I Care a Lot

I Care a Lot (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Marla Grayson is a taker. We learn right from the get-go that her goal is to be filthy rich and if that means having to take advantage of the most vulnerable, she is happy to oblige. Because in her mind, if she doesn’t grab the opportunity, someone else will. Marla makes a living as a court-appointed guardian for the elderly, preferably wealthy with plenty of assets that can be sold, who can no longer take care of themselves.

But sometimes her targets are perfectly healthy in the body and mind, and so an arrangement can be made with a crooked doctor (Alicia Witt) to write a note for the court claiming otherwise. Such is the case with Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), unmarried and without children, who made a fortune in the finance sector for forty years. Marla has no idea about the amount of trouble she is about to walk into since the fortune to be made is far too alluring. Writer-director J Blakeson has riotous fun with his tale of greed.

“I Care a Lot” is a dark comedy, filled to the brim with unlikable characters who deserve what’s coming to them. There will be death threats, shooting, kidnapping, assault, and, yes, death. Blakeson is a step ahead in that he recognizes what viewers will be rooting for (morality, goodness, doing what’s right) and so he constructs a story with just enough rewards to make us happy and feel good but for the most part staying true to his vision: to present a portrait of America that unveils the delusion that is meritocracy—a concept ingrained in every child, especially children who come from a working class background. In reality, the United States is a country where the immoral thrives because they play—or prey—upon the rules that are rigged against those gullible enough to buy into the happy-go-lucky idea that if you just work hard enough, that if you do good and do what’s right for others, everything else will fall into place.

The picture is terrific entertainment because it is rooted upon reality while at the same time telling a story in a way that is specific, clear, informative, and quite shocking at times. We see through the eyes of Marla, played by the versatile Rosamund Pike, a villainess with not only a defined goal, she is sharp, funny, highly intelligent, dangerous, and truly despicable. Marla is a figure that we’d like to believe we are not (but some of us actually are exactly like her) and Pike plays the character like just another person trying to achieve the so-called American Dream… by making it a nightmare for others, especially the elderly and their desperate families. Surely someone like Marla would—or should—get her comeuppance… right? Blakeson has fun with this expectation.

The picture is at its best when providing the details of Marla’s occupation. Through her job, and her willingness to excel, the work becomes a twisted character study. Being crooked legal guardian requires an inviting smile, patience, cunning, an awareness of when to strike best in order to reap the most rewards. Marla is a self-described lioness and this can be observed when she looks at a defenseless old lady or gentleman. To her, they are tickets to her next meal, next grand vacation overseas, the next luxurious brand that she will wear or drive. Throughout the course of the picture, we will learn not only how much she values money but also her penchant for control, power, and status. Because when you have so much money, the money itself doesn’t matter as much; the thirst becomes about something else. The hole must be filled with something.

But this is not a story in which the characters recognize the error of their ways. Most of them are beyond help, beyond redemption. We can point at what is wrong with the characters and it is demanded that catharsis come in the form of punishment. But what does that say about us, especially when we consider ourselves to be the good guys? This is why “I Care a Lot” works as social commentary: it is pointed in all directions. By the end, the lessons are not black and white. They are shades of gray and we are inspired to consider where we fall into the moral spectrum. Or not. It can simply be digested as a clever tale, too.

No Escape Room

No Escape Room (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror movie that attempts to capitalize on the idea of escape rooms but fails to offer an original contribution of its own. It could have been about something. Consider, for instance, that the story opens with Michael (Mark Ghanimé) and Karen (Jeni Ross), a father-daughter on their way home because the ranch they wanted to visit turned out to be closed.

We notice immediately that this relationship is strained, possibly a result of divorce. It is apparent that the teenage daughter’s disappointment—and anger—is not just because of the parent’s failed attempt at bonding or her raging hormones. The issue lies far deeper, perhaps feelings of abandonment, but the screenplay by Jesse Mittelstadt is adamant in functioning on a most superficial level. To exorcise an emotion, thought, or trauma—conscious or subconscious—is precisely what the horror genre is for. Yet the writer appears to have neither understanding nor appreciation of this. What results is a movie that is flavorless, substandard, certainly without soul.

Lack of substance aside, a horror movie can get a pass for being riotously entertaining. “No Escape Room” also fails on this department. Michael and Karen end up in a house with three other players: the couple, birthday girl Melanie (Kathryn Davis) and the cowardly Tyler (Hamza Haq), and a man named Andrew (Dennis Andres) who jokes as being the spy during the game’s sixty-minute duration. Simply by looking at the participants, even if one hadn’t seen a single movie surrounding escape rooms, it is no challenge to predict the death order correctly. There is no entertainment to be had because there is minimal element of surprise right down to the archetypes. (And you don’t have to listen closely to detect the deadness in the dialogue.)

I enjoyed a few of the rooms. The overall theme is a throwback to the past. There are wonderful props like grandfather clocks, tribal masks, vintage phones, creepy paintings, surgical documents, and ominous film projectors. The five participants are tasked to find the five people who failed to make it out during the previous round and escape with them. But it is said there is a killer inventor on the loose so vigilance is of utmost importance. Every room has a specific personality, particularly in the lower regions of the house—where dead bodies are not just dead bodies. Or so it seems. Not only did the father-daughter, the couple, and the odd man out sign a waiver, they consumed tea that might have been drugged.

And so the movie jumps—needlessly—into the realm of is-it-real or is-it-not-real scenario. It is executed so haphazardly, the minimal interest it is able to milk out dissipates less than halfway through its eighty-minute running time. By this point, the idea of finding the key to get access to the next room is thrown out the window. The picture is then reduced to cardboard cutouts running around the house, screaming and questioning reality. It is boring, lazy, and devoid of creativity.

Director Alex Merkin employs the camera as is instead of a device for storytelling. At some point, two characters end up in the house of horror’s ventilation duct system. The dull script requires the actors to express fear and paranoia… but because the director fails to do anything with the camera, like experimenting with filters, mode of shooting, or angles, there is not a whiff of claustrophobia created—let alone panic or terror. There is, however, comedy due to the sheer ineptness of what’s presented on screen. There are few here that should have never made it into the final product.

A Sun

A Sun (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A-Hao (Hsu Greg), the elder of the two brothers, is considered to be the good one, the handsome one, the one who is kind, considerate, and compassionate. He aspires to attend medical school. His brother, A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho), has earned the reputation of being the bad seed, the one who has an angry streak, consistently in or causing trouble. A recent incident involving the cutting off another man’s hand using a machete has led A-Ho to being sentenced in juvenile detention for up to three years.

When their father, Wen (Chen Yi-wen), a driving instructor, is asked by his students whether he has any children, he claims he only has one, referring to the good son. It is readily apparent he is deeply embarrassed of his troublemaker son even before the aforementioned violent episode. By the end of this story, we will learn not only why but also whether the subjects, deep down, are capable of true change. If so, to what extent and the unthinkable sacrifices that must be made in order to preserve what is left of the family—or one’s idea of family.

Some movies require longer than two hours and thirty minutes to tell their stories so that by the end viewers are left with a feeling of completion—and exhaustion. Chung Mong-hong’s “A Sun” is one of these films, expertly employing its extended running time to drown us in the Chen family drama in which easy answers are rare and difficult decisions tend to take a toll on the soul. It is melodramatic at times, yes, but its power cannot be denied when anguish, especially the quiet but demolishing kind, is written all over every character’s being at any given moment.

The four central performances, particularly by Ko Samantha who plays the mother Qin—calm, patient and a master at compartmentalization—are equally strong. Choose any scene and notice how there is not one instance in which a performer chooses to wear only one emotion. Often there is an ocean of difference between what is written on their face and what their eyes are desperate to communicate. This creates intrigue.

This epic story is massaged in a way where we eventually follow every member of the Chen family without being made aware of the distinct chapters. Take A-Hao’s story, for instance. We follow him in school, we observe how he relates to girls, we listen to his stories, and we appreciate his introspective nature. In between these small but informative moments are reminders of the challenges that the Chens, as a unit, are going through, like how they try to adapt to life after A-Ho’s incarceration—somebody whom, that we can imagine they, at least on the surface, didn’t really care for or place much value in when he was a free man. In actuality, he is a crucial part of who they are. Otherwise, his absence would not have caused such a rift in the household. It is fascinating that A-Ho’s imprisonment is treated almost like a death.

What I found ironic—and beautiful—is that A-Ho is able to grow—first in his head while in confinement and then later in action once he is released. The Chen family is required to adapt once again. Most movies, especially in the west, tend to cut a character’s journey in half which results in the evolution coming across disingenuous, tacked on. This is where the extra hour or so comes into play. It is patient. It exercises restraint. Like a hawk, the camera observes whether A-Ho will become just another hopeless case, a statistic. His father watches, too, even though Wen finds it to be unbearable being around his disappointment of a son. We ask ourselves: How can a father who has spent so many years with his back to his “other” son turn around and face him? But it is not that simple. It is one thing to face, it is another to accept.

“A Sun” is not interested in making the viewers feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It offers moments of catharsis that are earned. Instead, it places emphasis on creating an accurate portrait of a working class Taiwanese family who must play the cards they are dealt with. Sometimes the cards are, well, shitty. (There is a humorous scene involving a tank full of excrement.) The writer-director has a true understanding of families: that each one is defined by how it handles hardship and adapts to the aftermath. Through the individual members’ actions, we are able to measure and appreciate the family’s strength as a whole.


Monsoon (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kit left his birth country at the age of six; I left mine at the age of eleven. He did not return for thirty years; I did not return for twenty-one. There is something about “Monsoon,” written and directed by Hong Khaou, that excels at locating the pulse of split identity without relying on melodrama. In fact, it is so relaxed with its storytelling that viewers can claim that “nothing much happens” and they would be right. At least when judging only from the outside. This is a film that requires those looking in to be participants: to absorb and consider the circumstances on screen while thinking back on one’s personal history when one felt to be living at the margins.

As the British-Vietnamese Kit surveys Saigon, the city he once called his home, I, a Filipino-American, thought about my return to Olongapo, Philippines exactly a year ago. At nearly every given moment, I knew precisely how Kit felt because everything had changed so much that it is like walking around a different planet. Gone are places of comfort, of laughter, of peace. In their place are buildings, or markets, or just another trash heap. Consistent is the noise of revving vehicles, incessant honking, the busy-buzzing chattering on the streets. The picture benefits greatly from having been shot on location.

What is the story about? On the surface, it appears to be about Kit retuning to Vietnam to find an appropriate place—a meaningful place—where he and his brother, scheduled to arrive a week upon Kit’s arrival, can scatter their parents’ ashes. Their family escaped the country after the Vietnam War. Kit recalls that one day he is living in Vietnam and the next he is on a boat belonging to no country. He felt he had been stripped away from his homeland and lost something along the way. So, upon closer inspection, the story is about a man looking for that something he had lost. But the more interesting question is: What if he doesn’t find it?

And so we follow Kit visiting familiar places. Although there is an occasional murmur of happiness upon visual recognition, notice how that joy is evanescent. It made me think of when I had a chance to lay eyes on my childhood home—I was elated for a second… and then I could no longer look at it. Perhaps it was due to the stark difference between what was embedded in my memory and the reality that faced me. The gap between the two is so substantial that you can’t help but to feel a certain sadness, emptiness even, for not having been there to experience its evolution. Kit finds no solace in the places he knew and so the next step is to come to terms with the fact that the past had moved on without him just as he moved on from his past, his heritage, in order to thrive somewhere else. The parallels between his experience and mine astounded me. Not even a third of the way through, I felt I understood the protagonist with utmost clarity.

But that is not all there is to Kit. Kit is a gay man who can pass as a straight man, which further emphasizes his life of living in the margins, but he chooses not to. There is a beauty about the way this character is written because although he is undergoing a time of deep reflection in regard to his cultural identity, Kit is a person who is free because he has embraced an important part of who he is. At the same time, we can recognize that his self-acceptance took a lot of effort and through many years. Henry Golding plays Kit with terrific but understated energy. His interpretation of Kit is that the character is wounded but strong, lonely sometimes but full of deep thoughts and feelings. I hope that Golding continues to choose challenging roles like this. It suits him.

Every person that Kit encounters has an interesting story. There is Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American, who immigrated to Vietnam to start his own clothing business. Lewis is gay and he reciprocates Kit’s attraction. But they’re more than that; we feel that they can actually be friends outside of the occasional hookup. Speaking of friends, Lee (David Tran) is Kit’s childhood friend who speaks English very well. We suspect that he still feels a strong connection to Kit, but it is unclear whether Kit feels the same. And then there is Linh (Molly Marris), a tour guide for art exhibits. We learn a bit about her home life and what her family expects of her. What I found fascinating is that although this character comes across like a strange addition at first, she is actually relevant to the overall theme of one feeling like an outsider. Kit recognizes fragments of himself in Lewis, Lee, and Linh. And that is why their interactions command intrigue.

“Monsoon” is for the mature audience. The storm is not on the outside but on the inside. So those who choose to dive in are required to watch with an introspective eye and mind. And to understand the protagonist completely, we must appreciate that he is a man of silence; a thinker whose mode of communication is the eyes and the occasional smile. The writer-director’s decision to muffle the emotions is the correct choice because it inspires those who really wish to know or understand to lean in that much closer. I was touched by this film in ways I did not at all expect. Its patience reminded me of Kogonada’s zen film “Columbus.”


Tesla (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nikola Tesla possessed one of the greatest minds in human history, but you wouldn’t know it from sitting through Michael Almereyda’s abhorrent miscalculation, a film so desperate to deliver the opposite of what’s to be expected from a biopic that it ends up losing focus on detailing what makes the inventor worthy of remembering and honoring. It employs numerous strategies from anachronisms and imaginings to breaking the fourth wall and bursting into song. Perhaps it is fun or amusing on paper, but it does not translate well on film. What results is an experimental and soporific bore, devoid of important connective issues that pave the way for engaging drama.

Tesla is played by Ethan Hawke, and his talent is utterly wasted. It is painful to watch Hawke, a consummate performer, attempting to inject humanity into a screenplay that is more interested in delivering winks and gimmicks than staying true to the facts and presenting information that viewers may not be aware of or knowledgeable about. I felt a pompousness to the material that becomes unbearable over time. And so during the latter of half of the picture, when Tesla is at his most desperate financially, tears well up in his eyes but we couldn’t care less. “Just end this embarrassment already,” I caught myself thinking.

The work focuses on two of Tesla’s numerous major contributions to science: his role in bringing alternating current to the masses and developing the idea of transmitting electrical energy without wires. While the decision to narrow the focus is perfectly acceptable, the work still proves lazy. In regard to the former, the effort only goes as far as defining direct current (DC) versus alternating current (AC). It does not detail, in simple and clear fashion, as to why, for instance, the latter is more efficient and safer in general. We are shown apparatuses but never demonstrated how they function. It assumes viewers do not possess the curiosity or mental capacity to handle the science. I felt angry and disgusted. Instead, it goes out of its way to introduce “humor” like Tesla and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) shoving ice cream into each other’s face. Why?

And then there is the movie’s disastrous handling of women in Tesla’s life. There is Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of John Pierpont Morgan (“J. P. Morgan”), whom Tesla supposedly falls for. I say “supposedly” because the chemistry likens that of a vegan staring at raw meat crawling with maggots. There is no energy, no intrigue, not even a whiff of playfulness to their interactions. No electricity. (See how groan-inducing it is when humor is pushed too hard?) Tesla is almost always showcased as socially inept, at a loss for words when women are around. It does not help that Tesla and Morgan’s interactions are limited to short-lived run-ins; we get no appreciation of how their relationship evolves over time. And why is it necessary to introduce the traveling stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan)? How is she relevant to the story?

I have a theory about what happened to the screenplay. One day, the entire thing was ran through a paper shredder because the writer was convinced the material was absolute bollocks. The fragments were then tossed into the recycling bin outside. Sure enough there was a raging storm overnight and the wind knocked over the bin causing the paper fragments to be scattered about. The next morning, the writer had a change of heart. After all, he was under contract and he was obligated to deliver. And so he stepped outside to collect the shredded document but major sections are forever lost. (No electronic copy was made.) In order to compensate for the missing sections, he decided to write in nonsensical happenings like a character bursting into song, the narrator addressing the audience, and the like. It would be an unconventional biopic. Non-linear. Post-modern. Surely people would buy into that.

Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Michael Matthews’ “Love and Monsters” could have relied solely on its quirky premise of a young man who decides to trek eighty-five miles, despite animals that have mutated to gargantuan proportions roaming the planet, to be reunited with the girl he loves. Instead, the material is injected with terrific imagination; when it is not busy making jokes left and right—whether it be through propulsive action, idiosyncratic narration, or low-key visuals—it entertains by providing genuine moments of peril. This is no lazy cash grab. By the end of it, I was salivating for a sequel.

Dylan O’Brien plays Joel, the main cook and radio communicator in his underground colony. It has been seven years since he’d been to the surface, seven years since humanity sent missiles to destroy an incoming asteroid that housed mutagens which led to the end of the world, seven years since he’d been with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Joel is tired of being the only unpaired person in his colony, knowing that his soulmate is not even a hundred miles away. Despite his tendency to freeze in utter terror when faced with a life or death situation, Joel decides to head to the surface anyway. This is a story of a person so lonely, the possibility of death is a warm alternative.

Partly because of his physicality (a bit scraggly, boyish, bright-eyed), it is always a nice surprise when O’Brien finds a way to convince us that his character is an unlikely hero. This role is no exception. He proves to have a knack for embodying the vibe of the screenplay—especially important here because the picture is a mashup of comedy, monster movie, road adventure, and a whiff of romance. This is no role for a wooden plank. At the same time, O’Brien evokes a cool self-awareness without turning his character into a caricature.

I felt the filmmakers’ love for the creatures on screen even though it is CGI-heavy. It is not enough that they look expensive or that we feel shocked or horrified whenever one makes a surprise appearance. Notice how the camera takes just enough time for viewers to appreciate the more minute details, like boils on a frog’s skin, texture of a snail’s head, slime dripping out of a worm’s mouth. More impressive is that these characteristics can be observed in the middle of tense action sequences. Like Joel, we are learning in every beat and after close calls. His experience becomes our own.

Further, it is paramount that these creatures blend into the environment. They must move a certain way when relaxed and another when the hunt is on. After all, it is survival of the fittest out there. These nuanced choices go along way. And so when a character, for instance, claims that it is dangerous out on the surface, there is no doubt in our minds as to why. Better yet—we are able to provide specific, vivid examples. In other words, the filmmakers are interested in providing an enveloping experience rather than just junk entertainment in which interest wanes the moment an action sequence ends.

But what I loved most about Joel’s journey are the personalities he encounters. It doesn’t matter whether it is an animal, fellow humans, or a machine. Each one offers a distinct perspective and provides insight, knowledge, or understanding that the others cannot. As a result, these personalities do not simply function as decorations for a cheap chuckle or two. They elevate our protagonist’s journey in some way, reminding him one way or another that he is stronger than he thinks he is.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

These time loop comedies need to realize that it is not enough to acknowledge Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day.” To honor that film, it is better not to mention it at all; simply take the familiar template and steer it toward interesting, challenging, or new directions. While tolerable in parts mostly because of its charming leads, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” based on the short story and screenplay by Lev Grossman, is an underachieving twee romance, never stepping out of its comfort zone to try and deliver an experience worth remembering. It is the kind of movie that allows you to find a comfortable spot on the couch and fall asleep before the third act.

The last twenty minutes is the strongest part of the film because—finally—it feels like we are following a character who is written from a certain perspective. She is named Margaret, played by the luminous Kathryn Newton, and she is introduced as the romantic interest of Mark (Kyle Allen) early on in the picture. There is a palpable sadness to Margaret; those eyes contain questions and conflict outside of the fact that, like Mark, her day resets at the stroke of midnight. Just about each time Newton is on screen, her Margaret is saying something even if the character is simply standing on one spot in utter silence. She has attitude and we wonder about her fears. Mark is a bore compared to her yet we are forced to follow him for the majority of the picture’s duration.

Yes, the screenplay is based on a short story. But sometimes in order to make a successful jump to feature film, major concessions need to be made for the sake of achieving cinematic quality, of establishing the correct rhythm and flow, of excavating drama and intrigue. I felt as though Mark is chosen to be the fulcrum simply because he has the more outgoing and fun personality; it is obvious the filmmakers wish to capture such a vibe. While understandable, the work is a comedy after all, there must be something compelling about the character. Although Allen gives it his all, I felt his talent is wasted because there is nothing about Mark worth delving into.

We learn superficial information like his hatred for mathematics even though he is a science geek, his aspiration of attending art school, and his ability to retain a sunny disposition despite repeating the same day for what it appears to be years. (We are dropped into the story when Mark is already well-accustomed to many goings-on around his town.) But what about him as a person, as an artist, or as a romantic that is especially unique? Why is it necessary that this character be our conduit to this temporal anomaly?

In terms of the film’s level of comedy, it offers a handful of light chuckles. Mark and Margaret travel around town and wait for beautiful things to happen, like a bird catching its prey or a little girl showing all the boys that she can out-skate any of them. But the approach is consistently vanilla: without the time loop factor, the humor does not work. The best comedies are not one-dimensional. Take a look at “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s performance itself is funny outside of the zaniness that happens to or around the character. Phil’s self-centeredness can be the butt of a joke. In this film, the humor is consistently situational and it gets boring real fast.

At one point, I wondered if Ian Samuels directed “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” while half-asleep. Nearly everything about it is safe and relaxed, from its look, the story’s dramatic parabola, down to its soundtrack. Consider time loop movies as a sub-genre: they thrive in taking risks, danger, and mystery. They entertain because there is usually subtext to the day resetting. Surely it would have been a wise choice for the filmmakers to have ask themselves if the material were interesting had the aspect of time loop been removed completely. I wager they didn’t.

Red Dot

Red Dot (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

Pieces fall into place so neatly. We are introduced to a young couple, David (Anastasios Soulis), a recently minted engineer, and Nadja (Nanna Blondell), an aspiring doctor. We meet them at the former’s graduation when the relationship is fresh, fun, and exciting; they cannot get enough of one another. Suddenly, we are met with a title card stating that a year-and-half had passed. The relationship has strained—marriage is not what they imagined it to be. For a while, the movie appears to be a romantic drama. We learn about a little bit about David and Nadja’s home life and why they feel the need to get away and rekindle what they have. We spend only a short time in their apartment and we cannot help but to feel suffocated, too. However, “Red Dot” is not a drama. It is a survival thriller set in the cold and bitter wilderness with an ace up its sleeve.

The film is written by Alain Darborg (who directs) and Per Dickson, a duo of expert manipulators. By providing an expository sequence so ordinary, we are lulled to sway along a certain rhythm and by the time the rising action comes around, we are nailed into a specific wavelength. Consider the drive up the mountains when David and Nadja stop at a gas station and encounter two hunters. We are not provided much regarding the strangers: they have rifles, they look provincial, and they drive a truck with a reindeer’s head in the back. One of the hunter’s sense of humor is rather… uncultured, somewhat offensive, as if David and Nadja needed to be reminded that they’re an interracial couple.

The writers urge us to make assumptions. And because we have seen numerous movies in which protagonists from the city cross paths with rough characters who live in the middle of nowhere, we think we know where the movie is heading. In many ways, we will be right on target: the couple will admire the beauty of their surroundings, they will have fun for a while, and they will be reminded of the reasons why they choose to be together. Just when their emotional reunion reaches a climax, they will find themselves in a terrifying situation.

While admiring the northern lights, they notice a red dot moving about their tent. Someone is watching them. Although their tent sits on a clearing, it is the dead of night. Surely it must be some sort of sick prank. Or that’s what they want to believe. These two are not blameless. Deep down, they know they should not have escalated the situation with the hunters.

And so it goes on like this for a while. It feels as though the material is simply going through a checklist of what we expect to experience in a survival thriller. But I say the approach wears out its welcome eventually. There are not enough creativity and fresh choices placed in between the signposts which allow the work to stand out among its contemporaries. Instead, it is too reliant upon a third-act twist to get viewers, who may have long checked out, to be invested again. The best thrillers are consistently curious all the way through despite familiar elements. This one appears to have put all its eggs in one basket. And the gamble doesn’t quite pay off.

Darborg and Dickson wish so badly to blindside their viewers that they overlook the importance of pacing. Notice how the movie lumbers about when David and Nadja attempt to survive the cold on top of their nasty injuries and increasing exhaustion. This should be the picture at its most thrilling and unpredictable. By the time the shocking plot development rolls around, it comes across rather anticlimactic. It is a missed opportunity because this particular angle is used only to shock, never explored in thoughtful or meaningful ways. Not to mention that the morality it imparts is most generic.

Finding Steve McQueen

Finding Steve McQueen (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the true story of the most expensive bank robbery in American history, “Finding Steve McQueen,” written by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon, starts off on the wrong foot. The lead actor, Travis Fimmel, playing Harry Barber whose personal hero is actor Steve McQueen, is so adamant in portraying the character as if he were in a slapstick comedy, his extreme facial expressions and body language distract more than entertain, annoying instead of charming or amusing. One considers the possibility of Fimmel having missed the memo that the picture is actually a light comedy with heist elements, not a sitcom destined to be cancelled after three episodes. Still, the picture is able to overcome this initial shortcoming eventually.

The work is divided into three timelines: before the robbery, the robbery itself, and the aftermath. Each portion is steadily paced despite not being presented in chronological order and so each one never wears out its welcome. It is established early on that the mood is supposed to be lighthearted and fun; the direction by Mark Steven Johnson maintains this feeling until the inevitable arrest of those who plotted to steal thirty million dollars of illicit presidential campaign contributions for President Nixon. The material is so good-hearted that we feel as though there is no villain in the story (with the exception of Nixon).

The leader of the pack, Rotella (William Fichtner), despises Nixon for his crimes against both the American people and humanity. To him, it is most critical that his crew steals from Nixon directly. We understand this character so thoroughly that we know that he would consider the job a failure even if they walked out with thirty million dollars should the money not have belonged to the president. His anger toward the man is pure and focused. Every time the name Nixon is broached, Rotella’s body stiffens a little, ready to attack. And this is why Rotella is the most interesting character of the bunch. Fichtner is perfect for the role.

Fimmel’s performance began to grow on me some time in the middle. The writing shows that Harry is not just about fast cars and emulating McQueen. There is substance to him, particularly in how he cares for those around him. Post-robbery, the focus is on Harry confessing to his girlfriend (Rachael Taylor) that the FBI is on his tracks for the notorious bank robbery. The flashbacks involving the two meeting and getting to know each other command a good enough realism for us to be able to invest in the relationship despite the fact that we know that Harry and Molly would end up in a diner, the latter questioning whether what they had was in fact ever real.

Another interesting angle is told from FBI agents Lambert (Forest Whitaker) and Price (Lily Rabe). The year is 1972; black men and women, despite their ethnicity, are a rarity in the positions they hold. I appreciated that the writers are willing to pause from the action and simply allow Lambert and Price to connect in meaningful ways. It is the correct decision because Whitaker and Rabe excel in dramas. By allowing them to relate, their characters become all the more convincing. We see why it is important for them to get the job done. It is not just about putting bad guys behind bars.

Unlike a myriad of heist films, “Finding Steve McQueen” is not about excitement or suspense. It is about people caught in circumstances and the jobs they must perform. We have at least a modicum of understanding when it comes to each player. It just so happens to be funny in parts with a killer soundtrack.

Kalel, 15

Kalel, 15 (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kalel, fifteen years of age, is diagnosed with HIV. We are never shown or told how he got infected because writer-director Jun Robles Lana intends to create a work that does not follow a standard dramatic parabola. To offer an explanation, you see, is to suggest or place blame and so it must be avoided. This is an astute choice considering that the film is a social issue drama first and foremost, one that attempts to lift the rock that is the raging HIV epidemic in modern Philippines and we are asked to observe what’s underneath it.

I appreciated its accuracy in terms of how Filipinos perceive HIV and people who have it. When Kalel is visited by his father (Eddie Garcia), and we are meant to assume they have not seen each other in a while since they are estranged, the first words that come out of George’s mouth form two questions, almost an involuntary reaction rooted in shame and fear: if his son was a homosexual and if he had engaged in sodomy. In George’s mind—who is a priest and therefore a symbol of Philippine society (the country is composed mostly of Catholics)—only gay people get HIV and AIDS. And in many Filipinos’ minds, HIV and AIDS are one and the same; it is a death sentence. And if you get it, because you are gay, a faggot, you deserve to die.

The first few minutes of the picture, presented in stunning black-and-white (especially when shot outdoors at night), is so powerful, one cannot help but to wonder what other painful truths it has yet to impart. And so we follow Kalel’s daily activities: being woken up, going to school, hanging out with friends, his sweet and sour relationship with his girlfriend (Gabby Padilla), how he helps out from time to time in his family’s humble eatery, and what he does before bed when alone with his cell phone. It sounds mundane—and it is. But it is never boring because every event, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, provides information or insight about our young protagonist’s life.

This is a child who yearns for validation and affirmation. In life, he does not get either: not from his financially stressed single mother (Jaclyn Jose), not from his sister (Elora Españo) who is kind when not entirely up herself, not from his friends who seem unable to discuss subjects outside of girls and who’s hooking up with whom, and certainly not from his father who is ashamed of a. having a son out of wedlock (who must be kept secret) and b. having a son who has a “gay disease.” Take note that there is only one time in which the father touches his son: a hand on the shoulder, barely a second long, no skin contact. This man of god is disgusted of his very own flesh and blood. It is apparent that writer-director despises religious hypocrisy. This is only one of many examples, overt and subtle, dispersed throughout this deeply personal work.

The rest of the film is tightening grip. We meet Kalel upon receiving his HIV-positive diagnosis and learn quite quickly that he has minimal level of support. Aside from the doctor, no one is knowledgeable about HIV, the biology of the virus and how it affects human physiology, and the medical advances made in recent years that have allowed people diagnosed with HIV to live normal lives. Kalel’s mother reprimands him for being stupid and thankless. When by himself, he begins to notice changes in his body, like rashes appearing on his chest. Not once do we see him take medication or attend counseling sessions. Except for occasional reminders, mostly rooted in shame belted out by others, Kalel lives his life as if he did not have HIV.

Elijah Canlas plays Kalel quiet and small. In a way, he must because that is precisely how Kalel feels: small, nothing important, maybe less than nothing. But the movie is not without some glimpses of light. There are funny moments shared among mother, son, and sister. I think these instances are remnants of both Kalel’s childhood and state of mind before he received soul-crushing news that he has a disease of which there is currently no cure. Should you choose to dive in, prepare for a raw, unconventional, immersive, and challenging experience.

Black Beach

Black Beach (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The political dramatic thriller “Black Beach” might have benefited greatly from another round or two of screenplay revision because the basic elements of the sub-genre are present to create a potentially compelling story, from a protagonist leading a life of privilege, luxury, and security who, because of his occupation as a corporate lawyer, must travel to another country currently on the verge of political upheaval due to rampant corruption of those in power and oppression of average citizens; a curious case of a missing oil engineer kidnapped by a rebel group because the man knows damaging information about his employers which could then be weaponized against those in power; to the social commentary regarding “white” countries coming into “black” countries to save the day by imposing their own rules, values, and morality. (It is no accident that the main character is white and the country he visits is composed mostly of black Africans.)

I have not even gone into the subplots. As you see, this picture is information-heavy, even busy at times. It requires unwavering attention in order to appreciate all the moving parts. And so it is all the more critical that the screenplay by Esteban Crespo (who directs) and David Moreno must be razor-sharp, entertaining, clear, filled with ideas, always remaining two steps ahead of the audience. That’s the problem: Because thrillers of this type already exist and have been done better, there were times when not only did I know precisely where the story was heading but also the nature of its circumstances. At one point, I wondered if the filmmakers meant to create a new path or trudge along a familiar one; the work has the attitude of the former but the execution of the latter. It is bizarre, off-putting at times, but it kept me watching.

Raúl Arévalo plays Carlos, a well-meaning Brussels-based lawyer who returns to the unnamed African island country where he used to reside. Should Carlos succeed in getting the aforementioned engineer to safety, his firm promised that he would be made as partner in New York City—where Carlos’ pregnant wife has gotten a job offer. Arévalo delivers a quiet but formidable performance in a movie that is not all that interested in taking the expected to the next level. There are instances when I thought that his heartfelt performance is somewhat wasted, particularly during scenes when Carlos must confront his old friends who have chosen their sides, overtly or otherwise. Carlos believes they are the same people that he left. In some ways, they are. But equally important are ways they have changed over the years. I enjoyed that Arévalo chooses for Carlos to compartmentalize rather than dramatize; it made me want to know what he’s thinking or feeling during times of confrontation and self-reflection.

The political chess games on the island are neither well-written nor well-established. A viewer with no background or having only minimal background when it comes to political thrillers is likely to be confused. There must be a through explanation (“tell”) and demonstrations (“show”) as to why there is conflict between the locals and the oil company. Specific details matter in all stories—even those not meant to be original. (I argue this is especially important for those that do not strive to deliver anything new.) Look closely and realize there are major holes where information should be. The screenplay relies far too often upon our knowledge of what’s going on out there in the world and then make assumptions about the political goings-on in this story. That comes across as not only unimaginative but also quite lazy.

It is always a strange feeling when I am unable to pinpoint the target audience of a movie. The plot of “Black Beach” is always on the move forward, but it takes its time with the pacing. There is only one major action sequence, but the editing and the camerawork lack energy. Even the score is quite muted when there is supposed to be an exciting event unfolding on screen. Although the film is not atrocious as a whole, I can imagine that at least 80% of those who tune in are likely to turn it off about thirty to forty minutes in. The question is, are you in the mood to gamble?


Donnybrook (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Tim Sutton attempts to comment on the current state of America, specifically of low-income communities in rural and forgotten parts of the country, through a microcosm: a man who signs up to participate in a cage match where the winner will walk away with $100,000. Although well-intentioned, this adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel is far from a compelling story because the screenplay fails to drill deeply into the humanity of key characters: a former Marine, a meth dealer and his accomplice, and a cop in charge of investigating drug-related murders.

Their surface characteristics are introduced in a formulaic fashion. Jarhead (Jamie Bell) may look tough and angry, but he actually cares for his drug-addicted wife and two children; Chainsaw (Frank Grillo) is psychotic and extremely violent, even to his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) who yearns to be treated right; Sheriff Deputy Whalen (James Badge Dale) is jaded when it comes to his job—he, like Delia, struggles with loneliness and substance abuse. As you see, elements are present so that we wish to know more about the subjects. However, the picture fails to take off because the screenplay, for the most part, seems uninterested in exploring the connections among the characters as individuals facing external battles and as people who must fight their own demons in order to have the chance to come out the other side and start anew.

The approach is one-dimensional and tedious: present bleakness to the point of suffocation—perhaps then viewers will be forced to consider gravity of the topics it broaches. This strategy can be effective in the right hands but dangerous when not applied correctly. This film leans toward the latter. Drama must be mined, not just presented. A movie centering around poor, white Americans living in the Midwest must be relatable to the rich, non-white, non-Americans living in Silicon Valley. In other words, the story must be shaped and presented in a way that is accessible without sacrificing what it is about or what it wishes to say.

Even if it were successful on that level, Sutton’s film lacks urgency. The pacing is as slow as molasses, there are numerous steady shots of the sky, grass, and lonely roads, cold colors like blue and grey dominate the screen. Problems pile up but it offers no solutions. There is only violence. But even then the work offers no reprieve to the desperation and depression all around. By the end one is forced to ask the point of it all instead of arriving at a handful of insights. There is a disconnect between material and audience. It shouldn’t be this way.

It is a shame because Bell, Grillo, and Dale are the sort of performers who can communicate plenty with a glance held for one second too long. Here, they play characters who do not or cannot express themselves using words. And so their actions say a lot about them. Aside from the march to the cage fight, they are not given much to do. Once each character is given a definition, they fail to evolve. And because there’s no change, we ask why these specimens are worth putting under the microscope. I struggle to come up with an answer.

Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Our heroes are the kind of good guys who have become so desperate for money, they decide to make a deal with terrorists: two million dollars in exchange for an android named Dorothy, donning the appearance of a child (Park Ye-rin), that contains a hydrogen bomb. Jo Sung-hee’s “Space Sweepers” is quirky, funny, exciting, thrilling, and convincingly international—appropriate because the story takes place in 2092 when Earth is nearly uninhabitable and opportunities are so scant that people of all color, creed, and ethnicity must live together in communities along the planet’s orbit and find work in outer space. Languages spoken here are no fewer than six. (I counted.) I admired this film for its creativity, vivacity, and willingness to experiment.

Although the story is about the elites yet again attempting to solidify their place in the pecking order, which comes in the form of a CEO named James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) only allowing the rich to emigrate from dying Earth to the new, paradise-like, and very private residential orbiting community, it is rarely about the message. The reason is because capturing the spirit of a space western is of utmost priority. Sure, we encounter flashy dogfights in space, eye-popping last-minute saves, and the occasional forced humor that comes with the territory. But notice how detailed it is when it comes to its characters. We learn about who they are, where they come from, and where it is they want to be. They have different goals, but we are made to understand why they had to learn to work together. Notice I wrote “had.” I enjoyed that the screenplay by Yoon Seung-min, Yoo-kang Neo-ae, and Jo eliminates the unnecessary meeting of a motley crew and their growing pains. This is no origins story.

They just are. We are dropped in the middle of their partnership and we must learn about their dynamics: who is closer to whom, whether they are more like close friends or family, which of them possesses an appearance that is most deceiving and how that can be used as an advantage when the crew are at odds, who is the funniest at first glance versus who is low-key funny. Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and Bubs (voiced by Yo Hae-jin) may be waste collectors by trade, but they are teeming with personality, together or apart. Knowing how space westerns usually go, I was surprised that I found myself worrying about the fates of the characters when events turn rather grim. I cared for them as people, and I wanted to see them reach their individual and collective goals.

Having said that, the villain leaves a lot to be desired. Armitage is such a talented performer that it is all the more astounding that he isn’t given very much to do other than to look stern and exercise his resounding deep voice. Sullivan wishes to commit mass genocide. Yet he is reduced to a man wearing a white suit who occasionally gets large, red, CGI veins on his neck when undergoing severe stress. His priority is to get his hands on Dorothy.

At some point, I wondered if critical information were cut in the editing room. Yes, we see Sullivan getting a brain scan. But his disease is neither directly mentioned nor explained in addition to relating that aspect of himself to his wicked plans of killing billions of people. He could have been a Darth Vader without the mask and cape—a case can be made that that is far more sinister because a person like Sullivan could show himself on television (or hologram since the film set in the future) and spout disingenuous speeches about saving the earth, the animals, and all the people in it. When in reality, he cares only for those who belong within his social class because he believes they possess superior morality than that of the working class.

Despite a lackluster villain, the heroes outshine and there are more than enough fresh choices to warrant a solid recommendation. Here is what I loved most: I mentioned earlier that the screenplay makes a point of showing our four central protagonists’ histories. These are done in quick flashbacks with narration. And yet I could see the potential of every single one being a standalone film. These garbage (“space debris”) collectors intrigued me. Give this a go.


Ammonite (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is something about the deliberately dry 19th century lesbian drama “Ammonite” that piqued my interest. Writer-director Francis Lee, particularly during the film’s first hour, appears to be on the warpath to deliver the opposite of what we expect a seaside romantic picture should be like. Notice how it is mostly stripped of bright colors; bare walls, ceramic figurines, bedsheets, fluffy undergarments, the sand on the beach are as pale as the faces of our depressed subjects. The score is used sparingly; in its place are sounds of nature like waves crashing against the rocks, hungry seagulls singing, a gust of wind gathering power. When people speak, their voices must not surpass a certain decibel.

Repression is in every pore of this enigma, a story loosely based upon the life of paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who did not receive the credit she deserved, like correctly identifying the first ichthyosaur skeleton, for most of her career precisely because of her gender. When her romance with the married Charlotte Murchison (Saorise Ronan) is not front and center, we follow Mary’s day-to-day activities of scouring the windy shore for fossils and seashells when the tides recede in the morning, minding the shop for tourists with coin to spare, taking care of her ailing mother (Gemma Jones), and staying up late to create knickknacks to be sold in the shop.

Look closely at how Mary handles her daily work. It may be dull or empty to us, but Winslet is aware of the character’s entire being—how her hands handle rocks, the energy in those arms as she cleans utensils in the sink, the manner in which she puts on clothes when she is dead tired due to yet another sleepless night, down to how Mary’s breathing changes when there is a threat to her routine being derailed. Our protagonist is fiercely passionate of her work—so passionate it seems as though she has lost the ability to interact with others.

Yes, Mary is poor and others who surround her in the coastline of Lyme Regis are financially privileged. But it goes beyond that; they wish to know her on a deeper level, like the well-meaning Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secăreanu) who amuses by constantly walking on eggshells, but the wall she built around herself has robbed her of friendship, joy, happiness, contentment. There is no question this woman has been hurt before. We wonder about the circumstances, and I admired that the material provides only morsels of an answer. Like Mary who excavates fossil fragments, it is most appropriate that we, too, must put together the pieces of her personal life in order to make sense of the whole. And sometimes certain pieces are never found.

Regarding the romance between Mary and Charlotte, it is beautifully handled. The chemistry between Winslet is Ronan is curious because there is almost a… maternal quality about it. No, I am not referring to the gap in the performers’ ages. It is in the feelings the characters evoke, that their relationship feels as though it is rooted in them wanting to protect each other from further hurt and misery. In Charlotte’s eyes, the brilliant Mary does not get the recognition as her male counterparts because 1) she is a female in a British society that values men and 2) Lyme isn’t exactly an epicenter of culture. In Mary’s eyes, radiant Charlotte is treated by her husband (James McArdle) as defective for having a “slight case of melancholia.” He couldn’t get rid of her fast enough and so he hires Mary to look after Charlotte while he goes on an expedition.

Another quality I admired is the picture’s frank depiction of sex scenes. This is not the kind of movie where a scene builds to a passionate kiss and the camera pans away as if to “give respect” or “allow privacy” for its subjects. The camera stays in Mary and Charlotte’s most personal moments; it dares us to bear witness to their lust, love, and affection. Because we see them at their most vulnerable, they are not invisible.