After the Storm


After the Storm (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that offers a protagonist who is a loser in the beginning and by the end he is still a loser. More digestible works would have absolved their characters of important shortcomings—or, worse, granted flimsy, silly excuses for the audience to feel good. But writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda is not interested in this approach. Instead, he provides details about the character by showing us what is important to him. Understanding him does not change the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it does remind us to take a second and be more sympathetic before casting judgement. What is film, after all, but a medium by which we get a chance to walk in another’s shoes?

Hiroshi Abe plays Ryôta, a full grown man, divorced, so afraid of losing his son (Taiyô Yoshizawa) permanently—since his ex-wife (Yôko Maki) has begun to date a more financially secure man—that he decides to spy on them. Abe plays the protagonist with quiet desperation and we observe his deep yearnings seep into his work as a private detective. It appears as though each case involves a man or woman cheating on a partner. His escape is gambling. Asking people for money and attempting to pawn off various items for an an extra buck take up the rest of his time. Meanwhile, every time he gets a knock on his door, fear strikes him like a lightning bolt, fearing these might be debt collectors.

The camera has a habit of resting on Ryôta’s tired face. Abe executes a great balance between Ryôta being self-aware of his worthlessness and wanting to change something in his life—even though he doesn’t quite know what to change, or at least admit that he has a gambling addiction and it is a major contributor to his downward spiral. Since Ryôta has trouble defining himself, those around him tend to define him instead. Particularly interesting is the protagonist’s sister who does not mince words. She’s tough and she’s right. She knows he will never change. I found the material honest in its portrayal of someone who understands another down to the bone. Immediately we get a complete picture of these characters’ histories.

Despite an interesting but unexciting protagonist, the film is filled with beautiful moments. There is a series of scenes toward the latter half when the father gets a chance to spend time with his son (despite being unable to pay child support for three months). At first, they are in stores, surrounded by strangers, looking at items, buying them. But then they come to an area where the father spent his childhood. From here they begin to look at one another from time to time, excavating memories, forging a bond. Instead of the boy feeling guilty about which pair of shoes he’d like to have—the glossy, more expensive one versus the one on sale—he is asking questions about his father’s experiences as a child. The contrast between these scenes is stark but can be easily missed. Clearly, this is not a work for those uninterested in interactions between ordinary people.

Koreeda creates a portrait of a family where the audience is asked to observe and note discrepancies amongst what characters say versus what they do. It assumes the audience is intelligent and engaged. He is not afraid of quiet and slow moments. Instead, he uses these moments to reveal disappointments, resentments, and, yes, even hope for the future.

The Turning


The Turning (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Henry James is turning in his grave because the latest adaptation of his novella “The Turn of the Screw” is brazen in sucking out the compelling human elements of the story and leaving the scraps to be modernized in a most uninspired, boring fashion. Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes are credited for supposedly writing the screenplay, but not only did they forget to bring original ideas to table, they have forgotten completely to give the film a third act. It ends so abruptly—offering no conclusion whatsoever—that the viewer is forced to wonder if the writers and director Floria Sigismondi actually cared about their project. It is offensive and a disgrace.

It is also a shame because Mackenzie Davis is quite watchable as Kate, a woman hired as a live-in governess in a massive estate that, as of late, has been plagued by mysterious deaths. Initially, it is Kate’s job to take care of a gifted little girl, Flora (Brooklynn Prince), but soon her brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), comes home from boarding school. Davis’ expressive eyes is fit for a role like this because Kate is required to investigate various areas of the dark, creepy estate on more than a handful of occasions. Those eyes, too, must relate to the children she is responsible for—even though at times her warmth is not welcomed.

The usual ghostly presences in the corner, our heroine walking down a corridor followed by a jump scare, creepy crawlers, and strange noises from nearby unused rooms are executed with minimal energy or glee. But because the setting is quite beautiful, particularly the foggy grounds of the estate—the maze, the stables, the fish pond—I didn’t mind so much; I found my eyes glued to the screen anyway because I imagined on occasion how it must be like to live in house boasting a hundred rooms but only four people around. I appreciated Flora’s loneliness; she is an orphan, her previous tutor left without saying goodbye, and her brother goes away for school. Before Kate, it is only her and Mrs. Grose (the committed Barbara Marten), a longtime servant of the Fairchilds who is wary of strangers and the children, specifically Flora, leaving the estate for whatever reason—even as simple as getting ice cream or doing a bit of shopping.

On the one hand, the work aspires to be just another haunted house movie—and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I preferred this approach. On the other hand, it introduces the possibility that the supernatural goings-on may be happening only in Kate’s mind. After all, her mother (Joely Richardson) is committed to a mental institution. (We are supposed to believe she is clinically insane due to the unwashed hair, lack of eye contact with her own daughter, and the fact that she cannot help but to create art—so reductive.) It fails on this level because the screenplay is not written sharply enough so that the paranormal happenings that unfold around the estate could have, for example, scientific or evidence-based explanations. Since it does not provide room for reasonable possibilities, like the script, we go on autopilot.

“The Turning” should not have been released because it is not a finished work. For a more effective adaptation of James’ novella, consider watching Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” It is superior in every aspect, including its approach in introducing the idea that perhaps the governess’ mind is fractured. There is genuine suspense in the late-night investigations and we become convinced there is powerful evil in the house. By comparison, “The Turning” is a cheap play thrown by people who pretended to read the novella when in fact they simply glanced over SparkNotes last-minute and called it a day.

Anna and the Apocalypse


Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A question: If there are zombies right outside and it is your intention to make a quick getaway with an automobile, would you put the car keys into your backpack where it could get lost among other items or right in your pocket for easy access? The answer is obvious, but the Christmas-themed zombie musical comedy “Anna and the Apocalypse,” written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, has a habit of playing dumb—real dumb—that the experience of sitting through it is a trial to be endured. It assumes that viewers do not possess more than five functioning brain cells and so we find ourselves five to ten steps ahead of it throughout its relatively short running time of ninety minutes. It is a complete waste of time.

For a musical, the majority of the songs not only sound the same, they are often about the same thing: alienated British teenagers who long for a life outside of high school. One wishes to travel, another looks forward to art school, a couple looks forward to taking their relationship to the next level. Due to the lack of variation, by the fourth or fifth song, I caught myself groaning inside—a way to mentally prepare my brain to try and process yet another one-dimensional two- to three-minute song.

There is one exception: a song called “It’s That Time of Year” performed by Lisa (Marli Siu), half of an enamored couple, during a holiday show at school. Parents watch wide-eyed. “There’s a lack of presents in my stocking / And my chimney needs a good unblocking”—it’s a dirty song and it is perfect for two reasons: it breaks the boredom and it fits the mindset of many teenagers at that age. If only the rest of the songs were as cheeky or well thought out.

The titular character is a complete bore. Although Ella Hunt plays Anna with some energy during dancing sequences, when the music stops and Anna is meant to connect with her friends, there is a desperate lack of chemistry. It were as if the actors had forgotten how it was like to be in high school. But more deserving of critique is the pallid writing. There is nothing cinematic or relatable about it. Compare the dialogue to the most awful Disney movies meant for television and notice the stench of mediocrity becoming all the more apparent. It does not possess an ear for dialogue; I didn’t even get the impression that the writers actually liked their subjects.

It is a poor survival horror film. Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” is perhaps its biggest inspiration, particularly the sequence in which Anna wakes up, steps outside, and fails to notice that her suburban neighborhood has gone to hell. But the difference between this picture and Wright’s modern classic is that the latter has an understanding of ramping up tension, the love for its characters can be felt at every one-time joke as well as recurring jokes, and there is dramatic gravity behind the fates of its characters. Here, when a character dies, it is met with a shrug and sentimental music. We are supposed to be moved while feeling cheated.

I would have enjoyed to have gotten to know more about Anna’s relationship with John (Malcolm Cumming). It is implied that the two have been best friends since they were children. But reliable, goofy, nice guy John is beginning to regard her as more than a friend. Anna notices. I felt the screenwriters’ fear and reluctance to tell this story—strange, and disappointing, because it is the heart of the picture. I believe the writers choose not to dig deeply into the friendship because they are not interested in characters, just blood and guts. Look at how there is more thought put into how a blood must squirt onto walls than how a friendship is navigated. The movie is not only without brain, it is also without soul.

Low Tide


Low Tide (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Low Tide,” debut film of writer-director Kevin McMullin, brings to mind coming-of-age pictures from the ‘80s, especially in how it captures the look and feel of living in a seaside vacation spot, but it lacks the necessary human depth for it to be truly compelling and memorable. This is particularly strange because the lead actors, Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson who play brothers, Peter and Alan, left to fend for themselves while their father is away for work, possess the ability to deliver convincing dramatic performances. The screenplay is not written deeply enough in order for these actors to be able to create subjects worthy of further exploration.

It begins as a story of three seemingly close friends (Johnson, Daniel Zolghadri, Alex Neustaedter) who break into people’s vacation homes to steal drugs, booze, and various items they could sell for petty cash. We watch them hang out at the boardwalk, scout for girls, get high, and pick fights with Bennys—a nickname they give to summer tourists. Meanwhile, a local cop, Sergeant Kent (Shea Whigham), suspects them as the ones responsible for the recent break-ins. He did not have a single evidence… until one of the teenagers ends up leaving a shoe at a crime scene. The boys’ relationship is tested and at one point we are meant to.wonder whether what they shared was friendship at all. Perhaps it simply a case of birds of a feather.

The plot also involves finding a dead man’s gold coins, but I think this is less interesting than the relationship between two brothers who look, sound, and act so differently when placed side-by-side, it takes a bit of persuasion to buy into the fact they are related at all. These highly valued coins is but a conduit to Peter and Alan coming together and admitting to one another that they are tired of being poor. And so their most recent asset must be protected at all cost. It is disappointing then that the writing fails to establish their desperation—how much each of them is willing to sacrifice—out of fear that one or both may come across as too unlikable.

There is sweet subplot involving Alan and an out-of-towner named Mary (Kristine Froseth). Although the cuteness of their chance meeting and going out on dates does not quite fit the overall foreboding feeling of the picture, I still found some enjoyment in these detours. I would have preferred for their conversations to have run longer since Alan is not a character who makes it a habit to talk about his personal life and the future with his so-called friends. It helps that Johnson and Froseth exhibit effortless chemistry when sharing a frame.

The picture may be low on thrills, but it is not short on consequences. It is not a clear-cut case of bad guys being punished and good guys prevailing. We get the impression that the brothers have learned something about themselves, about each other, and the world around them—expected from a coming-of-age film. Although the work left me wanting more depth, I am optimistic that McMullin can deliver stronger, more urgent content in future projects.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette


Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The consistently aggravating comedy-drama “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is adapted to the screen (along with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo—from Maria Semple’s novel of the same name) by humanistic writer-director Richard Linklater, but the final product is a soulless, meandering one-note joke in which the protagonist’s eccentricities are displayed on an unending parade as if these are enough to generate great entertainment. Cate Blanchett plays the titular character and because she is a veteran at playing a spectrum of notes, often in one scene, there are a few seconds here and there in which the movie feels somewhat tolerable. But not even a performer of her caliber could save this sinking ship, a true waste of time for viewers interested in worthy character studies.

Bernadette is supposed to be a genius architect who gave up her budding career twenty years ago after getting married to an animator (Billy Crudup), a genius himself, who now works for a branch of Microsoft. But instead of the screenplay finding ways to show us her gift in small or big ways, we are simply made to sit through an online video which summarizes her career. It is supposed to be funny—I guess—that the figureheads in the documentary are famous faces such as Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, Steve Zahn, among others. But I was not at all amused by this lazy approach in building what is supposed to be a compelling character—a person who has become a menace to society (especially toward her neighbors and fellow mothers [Kristen Wiig, Zoë Chao]) precisely because her need to create has been suppressed for two decades. And whose fault is that, really?

Above is only one example of the many poor choices of establishing character. As a result, we never believe that the personalities on screen are truly drenched or dedicated in the eventual drama of a woman suddenly going missing after so many problems (one of which involves the FBI) come knocking at her door. They must simply make their way across the checkerboard in a predetermined way simply because the plot demands that they do. There is no feeling, just a death march to the finish line. Since there is a disconnect between people’s thoughts and actions, there is nothing believable about generic responses to specific conflicts. Everybody is playing pretend; our boredom evolves into frustration.

Particularly painful to sit through is in how it showcases the marriage between Bernadette and Elgin. Right from the moment we meet them, there is no chemistry between Blanchett and Crudup. And so when the connection between the characters become colder or more desperate, the difference is negligible. The Crudup character is especially maddening. There are times when the performer acts as though something amusing is occurring on screen when it is supposed to be serious. Thus, Elgin is painted as if there’s a meanness to him, that he is a husband who appears concerned about his wife to her face but is actually mocking when she isn’t looking. This should have been recognized and corrected by Linklater—he has shown in his best works that everything on screen must work together in order to sell the drama of a relationship on equal footing, especially when there are numerous plates being juggled.

The disappearing woman act occurs way too late in the picture, when viewers likely have tuned out. A lot more attention (with slow as molasses pacing) is given to warring neighbors, a psychiatrist explaining psychological concepts, and mother-daughter bonding like singing in the car then eyeing one another dramatically. The would-be humanity in the picture is so planned, so forced, so fake. I could not wait to walk away from these intolerable cardboard cutouts and forget about them. The third act is especially clichéd. Of course it involves a teary reunion. Give me a break.

NiNoKuni


NiNoKuni (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a story that involves jumping between two worlds in which the lives of their respective inhabitants are linked somehow, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Ni No Kuni,” inspired by a highly charming and emotionally moving video game series of the same name, is impoverished of imagination and wonder. Instead of focusing on world-building; creating convincing character development; and laying out its universe’s complex rules and giving the audience a chance to understand them, notice how the picture is so eager to jump into action out of fear, perhaps, that curiosity would not be enough to garner interest. What results is a movie without soul and magic, just a series of empty disagreements among friends and noises of would-be epic battles. In the middle of it, I wished there was a spell to redo the film because its current state is an embarrassment.

Best friends Yu (voiced by Kento Yamazaki) and Haru (Mackenyu) find themselves transported to a strange world in the middle of their desperate attempt to take their dying friend, Kotona (Mei Nagano), who has been stabbed, to the hospital. In this world filled with humanoid beasts and magical beings, Yu is not paralyzed from the waist down and Haru’s athleticism does not make him feel special. In fact, it seems that in this alternate world, Yu is the special one since he appears to have the gift of magic. It is a workable beginning to a possible rivalry of young men whose friendship is defined by a particular power dynamic. This coming-of-age angle, however, is not explored in meaningful ways because the screenplay by Akihiro Hino leans too heavily on tired fantasy tropes like saving a princess from a curse and the hero falling in love with her, vice-versa. It is boring and does not leave much room for compelling drama.

While watchable on its own, the style of animation fails to match the story being told. The first game in the series, “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch,” offers animated sequences produced by Studio Ghibli. They are stunning; they compel us to look at the images and examine them. They may be eye-catching and cute at first glance, but as a whole they are designed to immerse the player first and foremost. In this film, the animation comes across as flat and stiff; it does not stand out among other Japanese animated films that fall under the same genre. But this shortcoming can be overlooked if the content of the story were actually captivating. It is so predictable that from the moment we lay eyes on certain characters, we know he or she would end up becoming a villain, for example. There is no curiosity or mystique about it.

Since the screenplay fails to take the time to lay out the important rules, those who have not played the games are likely to become very confused. For instance, during the first scene we are greeted with a possibly senile old man yelling, “Gateway!” at the hospital rooftops. Those who experience the games would know that this is a spell that summons… well, a gateway, between the “real” world and the other world.

But, for some reason, in the film Yu and Haru are randomly able to move between worlds without ever uttering the spell. Instead, they must to endanger their lives in either world—like plunging a van into a river while they’re inside—and soon they would find themselves waking up in the next world. Why is the old man required to cast a spell while the young men are not? This is only one example of the material’s brazen lack of consistency. How can we get involved in the story when are left scratching our heads every other scene?

“NiNoKuni” comes across as a rushed project designed to keep the brand relevant. The soul of this brand is an epic sense of adventure; its heart the lessons it imparts on how one might lead a healthier, happier life despite outside elements that could embitter or numb a person over time. We get no sense of humanity here, and so there is no doubt the film is a failure.

Favorite Films of 2019


Below are my Favorite Films of 2019. It must be noted that the list may change slightly if I happened to come across great movies I had missed prior to this post. The same rule applies to all of my annual Favorite Lists. In other words, my lists are updated continually. My hope is to provide alternative movies that are absolutely worth seeing that may not or will not necessarily appear on “Top Critics” picks. Underneath each picture is an excerpt from my review which can be found in the archive. In the meantime, dive in and, as always, feel welcome to let me know what you think.



The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Henry Dunham

“Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, ‘The Standoff at Sparrow Creek’ tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.”



Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino

“There comes a point in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.”



1917
Sam Mendes

“Like the characters, the environment also receives great attention. A particularly harrowing sequence involves Schofield and Blake entering a seemingly abandoned German bunker. There is heavy dust all around, rickety beds are invaded by rust, and walls wear random scribblings. Although the camera is constantly on the move, our eyes make it a habit to examine every corner. Is there an enemy soldier waiting in the shadows of that particular corner? When outdoors, it looks as though there is thick mud as far as the eyes could see. We notice flies feasting on corpses, both of man and animal. Rats scurry around from one buffet to another. We can almost taste the stink in the air. Dead bodies floating on water look real. Observe how white and bloated they are. Our protagonists must wade through the dead and climb on top of them in order to get on land. Here is a work that takes its time to get details, both in look and feeling, precisely right.”



The Farewell
Lulu Wang

“Amusing, bittersweet, and insightful in the most surprising ways, ‘The Farewell’ shows rather than tells how a specific Chinese family chooses to take on the challenge of preventing their matriarch from finding out that she is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Take any one scene from this beautifully layered story and one can tell immediately that it is based upon writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal experiences because there is almost always at least one detail on screen that is honest, painful, funny, and real—often all at once. The storytelling is such a joyous experience because it feels as though the work is free from the shackles of the usual plot contrivances. We simply wish to know these characters as people.”



The King
David Michôd

“Leave it to director David Michôd for pushing a more introspective take on a typical historical drama in which a person who does not wish to be king ends up with the throne, the crown, and every problem that comes with it. Based on several plays from William Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad,’ ‘The King’ stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry Prince of Wales (referred to as ‘Hal’ by those closest to him), the wayward son of King Henry IV of England (Ben Mendelsohn) who would rather drink all night, sleep all day, and spend time with muddy commoners than to learn the finer points of how to lead a kingdom. It is an inspired choice of casting because the performer knows precisely how to convey crippling loneliness, as he has shown in Luca Guadagnino’s sublime ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ and Hal is a subject plagued with this emotion from the moment he agrees to take on the responsibilities of a king.”



Little Women
Greta Gerwig

“Greta Gerwig’s retelling of ‘Little Women,’ based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, made me realize how unconvincingly most families are portrayed in the movies. Here, notice how the March family are always touching each other, whether they are playing, providing comfort, fighting, or simply hanging about the house and discussing what it is they hope to achieve or become in the future. We get so comfortable in inhabiting their specific living space that eventually we know which comb, or doll, or dress belongs to which sister. And by the end of the film, we not only have a complete idea of their personalities and interests, we know what it is that they value as individuals—so we see beyond their words and actions as if looking through glass.”



Parasite
Joon-ho Bong

“Joon-ho Bong’s black coffee comedy ‘Parasite’ is an effective social commentary on two fronts: the great lengths we are willing to go for money and how a few of us—no—how many of us would not even think twice to step on our fellow man just to be able to climb a little higher. But the film is first and foremost riotously, endlessly entertaining. It is savagely funny parts—particularly in how it portrays the privilege of the rich and the desperation of the poor right alongside one another—occasionally suspenseful in terms of deception piling on top of one another that we know something has got to give eventually, and at times quite sad in its accurate portrayal of indigence. Perhaps the system is designed so that in order for the rich to exist and flourish, others must live and die in poverty.”



Giant Little Ones
Keith Behrman

“Keith Behrman’s ‘Giant Littles Ones’ is not a reductive LGBTQ picture in which the main character simply learns to come to terms with his sexuality by the end of the story. While it does end on a hopeful note, the messages it imparts—about teenage sexuality, friendships, romantic feelings, and even one’s relationship with parents—are far more nuanced than mainstream films that just so happen to have queer elements in them. It is effective precisely because the characters we meet are specific, layered, and flawed. And, like real people, they do not always express what they feel or think even when situations demand that they do.”



Joker
Todd Phillips

“Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.”



Luce
Julius Onah

“Julius Onah’s ‘Luce’ is like a nesting doll. Just when you think you know what it is about and have it all figured out, it gives birth to another layer worth putting under a microscope. It possesses a keen understanding of human psychology and behavior, particularly the social contracts between parent and child; students and teachers; and peers who wish to maintain or improve their status. In its core, it is a drama. But it is told like a thriller. What results is a picture that commands utmost urgency. Every word counts. A certain look or deafening silence functions like a fire alarm. We find ourselves evaluating who knows what and precisely how much. We must think like the subjects in order to have a thorough understanding of them.”