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L’amant double

Amant double, L’ (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although its resolution is somewhat pedestrian for my taste, especially considering that it is directed by François Ozon, a filmmaker who makes intelligent and daring choices, “Double Lover,” adapted from the novel “Lives of the Twins” by Joyce Carol Oates, grips the viewer by the throat with a mystery so potent, it is required that we feel that every scene is tantamount to taking one step closer toward an answer we may or may not be ready for. I watched the picture with great interest and was impressed that even though it is a dramatic work first and foremost, it commands strong tension commonly found in memorable thrillers.

The plot is as ordinary as it is sinister: a client falls in love with her psychoanalyst. Most of us have come across this template before. It is curious, sort of taboo, and a solid stepping stone toward a more interesting avenue. After Chloé (Marine Vacth) and Paul (Jérémie Renier) move in together, the former, who has a history of crippling stomach pains especially when her life gets stressful, comes across her beau’s look-alike (also played by Renier). The men look so similar that she becomes convinced that they must be twins. However, Paul insists he does not have a brother, let alone a twin. Chloé, following her nagging intuition, decides to investigate by contacting the double.

Here is a film that requires carefully calibrated performances. Vacth and Renier—each—must deliver at least two convincing performances—but in different ways. Renier’s is the more obvious task because he plays two characters who look the same but everything else about them are different—almost polar opposites. Vacth, arguably, has the more difficult role depending on which man she is facing. In addition, we follow how she is when she is with strangers and when alone in a room where she must confront her thoughts and longings.

Despite the plot machinations and acrobatics, I believe this is a story of a woman whose deepest desire is to be seen. Pay close attention to the incredibly intimate opening scenes—the first taking place in a clinic where one’s body is completely exposed and the second in an office in which deeply personal information must be divulged to a complete stranger. We learn of the protagonist’s body, mind, and soul through the scope of a standard dramatic parabola. And yet—except for the ending—there is nearly nothing standard about its approach to telling its story.

I admire Ozon’s work, including this one, because he is not afraid to use the camera as more than a camera. Take the opening shot, for instance, as he employs the camera like a microscope. He is not ashamed to show a woman’s sex because the intention is not to provide sleazy titillation or to shock the viewer. Instead, the matter-of-fact manner of showing a body part, which just so happens to be a sexual organ, ties into the bigger, more elegant themes of the material. Here is a film for the most mature audiences, those who enjoy digging throughly into novels and studying every connection and symbolism. (Pay attention on how the film shows and uses glass and mirrors.)

This is not to suggest that “L’amant double” is inaccessible or opaque. It simply requires an open mind in order to become hypnotized by its wonderful control of tone, foreboding atmosphere, and pacing so assured—at times melodramatic—that clocking in at less than two hours is almost miraculous considering the thicker details of its central mystery.


What Men Want

What Men Want (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The problem with “What Men Want,” written by Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck, is that it takes a fantastical premise—waking up the next morning and having the ability to read men’s thoughts following a head injury—and does nothing inspired, surprising, or funny with it. The film suffers from a typical modern comedy malady: actors having to yell their lines as if that could mask the listlessness and boredom of the material. Halfway through, I wished the writers had the ability to recognize that what they were working on was dead on arrival.

This isn’t to suggest that the performers on screen are equally egregious as the script. On the contrary, the lead is enjoyable—as expected given her caliber and charisma. Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a sports agent so desperate to get a promotion that she is willing to bulldoze through anyone who gets in the way of her goal. As a black woman in a white- and male-dominated workplace, she feels the need to constantly prove herself in order to be considered as an equal. Henson is so enthusiastic in portraying a bossy character—a euphemism—that we can feel the joy behind the portrayal of a mean and extremely uptight persona.

It misses one opportunity to make a genuine or convincing statement right after another. We live in a time when the importance of diversity has made it into the mainstream consciousness. Whether it be of sex, race, sexual orientation, creed, or gender identity, we, as a western society, are aware of the issues broached upon the background of white male dominance. And so why is it that this film is so afraid to tackle real and pressing issues? While it does offer two or three instances where Ali’s gender and race are brought up as a negative within their workplace environment, they are used simply as props; the conflict is never explored in a thoughtful of meaningful way. Yes, the genre is a comedy. But the best comedies are never one-trick ponies. In this case, it is all about the initial shock but no follow through.

I grew weary of the incessant noise. And I do not mean only the constant screaming and yelling. Notice that when Ali is listening to would-be shocking thoughts, the soundtrack is booming in the background. This results in an unpleasant experience; we wish to listen to the thoughts, no matter how random they are, and yet there is wall that gets in the way of us fully appreciating the material. One cannot help but suspect that the use of music is but a mere tool to disguise or hide the more ineffective line of dialogue or entire scenes. The script could have used significant rewrites.

Clocking in at nearly two hours, “What Men Want,” directed by Adam Shankman, is not only devoid of intelligence or insight regarding prejudice, it is also poorly paced. Observe closely at how long it feels for everything to wrap up and it is done in the most ordinary fashion—just so the audience can feel good about themselves. On top of being forced and hyperbolic, the film is a humorless turkey.


First Man

First Man (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a celebration of mankind-defining achievement capable of avoiding a minefield of clichés embedded in the marrow of the movies. There is not one inspirational speech, no slow motion of men in space suits walking toward the camera, not even a single image, however brief, of worried-looking faces on Earth as Neil A. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. (Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) land the Apollo Lunar Module on the moon on July 20, 1969. There is documentary and highly dramatized—commercialized—biographical dramas, and in between lies Damien Chazelle’s technically focused and occasionally affecting “First Man,” more interested in getting as close as possible to what was rather than providing yet another masturbation of American heroism.

Chazelle is back to the precision he exercised in the excellent “Whiplash.” Here, the tone is, like the central figure we follow, Neil Armstrong, quite cold and impersonal. A standard dramatic parabola is not utilized, nor does it need to. Traversing such a path would have opened the door for the expected beats and trappings of the genre. Instead, we follow crucial events in Armstrong’s personal life and professional career between 1962 and 1969, initially as a test pilot and finally as an astronaut who made history. And yet—just because the tone is unsentimental does not mean that it is not first and foremost a human story.

It makes the point of the numerous invaluable sacrifices just so we can go to the moon: millions of taxpayer money, countless hours and tremendous effort put forth by those working in NASA, and, most importantly, irreplaceable human lives lost due to accidents. Watching the picture, I could not help but feel angry—not at the film but at the uninformed or downright ignorant individuals who insist that the 1969 moon landing is a sham. Josh Singer’s sharp and perceptive screenplay broaches the subject of perspective, that it is important for us to reach the moon so that, we, as a species, can gain a new or different way of looking at ourselves, everything around us, and beyond. Before seeing the film, I found that conspiracy theorists who deny the fact that we ever walked on the moon are laughable. After seeing the film, I just felt sorry for them. It made me wish I knew a way to open their minds to both facts and possibilities.

Gosling is in top form as a man who has grown accustomed to hiding his emotions. A case can be made that this characteristic makes Armstrong a great leader, especially in desperate situations when lives are on the line, but this same trait prevents him from being a husband and father who is consistently warm and inviting. Particularly strong about Gosling’s performance is not the character’s lack of apparent emotions (which is agonizing when his wife, played by the equally effective Claire Foy, yearns for him to open up and communicate) but in the way the actor attempts to hide the character’s inner turmoil for the sake of the big picture, of achieving a particular goal so monumental, attaining it would mean a chance for us to try and reach for the next great objective. Gosling disappears into the role; watching him deliver such a calculated performance is such a joy. I admired that he does not attempt to mimic the way Armstrong speaks or Armstrong’s most minute mannerisms and yet he remains thoroughly convincing.

The film, too, provides a terrific aural experience. Spacecrafts with glamorous interiors are nowhere to be found here. In fact, they are so cramped most of the time that being inside one is like having to move around in a coffin. Notice how often close-ups are used when a transport is about to take off or suspended in air as it undergoes gymnastics. Being so close to a person’s face underscores the abundance of noise, especially of metal screeching due to sudden movements, various pressures, and sudden temperature changes. Being inside the spacecraft does, on the one hand, provide a sense of wonder. On the other is a horrifying experience filled with uncertainty; when one alarm goes off, it seems that every other thing that can go wrong does eventually. To say that it is a miracle that we got to the moon in 1969 is not an understatement. Our will to get there, I think, made all the difference.



Vincere (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) met in 1907 in Trent, as the former attempted to escape from a group of men. They reunite in 1914 in Milan and get involved in a romantic relationship. For a while, Ida chooses to support Mussolini because he is without a job. However, when his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, takes off and he becomes an influential political figure, he no longer wants anything to do with Ida and their son. To hide his marriage, Mussolini pulls some strings to put Ida in a mental institution while their son is attended by the Church.

For those who do not know much about the former Italian leader’s personal and political history, like myself, “Vincere,” based on the screenplay by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli, is likely to be a very confusing movie. The first hour moves quickly without apology as it jumps forward in time and back. We are forced to make too many assumptions about the relationship and not enough specific details we can hang onto. It only becomes somewhat bearable when Ida is placed in the mental asylum—the pacing has slowed and we get a chance to understand Ida’s motivations.

The historical backdrop prior and during Mussolini’s dictatorship is rather tedious. The picture is rife with repetition involving citizens yelling out whether the country should or should not go to war. I wanted to know about the two differing stances, but the screenplay fails to introduce characters from either side that serve as conduits for us to understand. In addition, using black-and-white footages are heavy-handed and self-important. To hide the fact that the politics on paper is not very well thought out or executed, the filmmakers use real images from the past as band-aid.

Though the relationship is supposed to go sour, not once did I feel that Ida and Mussolini are into each other. We watch one scene of them having great sex, but there is a lack of context with regards to how much Mussolini cares for Ida. Instead, there are plenty of shots of him looking stern and angry. While this is mainly Ida’s story, it is necessary that we get at least a small glimpse of Mussolini’s psychology given that what he ends up doing to his family is so extreme. In order words, here, there is not much to Ida’s husband other than he is obsessed with politics and hates his family. There is no intrigue.

There is one scene that hints at the power of the subject had the material been well-written. During Ida’s institutionalization, a psychiatrist, who is likely aware that there is no reason to keep her in the facility, tells her that if she hopes to be released someday, she must learn to be a good actor—for her and her son’s sake. The camera is placed very closely on the characters’ faces so there is a lot to absorb. Their conversation touches upon complex issues like sacrifice, betrayal, determination, and why it is smart to delay presenting the truth until time is right. It is the most empowering scene in the film.

Directed by Marco Bellocchio, “Vincere” is not accessible even though its cinematography is stylish and the costumes look wonderful. It should have been considerably more involving given that what has been done to Ida is morally wrong. Maybe it might have been a better biopic if the story had been told without pretension.


The House with a Clock in Its Walls

House with a Clock in Its Walls, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

To its credit, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” directed by Eli Roth, fires on all cylinders right from its opening moments. From its ostentatious display of special and visual effects, dialogue clearly written to entertain young children, to the hyperbolic—sometimes cringe-inducing—acting, it brings to mind direct-to-DVD fantasy-comedies of the ‘90s. But this comes with a cost: the inability to slow down and convincingly create a portrait of a dysfunctional family who just so happen to have magic right on their fingertips. Here is a film in which enchantment is consistently placed on a higher tier than heartfelt human connections.

Recently orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with Uncle Barnavelt (Jack Black) whose home, according to word around school, is a murder house. Inside is palatial but strange: chairs make puppy-like noises, images on paintings change suddenly, and clocks are everywhere. In the middle of the night, Lewis finds his enthusiastic uncle placing his ears on walls, as if in search of something. There is even an instance when Barnavelt destroys a wall with an axe. The upside of living in a so-called slaughterhouse: there is no bedtime, eating vegetables is not required, and uniqueness is highly encouraged. There are numerous books on magic in the library.

Amidst the razzle-dazzle of magic spells we are asked to empathize with ten-year-old Lewis, especially how lonely he feels in a house so full of wonder and in a school that celebrates normalcy and popularity. This is when the picture is at its weakest. The screenplay by Eric Kripke is so busy providing superficial entertainment, not enough effort is put into making even slightly believable characters. Nearly every person, including Lewis, is a walking exaggeration. After a while, the quirkiness becomes numbing, peculiarities are reduced to boredom.

The sole figure who commands genuine fascination is Mrs. Zimmerman, Uncle Barnavelt’s next-door neighbor, best platonic friend, and partner-in-crime. She has lost a child and, in a way, she has not finished mourning. This affects her magical abilities. Mrs. Zimmerman is played by Cate Blanchett whose dramatic power is able, at times, to overcome a frustratingly simplistic script. Blanchett can simply look at the boy and there is a story in her eyes. The character may be elaborate on paper, but the performer is always in control of how we see her.

The relationship between nephew and uncle is severely undercooked. And so when the inevitable dramatic moment arrives, which involves the former employing forbidden blood magic to impress a boy from school (Sunny Suljic) and the guardian expressing great disappointment, we are not convinced. The material trudges on while our protagonists are in emotional pain, but we are left wondering why we do not feel more invested in the conflict. I think it is because the writing does not have enough appreciation of children’s emotional intelligence. Notice that up to this point, the material consistently chooses silly computer-generated effects over humanity.

Based on John Bellairs’ novel, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” belongs in the pile of generic children’s movies to be forgotten over time. Overtly, it tries so hard to offer something fun and memorable, like pumpkins coming to life and the dead rising from the grave. Upon closer inspection, however, it offers no resounding human drama that will remain strong even when all the expensive special and visual effects begin to look dated.


Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” reaches a climax at London’s Wembley Stadium when Queen is seconds from performing live on stage for Live Aid, an initiative designed to raise funds for those affected by famine in Ethiopia. For fifteen to twenty minutes straight it is a majestic rock concert and it made me wish that the director had made a fictionalized concert film instead of a biographical drama. The reason is because whenever the picture shifts behind the band’s human drama, especially when it attempts to explore Freddie Mercury’s personal life, it is so generic, so sanitized, that it is painful and awkward to sit through at times. And yet—the work deserves a recommendation because Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s lead singer (née Farrokh Bulsara) is spearheaded with great elan.

Some may claim that Malek looks so much like Mercury in the film. I disagree; I think the physical resemblance is only about fifty to sixty percent. What is highly similar, however, is that colossal and infectious energy during performances on stage as well as the small but crucial moments when Malek is required to communicate the subject’s crippling loneliness despite being a part of the biggest band on the planet. The magic is in how Malek has found a way not only to channel that specific Mercurian energy but how he shapes it, almost like Play-Doh, depending on what the script requires. Still, there is only so much an actor can do given a limited and unimaginative screenplay.

Biographical dramas are not easy to pull off; it is not simply going from one landmark to the next with little regard to the journey it takes to get there. The screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, uses Queen’s singles like signposts. It creates the illusion of a fast pacing but when one stops and considers the various contexts of, for instance, disagreements among band members, Freddie choosing to estrange himself from his traditional Parsi family, Freddie’s complicated relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and how it clashes with his sexual attraction to men, nearly every element comes across as superficial, made-for-TV fluff. It lacks realism. The drama unfolds over the course of fifteen years, but it is difficult to invest in it emotionally when nostalgia for the songs are taken out of the equation. What results is a watchable but crippled biographical drama.

Singer handles Mercury’s sexuality like a sledgehammer to the groin. Watch carefully. When the director is unable to contextualize the subject’s homosexuality with using only the camera, he makes sure to capture extended glances between men (more than five times—at the very least), the slow closing of the male restroom door, or men licking their lips a certain way. It is so elementary, somewhat offensive, certainly reductive, and entirely laughable. I felt as though Singer is so afraid to take risks on how to interpret or show his subject’s sexuality, he chooses instead to distance himself by using the tired, boring, and outdated tropes. It is all the more frustrating because the subject (Queen the band and Mercury as a queer individual) is bold, challenging, unafraid to think outside the box. I wished Singer challenged himself just as much as, or at least a fraction of, how Queen is willing to fight for their vision as artists.

Historical inaccuracies aside, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is entertaining in parts (Malek’s performance is worth a look) but entirely conventional, certainly shallow. Somehow the filmmakers have failed to remind themselves that this is a story of a band that changed the face of rock and roll. I felt inspired by the picture only when Queen’s music is playing; when there is silence it is not only deafening but empty. In the near future, I imagine the film playing on television and viewers would pay attention only when the band is making music. The dramatic scenes could be put on mute and it would not change the overall experience.



Venom (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Early on in the picture, a woman carrying a Symbiote—an extraterrestrial parasite that hitchhiked on a space probe while its way back to Earth following a reconnaissance mission—ejects lethal barbs from her back, but when the camera pans around her, the clothing has no hole in it. This perfectly sums up the level of carelessness of “Venom,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, a seldom entertaining and often boring superhero film. It might have benefited from a couple more rounds of rewrites.

One of the titular Symbiotes eventually makes its way inside the body of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who gets fired for asking all the right questions involving a bio-engineering corporation led by the ambitious but unethical Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). It isn’t a coincidence that the probe that crashed in Malaysia is owned by Life Foundation; Drake plans to fuse these so-called Symbiotes with human bodies in order to save our mankind from certain extinction once Earth is no longer a viable place to live. Make no mistake: Moral quandaries regarding the use of science and technology in relation to the betterment of society is handled like sledgehammer to the face. There is no genuine or heartfelt human drama to be had here, just a series of empty action sequences.

At least a few of these pieces are handled with mid-level proficiency. Brock discovering his abilities when hired goons enter his apartment comes to mind. Another is a motorcycle chase across the hilly streets of San Francisco. Rain of bullets and car crashes are served like clockwork, but I enjoyed that there is humor embedded in them. Hardy finds a way to make Eddie the loser more palatable than the standard variety. It is easy to tell that he is up to task of playing with different types of comedy, so it most unfortunate that the screenplay does not possess the requisite creativity and intelligence to make a strange, darkly amusing, and convincing story. I felt as though the project was shaped so that studios can make the most money first and entertain the audience second. It shows.

The villain is generic from the moment we meet him until he is defeated. Ahmed, like Michelle Williams who plays Brock’s love interest, looks as though he is sleepwalking through the role. He is a performer with range, but he cannot be blamed in this scenario. The character is so unchallenging, imagine the CEO on mute and the effect would be negligible. It appears as though screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel, have forgotten that a superhero film is only as good as its villain(s). So why not strive to give Drake more personality, dimension?

Perhaps the only element I found to be marginally impressive in this parade of mediocrity is the CGI Symbiotes. They are creepy and curious when they are slithering about without defined shape, and they are quite threatening when they feel the need to defend themselves. But the material is so dull, especially when the human characters are supposed to be connecting emotionally, I wished I were watching “The X-Files”—specifically the black oil/alien virus episodes—since the film and the television show have similar ideas on how an entity assumes control of its host’s body, its sentience, its ability to communicate. The legendary television show is able to take the concept on another level while the film appears content in having flatlined.


Still Walking

Still Walking (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

The Yokoyama family gather to remember the death of Junpei, the eldest son of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), fifteen years earlier. While Toshiko and her daughter, Chinami (You), cook lunch, their conversation leads to Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) marrying a young widow, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), with a son and how he could have chosen to be with someone else who had less baggage. Meanwhile, Ryota wishes to hide the fact that he is currently unemployed, especially from his father, a retired physician, who expects a lot out of his remaining but less favored son.

“Aruitemo aruitemo,” also known as “Still Walking,” traverses a familiar dramatic territory but it is nonetheless an effective exercise because the topics and emotions it broaches are executed with realism that stings. Over a decade has passed since Junpei’s tragic drowning but Chinami and Ryota’s parents remain in a state of grief. It is interesting to observe the way the siblings navigate a minefield of sensitive topics and get through a couple of hours of spending time with their parents.

The story unfolds over a day and a half and mostly takes place in one house. We listen to words being exchanged, from casual conversations about the weather to things that are better off whispered in order to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. The camera adapts to each type of dialogue. For example, if a topic is welcome to everyone’s ears, a wide shot is employed, cramming in as many people as possible in one frame. If, however, a topic is about a person’s personality or personal choices, the camera tends to be as close as possible to the ones expressing their judgment. When the camera pulls back, the empty space is noticeable perhaps to denote a flaw or what is missing in a person’s harsh evaluation of another.

The character I found most fascinating is Toshiko because she, arguably, exhibits the most discrepancy in terms of which side of herself she is willing to show. When around a lot of people, she seems giving, outgoing, warm—qualities that we all want from our grandmother. However, one-on-one sessions reveal that she is far from our ideation of a perfect grandmother. There is one scene, quite chilling, between she and Ryota as the latter suggests that maybe she ought to forgive the person that she thinks is responsible for Junpei’s death. The way she responds to her son challenged my opinion of her. Up until that moment, I was convinced that her husband is the one that has more anger.

Unfortunately, there are moments when I found myself getting bored, particularly when the clan shares its first meal. I understand that the conversation is casual and so the camera, according to the director’s formula, must be pulled back. Although typical, it might have been more interesting tonally if the camera is allowed to move and focus on each character who has something to say. By having the camera so distant, what could have been one of the best scenes feels flat as a visual and aural experience.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, “Aruitemo aruitemo” is about the hiding one’s sadness. Chinami uses her vibrant personality either to avoid complete silence or steer conversations away from her dead brother. Meanwhile, Kyohei chooses to stay in his office for extended periods, away from everyone that might say or do the wrong thing. There is a lot to experience beneath the topsoil of the unsaid. If only its adherence to technical details isn’t so rigorously applied, perhaps there would have been fewer moments that feel dull and robotic.


Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)
★ / ★★★★

One of the problems with the inferior sequel “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” is an absence of one good scare or even a series of slightly suspenseful moments specifically made for pre-teens. As a former reader of R.L. Stine’s work, it is easy to tell that the film has failed to capture the spirit of the source material: Pick any one book and it is likely there is at least one memorable moment, often pregnant with irony or at least smeared with dark humor, that sticks in the mind like gum. This picture is so generic and kid-friendly, it makes Disney Channel’s original “Halloweentown” look edgy. Not even the most impressive visual effects can mask its unexceptional nature.

Like the predecessor, the plot revolves around the living dummy Slappy (voiced by Mick Wingert) wreaking havoc around town by bringing “Goosebumps” villains to life on Halloween night. Those who have seen the original are likely to tune out completely because the familiar elements are not strong enough to garner much interest. In fact, the repeated beats and tired rhythms are not only redundant within the scope of the series but also compared to other fantastical Halloween-themed family comedies. Characters fall over during the most inconvenient times, they end up scaring themselves, and, of course, somebody has to be rescued somewhere. It is all so uninspired.

Even the characters are barely characters, just skeletal personalities to be utilized to execute the plot. Once the central story gets going, every one of them is useless; it certainly isn’t convincing why the story must be told from their perspective. Sarah (Madison Iseman) is the elder sister who aspires to become a writer but she does not prove to be resourceful or creative, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is intellectually curious but not especially sharp or motivated, and Sam (Caleel Harris) is the best friend but not an especially useful sidekick. And they are so bland; remove any one or two of them from the screenplay completely and the difference is likely to be negligible. The three performers try hard to conjure up excitement but the screenplay gives them nothing to work with.

The script lacks a range of humor. Are we supposed to laugh at the hip-talking mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) who at the same time wants to be taken seriously by her children? Is the school bully (Peyton Wich) being pantsed for the third time in under a minute supposed to be funny? It is illogical one too many times, too. There is a big commotion involving gummy bears (a neat scene) but the grandmother sleeps through it. Is anybody amused by this?

Far too many screenwriters equate kid-friendly with vanilla. “Goosebumps 2” is directed by Ari Sandel and written for the screen by Rob Lieber, and neither takes a risk to break the ennui of the material. Consider kid-friendly and family movies that have gone on to become classics: “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Babe,” “The Sandlot,” “Big,” to name a few. Each one of these movies have an idea that are not especially original. But they work because the writing is committed on a high level and it is apparent that the execution from behind the camera is enthusiastic at the very least. Here, those in charge simply choose to go through the motions, relying on the brand recognition alone to make money. There is no invention or even a whiff of an attempt to create compelling protagonists.



Trance (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The heist, needless to say, does not go as planned. During the chaos amidst toxic fumes and people rushing to the egress, Simon (James McAvoy) was supposed to peacefully hand a multimillion pound painting to Franck (Vincent Cassel). Instead, Simon attacks Franck which leads to the former being struck on the head with a gun. Meanwhile, the latter thinks he has gotten away with the painting, but when he actually opens the container in his hideout, it is empty. Simon, now considered a hero by the media for attempting to stop the thief, is not better off. Because of the hard blow to the head, he cannot seem to remember where he hid the painting.

“Trance,” written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, is surprisingly successful given that it has a myriad twists and turns where some of the answers remain vague for the most part. It could have been just another gimmicky heist picture where not one character can be trusted, but underneath it all is a passion for storytelling. Red herrings are aplenty but the material actually welcomes us to want to get to know the deceitful people on screen.

It runs from its cage at breakneck pace without being incomprehensible. It is a challenge to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together but they are all there so we do not feel cheated. In particular, I enjoyed trying to figure out which courses of action the characters may regret later. It is an engaging thriller because it sticks with the template that when something is going right a little too much or if getting something seems too easy, you get an uneasy feeling that it will all fall apart in a matter of seconds. Even though we expect them, the pitfalls hold excitement.

The three leads—McAvoy, Cassel, and Rosario Dawson as a psychologist who has been hired to induce hypnosis on Simon in order to help him remember the location of the painting—look appealing on camera and share good chemistry. They play their respective characters with a level of mystique and sex appeal which makes them dangerous. And because we are made to understand that they each have an endgame, one relying on smarts over violence (or vice-versa) over others, we are curious who will come out on top. Who should is an entirely different question.

Some may be repelled with the director’s techniques. He has the tendency to put too much on screen that it ends up distracting at times. For example, there are scenes running together—one involves the reality of the hypnotherapy and the other takes a look into Simon’s fantasy—which are coupled with music that demands attention as well as a gamut of colors where certain shots look like they ought to be framed and put in an exhibit. While the director is no stranger to playing with kaleidoscopic media, sometimes simplicity is the best approach. There is merit to claims that the picture can be overwhelming at times.

Directed by Danny Boyle, “Trance” requires complete attention to be understood. Even so, that still may not be enough to see how all the pieces fit together. There is great energy emanating from and within the twisty events and so entertainment value remains consistent.



Suspiria (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Luca Guadagnino’s interpretation of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” is fresh and exciting because, unlike its inspiration that has proven to be influential and has gained a cult following over the years, a work that I found to be generic and boring despite its would-be shocking images, the new perspective is actually interested in plot and less so when it comes to delivering shlock. What results is a horror film with class: even though there are gruesome images, the terror lingers and festers in the mind. It is an effective genre exercise not because we encounter with blood, guts, and bones snapping like twigs, but that, once delivered, we anticipate the next left field happening and attempt to put together the handful of curious pieces surrounding a Berlin-based dance academy run by witches.

I was piqued by its use of color and sound. Notice how in the beginning of the picture, the color red stands out like a punch in the gut. I was reminded immediately of “Schindler’s List” and how director Steven Spielberg forces the viewer to focus on the girl wearing a red coat amidst the depressed, barren, dead black and white. But the tinge of red in this film is paler, as if nearly devoid of life and about to reek of death. It made me think of the funeral parlors: the couches or carpets there, the various hues of roses placed next to coffins, lipstick painted on corpses to make them look presentable. This color is almost like a character because it can be seen throughout—and yet, like the picture’s human characters, it is never predictable or tedious. It does not simply appear when a key moment is about to occur. At times it is there to be noticed as if to remind us that a pair of eyes may be watching nearby or that a witch is able to see the scene psychically. Close-ups reveal creepy knowing in their eyes.

And then there is the sound. Dialogue is often whispered, at times mumbled, barely audible occasionally. When words can be heard with clarity, the content can be cryptic at times. On the outside, the work embodies the horror genre. On the inside, there are mysterious, curious elements meant to create an unsettling feeling. Suspense grows in the not knowing. And yet—the spattering of rain, dancers’ bodies hitting the floor, bones cracking, antique doors opening and closing—these are almost always amplified, at times to the point where the sound is deafening, overwhelming. It shows that Guadagnino has an understanding of classic horror pictures: there are instances when sound is—and should be—enough to send a tingle up one’s spine. Truly horrifying experiences require synergy of the senses, allowing the mind to draw a picture. Notice that in modern, certainly mainstream, horror pictures, it is often about what you see in front of you.

“Suspiria” is not without shortcomings. For instance, I found the final fifteen minutes to be, for the most part, pretentious drivel. There is one too many exploding heads for my liking; a denouement I expect from 1980s B- or C-grade sci-fi and horror flicks that must be wrapped up due to budgetary constraints or lazy writing. Although a few strands that lead up to such a conclusion do make sense, it is one of those bizarre final acts that feel forced or tacked on. (The final minutes of Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” quickly comes to mind.) I would have preferred a subtle or ironic ending, an approach that the project has proven to excel at—quite impressive for a horror film with a running time of almost one hundred fifty minutes. In addition, to a lesser degree, dance sequences usually running in parallel with other critical scenes gets tiresome eventually. At times I wanted a chance to appreciate the choreography, not the skillful editing. A bit of variation might have been more effective.

Immensely watchable performances throughout: Dakota Johnson as the gifted new member of the dance academy, Tilda Swinton as one of the most respected matrons who takes a special interest in the new girl, Mia Goth as our protagonist’s friend who discovers the role of witchcraft in the place she considers home. These performances, and the characters, are so interesting, at one point I thought it would be neat to experience the story through each of their perspectives.