Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

In the past it was often the Dark Lord’s pleasure to invade the minds of his victims, creating visions designed to torture them into madness. Only after extracting the last exquisite ounce of agony, only when he had them literally begging for death would he finally… kill them.

J.K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” is my favorite “Harry Potter” novel because it does an terrific job in balancing personal drama, school life, politics, and the encroaching reality that Lord Voldemort is making moves behind the scenes so he will be well-prepared for war against those whom he considers to be inferior by blood. And so it is most disappointing that the film version, this time Michael Goldenberg serving as screenwriter in place of Steve Kloves and David Yates taking on the role of director, comes across cursory, thin, tonally unfocused, and largely uninterested with the more silent but equally critical details in regard to plot and character.

One gets the impression that those at the helm are more interested in delivering spectacle than exploring human stories. Particularly offensive is the limited and unremarkable interactions between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), still on the lam for crimes he did not commit. The actors exude warmth when their eyes meet from across the room, but when these characters begin to speak with one another, conversations are often one-dimensional, dull, repetitive. This lack of connection is especially astounding because Sirius is supposed to be best friends with Harry’s father. There is not once instance in which the screenplay bothers to take the time so that the godfather could recall a cherished memory that involves James and Lily. It shouldn’t have been this way because Harry considers the man as family. By comparison, Harry’s exchanges with Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” however brief, are far richer and emotionally satisfying.

More energy and attention is given to montages: how Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, manages to take over Hogwarts and impose all sorts of preposterous rules to create an illusion of order (so-called “educational decrees” like banning extracurricular clubs or requiring boys and girls to be at least eight inches apart at all times), how Harry forms and trains his fellow students (“Dumbledore’s Army”) so they can defend themselves against those who wish them harm, how Harry’s mind becomes increasingly vulnerable for Voldemort to take advantage of. These are critical to the plot, amusing and curious at times, but they are not executed with insight or flavor.

We are supposed to despise the fascistic, pink-wearing, cat-loving Umbridge but what else is there to the character? Surely someone who wishes to be hold on to control so desperately must have some sort of backstory. What does it mean for Harry to lead his friends? How does this leadership position connect to his feelings of isolation? Does this trigger a change in him? How are the O.W.L. exams (“Ordinary Wizarding Level”) relevant to Harry’s dream of becoming an Auror? What is an Auror? (Harry’s career goal is referenced in the next film “Half-Blood Prince” as it if were brought up in this entry. It wasn’t… curious because the fifth year is when students are forced to think about life after Hogwarts.)

And what about Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) who is revealed early on to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix (a group that Dumbledore formed to stand up against Voldemort and his Death Eaters)? Sure, the point is for Harry to be trained so he can learn to defend against those who wish to access his thoughts and feelings, but what about the human aspect—the fact that Harry had never really considered Snape to be an ally and yet now they must work together? Where is the drama that we can bite into? Clearly, we are provided a vanilla Cliff Notes version.

By the time the third act fumbles about, when Harry and his friends decide to venture into the Ministry of Magic’s Department of Mysteries (which apparently is not only easy to find, it takes no effort to break into), it is too late to salvage the picture. On the basis of visuals, I suppose the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort is impressive. But these figures have been absent from the picture for the majority of its running time so the emotional investment isn’t very high.

If anything, it is a reminder of how boring the students have been using magic. Why aren’t they learning how to summon giant fire serpents or control massive volume of water? Jest aside, I appreciated that this scene shows why Voldemort fears Dumbledore. This fact was referenced since “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Here is the payoff. Had the screenplay bothered to answer more questions that begin with “why” or “how,” it would have given the work deeper substance.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’m going to kill you, Harry Potter. I’m going to destroy you. After tonight, no one will ever again question my power. After tonight if they speak of you, they’ll only speak of how you begged for death. And how I being a merciful Lord… obliged.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” may not be the most focused narratively nor is it the most ingenious when it comes to presentation of storytelling, especially coming at the heels of Alfonso Cuarón’s visual phantasmagoria that is “Prisoner of Azkaban,” but a point can be made it is a standout in the series nonetheless. It is the awkward middle child: Out of sheer willingness to be embrace everything at once—excitement, danger, personal drama, and fun are shoulder-to-shoulder in the same scene quite often—it manages to hit enough high notes to create solid entertainment. There is plenty to tackle in this installment, the second longest “Potter” novel by J.K. Rowling, but director Mike Newell ensures we look forward to the next development up until the body of Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is restored.

The first act is a breath of fresh air because it breaks the wizarding world wide open. What better way to do so than to have Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends attend a massive sport event, the 422nd Quidditch World Cup. We learn there are schools outside of Hogwarts. This is important, but at the same time it comes across as a footnote because we learn, too, that Voldermort’s followers called the Death Eaters are the move, desperate to turn things back to the way they were thirteen years ago. In prior films, stirrings of trouble are alluded to or mentioned outright by worried-looking adults, particularly Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and an official from the Ministry of Magic (Robert Hardy). But this is the first entry that really hones in on the evil that is The Dark Lord and his minions, how their mission of hate lives in the very fiber of their being.

The fun aspect of the picture comes in the form of the Triwizard Tournament, Hogwarts serving as host for the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, led by Madame Olympe Maxime (Frances de la Tour), a giant who wins the affections of our lovable half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the Durmstrang Institute for Magical Leaning, led by Igor Karkaroff (Predrag Bjelac), a former Death Eater. According to tournament rules, one student from each school will be chosen by the Goblet of Fire to compete in a series of increasingly dangerous tasks. Word has it that a few students who participated in the past have perished. Gambling young lives for a taste of glory.

Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) is chosen to represent Beauxbatons, Viktor Krum (Stanislav Yanevski) for Durmstrang, and Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) for Hogwarts. I wished the screenplay by Steve Kloves had spent some time with each champion. No need for extensive dialogue. By showing us their mettle in the field, it would have given us a chance to understand why they were chosen instead of simply accepting them because the script demands it.

The perfect opportunity would have been the first task where they are required to deal with fully grown dragons. Instead, we are stuck with Harry inside the tent—he is the fourth champion chosen by the Goblet (surprise, surprise)—as he waits for his turn to prove himself worthy, not a dirty cheat like most of his classmates have assumed. (Due to the nature of the tournament and rumors of Voldemort’s ascension, those under seventeen years of age are not allowed to submit their names for consideration. Harry is fourteen.)

And then there is the Yule Ball. In a series of laugh-of-loud situations, from Ron (Rupert Grint) lamenting over the ridiculous dress robe that his mother sent over (laces, ostentatious collars and all) to the stresses and various humiliations boys undergo to ask girls who may or may no longer be available for a silly event, never has the Potter universe been so grounded and relatable. I loved that in these scenes, no one is using magic. The teens are left to their own devices. Insecurity becomes a part of their ensemble. There are even genuinely sad but human moments like when Ron, who is obviously jealous, decides to make Hermione (Emma Watson) feel guilty for having a good time at the ball with a date who is someone worthy of writing home about. Sometimes friendships can be unfair. But it’s all part of the package.

As expected, the adult performers shine. I guffawed at Miranda Richardson’s Rita Skeeter, reporter for The Daily Prophet, how her scandalous line of questioning creates paths for non-stories to become full-fledged gossip. Brendan Gleeson’s Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, is formidable. His classroom scene involving the three Unforgivable Curses—Cruciatus Curse, Imperius Curse, Killing Curse—is first-class due to the nature of how these curses are demonstrated. And then there is David Tennant as Barty Crouch Junior, so snake-like in his movement and being that his tongue flicks between lines of dialogue. Ingeniously, the tongue works as foreshadowing, too.

Out of the eight “Harry Potter” films, “Goblet of Fire” is the most accessible. It is neither too light nor too dark, neither inconsequential nor too heavy on mythology. It shows a strong affection for teenagers despite their sudden hormonal fluctuations. And it marks the first time when best friends Harry, Ron, and Hermione find themselves not being on the greatest terms. They may consider themselves as a team, but they are also individuals. Had this human drama been amplified then delved into further, this film could have been the definitive Potter experience.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.

From its pre-title sequence, where we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the bedsheets, it is established that “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third entry in J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, will offer a wholly different vibe. Gone is the yellow, innocent glow that surrounds the halls of Hogwarts designed to embrace those from the outside looking in. Grayish blue hues are now in its place. Gone is the inviting, child-like score teasing mystery and wonderment. Instead, the music is foreboding, even capable of getting under the skin at times. Gone, too, are so-called extraneous sequences where we simply learn about minute curiosities within the world of witchcraft and wizardry, like strange artifacts and bizarre organisms that may not have anything to do with the big picture. Here, every scene must contribute to the overall narrative.

It cannot be denied it is a more mature work, certainly a step forward in terms of plot, visuals, and characterizations. In a way, it must exhibit noticeable growth—no matter how awkward—given that Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have entered their teenage years. In the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón, with Chris Columbus now serving as producer (“Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets”), the film proves capable of delivering great entertainment. It balances fantasy, thrills, horror, and human drama so readily and so astutely that it is difficult to predict what is in store when a new day begins for the wizards-in-training.

I admired its courage for not running away from more adult-oriented themes. The death, no, the murder of Harry’s parents, James and Lily, are brought up more than thrice. In each instance, the screenplay by Steve Kloves is knowing enough to slow down and really hone in on how their deaths have impacted Harry as a young man. For example, even though he considers Hogwarts to be his home and he has terrific friends, those bright blue eyes communicate a deep loneliness. Harry longs to be loved and to be wanted by his kin, his blood. And so when Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, recalls his own memories of James and Lily, we feel Harry’s yearning to learn more from the man. Through Lupin’s recollections, Harry feels James and Lily are alive—even for just a moment. Take note of Cuarón’s affinity in employing close-ups, occasionally to the point where it feels uncomfortable. And it should. A case can be made that “Azkaban” is a coming-of-age tale.

Another highlight is the first time Hermione and Ron see their best friend cry during a trip to Hogsmeade, a village right next to Hogwarts. I loved that human emotions are not treated with the slightest whiff of embarrassment. When Harry is emotional, we feel Hermione and Ron wanting to understand even though deep down they know they won’t be able to completely given that they are not orphans. In fact, they come from good, loving families. They do not know how it is like to be treated like dirt, to be abused verbally and physically, by their flesh and blood. But they try anyway. And so that effort earns our respect—outside of books, outside of magic, outside of exercising loyalty. Ron and Hermione may not have defined subplots in this installment, but their actions are often highly informative and telling.

Threat comes in the form Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the first convict to have escaped the notorious Azkaban prison. It is said he is a murderer, and he wishes to find Harry then kill him. Funnily enough, this is the least compelling aspect of the story since there are far too many obvious red herrings. I suspect Cuarón feels this way, too. His solution is to flood the central plot with empathetic moments, as mentioned above, and terrific personalities. Notice that adults—Snape (Alan Rickman), Lupin, Black, Trelawney (Emma Thomoson), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon in place of Richard Harris due to his death)—are given more time to speak and interact. Their collective experience elevates the material, that it is not just a children’s story anymore.

There is not a trace of Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” yet it is first-rate entertainment. In fact, there is no villain here—at least, not really. The point, quite simply, is to discover the truth. As proven here, defogging secrets and lies can be more compelling than battling a man with two faces or squaring off against a giant basilisk. Despite the flood of fantastic elements, Cuarón’s fascination with humanity fluoresces, consistently on the foreground.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid.

Who better to play a flamboyant, narcissistic, and arrogant newly appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart than Sir Kenneth Branagh, a natural scene-stealer and a provider of bright patches in this noticeably darker sequel, one that deals with classism and racism (even enslavement!) but in a way that is still kid-friendly and entertaining? Branagh is not in the picture for long, but the performer proves to be more than capable of making a lasting impression. And although Lockhart may be a snake oil salesman, there is another type of snake in this chapter, one I consider to be enjoyable as a whole but plagued with missed opportunities.

Unlike the predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” directed by Chris Columbus, is more entrenched in its mystery. Notice immediately how plot-driven it is. Once blood is written on Hogwarts’ walls and petrified bodies pile up, Steve Klove’s screenplay launches into an investigatory mode. Nearly every conversation among Harry, Ron, and Hermione is a step toward the discovery of the Chamber of Secrets’ location. It gives the impression that the film is not so much interested in supplying wonderment; it assumes that those who signed up for the follow-up are already invested in the Harry Potter universe. This is a double-edged sword: It is the correct evolutionary step for the franchise but it sheds some of its warm appeal.

I enjoyed this approach, I think. It may not be as inviting as “Sorcerer’s Stone,” but it is more efficient from a storytelling perspective. There is no need to reintroduce, for instance, what goes on inside the Hogwarts Express while students are on their way to start another school year. First-years being sorted into their respective houses—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin—is skipped altogether. (We do, however, learn a bit of background regarding the house’s founders later on, courtesy of Professor McGonagall [Maggie Smith].) I found the movie’s willingness to not repeat itself to be admirable. Even the Dursleys’ bullying, Harry’s adopted family (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Harry Melling), is not as awful this time around. Perhaps it is because a part of them now fears Harry’s sharpened abilities.

Harry and Gilderoy are obvious foils. Harry could have used his fame as The Boy Who Lived to be as ostentatious and ridiculous as Gilderoy but didn’t. In fact, Gilderoy has a habit of grabbing Harry and using the twelve-year-old as a prop to gain even more fame and admirers. (Not to mention book sales.) Gilderoy’s idea of detention is allowing our hero to answer fan mail. Harry is humble with his adventures and triumphs while Gilderoy is an expert in employing smoke and mirrors. This amusing relationship could have been a powerful thesis of this installment. There is a theme regarding seeing but failing to look directly into the eyes. Had the screenplay honed in on the core of these wealth of ideas, “Chamber of Secrets” would have worked on another level.

Still, what’s at offer remains highly watchable, from the duel between the even-tempered Harry and the petulant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to Harry writing on a mysterious diary which possesses the power not only to answer back but also to transport its owner into specific times in the past. Perhaps most memorable is a trip to the Dark Forest where a giant spider named Aragog resides. Ron and Harry attempting to escape from an ocean of goat-sized spiders is stuff of nightmares. At the same time, these spiders possess a beauty, too. I wanted to take a magnifying glass and examine the hairs on their bodies. Or perhaps to stare into their many eyes. Spiders are such misunderstood creatures. I’m with Hagrid on this one.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

You’re a wizard, Harry.

Nearly every moment of Chris Columbus’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on the novel by J.K. Rowling and adapted to the screen by Steve Kloves, is an invitation—an invitation to smile at its optimism and wholesomeness; to hold your breath in anticipation whether it be during a Quidditch match between the rivaling Gryffindor and Slytherin houses or a night stroll in the forbidden Dark Forest where a foul creature feasts on unicorn blood; to marvel at the sheer size of ancient castles or the most minute details inside moving paintings; to wonder at the secrets yet to be discovered within its world of witchcraft and wizardry.

Although a case can be made that the picture is overlong, it is a terrific opening chapter precisely because it goes out of its way to present details that escape run-of-the-mill fantasy-adventures. Consider a trip to Gringotts, a bank run by goblins, after half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) whisks eleven-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) away from his abusive, non-magic (“Muggles”) adoptive parents (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths) and spoiled cousin (Harry Melling).

The film not only takes its time for viewers to appreciate the sheer majesty of the place, from its high ceilings and crystal chandeliers to its scintillating floor and towering marble pillars, the camera readily functions as a microscope. Notice the way it fixates on the bank teller, who is a goblin, the sharpness that can be found deep in its spectacled eyes when disturbed from its work, its short-tempered predisposition when spoken to. We are invited to stare at its rubbery skin, how its mitten-like hands are almost as big as the goblin’s face. We wonder about its age, perhaps even what it eats for nourishment. Do they have their own language?

It goes on like this. A curious creature or object, like an invisibility cloak or a state-of-the-art broom, is introduced and the filmmakers ensure we are in the middle of the action with rapt attention. It is never enough to show or mention a curiosity. It must be demonstrated. Then it must be applied when Harry and his friends go on to investigate the mystery surrounding the possibility of Voldermort’s return, the notorious dark wizard who murdered Harry’s parents and the one responsible for the lightning bolt-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead.

Because every scene invokes the feeling of opening a Christmas present, we are motivated to look forward to small and big surprises as a new day begins in Hogwarts, a school for young witches and wizards led by the warm and calming Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris). The picture may be episodic and, yes, even drawn out at times. But it is never boring or repetitive. I admired it precisely because it is untethered from the usual parabola and pacing of dramatic storytelling. It adopts its own rhythm.

This joyous quality of the picture is not strictly limited to visuals. The dialogue possesses a cheekiness to it, a palpable personality, whether Harry is hanging out on a train (“Hogwarts Express”) or in the Gryffindor common room with his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) or Harry being humiliated in front of his peers by Potions professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman—spot-on casting) for his excessive fame but embarrassing lack of knowledge. Every character is provided a specific voice and being. Even when they are not in the scene, sometimes we wonder why they are the way they are.

It is amazing that although supporting characters like Professors Snape, Quirrel (Ian Hart) and McGonagall (Maggie Smith) have fewer than twenty lines of dialogue to work with, they are memorable. These consummate performers milk not only every line but every moment. A pause between words or a pointed look communicates paragraphs. And although there are a wealth of personalities in Hogwarts, all of them feel like they belong. This is the result of a screenplay wise enough to take its time so that the setting is completely realized.

A hundred years from now, children and adults alike will watch “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and derive great entertainment from it. Its CGI may have aged (for instance, the mountain troll attempting to knock off Harry from its shoulders is laughable now), but not its colorful personalities, creative ideas, and careful attention to detail. Even the score by John Williams is transportive, readily able to metamorphose from thrills and excitement to lamentation and longing a drop of a Sorting Hat.

The Deeper You Dig

The Deeper You Dig (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a ghost story that doesn’t rely on apparitions popping out of corners to create entertainment. For the most part, the ghost is in the mind of the beholder. It is there when one sleeps, as he takes out the trash, as she sits on the porch while eating dinner. A ghost can be overwhelming sadness, indefatigable guilt, the nagging question of what actually happened to a loved one who simply vanished one day. “The Deeper You Dig” might have limited budget, but its vision is unchained. I wished its third act were as strong as what came before.

“The Deeper You Dig” is a two-fold story and it is co-written and co-directed by John Adams and Toby Poser. They star in it, too. The first perspective is through the eyes of a mother named Ivy (Poser) who appears to have—or have had—some connection to the paranormal. She makes a living as a fortuneteller. Not three hours since her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) went missing, Ivy already knows something has gone wrong. The second frame of reference is through the experiences of Ivy’s neighbor named Kurt (Adams). While driving home after a night of drinking, his truck hits Echo while she was night sledding. Instead of taking responsibility for the fourteen-year-old, Kurt decides to hide the body.

Notice the filmmakers’ level of control. Take away all of the overt elements—floating spirits, bodies dissipating in black smoke, and the like—and the picture becomes more potent. The reason is because the emotional crux—knowing versus not knowing—is tethered in realism. Misery is drawn all over Ivy’s face as she searches desperately for answers. Meanwhile, Kurt is constantly under torment; he looks like the walking dead because although his body sleeps, his head is wide awake. No matter the perspective we adopt, a feeling of foreboding doesn’t let up. Big budget horror films can learn a thing or two from this family project.

The story is not without creepy moments. For instance, Ivy’s job is initially played for laughs. There is an older woman who wishes to communicate with her deceased husband. She so badly wants to talk to him that eventually she decides to put an extra fifty bucks on the table in order to inspire the psychic to try a little harder in establishing communication with the dead. We snicker… until our smiles are wiped off almost immediately when a whisper is heard. It is Echo’s voice. But she’s not dead. Clearly, the picture’s idea of a ghost is different from what typically expect. The film offers its own rules and so we try to figure them out. We’re engaged.

One character wants to know, the other wishes to forget. This duality is curious and so events that transpire during the final twenty minutes is quite disappointing. We already know that Kurt and Ivy must clash eventually. But must it involve having to wrestle on the ground as they clamor for weapons? Because the rest of the work is elevated, surely the creative team could have found a way to end their piece in a manner that is equal to or worthy of their ambition. Regardless, because of its efforts and the chances it is willing to take, I am giving the picture a marginal recommendation.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Severed body parts are found in coal stacks within a hundred mile radius. Two cops, Zhang (Liao Fan) Wang (Yu Ailei), are assigned on the case but no suspect is apprehended. Beautiful about “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” written and directed by Diao Yinan, is that although it is presented as a mystery-thriller, it proves to be atypical: there is one extended chase scene in the streets and among close living spaces, no one is taken to the police station to be interviewed by good cop and bad cop, not a whiff of sentencing or the sight of a judge. It is all so muted—so much so that in the middle of it one is forced to wonder what the story is actually about.

I think it is a story of a man undergoing a resurrection. The aforementioned case was not solved in 1999. Five years later, we discover that Zhang is a drunk and no longer a cop. He found a job as a member of a security team, but it is apparent he doesn’t care about it. Zhang simply sort of… floats around. That is, until he crosses paths with his ex-partner, Wang, now a detective and working on a case that is highly likely related to the mystery involving the dismemberment. In the middle of the many moving parts is a woman they’d met before but never had a chance to interview because she was supposedly so devastated by the news of her husband’s death that she was inconsolable at the time: Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-mei) who remains to work in the same dry cleaners. Zhang pretends to be a customer. Soon he is following Zhizhen wherever she goes.

An aimless man happening upon an obsession is not new. But fresh is the level of difficulty in trying to figure out Zhang’s methods. We see him in action, but his angle remains opaque for the most part. Is he on the case to garner some sort of redemption? Does he even care? Or is his central motivation simply to sleep with the suspect? Is he falling in love with her? This is possible considering that in 1999, his wife divorced him. The loss of his wife compounded by a lack of resolution involving an important case led to his shutting down.

I enjoyed that it can be all of the above depending on the time and circumstances. There is a shocking event that occurs in the middle of the film that I believe helped to solidify his resolve. Although Zhang is like a shriveled leaf dancing in the wind, he is not unfeeling. In fact, a case can be made he feels too much. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be drowning himself in alcohol to the point of stupor. When his authentic self is revealed late in the film, it is almost like an exhalation. We see what his ex-wife saw and what Zhizhen sees in him. Here is a man so easily consumed by an idea; it is his strength as an investigator and his weakness as a man.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” offers duality. Two cops, two destinies. Two souls—Zhang and Zhizhen—whose lives changed in 1999 and became empty shells by 2004. What can be seen in light and what is revealed only in darkness. What is said and what is implied. Peace while in shackles. Offering stunning cinematography throughout, particularly shots of movement—ice skating, dancing, following someone from a couple of yards away—I wished that the work were better paced. Although our protagonist remains curious right up to his final decision, the manner in which the plot is resolved feels like a marathon to the finish line.


Prospect (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s sci-fi project “Prospect” may not be massive in scope, but it is filled to the brim with imagination. We are thrusted into its futuristic world with no explanation—narration and title cards are nowhere to be found—so we are required to pay close attention and attempt to grasp what’s at stake for the characters before venturing into the unknown. It is capable of being quiet and ruminative one minute, loud and tension-filled the next. From the beginning right to the very end, it presents viewers with possibilities.

Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher play Damon and Cee, father-daughter duo who land on Green Moon with hopes of striking it rich. The plan is to excavate gems referred to as “aurelac” which grow inside subterranean roots. Damon is made aware of a place where large deposits of these roots can be found. The larger the roots, the larger the gem. Thus, the larger the payload. But the moon, covered in trees, is filled with danger, from the toxic air to other humans who wish to swim in riches. Not to mention that time is of the essence. Should Damon and Cee miss the small window of returning to the main ship, they would be stranded on the moon indefinitely. It is an exciting debut, understated but curious nearly every step of the way.

The story’s structure likens that of a standard western: there is a place the characters must get to and obtain something valuable which could change the course of their lives. Naturally, things do not quite go according to plan. Unexpected partnerships form, strange groups are introduced, there is betrayal, natural elements prove unforgiving. We meet Cee as a teenage dreamer. She does not seem all that passionate about her father’s line of work. But the camera moves with purpose. Fixating on her eyes, we realize she’s a sharp observer, certainly a quick-learner. But she is more enthused about writing on her notebook—strange symbols that bear minimal resemblance to the English alphabet.

By the end of the story, Cee remains to be dreamer but her growth is readily apparent. We look forward to discovering what’s next for her but we are met with end credits. We feel in our gut that the story is complete, but we crave to know more. And what of the man named Ezra (Pedro Pascal), a rival prospector that Cee is forced to work with and trust? He, too, undergoes some growth, especially in how he sees the naive girl who is reluctant to kill but capable when absolutely necessary. There’s an interesting dynamic between the two; I enjoyed that how they get to know one another is not reliant on words. Their actions are far more telling. I admired that their relationship does not go down the expected father figure or big brother route.

I was mesmerized by the the Green Moon’s environment. Verdant trees and shrubs go as far as the eye can see. Bizarre pollen or dust fill the air. It is poisonous and so humans are required to wear a suit with a filter. When the suit is ruptured, it is pretty much game over. Better avoid sharp branches. I wished, however, that more living organisms were introduced. They need not be humanoid or sizable. For a moon that appears to be covered with life (it has water), I expected more oddities. But perhaps life on this moon is in its early stages.

I also appreciated its lived-in, lo-fi look and feel. Transport pods, computer dashboards, and controls do not look white and shiny. They look as though they’ve been used for decades. (They certainly sound as if they’re on the verge of decrepitude.) Such artistic decisions create an impression that this future is one that lacks opportunities for the working class. It suggests why Damon and Cee are willing to risk their lives in an alien place with the possibility of being stranded. And, yes, we meet a group that had been living on that moon… and see what they’ve become.

Force of Nature

Force of Nature (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Not even twenty minutes into this mind-boggling interpretation of an action-thriller, I wondered what the likes of Mel Gibson, Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth, and David Zayas saw in Cory Miller’s lifeless screenplay. Surely they read the material and realized it is dead on arrival… right? Did they owe somebody a favor? Is this a part of a movie deal? Appear on this train wreck in order to have the chance to make or work on a project they’re actually passionate about? There must be a reason. There just has to be. As I rummaged around in my mind for answers, I found myself tuning out at times. And yet when I snapped myself back into paying attention, characters remain sitting in the same room, taking about the same thing five minutes ago.

Michael Polish’s “Force of Nature” offers not one fresh idea in terms of plot, not one good twist, not even one standout chase or shootout. It involves running around an apartment complex in Puerto Rico during a Category 5 hurricane. A man named John the Baptist (Zayas) figures he could use the chaos to his advantage to perform another heist (they had a successful one earlier that day—the greedy bastard)—for a painting worth $55 million. There is a safe in the basement.

The Baptist proves to be unlucky, however, when cops, Cardillo and Peña (Hirsch, Stephanie Cayo), happen to be in the building because they have been assigned by their superior to evacuate those who choose to stay behind. This building is without personality—one cannot help but think of a movie like John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” because so much is accomplished there while close to nothing is accomplished in this interminable boredom. No, I’m not referring to the budget, flying bullets, and explosions. Rather, the imagination, creativity, and energy injected into a place so we feel as though it is also a character in the story being told.

There is nothing wrong being an action picture that wishes to get in, deliver the goods, and get out. No need for social commentary. Simply provide entertainment that we cannot help but remember hours after the movie is over. Even on this level, the picture fails. Consider hostage situations. Distance among our heroes, villains, and the camera is so tight, it is impossible to appreciate the moment. As a result, tension fails to build. On occasion, based on where the camera is placed, we know precisely how the situation will play out. It is predictable both in content and execution.

Attempts at humor are lame and out of place. Despite the pandemonium, Cardillo happens to fall for a cantankerous old man’s daughter (Bosworth). We roll our eyes as they send each other knowing glances and smiles, as if the material were a romance picture. Hirsch and Bosworth share no believable chemistry; what does a doctor like Troy see in a police officer like Cardillo, a man who feels guilty for having lost his partner in New York—all because of a prank call? Meanwhile, Gibson grumbles his way through danger. It’s one of his worst roles in a while.

“Force of Nature” is not even good enough to play in the background as you perform chores around the house. That would require specific scenes worthy of watching in between having finished dusting and starting up the vacuum. The whole thing is a gargantuan miscalculation.


Loveless (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless” is no ordinary divorce story for it demands the viewer to look a little while longer and to consider more deeply. It is analytical, pragmatic, some might claim a bit impersonal or cold. But it works so beautifully despite its uncompromising approach. Once you’re in, it is impossible to look away. Place this film right alongside what’s considered to be the best Hollywood movies that deal with the subject of divorce. By comparison, what this work offers is much closer to reality because it abstains from traversing the expected dramatic parabola, the standard story beats, and the sudden sentimental realizations concerning the value of relationships regardless of the subjects deciding to stay together or not.

It seems to start off like a typical tale of divorce. From the minute the husband gets home from work, it is apparent he and his wife despise each other. They are not required to express their hatred overtly through screaming or yelling. It is in the sharp words they use to wound, the rate and delivery of unfair insults, the fact that they can’t even look at one another in the eye. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) deciding to sleep in different rooms is a natural conclusion. Clearly, both are eager to move on with their lives. But there is a question of what to do with their twelve-year-old son (Matvey Novikov). Neither of them wants him. He overhears. The next morning, he runs away.

Notice how the work takes its time. Following Alyosha’s departure, we spend ample time with the husband and wife—first while at work and then with their lovers. When with Boris at work, we experience his heavy anxiety because his boss is a devout Christian. Word has it that those who get divorced are let go from the company. And so he asks a co-worker how others who did get divorced circumvented getting fired. When with Zhenya at work, it is more relaxed. She works in a salon and so she feels freer with her girlfriends. We get a glimpse of a woman whom Boris might have fallen for once upon a time.

When Boris is with his lover (Marina Vasileva), we adopt the perspective of the woman. The sex scene is sensual, romantic, hidden in shadows. We note her youth and energy. She is several months pregnant. By contrast, when Zhenya is with her lover (Andrew Keiss), we see through the eyes of a man. The sex scene shows more skin. Positions are more overt. Breathing and moaning are louder. Shadows are not utilized as much. As with the former, there is an obvious age difference. The man is older and successful financially.

The director (who co-writes with Oleg Negin) employs these extended scenes not just to provide information about Alyosha’s parents or how they are with other people. It gives us time to consider how the lovers regard or value Boris and Zhenya. Is what we’re seeing real or just passing passion? How much do these lovers know about their partner’s home life? Do they even know about the child? I admired that the screenplay answers these questions in creative and sometimes elegant fashion. There is not a single awkward expository sequence in which relevant players sit down and divulge information.

Right in the center of this beguiling picture is Alyosha’s disappearance. From the moment a parent becomes aware that the boy might not have come home the night before, the work adapts the pacing, tone, and atmosphere of a procedural. We meet the detectives in charge. We get a feel of their personalities, their initial attitudes about the case in question, how they react to parents on the verge of lashing out. We sit through specific questions that require answers before an official investigation begins. We meet the volunteers. We learn about what they do, how good they are at their jobs, their energy and organization, how far they are willing to go to locate a missing person. Once in full gear, there is not a single minute wasted. There is an urgency to the search as well as exploring the themes of this particular story.

“Loveless” goes way beyond husband and wife who loathe one another having to put their differences aside and work together. It is about the passing of time and the increasing melancholy after every lead that ends in disappointment. Set during a Russian winter, I found it curious that whenever a scene happens to be unfolding indoors I couldn’t help my eyes darting toward a door or window and check whether the snow is falling. My heart ached for the boy—how cold, hungry, and miserable Alyosha must be out there, abandoned, unwanted.

The Rental

The Rental (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Dave Franco has been in the movie business for nearly a decade a half, but one sits down with a movie like “The Rental,” which he directs (and co-writes with Joe Swanberg), and feel no passion emanating from it. Memorable directorial debuts tend to inspire conversation because passionate filmmakers tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their projects due to the possibility that they may not get another opportunity to helm a second feature film. This thriller, which involves two couples who decide to rent a seaside house which unbeknownst to them is teeming with hidden cameras, is barely alive. It is so boring at times that the dog in the movie checked out in the middle of it. I wish I did, too.

Early on we are subjected to dull, one-dimensional dialogue. From the moment we lay eyes on business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), their attraction to one another is like a punch to the face—no subtlety, no tease, no intrigue. Both have partners waiting at home: Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) who is Charlie’s brother, an ex-con. Those experienced with dime a dozen mumblecore pictures that began in the early 2000s will know the precise trajectory of the film: a whole lot of circular talk that eventually derails in time for salacious revelations. However, this is supposed to be a thriller.

Franco’s picture is bankrupt of suspense, thrills, and inspired jolts. The only time the movie becomes somewhat alive is when the host named Taylor, played by Toby Huss, makes an appearance. Taylor is a racist prick and proud of it. When confronted by Mina, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, as to why he had rejected her application to rent the house, which she submitted an hour before Charlie, a white man, sent his application (which, needless to say, was accepted), his response—or non-response—is so matter-of-fact that it is the first time in the picture when we feel there is a true character on screen. Taylor may be despicable but at least he isn’t boring.

For a thriller, one that involves recording and observing other people going on about their business, there is a lack of inspiration. The most obvious would have been to take Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and make it modern, alter its perspective, or both. Instead, creativity is nowhere to be found. Franco employs the camera as is instead of a device to tell a story.

When dialogue is exchanged between two people, for instance, it simply sits on one spot. It offers no perspective, not a hint of insight or suggestion that perhaps words employed are hiding true meanings or intentions—which would be apt considering that there is sexual tension between Mina and Charlie even when their partners are mere feet away. I felt as though there is neither brain nor concrete plans when it comes to how certain scenes ought be executed. Its blasé nature comes across as lazy.

Even when violence finally erupts—predictably, during the last fifteen minutes—there remains a deadness. Characters receive a hammer to the head, they fall down the stairs, they get into an auto accident—shots are flat no matter the occasion. When the final girl is literally in the hands of the killer, there is no tension. We simply wish for the movie to be over.

I felt as though Franco learned nothing from the directors he worked with. Why did he feel compelled to tell this story? What about it spoke to him personally? Is this meant to be a one-time joke? I ask these questions because the work is devoid of personality. Imagine if another film were financed—one with a good script and an unknown director with a real hunger to prove himself or herself—instead of this drivel. This stinks of privilege and it shows, too.

House of 1000 Corpses

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

Rob Zombie’s debut picture is not unlike most first-time features in that the writer-director attempts to include everything but the kitchen sink into the project just in case he never got a chance to make another one. It shows: the work is propelled by a mix of electric and morbid energy; it is amusing and satirical in parts; and the grotesque, disgusting, frightening, and strangely addictive images demand to be examined by a magnifying glass. I felt like I was on a high end house of horrors tour. And yet the picture does not work as a whole.

One of the film’s key shortcomings is a lack of a defined hero or heroine. Naturally, since the work is a throwback to ‘70s horror and exploitation movies, the group of friends on a cross-country tour must run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. On top of that, they must be driven to learn more about a local serial killer called Dr. Satan. Third strike: They choose to pick up a hitchhiker on a rainy night. Some might say they’re asking for trouble. They’re in for a long night.

We are introduced to Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostlyn), and Denise (Erin Daniels) and although they talk non-stop (especially the men), we are not provided at least one standout or interesting detail about each of them. It doesn’t help that the women look (and act) rather similar. Notice when Mary and Denise are covered in goop and blood later on, it becomes a challenge to tell them apart. The screenplay fails to provide good reasons why these four should survive other than the fact that they are prey to the backwoods oddballs.

Another limitation is a lack of range when it comes to the scares. It almost always relies upon violence to shock or disturb. While some may defend this approach because it is a slasher film after all, the project is supposed to be a love letter to a specific decade and a certain sub-genre of movies. Based on this fact and looking upon what’s provided on screen, I got the impression that the writer-director fixated on one way to entertain: in-your-face, gory shlock—disappointing because horror classics and exploitation pictures from the ‘70s are not at all one-note. At their best (and their worst), they take on so much risk that at times certain projects lean toward experimental.

So it is ironic that although “House of 1000 Corpses” offers hundreds of eye-catching (and, to me, beautiful) shots of severed body parts, lived-in rooms filled with tools for torture and blood rags, sequences of people being scalped while awake, a scene involving human fetus in a jar, cannibalism, and the like, it lacks the willingness to stretch the definition of horror outside of the images. Thus, the longer the film goes on, the more we feel restless; eventually the stench of staleness begins to overpower the picture’s enthusiastic energy.

There is one standout performance. No, it is not by Karen Black, veteran actress who specializes on portraying women with questionable ideals and morals. (She plays Mother Firefly, the matriarch serial murderer.) To me, she overacts and outstays her welcome. The title goes to Sid Haig who plays the clown and gas station attendant named Captain Spaulding. His presence and ways of line delivery reminded me of a tank: imposing and powerful. Captain Spaulding need not try to be scary. He just is. Those eyes can paralyze you. The rest of the crazies might have benefited from toning down the cartoonish vibe.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an abundance of claims that “Peninsula” is so different than “Train to Busan” that it fails to come across as a natural extension of what made the predecessor memorable. That is not my issue with the sequel. On the contrary, I think it is too similar. There is not one thematic element—whether the material is making a statement about what it means to be a parent or parent-like figure, dealing with guilt after having faced an impossible situation, individualism versus collectivism, or that the living is in fact worse than the twitching dead—that stands strong against the original which could give the follow-up a chance to become, at the very least, equally interesting.

As a result, Yeon Sang-ho’s feature is a mere exercise in redundancy. And it doesn’t stop in terms of context either. The visuals, too, are uninspired. Certainly they can be rather extreme like how members of a rogue militia not only force their starving and outnumbered captives to survive against the rabid dead in a caged arena, they place bets on who would live each round; how vehicles crash and pierce through hordes of zombies as a bowling ball would to a bunch of bowling pins; or how shootouts unfold almost in a cartoonish fashion whether the target is still a person or a living dead. These ostentatious sequences are busy and clearly made to inspire awe, but they possess a commonality. They are often loud; the approach is so consistently one-note to the point where the visuals’ extreme nature becomes diluted well before the final act. Yes, just like “Busan,” the final minutes is drenched in sentimentality.

But the waterworks is less earned here. The central plot revolves around four South Koreans who escaped to Hong Kong but are hated there out of fear that they may carry the zombie virus. (The screenplay by Park Joo-Suk and Yeon does not strive to be subtle, as you may have already guessed.) They are hired to go back to their country of origin to locate a truck that contains twenty million dollars. They are promised that should they make it back safely with the money bags, each person would be awarded two-and-a-half million—more than enough to start a new life. One of the four is a former Marine, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who left his sister to perish with her son in a room infested with recently turned zombies. Predictably, the final act must fuse movie spectacle and the man’s grief.

It is not effective because we are not given a chance to learn about the more intimate details of the Jung-seok character. He is wracked with guilt, yes, but what else? There is nothing else, you see, and that is precisely the problem. We follow a cardboard cutout traipse around the peninsula; he shoots guns good, he is good at feeling bad, he gets into the good graces of another survivor he wronged in the past. He is dead dull and compound that with a screenplay that is begging for an electric shock, it becomes numbing.

In the middle of it, I wondered if there was another character whose life story is more worthy in terms of perspective or angle that best tells this supposedly new tale. I became nearly convinced that it might have been better to follow Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), mother of two who had crossed paths with Jung-seok four years prior, when the virus was just beginning to spread all over the country. I say “nearly” because we aren’t provided rich details about the character either, but I found the performer to be more expressive. At least when I looked into her eyes, I felt specific emotions and her thoughts across her face made me want to ask questions.

I enjoyed some of the night sequences in “Peninsula,” especially in how sprinting zombies burst out of the dark to take a bite of their warm prey who stupidly made a loud noise heard from a mile away. It is usually pitch black mere yards from the nearest light source that it dares viewers to imagine what lies beyond. It is moments like this that the film needs more of. Clearly it is capable of genuine entertainment. Instead, the action is amplified to the point where, for instance, it feels like we are watching Justin Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” given all the preposterous, physics-defying vehicular acrobatics. At least in that film, it is all within context. Here, it is fish out of water. It is an excellent example of a sequel trying to outdo the original but not when it comes to elements that actually matter.

Le cercle rouge

Le cercle rouge (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It’s interesting because although Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volontè, a man having just released after serving five years in prison and a recently captured criminal being escorted from Marseille to Paris, respectively, neither of these performers play the most curious characters in the film. While the title refers to them specifically—a phrase off a fictitious quote from the Buddha in which people who are destined to meet are bound to cross paths regardless of circumstances—I found my attention focusing on the older men, at least ten or twenty years their senior, that surround them. It isn’t that Corey and Vogel are not compelling—they are—but the older gentlemen’s vast experience command a special magnetism.

“The Red Circle” is written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, so confident in his vision and execution that nearly every scene is precise and to the point. Although essentially a heist picture, there is no glamor in the posh jewelry store robbery. It is methodical, clinical, certainly cold and impersonal. It is the complete opposite of ostentatious modern heist films in that it does not feel the need to impress the audience with technologies that whir or gadgetries that light up. The writer-director trusts that viewers will find the sequence to be impressive as is because an audacious task is being performed. The threat of getting caught looms and we feel its inevitability creeping in with each second.

The robbery takes place during the second act and it is executed with great skill. There is no score or soundtrack that serve as signposts. In fact, silence is paramount; for example, each time a piece of clothing or body part makes contact with another object, a light scratching noise might as well as be sound coming from a French horn. Every movement counts and must be done with intention and accuracy. We watch in anticipation as Corey and Vogel climb down a relatively unstable ladder, how they slowly skip over sensors that will trigger an alarm, how they utilize shadows to blend in and take breath. They cannot afford one misstep. Meanwhile, the night guard thinks he hears suspicious noises.

Yves Montand and André Bourvil play Jansen and Mattei, a former cop who is recruited to the heist and a policeman in charge of recapturing Vogel since his escape from the train, respectively. These men offer intriguing motivations. Although apparent they have strict moral codes, they do not always follow them. And sometimes their occupation conflicts with their code. This creates great drama and infuses an unpredictability in a story that wears a certain formality. On the surface, there are chess pieces moving around the board. But look closely and observe the stresses that each man undergoes. One gets the impression that they enjoy the challenges simply because it is in their nature to relish danger.

Jansen the marksman is most enthralling. He is the final important character to be introduced; we do not meet him until just about halfway through. And when we do, we are underwhelmed. How can an alcoholic prove essential to the heist? We assume he is a liability, the person to make an egregious mistake that allows for everyone to get caught. But this is no ordinary heist film that is made for mainstream audiences. The story has a thesis that must be followed. This opens up interesting avenues to explore.

Montand stands in one place holding a certain posture. The performer communicates that the character is exhausted—not physically or that it is because he is an alcoholic. Jansen appears tired because he has seen it all, that nothing surprises him any longer. We sense that the man wants to die because there is no more excitement. We wonder later why he opted to join the heist in the first place. To him, bags of jewels or money does not lead to freedom—which separates him from his partners in crime. Perhaps the writer-director is correct in introducing this character last. He provides the grayest of gray. And yet when a specific task is at hand, his approach is that of black and white.