The Lodge

The Lodge (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ “The Lodge” is an excellent example of a movie so reliant on a third act twist that if one were observant enough to see through the fog and recognize red herrings—which isn’t difficult to do—the rest becomes a waiting game. I appreciated the intent: the goal is to tell a story, through the lens of psychological horror, about unresolved trauma and how it can ruin new chapters of its hosts’ lives even before they begin. In order for this to work, however, the screenplay must function both as a drama and a horror picture. It fails to excel in either category which leaves us an experience that is, for the most part, a slog to sit through.

It lays out the pieces in a clear and precise manner. Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are still in mourning due to the death of their mother (Alicia Silverstone). She had committed suicide after receiving news that her husband, Richard (Richard Armitage), wishes to marry his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), former member and sole survivor of a Christian cult that committed mass suicide. Already there are parallel details worth noting. Six months after the mother’s death, and just in time for Christmas (of course), the siblings and their soon-to-be stepmother will spend time in a remote winter cabin in order to get to know one another better. (Richard has to leave for a couple of days due to work.) The children despise the new woman in their lives because they blame her for their mother’s death, and the girlfriend is… a bit off even though she is willing to try to make it work between her and the kids.

As the material busies itself with presenting pieces of the puzzle that will prove to be relevant later, I felt no drama emanating from the material. Sure, it’s sad that Aidan and Mia must learn to live without their mother, but the work fails to provide reasons why these two are interesting together or apart. They are not only given so little dialogue, they are left with little to do. I felt as though their anger is superficial and so when Aidan and/or Mia lash out at Grace, in subtle or overt manner, the whole thing comes across like a performance. The notes of action and reaction are present but not the music, if you will.

The same applies to Grace. For a woman who has endured so much physically and psychologically, this survivor is rather bland. Is she meant to be a shell of a person? It is not enough to show one online article of a terrible cult; we must have an appreciation of this particular group through the perspective of the one who lived to tell the tale. (Richard wrote a book about her experiences.) Keough attempts to wring out every drop of emotion in each scene—which is admirable—but I never believed the history of her character. We’re supposed to buy into it, I guess, because she’s a pill popper. By the third trip to the bedroom drawer because she finds it so stressful to interact with her future stepchildren, I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit—not because it is funny but because it is offensively reductive. What does Richard see in her?

Expect no scares; the approach is a slow descent to madness. Expect long takes. Expect plenty of shots of creepy portraits, ugly dolls, and large crucifixes. Expect silence, dim lighting, minimal score. A whole lot of snow. And shivering. Oh, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is on TV at one point. It made me wish I were watching that terrific, exciting, horrifying movie instead.

Eventually, we are meant to question what’s real and isn’t, who to trust and who to suspect; what is happening and to whom. I was able to predict every step, but I enjoyed the snowy milieu and the feelings of isolation it invokes. The work is so atmospheric but little else to offer. At least it has the courage to end on a dark note. But even then I still felt there is no powerful punchline. Of course it had to happen; trauma and history repeating itself and all that.

Devil’s Gate

Devil’s Gate (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a project with so many familiar ideas, it is near impossible to fit them all in one film and make them work. Written by Peter Aperio and Clay Staub, the latter directing the picture, at least “Devil’s Gate” cannot be accused of taking one shallow concept and stretching it too thin. What begins as story involving a guilt-ridden FBI agent (Amanda Schull) sent to investigate the disappearance of a mother and son (Bridget Regan, Spencer Drever) in the farmlands of North Dakota turns into struggle for humanity’s existence—ambitious but incredibly challenging to pull off without skilled writing.

The work is elevated by attractive practical creature effects—attractive in a sense that rubber suits and the like are appropriately covered in otherworldly mucus, teeth and fangs are menacing, their bony yet tender-looking fingers creepy as they wriggle about. Creatures vary in color, size, and ability. When visual effects are utilized, such as when a pole is used to prod one of the sac-like curiosities, it encourages the viewer to look a little closer. Tension increases as little hairs climb up the rod and begin to pull back collectively. It gives us a chance to gauge the intelligence—or instincts—of this thing we are looking at with morbid curiosity.

If only the dialogue were as polished. Milo Ventimiglia plays the husband and father of the disappeared. As Jackson, who, according to the townspeople, has been increasingly short-tempered and violent during the past few months, Ventimiglia is required to be menacing, almost monstrous as every seemingly insignificant thing may set him off, as shown during the film’s lackadaisical first quarter. But the dialogue he must sell is so cheesy, no effort of raising one’s voice or making it sound more gruff could mask the awful string of words.

Perhaps the better choice would have been to show the character function effectively in silence as we hear terrifying noises in the basement. By showing that these violent noises no longer bothering him, it may provide information about the kind of man he is, particularly his level of focus when something needs to get done. The film’s lack of strength when it comes to character details is not specific to Jackson. Even Special Agent Francis and the local cop tasked to take her around town (Shawn Ashmore) are given too many unnecessary expository dialogue to explain their motivations rather than simply showing or implying them.

Open-minded viewers, especially fans of “The X-Files” who are capable of sitting through the strangest episodes, may find some value in “Devil’s Gate.” I was entertained by it simply from the perspective of visuals—even the more ostentatious ones which I was surprised by given my low tolerance for CGI. While the experience it offers is not particularly horrifying or thrilling, it provides a number of unexpected left turns.

The Trust

The Trust (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The heist black comedy-thriller “The Trust,” written by Adam Hirsch and Benjamin Brewer (who co-directs with Alex Brewer), offers a few morsels of savagely funny situations and enthusiastic performances, but the work fails to deliver a satisfying ending that is equally colorful and inspired as rest of the picture. It is undercooked. And so by the time the end credits rolls, the viewer is inspired to ask what compelled the filmmakers to tell this particular story when they aren’t willing to go all way with its… Las Vegas morality. Here is a black comedy that isn’t willing to get dark enough—doing so would have taken it to a new level.

LVPD cops Stone (Nicolas Cage) and Waters (Elijah Wood) are so bored and unhappy with their jobs, they would do anything to spice it up a little. Punctilious Lieutenant Stone comes across paperwork involving $200,000 worth of bail—paid in a cashier’s check. Suspicious. So he decides to pursue the matter further by following a particular individual who is likely to be a drug dealer. Soon Sergeant Waters is recruited by his superior—who is, at first, reluctant to use his vacation days for surveillance that may not even amount to anything. Still, it beats another night in with his cat. Waters’ attitude changes when they discover a vault in an industrial freezer. It appears that whatever is taken there does not come out. What is inside?

Cage and Wood share wonderful chemistry as police officers who have had it with their careers. They portray their characters as people who went into law enforcement thinking that it would be exciting, like the cop stories on TV and movies, when in fact it is nearly the total opposite. There is slow death in their eyes, and much of their disillusionment is played for laughs. While on the clock, they are sarcastic, they roll their eyes, and make it blatantly obvious to their co-workers that they don’t really want to be there. Here is a story of two people who could’ve used some perspective—a reminder that there is something worse than boredom—prior to deciding to take it upon themselves to take matters into their own hands.

The Brewers direct the film in a workman-like fashion. It is patient and, like Cage’s juicy character, concerned with details. It matters where Stone orders a drill to be used for the heist. It matters to show how humiliated Waters feels when an obnoxious co-worker pulls a prank. It matters that we are presented a mental picture of the building the duo will break into to try to get into the vault. And for this reason, some might consider the picture to be slow. But I think it is one of the film’s best traits because without the details, without the patience, some of the jokes that require excellent timing would not have landed.

But the deeper we get into the story, it becomes all the more apparent that the writers are reluctant to make it as grim as possible—a curiosity because the subjects are bad cops. This timidity does not stem from a love of its characters but rather a feeling that the movie might not be as marketable considering the stars at the helm. But that is a mistake: Cage and Wood have proven themselves willing to take on material that are peculiar and bizarre. They want to be challenged. So, why not go all the way and tell the story without all the unnecessary vacillation? This is a missed opportunity.

Escape from New York

Escape from New York (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the surface, John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” is an action film. It does, after all, involve a plot to rescue the president (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One crashed in Manhattan, now a maximum security prison following a 400% increase of crime in the country. But as one experiences it, it is not so much an action picture—at least not a typical one. I found it to be a mood piece, an exercise of creativity by a filmmaker given a very limited budget whose goal is to entertain by inspiring us to look inside the world he and his team created instead of simply accepting busy movements and loud noises.

The solemn and desolate skylines and landscapes of Manhattan puts us into a headspace that this version of the future, set in 1997, is cruel and militaristic. For a dystopian film released in 1981, it looks terrific. Every location we visit, whether it be atop the World Trade Center or in the streets where starved denizens—starved of food, human interaction, freedom—crawl out of the sewers with rats, there is something special to be seen and appreciated. Couple these intoxicating images with well-placed and well-made synth music, we become increasingly excited for the mission to evolve. We look forward to the next scene’s surprises, the next batch of colorful personalities our central protagonist may clash against.

Our eye-patched hero—some might say anti-hero—is Snake Plissken and he is played with suave by Kurt Russell. Less capable performers may have relied on the eye patch to create a personality, but Russell portrays the character as though the accessory isn’t even there. Snake is confident and knows what he wants and so from the moment we come across this memorable character, we have a feeling about his history outside of his reputation among lawmen and criminals. I enjoyed that Snake taking on the task of rescuing the president is not driven by a sense of duty for his country but self-preservation. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), in charge of the rescue mission, offers a deal: Should Snake succeed at rescuing the president, all of his crime records would be wiped clean.

But to ensure that Hauk would get his way: Snake is injected with particles that would rupture his arteries should he fail to deliver the man within a time limit. Carpenter and Nick Castle’s screenplay often works like this. Even the criminals we meet in Manhattan, particularly the ones who end up helping Snake for reasons of their own, are given dimension. Everybody is out for themselves and yet they are willing to bend rules—at times their personal codes—in order to get that much further in attaining their goals. This is far more interesting than presenting yet another ballet of bullets in which the straight-faced hero triumphs with ease or barely escapes.

Nuance is what separates “Escape from New York” from other sci-fi action pictures. We may not have the strongest, smartest, or most heroic protagonist but we get a real sense of his place in this particular dystopian universe. Should he succeed or fail in his mission, notice it doesn’t really matter. Or at least it didn’t matter to me. It was enough that I got to see and experience Carpenter’s vision of world where criminals are hidden away to rot instead of rehabilitated. (Perhaps we are at that point now?) There is one line early in the film that stuck with me. Prisoners about to be sent to Manhattan are given a choice to self-terminate and be cremated should they not want to be confined for life. I caught myself thinking I probably would have taken on the offer. Happily. Because what is life without freedom?

Minority Report

Minority Report (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The mission: Find the Minority Report—a vision of a possible future crime, namely murder, from one of the three psychics, called PreCogs, that differs from the other two—and extract it from the mind of its source. Since this report casts doubt on the process, this is proof that the concept behind the 2054 experiment called PreCrime—arresting a person, or persons, before a murder is committed—is flawed and therefore not yet appropriate to be adapted as a nationwide program. This is the plot of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” based on the 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, a vision of the future so fully realized that it takes the viewer through a fascinating story of morality, dangers of technology, and human error. It is a science-fiction film for the ages, certainly one of Spielberg’s best.

Yet underneath its intelligent ideas, thrilling chase sequences, and eye-catching visual touches somehow both passing as modern and futuristic, it is about a man who remains in grief, in depression, due to the sudden disappearance of his young son six years ago—now presumed to be dead. We go through this compelling journey and realize that the film is about second chances—the very thing that those people arrested for pre-murder are never given, all because of the assumption that PreCogs are never wrong. That is, until this man in grief, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), who lost his identity as a father and as a husband, is deemed guilty of PreCrime—that soon he will shoot a person dead, one he hasn’t even met.

Clearly, the picture is capable of delivering thrilling sequences of action—which is different from action sequences although it does that well, too. (The opening scene involving the cheating spouse, the “Spyders” on the hunt, and the mall with the balloons are expertly paced and edited.) Notice that before John goes on the run, the screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen ensures we know every relevant detail as to why the protagonist must do what he does.

Since we have a complete picture of what is at stake for the main character, he running for his life—his own friends and colleagues against him—is all the more suspenseful. If he gets caught, we know precisely what will happen him because we have witnessed an arrest and seen what happens to the convicts’ bodies. Thus, emphasis is not on what will happen to the character from the perspective of punishment. Instead, importance is placed on the big picture: if PreCrime became a national program, imagine the numerous factors that could go awry, the number of men and women to be wrongly convicted.

The picture is filled with to the brim with inviting performances, from Cruise who is required to juggle being a tough leader, a desperate runaway, and a vulnerable man who lost those most important to him; Samantha Morton as the most gifted PreCog with a tragic backstory; Colin Farrell as the clever and punctilious DOJ agent whose role is to audit the PreCrime program; Max von Sydow as the father of the program and a sort of father figure to John; and last but certainly not least Lois Smith as the mother of the program but has since lived in isolation because her project turned into something that we feel deep down is morally reprehensible to her. Smith gets one scene—a key one—yet it is the most memorable of the bunch because she utilizes every pause and modulate every line of dialogue to her advantage. I craved to know more about her character, particularly her time as a geneticist and her relationship with the PreCogs.

Tightly-written and beautifully photographed, “Minority Report” is a modern classic. It clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours and yet it moves like a gust of wind because the filmmakers are in complete control of the storytelling machine: a traditional three story arc from Point A to Point Z in a way that is direct with a few surprises along the way.

One of the surprises is its sense of humor. Watch closely when we are shown people simply living in this version of a future and how they adapt to technology, for instance. Look at the advertisements. Observe the freeway scene where cars go up, down, and sideways; are they traveling on a road or on the side of buildings?—it is like a statement on what action films have become… or will become. Hopefully not the latter; the future is not set in stone.

6 Underground

6 Underground (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Pointless, loud, and constantly on the move, there is no denial that “6 Underground” is a Michael Bay movie. I enjoyed the first fifteen minutes which features an extended car chase in Florence—on labyrinthine streets, through cafe dining areas, inside museums, with little regard for pedestrians—but it’s a nosedive the moment we leave Italy. The story revolves around a vigilante group (led by Ryan Reynolds) whose goal is to rid of the planet of what they consider to be evil persons, groups, or organizations. This time, they set their eyes on a dictator of “Turgistan” for… generic reasons why a dictator is a very, very bad individual. The picture is so reductive with its politics that it is almost satirical. But this is no political thriller; it is an action-thriller. However, the action scenes are no good either in that they fail consistently to incite excitement. A case can be made that these sequences are anti-action: viewers are inspired to sit back and simply absorb images as if we had just undergone lobotomy. Production value is sky high: we visit at least three countries; cars are cut in half, explode, and crash onto one another; stuntmen crawl up and down skyscrapers like spiders; there is even a yacht that sinks. Despite this, there is no heft in whatever the hell is going on (if you can make sense of it). Reynolds’ try-hard would-be comic one-liners are especially annoying when spouted in the middle of dead dull action. The experience at offer here feels worse than eating junk food because at least when you’re eating junk food you feel happy until you get to the bottom of the bag. Co-starring Mélanie Laurent, Ben Hardy, Corey Hawkins, Adria Arjona, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Dave Franco.

Thunder Road

Thunder Road (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jim Cummings writes, directs, and acts in “Thunder Road,” a comedy walking a tightrope. It tells the story of a cop named Jim whose mother has just passed away. We meet him making a speech about her, like her passion for dancing and her love for Bruce Springsteen, but the longer he speaks it becomes all the more apparent that much of what he says is actually about himself. In the middle of his wild performance, we wonder if there is something seriously wrong with the man. Is this his own way of grieving? Is this actually his personality? Is he on drugs? The speech culminates when he dances—without music since the CD player died—right in front of his mother’s coffin. It is from this moment that it is crystal clear: The work is going to be a minefield of comic-cringe moments. I loved nearly every second of it.

But the opening scene does not hint at the depth the movie is about to dive into. Sure, it gives us a quick portrait of a ridiculous person who may or may not have deep psychological issues. But Jim is actually a good man, well-meaning, and a dedicated father to his young daughter (Kendal Farr). It’s just that there is often a disconnect between his thoughts and what comes out of his mouth. He has anger issues. The entire film is composed to seeing Jim being presented with a problem, how he reacts to it initially, and how deals with it sooner or later. It is riotously funny and yet at times it becomes surprisingly moving at a drop of a hat.

Here is a work that embraces a type of comedy that is incredibly difficult to pull off. When done wrong, even just remotely wrong, I am able to detect its stench with ease. Here is a dark tragi-comedy done right. It is unafraid to place the subject under a microscope so we can note his flaws and redeeming qualities; so we can relate and empathize; so we can appreciate why he thinks the way he does and behave the way he does. There is no flashback to childhood or any of the easy tropes. There is only a determined march forward filled with mistakes, regrets, and redemption. Cummings has tapped onto something here which makes me look forward to what else he has yet to offer as an actor, writer, and director.

We also come to meet others within Jim’s outer circle—because his inner circle doesn’t exist. There is Crystal, a fourth-grader who does not appear to enjoy spending time with her father. She is not at all receptive to her father’s efforts. We meet a possible sixteen-year-old version of her (Jacqueline Doke)—or what Jim thinks, in his own mental gymnastics, of Crystal’s eventual future should Jim not continue to be a strong presence in his daughter’s life. Another important person in Jim’s life is his wife Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer). Jim and Roz have been living apart (Roz has a new beau). Every encounter they have is ugly and unpleasant—but not without well-observed humor; we believe that these two have tried and failed to have a life together. Now, they just cannot stand one another—even for the sake of their own child.

Perhaps most interesting, however, one who sort of qualifies as Jim’s best friend is fellow cop Nate (Nican Robinson). To reveal details about their friendship would do the film a disservice. But there is a beautiful, quiet moment when Nate simply looks at his friend, who is currently going through the biggest challenges of his life, and recognizes his value with complete clarity. The camera holds still, unblinking, patient. Unlike every other scene, there is no joke. Just an honest personal moment of one human being loving another because that’s just how it should be.


Ghost (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

You might have heard about this movie because of its selling point: It was shot on an iPhone. This approach of capturing images may impress some, but it does not impress me. What excites me, however, is strong storytelling containing characters worth spending time with and getting to know—which “Ghost,” written and directed by Anthony Z. James, offers the viewer should one bother to look just underneath the familiar plot: an ex-con having just been released from prison wishes to reconnect with his family, specifically his son who grew up without a father for ten years. As the ex-con rings the doorbell, his wife chooses not to answer the door. We assume it is out of fear.

It is a quiet drama—certain to be mislabeled by those seeking numbing thrills or noisy action as slow or boring—but lean a little closer and listen with intent. Clearly, the humanistic screenplay aims to make a thoughtful statement about the past, how it can be passed on not just through environment and socioecology but also biology. The father’s past involves violence—which is skirted around for more than half the picture. When specifics are finally revealed, it is not entirely surprising yet still quite disarming. Perhaps it is no accident that the occasionally irascible son walks around the neighborhood with something to prove, as if constantly carrying weight on his shoulders. His father wasn’t around to take off some of the burden.

At the center of the picture is two naturalistic performances by Anthony Mark Streeter (Tony, the father) and Nathan Hamilton (Conor, the son). Right when the picture ended, I felt compelled to find out if this was their first feature—not because the acting is in any way unconvincing or false. On the contrary, Streeter and Hamilton’s performances contain no vanity, just raw interactions of every day people who’ve been around the block—perhaps one too many times. They look tired, a bit sad, hopeful at times, and when they are surprised, especially when they try to hide it, we cannot help but smile with them. The relationship’s rhythm is so curious, I found myself observing the most minute facial details of two men who have just entered a new chapter of their lives.

A standout: when the father and son make eye contact for the first time, not saying a word for what it feels like ages, we are made to believe that these two already have a complicated history; it is exciting because we are dropped right in the middle of it. Acceptance or rejection—we are not given a solid grasp of how the relationship will turn out. Another standout: Tony meeting with a man with whom he used to work for. Dom (Russell Barnett) seems to have the money, the power, the drugs. He wears a nice suit. But really look at him, his habits, his dead eyes. All he has is a nice view from his office window. Tony might be a penniless ex-con but at least he has a purpose. He wants to live again, to be present, to be there.

The final act may come across contrived to some. To me, however, it is a natural destination—not just in a movie of this type but also in terms of what this specific story attempts to communicate about the cycle of violence, how ghosts of the past can haunt and threaten to derail a possible future of contentment and happiness. I admired that it faded to black when it did because it trusts us, after having gotten the chance to know its protagonists, to imagine what might happen next. I found it to be a terrific litmus test of how closely we pay attention to the people around us. Here is a movie that gives people the desire to see.

Hell House LLC

Hell House LLC (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Cognetti’s “Hell House LLC” could have been a great haunted house film—a literal one because it involves a group of friends from New York City moving to a Podunk town to turn an abandoned hotel into a haunted house for the month of Halloween—because it is not at all tempted to utilize CGI and other ostentatious visual effects to scare the audience. When this movie employs practical effects, like creepy masks and bloody cosmetics paired with inanimate objects suddenly moving on their own in the middle of the night, it’s quite spine-tingling. It is let down, however, by the tropes and limitations of the found footage subgenre. Only a notable few are highly effective (“The Blair Witch Project,” “Lake Mungo,” “Troll Hunter,” “Grave Encounters,” just to name some) and this project is not one of them.

The idea that something goes horribly awry in a haunt is deeply unsettling because many factors can go wrong: malfunctioning props, drunk visitors acting a fool, discerning between what’s a part of the show versus an accident and actual cries for help. This is an effective hook, but it is not presented in a way that is clear, precise, or exciting. In the picture’s opening minutes, we are made to watch a video captured using a visitor’s cell phone camera. It is an annoying struggle half the time to try to make sense of what is happening due to all the screaming combined with rapid turns of the person holding the camera. Not to mention all the shaking. There is even a stampede. It is a frustrating way to invite the viewers into the story because we are given the initial impression that is going to be just like any other found footage flick: few fresh ideas, if any, and absolute minimal craft.

But this poorly executed introduction is not representative of the work. Soon we come to meet the group of friends who decide to turn the abandoned Abaddon Hotel into a walkthrough (Danny Bellini, Ryan Jennifer Jones, Gore Abrams, Jared Hacker, Adam Schneider). We learn a bit about how they get along, what they think of each other, their sense of humor, their experiences with creating memorable haunts… what scares them, who gets easily spooked, who reacts with anger when faced with paranormal phenomenon. I wished, however, that the question of why Alex (Bellini), the leader, chose to revive this specific hotel, which had been closed for thirty years, is communicated early on. Did he buy it? Is he renting it? Did it come cheap? Is he attracted to its shocking history? For the sake of establishing a thicker atmosphere, these questions ought to have been answered.

The best scares are found in the middle of film, when characters wake up in the middle of the night due to noises downstairs, a strange feeling, or for no discernible reason. All of us have experienced waking up in the middle of the night so the situational horror is immediately relatable. Of course, they go investigating. And, of course, they see or experience something they wish they hadn’t. At times their reactions are humorous. And there are other times when we understand why they would be upset and express wanting to leave the hotel for good. I loved that although I am not scared of clowns… in the moment the movie convinced me I was.

Details prove to matter. Like how the three mannequins’ heads—wearing clown masks—are stuck in one position. Our protagonists even force to move the heads because they claim it would be far scarier if these clowns were looking in different directions during the haunt—like no matter from which angle you enter the room, you find at least one of them looking at you. No luck. They wouldn’t budge. And yet… and yet. It seems like the longer Alex and company stay in that hotel, the place gets angrier. There is escalating tension after every scene.

The climax is handled disastrously. It is shown to us what exactly happened during the haunt’s opening night which resulted in multiple injuries and casualties. Like the uninspired opening scene, this, too, is filled to the brim with screaming and shaking of the camera. A little bit is enough. It appears as though the writer-director is convinced that the more he shakes the camera, the more realistic the movie comes across. The reality is that everyone knows the movie is not actually found footage. So why cheapen a good time?

Ash is Purest White

Ash is Purest White (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a story of woman who gave five years of her life in prison all for her boyfriend. She is convinced that their love is so strong, he is certain to be there waiting for her when she gets out. But when she is finally released, he is nowhere to be found. Jia Zhangke’s gangster romance “Ash is Purest White” chooses to be far more observant and insightful about the big picture idea of love, what it means to us as observers, and what it signifies for its specific and well-written characters than a typical romantic film with the all too familiar plot and an exhausted dramatic parabola. At its core, the film is about human weakness and so we cannot help but be drawn to it like moth to a flame.

The story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) takes place over sixteen years. Divided into three sections—before prison, release day and the following days, a decade after prison—each one is equally compelling and curious. I admired the way the writer-director wallops us over the head with time jumps and gives us time to orient ourselves instead of spoon-feeding us information by employing the usual title cards regarding how many years passed or what happened during the years not shown. It moves forward with conviction, confidence, and purpose. So following a major event, which is often surprising, we cannot wait to discover how might Qiao summon the strength to take a step forward in a world that inherently values men over women, both in terms of traditional Chinese culture and the underworld culture that she is only really marginally a part of—if that.

Although a gangster picture, it is drenched in melancholy colors, heavy atmosphere, and music—not of gunshots and bullets ricochetting but of ballroom music, disco, droning of electricity, mahjong tiles, the rain. Instead of overt violence, its focus is the violence within, what we consider as love does to a person who bought into it hook, line, and sinker. In order to appreciate the picture fully, it is required that we embody the headspace of Qiao.

There are many silent sections in the work that trusts the audience to observe: Qiao at contentment, survival mode, when required to be resourceful, to give and be selfish. Zhao creates a thoroughly believable character with every passing chapter. Also notice how Qiao acts or behaves differently depending on the person she is with. This is a character who cannot—not for one second—afford not to be the smartest, most adaptable, most resourceful person in the room. For good reasons.

Another special trait: it is a romance picture that poses the question of what happens after love fades. The answer is not apathy or feeling nothing at all. Zhangke makes a point that it cannot be described and so it must be shown. It is a prime example of why movies matter because sometimes words are not enough to describe a feeling or a specific situation. Qiao and Bin’s relationship is so complicated yet by the end of the story we have an appreciation of why their special connection evolved the way it did. It’s strange because the movie ends in an open-ended fashion but at the same time there is a finality to it, as if to say we have seen and known the characters well enough that whatever we think might happen next can happen.

“Ash is Purest White” is achingly beautiful, layered, without having to be opaque or obtuse with images, characters, or way of storytelling. It simply trusts that the viewers have the desire to see because we have our own definitions of what love is. So we take those definitions and measure them alongside or against what the movie is trying to show or say. It unfolds like a great novel; I wanted it to go on for another two hours.


Dogman (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Matteo Garrone’s enthralling “Dogman” tells the story of a man who runs a dog grooming shop located in a poor suburb in Rome. His name is Marcello (Marcello Fonte) and he is one of the most well-liked man in the neighborhood due his mind-mannered personality and appearance. But Marcello runs a side business of selling cocaine in order to afford mini-vacations with his daughter, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), who lives with her mother.

This attracts the attention of cocaine addict and brutish Simoné (Edoardo Pesce), quite possibly the most disliked man in the neighborhood—so much so that Marcello has heard fellow shopkeepers conspiring to hire men from out of town to kill Simoné. Reporting Simoné’s illicit activities to the police is no longer an option because he would simply go to jail for a few months and he’d be back in the streets. A more… permanent solution is preferred.

Told with admirable focus and clarity, this character-driven drama inspires the viewer to look closely at the subjects from a humanist perspective. It is interesting that although it is composed of elements most often found in suspense-thrillers—the put upon mousy man, the desperation of his lifestyle on top his impoverished neighborhood, the thought that perhaps it is time for others to begin respecting him for all the things he feels he has done for so-called friends—the material never goes for the easy catharsis. As the subject matter begins to move toward even darker territory, it builds and builds until the tension is so high, it feels as though every small happening could force the dam to break.

The work begins with a keen eye for characterization. Notice that in the first five minutes, it appears as though we are simply following Marcello’s day-to-day activities: at work, out in the field playing football with the guys, at home while eating dinner with his dog. But look more carefully. There is emphasis on Marcello’s body size. He is small compared to the dogs he grooms, small next to the men attempting to get the ball from him, small still next to his very own normal-sized dog. In every aspect of this man’s life, we see and we feel as though he is small. He knows it. And so he compensates by being friendly and likable. People regarding him as something else other than small is so important to Marcello. This is the core of the story.

It is not a revenge picture or a crime picture; to categorize it as such is, I think, to reduce what the movie is truly about. In its essence, it is a drama with deep thoughts, longings, and humanity. Fonte plays the Marcello with a powerful magnetism. At times he reminded me of Steve Buscemi without the comic quirks. You cannot help but look at him—and then through him. Credit goes to screenwriters Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso, and director Garrone for giving us a character who possesses many layers. There is even a distinct sadness, maybe a loneliness, to Marcello that he is not above wanting to be liked by Simoné the bully. Fonte and Pesce share excellent chemistry especially when the two are together in one frame. Simoné is so big that I flinched at the thought of our protagonist being so close to a hot-tempered man of that physicality. All it would take is one punch thrown by Simoné to take Marcello’s head off.

“Dogman” is unconcerned when it comes to providing a typical character arc which may likely put off others—but that is exactly what I appreciated most. As a result, the protagonist feels fresh in that his actions are often unpredictable, at times questionable—like an actual person trying to survive in an impoverished community. I wished that we saw more of the seaside village because the intention is for the environment to have critical role in how the main character regards himself, but almost every other element is so strong, it is without question the film deserves to be seen by those yearning for something different and worthwhile.

The Funhouse Massacre

The Funhouse Massacre (2015)
★ / ★★★★

In the middle of this torturously slow horror-comedy, I wondered if director Andy Palmer and screenwriter Ben Begley intended to make a movie to be enjoyed only by viewers who are stoned. Sure, it offers some neat practical effects like throat slashing, beheading, and skull drilling, but there is no sense of joy, creativity, or real wit emanating from it. Since its focus is on things like how to make plastic look like human flesh and how to create convincing blood spurts, one is better off watching a documentary of artists who specialize in special effects. I bet they’d have something interesting to say. In this film, the humor is so try-hard, so forced, even Gregory Plotkin’s “Hell Fest” is funnier by comparison—and that is a terrible movie regardless of the genre. One of the main problems is that every single character is written like he or she has only one brain cell and this neuron functions at half capacity. When confronted by a threat, not one person has iota of what to do in order to survive and so these potential victims are left running around like headless chickens. The filmmakers have forgotten that going through a haunted house or maze should be enjoyable, not a death march to the finish line. I hope the legendary Robert Englund, playing the warden of a mental facility that houses notorious serial killers, got paid well to appear in this junk. He should consider himself lucky that he’s only in it during the first ten minutes. The rest of us had to stay and be insulted.

Scare Package

Scare Package (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The horror anthology “Scare Package,” composed of seven shorts and a unifying narrative that takes place mostly in a video store, is for viewers who require only minimal brain power for it offers a relentless barrage of obvious and unfunny jokes that get tired—real tired—mere thirty minutes in. The point is to introduce and then subvert horror tropes (i.e.: the use of excessive gore, women being used as props to exploit or make a statement, the idea of “the final girl”), but the material seems content in pointing at familiar motifs without communicating why they exist and how they can be effective tools of storytelling—or function as limitations. The work is given purpose but not imagination, notes on a page without the music. It’s a bore.

Perhaps the best short, if I were to choose while under duress, is Chris McInroy’s “One Time in the Woods,” a gore-heavy creature/slasher flick that gets by somewhat with sheer energy. I enjoyed the practical effects surrounding a monster that had been stopped mid-transformation (the setup) while it is able to retain the ability to speak (the punchline). Everything else around it is uninspired; it involves doltish campers (actors in their thirties or forties playing teenagers—ha-ha) running away from a masked serial killer. Slicing, dicing, and tearing up limbs lead to the caricatures on screen being hosed down with red goo and such. It is meant to look cheap. And it does. It’s breezy fun and it ends just when it is starting to wear out its welcome.

That’s more than I can say about Courtney and Hillary Andujar’s “Girls’ Night Out of Body” which involves a haunted… lollipop that one of the women stole from an Asian convenience store. Prior to the start of the short, the VHS—the sole VHS—is shown under the “Post-Modern-Feminist-Slasher-Body-Horror” aisle. I got a chuckle out of that one. But that’s the best bit. In this day and age in which feminism—sometimes blind feminism—is celebrated, you might think the material would strive to make a statement about the female sex, traditional gender roles, and what is expected of a young woman in horror movies (taking off her clothes, screaming and moaning as if she were having sex when she is actually being pursued and tormented). But no. It simply features girlfriends hanging out in a motel room as they wait for a masked man to knock on their door. I think it is the worst of the bunch—quite a feat because nearly all of them are equally egregious. (Baron Vaughn’s body snatcher “So Much to Do” is a close second.)

I recognized potential in the wraparound narrative “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” directed by Aaron B. Koontz. Or maybe I just miss being inside video rental stores. In any case, I enjoyed watching enthusiastic performers (who clearly took inspiration from Mike Judge’s “Office Space”) Noah Segan (as the clerk who may or may not be what he seems…), Hawn Tran (as the new employee whom the clerk has dubbed to be his “little Pikachu”), and Byron Brown (as the customer who is desperate to get hired in a place he loves) wringing out every bit of smile, chuckle, and laughter from the audience. There is an awareness to their performances that comes across endearing for they embody familiar personalities you’re likely to bump into at Blockbuster or Family Video. I wished the entire movie is just hanging out with this trio.

It is a complete miscalculation to take these characters and jam into yet another short—which is supposed to be ironic, I guess, because the thirty-minute “short” called “Horror Hypothesis” (also directed by Koontz) is the longest. “Breakfast Club” archetypes running around a research facility as yet another serial killer aims to kill them off is just boring. By this point, the movie is out of steam and I was out of patience. Must we endure another set of cardboard cutouts attempting to flee from another towering assailant? Horror movies vary so wildly and yet this anthology is stuck doing the same thing. By the end of it, I was convinced the filmmakers should be forced to watch foreign horror cinema. Because what’s at offer here is child’s play.


31 (2016)
★ / ★★★★

In the middle of this interminable and pointless exercise that writer-director Rob Zombie considers to be a movie, I couldn’t help but wonder why the filmmaker felt compelled to make it. Yes, it’s gory and ugly, but it isn’t like “31” strives to push to genre in any direction. It simply wallows in its own misery like a rotten thing, a sad sight and a real stinker. You’re better off losing brain cells by holding your breath for an extended amount of time than having to sit through this picture. At least holding your breath takes less than a minute. This one demands nearly two hours. You could’ve gone to the gym during that time and felt good about yourself. This movie strives to make you feel bad.

The setup is as formulaic as it gets: carnival workers (Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, to name a few) are kidnapped, taken into an abandoned building, and forced to participate in a sick game. A voice via loudspeakers claims that whoever manages to survive for 12 hours, this person, or persons, will be free to go. Within this time span, however, clowns of various shape and sizes (with quirky names like Death-Head, Sex-Head, Schizo-Head, Psycho Head, and the like—no Meth-Head, sadly) will enter the facility and try to murder them. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, old people dressed in aristocratic clothes (Malcolm McDowell, Jane Carr, Judy Neeson) place bets on who, if any, will make it to the end.

If it sounds like it’s trying way too hard, that’s because it is. Perhaps even the writer-director, consciously or subconsciously, is aware of the wafer-thin material. And so he decides to fill it up with splashes of color, loud noises, wild costumes, and a whole lot of shaking the camera. It becomes so desperate that at one point—as if shaking the camera weren’t enough—we are inundated with seizure-inducing flashing lights. I guess people who are prone to epileptic fits are the lucky ones in this grim scenario because they will be compelled to shut off the movie.

There are no characters here, just sheep to be slaughtered. The story takes place on Halloween 1976; the dialogue is so cartoonish—the southern accents, its portrayal of African-Americans, of blonde women/objects—that it is borderline parody. Again, because the screenplay offers no substance, it relies on exaggeration to mask the fact. Not only is it a one-trick pony on screen, it is also a dead horse on the page. Perhaps the writer-director believes it is enough to have something—anything—on film, like a twenty-page essay written the night before that’s completely devoid of insight, sense, and spell checker.

In the opening sequence that shows the gruesome murder of a priest, we come to meet Doom-Head played by Richard Brake. His monologues are a bit much, more comic than horrific, but I liked his energy; he is the most believable out of all the psychos introduced. However, since he makes an appearance in the very first scene, we already know the trajectory—there is no end in sight until the sheep face this wolf in clown-face. And so the movie becomes waiting game.

“31” is without nutritional value or a point. “Here’s what I can do!” is not a good enough reason to make a film—not in this day and age when so many movies are being released in theaters and streaming services per week. It’s survival of the fittest out there. Ironically, this movie would be one of the first to drop dead, be forgotten. It’s that inconsequential.