The Hurricane Heist

The Hurricane Heist (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s something freeing about action films that commit to an idea so completely that they risk being labeled dumb, nonsensical, pointless, or all of the above. “The Hurricane Heist,” directed by Rob Cohen, is one of those movies. It presents a simple premise and everything around it is cheesy popcorn—and might say mindless—entertainment. One must be in the right mood and mindset to appreciate this kind of movie because an argument can be made it is a one-note joke throughout.

The plot revolves around bad guys who wish to steal six hundred million dollars from the U.S. Treasury as a massive hurricane rages on outside. Not only does the natural disaster serve as a distraction, should the government become aware of what they are up to, sending soldiers to the facility would not be an easy task. The “old money” is meant to be shredded anyway so it is only logical, at least to the bandits, that they take and make use of the cash. Naturally, there are already rogue agents inside the facility. All would have gone according to plan if it weren’t for the pesky Special Agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace); the exposition reminds us several times that she always does the right thing. She is smart, cautious, and resourceful. The thieves’ ringleader, Perkins (Ralph Ineson), has a habit of underestimating her, and the allies she acquires along the way, despite his team members dropping off like flies.

You know a movie doesn’t care about how it comes across as long as it knows it is providing entertainment when the actors who are supposed to underline the heart of the picture play their American characters—brothers from American south (Toby Kebbell, Ryan Kwanten)—with variants of Australian and English accents. (The brothers, one who runs a repair business and the other a weatherman, lost their father in 1992 as Category 5 Hurricane Andrew ripped through the south.) While initially distracting and amusing, particularly when the brothers reconnect after from what it seems to be several years of not seeing each other in person, eventually we forget about how they pronounce certain words. The action pieces get so big and so busy that words no longer matter.

And here comes the physics-defying stunts. For example, there is an amazing black, tank-like, Batmobile-looking rig (à la “Batman Begins”) that has these drills underneath that could pierce through the surface of the road. Doing so would tether the vehicle in place. Should it get hit with an amazing amount of force, it would be able to withstand it with minimal wear and tear. Its passengers would feel shaken for a few seconds but suffer no broken bones. Not even bruises, it seems, because they are able to run around with ease and get thrown about (more stunts!) in every imaginable way. It is a wonderful ad to a fictitious vehicle. Truly, they have fun with the idea.

And then there is the hurricane. It makes the movie “Twister” (underrated) look like a documentary. While the monstrous mix of wind, rain, thunderstorms, and occasional livestock does not look particularly first-rate, it is so exaggerated to the point where it looks genuinely threatening. Seeing bad guys getting sucked into its vortex is pretty fun. (The screaming remains audible despite the barrage of sounds.) And then there is science-talk about the eye of the hurricane and its edges. I don’t think it is possible for a cyclone to go around 600 miles per hour in the first place. And yet some buildings remain intact, more or less. Clearly, the movie is meant to be unbelievable. I cannot deny I had a good time.

Labor Day

Labor Day (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

While looking through the comics section, thirteen-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is approached by a bleeding man and asks for help. The man’s name is Frank (Josh Brolin) and he has escaped from the police while at the hospital due to appendicitis. Adele (Kate Winslet), Henry’s depressed single mother who rarely goes outside except for the monthly visit to the store, does not want to help the stranger, but her son’s safety is at stake. So they take him home. The plan is to have him over only until next morning. But the trains do not run on holiday weekends.

“Labor Day,” based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, is not the subtlest small town drama that focuses on a two-person family in an emotional rut. However, it is spearheaded by rock solid performances by Brolin and Winslet and supported by an equally strong acting by Griffith whose character is required to communicate a balance of sadness and strength to come off as a believable short-term support system of his character’s depressed mother.

Though censured for its melodramatic tone, the criticism should have been more focused on the fugitive written too nice at times. Although there is a level of danger to Frank during the scene in which he is introduced, once he gets to the house, the threatening element about him disappears too quickly—a problem because Adele and, to a degree, Henry are still wary of the man’s intentions. Thus, the character lacks a well-defined arc which renders the flashbacks—glimpses of his younger self (Tom Lipinski) and the circumstances that led to his incarceration—informative but powerless. The most effective dramas are almost always driven by character arcs—this also being a character piece—and so it is somewhat off-putting that the stranger is not given more complexity.

We experience the story unfold through Henry’s perspective. We feel the sweetness and tragedy of his relationship with his mother, fears and anxiety of possibly being separated from her, and the hope of possibly having a much-needed father figure in his life. Though they may come off syrupy at times, I still enjoyed the scenes between the boy and the convict on the run. Though they are strangers, their interactions are rich such as when Henry is being taught how to fix a car and how to throw a baseball. Compare these with scenes between Henry and his biological father (Clark Gregg) and we wonder if Henry being around Frank in the long run would be more beneficial for the boy.

The inevitable attraction between a convict and his hostage may sound tacky but it works here. Winslet does a commendable job communicating so much with only her eyes and how slowly she moves. Her character has so much nervous energy and fragility that just about every action she makes while out in public can be a source of concern. We believe that what we have in front of us is a woman who needs a little bit of fire—for her sake and her young son’s.

At one point in “Labor Day,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jason Reitman, Henry’s biological father tells his son that the reason why he left them is because he just wanted to live a “normal” life. In other words, he could not continue living with a depressed person. I wished the picture had more of that searing honesty. The confession did not have to be kind. It did not have to be right. It just needed to be true. Henry looks at his father and for once there is respect there. It dares the viewer not to be moved.

The Clovehitch Killer

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“So you think your dad is the Clovehitch Killer?”

Here is a small and quiet suspense picture so confident with its premise—a teenager begins to suspect that his father might be the infamous murderer who has evaded the police for a decade—that nearly every passing scene, particularly during the first half, we lean a little closer to screen in order to capture and process every bit of information provided to us. Is our protagonist correct about his initial assumptions or is what we are seeing simply a case of a sheltered young man, raised as a devout Christian in a small town in Kentucky, who is unable to look at the big picture and so he ends up making a series of inaccurate conclusions?

Charlie Plummer plays Tyler, the teenager who is confronted by a girl he likes when she, sitting at the passenger’s side of his family’s truck, comes across a crumpled photograph of a woman tied up in a sexual position. Horrified and embarrassed, he claims the picture is not his but she does not believe him. Her body language suggests their date is over and she would like to be driven home. But Tyler knows precisely whom the picture belongs. And he intends to investigate the locked shed that his father, played by Dylan McDermott, frequents. It is in this moment that the film begins to gather momentum. Plummer shapes Tyler with an innocence so thick, we wonder should he end up facing the actual killer, would he even stand a chance?

The film is most tense during the investigative sequences: Tyler sneaking into the white shed at daybreak, finding a black box under a floorboards, looking closely at detailed blueprints, sneaking into a cramped place that welcomes visitors with a stench of death. Notice the lack of score or soundtrack. When a box is handled and contents inside move around the sound is deafening. When the camera focuses on photographs of suffering women who appear to be suffering, we could almost hear their whimpers. Great tension gathers during these drawn-out scenes because it is quiet and the camera is used as a magnifying glass. The threat of being found out looms from a couple of feet away.

Tyler is not the only interesting character. He meets Kassi (Madisen Beaty), the redhead with a reputation for sleeping with five football players. Pre-marital sex is sin in the eyes of the highly religious community. She hangs out outside the church to read. She also happens to be an expert when it comes to the Clovehitch murders; some might say it is her obsession. Kassi is the tougher of the duo, certainly less sheltered, and more communicative. I wished then that their partnership were explored further, perhaps injected with a bit of humor. While the pair’s chemistry works, at times it comes across as too safe, expected. It begs for another level of intrigue.

There is an interesting move about halfway through. That is, we leave Tyler’s perspective and the film focuses on the killer—or a possible killer: how he chooses his victim or “victim,” the stalking process, the rituals he feels he must adhere to, the objects in his duffel bag, the clothes he wears when he decides to take action. These details are shot in a matter-of-fact way. Emotions are muted; we are simply flies on a wall. To me, that is more unsettling than, for example, showing a hammer hitting a skull or a knife being plunged into another’s stomach. We feel the violence in the premeditation.

“The Clovehitch Killer” is written by Christopher Ford and he makes intelligent choices on a consistent basis—that is, until the last five minutes. The picture ends too abruptly with twists so knotty, one ends up staring at the screen with disbelief. Although it did not drop the ball completely, I did not buy into the final developments so readily because the majority of the work is so patient every step of the way. Thus, the conclusion feels off. It may have been more effective if the work were stretched past the two-hour mark. The denouement is rushed.

A Letter to Momo

Letter to Momo, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Momo (voiced by Amanda Pace) and her mother, Ikuko (Stephanie Sheh), move from Tokyo to Shio Island to try to grasp at a life of normalcy after a tragic death in their family. Momo is not keen on the idea of being an “island girl” but her mother insists that she tries because Shio Island is their new home.

While Ikuko is away, Momo, to her horror, discovers three goblins living in her attic—creatures from Above assigned to protect the mother and daughter for a given amount of time. These goblins (Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder, Bob Bergen), however, don’t know a thing about what it means to be good guardians and consistently put their stomachs ahead of the girl’s safety.

Based on the screenplay and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, “A Letter to Momo” boasts beautiful hand-drawn animation which is most appropriate because life in Shio Island appears to be simple and down-to-earth. What prevents it from becoming a great movie is its inappropriate insistence on injecting supernatural elements when the story requires that it focus on the personal and emotional challenges the mother and daughter are going through. It gives the impression that the magical elements are purely there to capture the audience’s attention while failing to engage fully.

The animation takes its time to show details of a lifestyle in a particular place. I caught myself fascinated with the kinds of faces and body types of people who live on the island. My eyes looked for the kinds of work people do to make a living. Are they smiling, frowning, or indifferent? I evaluated the age groups walking in the streets, the types of clothes they wear, and wondered if they liked living on an island.

Although the film has the kind of score that tugs at the heartstrings, it knows when to employ silence to highlight certain conversations that may sound ordinary to us but are important for the characters. Communication, or lack thereof, between mother and daughter is one of the themes of the material and it is appropriate that the filmmakers know how to control dialogue and music in order to prevent the material from becoming overbearing or forced.

But more than half of the picture involves the three goblins. For the lack of a better description, I found them to be annoying. They need not be cute—they are mythical creatures typically feared, after all—but never do we feel like they care or have grown to care for the shy eleven-year-old who deeply regrets her final words to her father. There are scenes that show her wanting to be comforted by these creatures but they do not connect with human emotions. Some will undoubtedly enjoy this element but it did not work for me.

If these mythical creatures are there to serve a purpose, it is for comic relief. At times I was amused by their blind cravings to eat whatever food is available within the vicinity. They like to steal fruits and vegetables but are also willing to steal baby hogs. Strictly based on comedic effect, Iwa, Kawa, and Mame, are necessary characters. However, the dramatic elements which directly involve them do not work. Since they cannot relate to human emotions, we, too, cannot relate to how they think, act, or feel—at least not completely. The disconnect is staggering at times because the script demands that we come to love them.

“Momo e no tatami” is technically beautiful but there is not much to it in terms of emotions and circumstances that come across completely genuine. I tolerated the goblins’ antics but they distract from the core of the film: a girl who has a very difficult time relating with others because she remains in deep regret and mourning.


Detroit (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kathryn Bigelow constructs yet another timely picture designed to incite conversation, perhaps debate, this time a fact-based drama that takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots where three white police officers murder innocent black civilians in cold blood because the men in uniform are convinced that there is a sniper among the motel guests. Although the events depicted here occurred forty years ago, it is impossible to ignore one of the many problems that have persisted through the years: how the police are trained to respond to potential threats especially when a person is black.

The picture is shot with a careful, patient eye. Notice that most of the first hour is dedicated to painting a canvas using large brush strokes when it comes to introducing elements that lead up to the first wave of riots. Unconcerned about following the usual beats of storytelling, it renders the viewers off-balance and some may even wonder where the story is heading. But the elliptical storytelling is a fascinating strategy because it is effective in making viewers, at least who might familiar with what had transpired in the Algiers Motel, forget some of the more specific details or, at the very least, engage us in the present and ignore the checklist containing what ought to happen and when.

Fact-based dramas are difficult to pull off with grace. After all, how can suspense be injected into the material when some of us already know what is about to happen? Bigelow employs her journalistic eye. She has a knack for condensing dense material into digestible parts. Notice how she allows the story to move from riots in the streets to the horrors in the motel. Take note of the increasing utilization of tight shots and limited physical space, such as the hallway where “suspects” are made to face the wall. We may not know the names of all the victims or their backstories, but we fear for their lives nonetheless. It is an example of a drama without need for typical character details and arcs.

There are numerous standout performances, from Algee Smith as the lead singer of the band The Dramatics to John Boyega as a security guard who finds himself caught in an extremely difficult and eventually tragic situation. But it is Will Poulter as trigger-happy cop Philip Krauss who delivers a performance so villainous that the character is enraging exactly because he is human. The character may lack subtlety, or rich details, but I enjoyed that it is up to us viewers to remind ourselves, especially during the picture’s most intense scenes, that there is racism in all of us—there just happens to be varying degrees of it. Here is a man who craves power and takes every opportunity to exercise it. But he ignores any responsibility or moral obligation that comes with the badge. Perhaps it is intentional for Krauss to come across as an archetype, an idea, a monster, more than a person.

The film might have improved upon greatly had it provided a deeper political context before the riots. After all, rebellions and resistance do not arise from nothing. If I were to ask Bigelow one question, it would be why she chose omit these details. Still, “Detroit” commands such dramatic realism, at times so raw to the point where one wishes to look away, that it is enough to show what happened without including the numerous complex reasons that lead up to it. An argument can be made that perhaps it is more appropriate to include these reasons in a documentary.

Dead Night

Dead Night (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Irving Walker and director Brad Baruh ought to take a Horror 101 class in order to really take a look at classic horror films—especially those with wild ideas—and study why they work. It is astounding that their project manages to get nearly every single element wrong, from mashing together a hodgepodge of ideas that do not complement one another to the truly awful execution in which suspense is nearly absent. Halfway through, it becomes clear that it is all about the splatter—like how an axe cracks the skull, how limbs are torn so easily. Is it supposed to be darkly comic? A throwback to B-movies of the past? It doesn’t matter—it is intolerably boring.

This would-be horror film is titled “Dead Night,” but it might as well be called “Dead on Arrival,” both because it offers nothing better than bottom-of-the-barrel junk as the family on vacation is terrorized and killed by supernatural forces mere hours after their arrival at the cabin in the woods. Observe how the dialogue is so scripted, no one sounds like an actual person but movie characters designed to be killed should the plot demand it. The awkward beats between lines only amplifies the hollowness of it all; the performers themselves do not look sold on what they’re saying, let alone be bothered to actually feel what their characters are feeling. At least they got paid to be in a bad movie rather than having to watch themselves appear in one.

We are shown fragments being inserted in unsuspecting people’s bodies. Somehow these curious, ancient-looking objects allow the victims to get possessed or to come back to life (it isn’t clear) equipped with rather robotic-sounding demonic voices. But the thing is, they’re not strong or smart or even remotely threatening. They release guttural growls, their bodies undergo involuntary shaking, and their eyes whiten. (Of course, bad CGI must be employed since this is almost a pre-requisite in terrible horror flicks.) These zombie-demons appear to understand orders but they don’t accomplish anything. They are useless, worse than zombies that are barely able to walk, and one must wonder at their function. Are they meant to serve merely as ugly decorations against the pine trees and snow? Are we even supposed to feel creeped out by them?

At least Barbara Crampton, the unconscious woman whom the patriarch (AJ Bowen) finds in the snowy woods, seems to be having a great time. Her approach once her character is resuscitated: overact, turn the enthusiasm knob to eleven, raise her voice at every character who challenges her even just a little. The surge of energy she provides is like a defibrillator to a body that had been dead for a week. While her attempt to revive the material is ultimately useless, at least she tried. That is more than can be said about the filmmakers’ efforts. I got the impression that they wanted to make a movie just to have something on their resume. What results is a work that is lazy and not at all entertaining.

If I were a film professor, I would hold an optional lecture for “Dead Night.” It would be a good lecture to attend because it shows how not to make a film—no matter the genre. And it would be optional because sitting through the picture itself is harsh punishment. I would rather stare at a wall for an hour and fifteen minutes than having to watch this drivel again.

Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

On November 2008, ten members of an Islamic terrorist organization launched a series of coordinated bombings and shootings across the great city of Mumbai. The senseless killing spree resulted in nearly two hundred deaths. The film focuses on one of the targets, the Taj Hotel, and dramatizes the events.

Although enthralling in parts, “Hotel Mumbai,” directed by Anthony Maras, suffers from a perspective problem. One minute we are seeing the action unfold from the terrorists’ perspective and the next we find ourselves sitting amongst the horrified victims. But that is not all. We, too, observe the happenings from the authorities’ point of view. There is plenty to digest. And at some point, because the picture’s pacing drags around the halfway point, we wonder if perhaps it might have been a wiser choice to focus on only one perspective. It certainly would have forced the writers and filmmakers to tell the story in a more effective and efficient manner.

All of the actors deliver solid performances, from Dev Patel as a hotel staff who was late to his shift, Jason Isaacs as an obnoxious Russian who happens to be a former military personnel, to Armie Hammer as a father who decides to rescue his infant son on the fourth floor after the initial attack. But these figures are defined only by one or two surface personalities. While this is understandable in a movie that attempts to cover so much ground, it becomes a challenge to invest deeply into their fates.

Isn’t the point to get us to care for or learn about both the survivors and the deceased, to honor them in some way? But let’s say this isn’t the point. If so, then why is it that the picture fails to put in the time to honor the hotel staff, particularly those who chose to stay and help the guests? Thus, on this level, due to its contradictory nature, an argument can be made that the work is ineffective as a biographical dramatic thriller.

We have all seen bodies being gunned down in the movies. But what I appreciated here is the lack of gloss in the killings. There is screaming, panic, and chaos. Bodies fall in ugly and awkward ways. Blood is everywhere, but it never comes across as an action or a horror film. It is the correct choice to not create shallow entertainment from the gruesome murders. Despite the pandemonium, however, what I remember most is not the dying or the corpses.

Notice that when the terrorists are on the rampage, their faces are shown from time to time. Observe their expressions carefully. Many of them are blank. Some look bored, like taking a life is simply a chore to be performed. They take no pleasure from their actions. They yell and appear to be angry on the surface, but is what we are seeing simply a reflection of their training/brainwashing? I found this particular aspect most fascinating. The image of the terrorists’ faces—many of them young—made such an impression on me early on that during the slower moments in the second half, I was still haunted by their apathetic countenance.

It is without question that there is a tragedy worth telling through a dramatic lens here. But “Hotel Mumbai” is about thirty minutes too long, plagued with numerous repetitive elements such as having to tiptoe around the main hall toward an area of escape or people disagreeing when it comes to what to do next. Instead of focusing a few human stories, the broad strokes result in covering up the story’s more compelling angles.