sam walks around campus before Christmas break, there is barely anyone around. The camera functions almost like an onlooker, perhaps even a stalker, as she makes her way to a bulletin board, a payphone, her bed, to the restroom where she cries. But taking on this perspective is not meant to be scary or alarming. On the contrary, I felt it captures how lonely Sam must feel sometimes. She’s the quiet, bookish type, always with her walkman on. We wish to protect her because we know what she’s about to walk into.

We meet the employers, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov), and no effort is made to cover up the fact that they are indeed up to no good. West has fun with these suspicious figures, he at the very least six-foot-five with his cane and she with her stern expression and rather… curious way of phrasing certain things. The assignment is supposed to be minimal work: Just hang out downstairs, order pizza, and be wary of emergencies. Four hours of Sam’s time for $400. Megan claims it is too good to be true. She has no idea how right she is.

Much of the babysitting job involves Sam exploring the house. This is when most viewers who are expecting constant jolts will likely end up frustrated or disappointed. I admired its restraint. Although we hear strange noises, it makes sense that Sam goes to investigate because it is her job to make sure that everything is all right with the person she must care for. There is a door she dares not open, but a masterstroke involves the writer-director revealing to the audience what exactly is behind it. This is a classic case of choosing suspense over horror. To choose horror over suspense would be for Sam to open that door. She reacts and we react, too. She never does. But because we know and she doesn’t, we wriggle in our seats.

“The House of the Devil” is ninety percent setup and ten percent payoff. But that ten percent is memorable, visceral, violent, and cathartic. It is at this point that West proves his project is not simply a nostalgia trip. The denouement is modern and in-your-face but never gratuitous. Chaos ensues but the filmmaker remains control of his craft (none of that camera acrobatics). It is confident from the eye-catching opening credits right down to the unsettling final shot. Here is a movie that wallows in quiet. But when it gets loud, literally and metaphorically, it is almost deafening.

They Nest

They Nest (2000)
★ / ★★★★

The critter-feature “They Nest,” written by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, offers no intrigue or bite. Instead, it presents a series of potential subplots that go nowhere, often brushing the main plot involving killer cockroaches off to the side. But a movie like this has no need for pesky subplots because what matters is delivering a visceral experience. Put the cockroaches front and center, make them look as gross or threatening as possible, put a magnifying glass on these creatures so we can appreciate details down to the bristles on their legs, show what they can do in their natural environment, when they threatened, when they are ready to mate—and you’ve got a movie. For a ninety-minute picture, it feels closer to two hours because the padding comes thick and heavy.

Dr. Ben Cahill (Thomas Calabro), a recovering alcoholic, has been unable to perform surgery due to hand tremors. His superior suggests it might be a good idea for him to take some time off before he puts any more lives in danger. So, Ben takes a boat to Orr’s Island and decides to clean up the house that he and his former wife had purchased. But he is not the only new arrival. A corpse is washed up along the rocks and inside it is a cockroach, or what appears to be a cockroach, waiting to feed and reproduce. This tight-knit fishing community is about to be terrorized by creatures that have been around for millions of years. The setup is generic but not without potential. However, as the movie goes on, it proves to lack creativity and so there isn’t much entertainment value.

It asks us to care about a possible romance between Ben and Nell (Kristen Dalton), a woman with a can-do attitude, a good sense of humor, and a certain comfort in being in her own skin. Nell is far more interesting than Ben, on paper on top of Dalton’s enthusiastic performance, and so the further we get into the mystery, we are forced to ask ourselves why Ben is the central protagonist. Is it simply because he is a surgeon and knows how to cut people open? I think so. Because he does nothing special or memorable. Even when pushed around by the local drunks, he remains boring. Clearly, the man lacks spine—like the cockroaches in question. But must he lack a strong personality, too? He disappears completely, for instance, when the sheriff (John Savage) simply stands and breathes next to him.

The CGI cockroaches do not look great, but the quality of the visuals is not important to me. Most frustrating is a lack of originality in presenting these hardy creatures, details that are unique to this particular story being told. Sure, we see the bugs bursting out of bodies, attacking in swarms, and crawling from underneath kitchen appliances… but when a real-life encounter with one harmless cockroach is more terrifying or shocking than what the movie has in store, there’s a problem. What’s the point of sitting through this movie when you can take a stroll to the kitchen and experience horror first-hand? These are basic questions that the filmmakers should have asked themselves before shooting a single frame.

Directed by Ellory Elkayem, “They Nest” is also the kind of horror picture where it is all too easy to predict who will live or die. Good guys must live, bad guys must die. There is no subtlety. And, of course, the expected final tease is the threat of the creature inflicting its terror somewhere else. The movie is tired from top to bottom. In the middle of it, I thought of ways to improve the screenplay. I liked my idea of Ben coming to the island to exorcise his alcoholism, the bugs serving as metaphor for the demon that must be purged so he can go back to saving lives again. I would end it on an optimistic note, clear and precise. Far too many horror movies these days attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience during the last shot—even if it blurs the message of what the story is trying to communicate.


Lyle (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stewart Thorndike’s debut picture is obviously inspired by Roman Polanski’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like that film, this one is patient, more interested in building suspense rather than delivering thrills, and quite unsettling when all is revealed. But unlike that film, the writer-director, clearly skillful when it comes to establishing pacing and possessing a keen eye for making ordinary objects look sinister, is able to tell his story—about a pregnant woman who suspects that the manager (Rebecca Street) in the building intends to kill her baby—in just one hour. It is so impressive, that by the end of it I wondered why most pictures these days need to be at least eighty minutes. “Lyle” values our time.

And our intelligence. There is not one jump scare to be had here. No CGI monster or demon that appears from the dark. (No practical one either.) There are, however, shots of people looking at the very pregnant Leah just a little bit longer than they should. As if they admire her, hoping to touch her, taste her. Leah is played with terrific gusto and magnetism by Gaby Hoffman. Not only is she required to portray the raw physicality of pregnancy, she must convince us that her character’s every waking hour of grief and depression from having lost her firstborn is another weight on her shoulders. It is critical that we question her mental state at times. That perhaps she is only imagining that a person, or persons, is out to get her.

Additional pressure: Leah feels that her partner, June (Ingrid Jungermann), who works for a record company, is beginning to grow distant the more they become financially successful. Jungermann does a good job as the cooler of the two heads. Her June must be the anchor of their family, in a traditional sense, during a most tumultuous pregnancy. The performer is correct to leave the possibility that her character might be up to something menacing. (She works long hours. When questioned about it, it is ignored.) In a story like this, in order to be truly effective, we must suspect everyone. Because when we do, we watch a little more closely and we are engaged to read between the lines.

Suspense is not simply reliant on who is up to what (if any) or whoever is involved, real or imagined. I enjoyed the daring of the dialogue, particularly when characters say the painfully awkward things during the most inappropriate times. The therapy sessions (Ashlie Atkinson playing the marriage counselor) are firecrackers because it is the time and place where Leah and June feel they can express thoughts and feelings they tend to hide or cover up while at home. It is suggested to Leah that she is such in a deep state of grief that perhaps she has started to imagine things in order to cope. She’s not convinced this is at all the case. Are we?

“Lyle” is a true psychological horror in that it is able to a lot with sounds. Rapid, baby-like footsteps can be heard when it is only Leah and her firstborn in the house… while the toddler is in the same room as our heroine, sitting in one spot. Muffled exchanges can be heard in the walls. Leah opens the front door and catches the building manager, who is at least sixty years old, pretending to be pregnant and lactating. Really bizarre happenings. Familiar elements are there yet it still makes you wonder how all the creepy pieces will fit together. Or will they? It depends on perspective.

The Temple

The Temple (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Upon first glance all the ingredients are there to make a curious horror film: a solemn-looking protagonist with a mysterious past, a trip to a foreign country, coming across a creepy journal in a mom-and-pop shop, locals warning that the contents scribed on the pages is bad news so never pursue it, urban legends involving monks and missing children… Yet these do not come together in a way that is suspenseful, sensical, or satisfying. Instead, it feels like were are stuck on this trip to Japan with three bland Americans—best friends Kate (Natalia Warner) and Chris (Logan Huffman) along with James (Brandon Sklenar), Kate’s boyfriend who also happens to be a womanizer—with nothing interesting to do or say throughout the picture’s interminable eighty-minute running time. It isn’t because the performers share no chemistry nor is it due to the unconvincing acting. The work suffers from a basic screenplay problem: Instead of building upon the details of its mythos, which should function as the connective tissue between major plot points, it spends far too much time putting the characters in tired situations: getting lost in the woods, getting lost in an abandoned mine, getting lost in their emotions as to how they really feel toward one another. (Chris kinda-sorta likes Kate but she’s unavailable; James claims that Chris is not what he expected—whatever that means; Chris admits he likes James but we suspect baloney—or is it?) It feels too much like a soap opera. And get this: The movie treats its third-act “twist” as if it were an eye-opening revelation. Cue the “Gotcha!” flashbacks. In reality, it isn’t a twist at all—unless you’ve been born in a cave, lived there your entire life, and not seen a single horror movie.