Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

At one point in the film, I was compelled to put my index fingers in my ears in an attempt to drown out the redundant screaming matches between John David Washington and Zendaya, the titular characters in Sam Levinson’s black-and-white relationship drama. Imagine Richard Linklater’s final fifteen minutes of “Before Midnight,” in which married couple Jesse and Celine belt out their deepest frustrations at one another, but dragged out for a hundred minutes, the dialogue lacking an ear for authenticity and flow, and the editing being so present that at times we are inadvertently taken out of intense moments and reminded we are only watching a movie. This is “Malcolm & Marie,” a massive disappointment because the leads are all in.

It is supposed to be night of celebration because Malcolm’s movie premiere is a success. But from the moment the couple steps into the house, Marie’s countenance suggests something is terribly wrong. We wonder what it could be. Did Malcolm do something wrong? Did an actor, producer, or film critic say something inappropriate to her during the after-party? Considering it is one o’clock in the morning, is it possible she’s simply exhausted? We look at Malcolm and wonder if he is even aware that his partner feels raw about something. No, he is too busy ranting about how white critics tend to write about movies made by black filmmakers. Marie steps outside for a smoke. But discerning viewers can tell she just wants to get away from her partner’s self-absorbed rant.

The early sequences of the film promises a drama that is not only exciting aurally but also visually. When there is mystery in a pointed glance, a hesitant response, how a body is angled relative to another, or the act of moving from one room to the next, the picture invites us to entertain possibilities; we are engaged, we question, we make assumptions. We make mistakes. We take note of Malcolm and Marie’s maddening and beautiful contradictions. Washington and Zendaya need not say a word at times; their rich facial expressions, the depth in their eyes, and how they command their bodies provide information on a constant state of evolution.

But the centerpiece of the work is the would-be heartbreaking arguments. They are so hyperbolic, characters end up spouting grand speeches. Cue the predictable close-ups of its leads, always capturing their best angles. By the third argument—about the same topic, no less—I thought, “People don’t talk or act like this in real life.” I felt disconnected. Halfway through, it becomes a real challenge to sit through because the dialogue, fiery on the surface, goes beyond polished and onto the realm of artificiality. It does not get better onwards. In fact, it gets stuck with a formula: Malcom gets angry, Marie counters, a resting period that suggests the two will find common ground (or have sex), Marie is triggered, Malcolm counters, rinse and repeat.

It’s all so tiring; I’d rather listen in on my neighbors fighting because at least a) they sound real and unscripted, b) they tend to fight about real issues like finances, division of labor, and parenting, and c) arguments, no matter how spirited, do not last an hour and forty minutes. Despite all the words on this script, it gives the impression it doesn’t have much of value to say. Why should we care about Malcolm and Marie, together or apart? Why is their story worth telling?

A Single Man

A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

We meet George inside his nightmare. His lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), is dead and the corpse lies frozen in the snow. George wakes, and Tom Ford, who directs, wraps us in a cloak of lamentation. Jim, George’s lover of sixteen years, is in fact dead and the half who lives hangs by a thread. We will follow this man go on about his day: how he gets ready for work, his teaching style as an English professor, the colleagues and students he comes across, what he puts into his body in order to numb his inconsolable loneliness. And in between these moments are his thoughts of suicide; with a pistol, he plans to shoot himself in the mouth before bed.

“A Single Man” is based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood and adapted to the screen by Ford and David Scearce. Immediately noticeable is how the picture, in which the story takes place in 1962, places emphasis on outer beauty—the style of one’s home, the designer clothes worn, the accessories sported, perfected coiffed hair, young and fit bodies—as a means to attract, to capture viewers’ attention. But proving to be more important is its introspective approach in telling a highly personal story of loss and longing. Notice its fondness for close-ups, particularly of the eyes. And so when we are thrusted into a memory, it feels most natural because we are constantly hanging at the window.

One of the more curious techniques is the use of color. Since we see through the depressed subject’s eyes, images tend to look gray and desaturated. Editing is rampant at times, off-putting but most appropriate, creating “missing moments” between instances of action, like moving from one part of the room to another, as if it to communicate that our protagonist is divorced from living in every beat of the moment. His mind is somewhere else.

But when George finds interest, or joy, or happiness toward someone or something, images turn vibrant. Colors like red and yellow—which also come up in another context—invade the screen like a breath of fresh air. These intoxicating moments are evanescent; the more often they ebb and flow, the deeper our understanding of George’s mindset, why he feels that ending his life is the only solution. I believe what the character experiences goes beyond mourning of someone he loves; I think he is deeply afraid of the future, of not being wanted anymore—not because he is getting older (although that can be factor) but because finding someone who understands you thoroughly, like what he found in Jim, is rare—so rare that not everyone comes across something like that in their lifetimes. But to have that and have it be taken away, it’s heart-wrenching.

I am convinced that Colin Firth was born to play George Falconer. In character studies, the subject’s eyes tend to be most revealing. Firth employs, quite astutely, the exact opposite: his eyes likens that of a whiz poker player. It is not because his lover had died and that he closed himself off. While those things hold true, consider: Surely George has chosen to master this trait once he realized he was gay, when homosexuals were considered to be less human, disgusting, abominations. Not letting his eyes reveal crucial aspects of himself is one way of becoming invisible, of blending into the background, “belonging.” Firth’s technical approach draws us in while Ford bathes us with the details, mostly through flashbacks, of what makes his subject just like you or me, regardless of our sexuality and sexual orientation.

“A Single Man” inspires the viewer to want to see, to look beyond the artifice and wrestle with its substantive ideas, themes, and emotions. And although the subject wishes to commit suicide, there are some funny moments, too. Because what is a portrait of a life without humor?

All My Friends Are Dead

All My Friends Are Dead (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Jan Belcl’s directorial debut is supposed to be a comedy, but it does not inspire laughter, a few chuckles, a single smile, or even a passing thought that there is cleverness, urgency, or passion propelling the screenplay. One gets the impression that the writer-director had one idea—a gimmick—and its foundation are clichés of people in their early twenties—from sexual repression due to religion, closet homosexuals, and desperate virgins with no game to recovering drug addicts, sex-crazed bimbos, and MILFs—but not a single one proves to be unexpected or rings true. This is a movie filled with busyness lacking a specific angle of attack. And so nothing funny transpires on screen. The joke, I suppose, is on the folks who chose to sit through it.

The gimmick: We learn in the opening scene that everyone—with the exception of one—ended up dead at a New Year’s Eve house party. We are introduced to an inspector (Adam Woronowicz), who appears to be over his job, and a junior inspector with a weak stomach (Michal Meyer). But their names do not matter because we never see them again until the final scene and they do not impact the story in any way. In fact, there is no story to be had. Once the timeline rewinds to about an hour or two before midnight, we simply follow cardboard cutouts doing would-be shocking things like engaging in threesomes, doing drugs, and committing infidelity.

“But why is that interesting?” is a question I wanted to ask Belcl. It would have been a different matter entirely were the characters written with real thought, substance, or empathy. For instance, there is an extended sequence where we simply listen in on various subjects making small talk. But the dialogue is dead dull compounded with flat, uninspired camerawork. Not for one second do we believe that the characters have lives outside of this house of (eventual) murder. There is nothing wrong with partying and making mistakes, but viewers must be given reasons why characters are worth following outside of behavior. A mediocre episode of “Gossip Girl” commands more intrigue and drama than what’s at offer here.

But perhaps emptiness was the point and so I wondered if it was supposed to be a satire. After all, it employs situational exaggeration and extreme behavior to wring out any semblance of entertainment. But a satire of what? House parties? Privileged people creating problems out of nothing to feel as though their lives have meaning in some way? Is it a critique of Polish culture homogeneity? The hell that is the holidays? But if we have to ask, then that’s a sign that it is ineffective; it doesn’t matter if it is a satire or a massive miscalculation.

All the friends are dead and so is the screenplay. The body count may be high, but its imagination is twelve feet under. Here are better ways to spend a hundred minutes: playing with your dog, eating donuts while reading up on current events, trolling fascists on Twitter, dancing to your favorite songs in the living room, watering your garden… Make use of your time rather than wasting it on this… whatever this is.

Panda Bear It

Panda Bear It (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

We meet Kamus (Damien Elliott Bynum) in a recording studio unable to perform the rap song he wishes to turn into reality. He looks defeated, dejected, alienated—an artist without passion or purpose. As he lugs his dispirited body from one location to the next, it is readily apparent that the man in front of us is in a deep state of grief. Writer, director, and producer Evan Kidd does not attempt to explore this emotion but rather provide a portrait of it.

Because Kidd’s scope is focused, he is able to accomplish plenty with seemingly so little: a humble budget, inexperienced performers, locales that can taken right off any other neighborhood. The overall look and feeling the film presents and evokes is familiarity—critical because the subject matter is universal; we all have lost someone and wondered how life might be like had this person stuck around longer: for a graduation, a wedding, a birthday party, or just waking up any other day and for some reason you yearn for this person’s company, to see their smile, to hear them laugh, to see them looking at you seeing the real you.

I found a sadness to this picture that is genuine and believable. The emotions are raw, without reverting to saccharine melodrama, that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was inspired by a very personal loss, that the work needed to be made as a sort of catharsis. Because if it weren’t, the screenplay wouldn’t get certain elements exactly right like Kamus, insistent on holding onto his state of inertia, being pushed in any and all sorts of directions by people who care for him: Grandma (Kimberly Avery), co-worker Rhonda (Brigitte “Moneybound” Kelly), a farmer (Eric Hartley) who is quick to recognize our protagonist’s suffering because he, too, had lost someone of particular importance. A few are more effective than others when it comes to relating to Kamus, but every person means well. It’s just that sometimes we forget that our own way of grieving might be different from the person next to us even though we think we know them inside out.

And then there is the panda mascot that Kamus employs as a substitute imaginary companion following his girlfriend’s sudden death. On the surface, it is so strange and amusing, especially how it is able to communicate with our protagonist using only whining sounds. (There are subtitles that guide us so we don’t have to guess the content of their exchanges.) At the same time, it makes sense as a metaphor: a panda is gentle and comforting, a mascot is a throwback to childhood which is usually happier times, and the psychic connection underscores the overwhelming isolation—sometimes self-isolation—that Kamus is going through.

A panda mascot walking around and emoting in a story about grief could have been a gimmick. But it isn’t because the filmmakers choose to treat their subject with the respect it deserves. And for that, “Panda Bear It” is worth seeing despite its shortcomings—like the audio being too soft or too loud at times, which is distracting during the more dramatic moments, and a few characters introduced for the sole purpose of getting a few weak chuckles. Since the writer-director is able to create something of value and meaning under a slew of limitations, I wonder what he can really do if every resource were at his disposal. I’m interested to know where he goes from here.

The Shadow of Violence

The Shadow of Violence (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nick Rowland’s debut picture opens with the image of its subject’s wounded knuckles. We note how he holds his fists just so, that they are not just mere body parts but weapons for breaking noses, jaws, ribs, and spirit. They belong to a former pugilist named Arm (Cosmo Jarvis) whose passion for the sport waned after he killed an opponent by accident. Now, he is a lapdog for the Devers family—a family of drug dealers in rural Ireland—summoned by his masters whenever and for whatever reason. This is a story of a dog who will try to regain some of his humanity. And reclaiming that freedom will cost a whole lot.

Jarvis delivers a most humanistic performance. Arm’s dominating body frame suggests a man not to be reckoned with because he is more than capable of knocking the wind out of you with a punch half-pulled. When he looks at you, it feels like he is coming up with ways to bring on the hurt. But when he speaks, underneath the tough persona and swagger is a gentleness, a man yearning to be listened to, to be respected, to be regarded as more than what his intimidating presence inspires. On the outside, it is a quiet performance. But do not be fooled: When the character is faced with an impossible situation, like when he is tasked by the Devers to prove his loyalty—that he is “family”—by killing another man who molested a thirteen-year-old girl, every fiber of Jarvis’ being is intensely alive. Jarvis is one to watch.

Our brutish protagonist is also a father although he doesn’t quite know how to be one. We spend plenty of time with him attempting to reconnect with his former flame named Ursula (Niamh Algar) and his young son Jack (Kiljan Moroney). Ursula keeps her distance not because she thinks Arm is not a good father nor is he incapable of learning to be a better one but because everybody knows what it means to be in business with the Devers; no good can come of it. It is her way of protecting her autistic son and maybe—just maybe—it might inspire Arm, whom she loves (but no longer in a romantic way), to return to the way he was: a man of honor, a man of dignity, a man who is not afraid to be around and to be present.

Notice how the picture spends more time showing its subject being with family instead of drug addicts being beaten to a bloody pulp. What results is a rumination of how violence affects a person and those within his circle rather than being about the brutality itself. It is a thoughtful character study, one that takes its time to reveal different parts of our protagonist: his fears, his purpose, the sacrifices he is willing to make, where it is he would like to get up and with whom. Arm is referred to as “dumb” more than thrice, jokingly or otherwise. It shows how much they don’t know him—but we do because we get a chance to study him when no one else is watching. There is a deep vulnerability beneath his facade.

Piers McGrail’s cinematography stood out to me. There are stunning shots of the countryside, particularly of vehicles snaking their way through verdant hills. The blue sky is blinding. It feels a promise of freedom should Arm successfully make it to the other side. But more impressive to me is manner in which faces are framed, how the camera traps them in a tight space so that their increasing desperation will reveal the rawest elements of their being. Clearly, the film is for audiences who are willing to think and consider beyond images presented on screen.

“The Shadow of Violence” (also titled “Calm with Horses”) is not just another Irish gangster film designed to inspire squirming from those looking in. It is a carefully controlled and calculated debut film, written by Joseph Murtagh, with something to say about people who have or have had a rough past. I think a case can be made that this is a story of forgiveness—not the decision to forgive but the process of it. I admired many choices that were made here.

The Dig

The Dig (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Beautifully photographed and offering a handful images that inspire a sense of wonder, particularly when the camera gets real close to artifacts that have been buried for several hundred years, Simon Stone’s “The Dig” invites viewers to 1939 and takes on heavy subjects like mortality, time, and decay. But it is not a depressing experience. Certainly there are sad and stirring moments, but the overall effect is the opposite: it is life-affirming because the work inspires us to want to know not only about the discoveries made in Ipswich, the people involved, their personal lives, what the work meant to them, and if they received the proper credit they deserved, but also findings yet to be unearthed during our lifetimes. In the middle of this gentle but celebratory film, I was inspired to open up the nearest science book, to read through my massive backlog of research papers, and to peruse through current publications of The Scientist magazine.

The story opens when widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig up mounds in her land for two pounds a week. She claims that she has a feeling that something valuable is hidden under there, specifically a spot that is more oval-shaped compared to the rest. I will not reveal what Brown and his team will find for those who are not familiar with the excavation of Sutton Hoo. Credit to the director for elegantly putting the pieces into place, from the hiring of the humble Mr. Brown until the dig site is once again covered in dirt.

When this work is at its most powerful, particularly intimate scenes between Mulligan and Fiennes, how their characters’ professional partnership evolves, I felt I was experiencing the spirit of John Preston’s novel of the same name. It is curious, too, that the more Brown uncovers what appears to be the find of the century in pre-WWII England, Pretty’s health goes on a steep decline.

Mulligan’s talent for communicating plenty using only silence shines here. Pretty is ecstatic that her suspicions regarding her chosen mound is very special indeed, but unlike the body that can be laid to sleep, her mind is never at rest or fully satisfied because it is overtaken by fear of death—fear of leaving her young son Robert (Archie Barnes) to be orphaned. The tragic irony is sensitively but astutely handled; it is a reminder that since we are all slaves to time, our bodies decaying by the second, our final destination is the ground. Life is cyclical in nature and it cannot be stopped. Current lives are destined to become past lives to be discovered by the future.

Although the film is a transportive look into the past, it is propelled by a constant forward momentum. Before long, the crew of three has expanded and we are introduced to a slew outsiders from posh institutions. Renowned archeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) arrives expecting everyone to recognize his authority. Again, time is at the forefront: the more compacted soil is unearthed; England and Germany are one step closer to waging war. Planes soar above the excavation site once in a while serving as reminder that there are bigger events at play—just as Pretty is consistently reminded of her illness. Soon she requires a cane to get around. Her mind remains active, but her body is beginning to fail. Her intellectually curious son observes and compartmentalizes.

A romantic angle is introduced between Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and the married Peggy Piggott (Lily James). While it is an appropriate decision because their (expected) connection ties into themes of mortality, time, and decay while providing a feeling of hope through their youth and inexperience, I found this to be far less compelling when compared directly to Pretty and Brown’s passion for knowledge and discovery. I felt as though the romance is a device readily employed just in case the heart of the story isn’t so apparent to most viewers.

Below Zero

Below Zero (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lluís Quílez’s “Below Zero” is about two fathers: one, who is a cop, with everything to lose and the other, a killer, with nothing else to lose. But you wouldn’t know this from the premise of the picture: a policeman on his first day assigned to aid a prison transport of six inmates. The armored truck will not reach its destination; the body count will be high. On the surface, it is an action picture with realistic violence and nifty twists. But dig deeper and realize it is about what drives a person to wake up in the morning, his reason for existence.

This is no action film that offers wall-to-wall ricocheting bullets, gratuitous explosions, and last-minute saves. You won’t find our hero hanging off a skyscraper or offering himself to the villain in place of a woman’s life. These expected decorations are brushed to the side in order to make room for consistently amplifying tension. It takes the time to unfold. We grow accustomed to the serious but determined face of our protagonist named Martín (Javier Gutiérrez). He may be short in stature, but he evokes an aura that he is a cop who plays it by the book. He honors the badge he wears.

We grow accustomed, too, to the prisoners about to be taken for a ride. Their ages range from mid-20s to early-60s. Some are in for thievery (Miquel Gelabert), others for drug addiction (Andrés Gertrúdix). One or two for murder. The youngest (Patrick Criado) claims he is imprisoned due to cops who failed to perform their jobs correctly. Some are fit and physically intimidating. A few appear to be weak but later proving to be quite cunning. The camera observes one of the convicts with a careful eye, as if to communicate that he expects something will go down during the transport (Florin Opritescu). Six inmates against four cops. Two cops in a police car that leads the way in the heavy fog, the other two hanging back in the armored truck: the driver—Martín—and the guard—Monstesinos (Isak Férriz)—who holds the keys to each temporary cell. Martín and Monstesinos do not get along but they must: they have a job to do.

I enjoyed that plenty is accomplished given that the majority of action sequences take place inside and around the armored truck. Credit to the detailed and creative screenplay by the director and Fernando Navarro, particularly in how alliances can change at a drop of a hat. Who appears to be most threatening one moment can be most useful the next; I appreciated that a few of the men in chains are given a dose of humanity, that their crimes are separate from who they are. And if it isn’t quite that black-and-white then perhaps their rehabilitation is working.

One of the prisoners dreams of opening his own business one day (Luis Callejo). The other hopes to be reunited with a family member (Édgar Vittorino). The way these characters are written inspires curiosity compared to mean-looking inmates wearing orange in most American mainstream blockbusters. I suppose the uniform is symbolic, both in terms of what they represent to American audiences and the writers’ minimal effort into creating characters who are destined to die anyway. Sometimes what we see in the movies is a reflection of who we are as a society.

Although “Below Zero” suffers from pacing issues about halfway through, it is never uninteresting. The antagonist is so monstrous in his actions—for instance, he is not afraid to burn people alive—that we crave to see him get his comeuppance. But when the final act rolls around, we wish for the violence to pause or stop completely because the situation, as well as the people caught up in it, is given more layers than we had anticipated.

Memories of a Teenager

Memories of a Teenager (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lucas Santa Ana’s “Memories of a Teenager” is the long-lost brother of Greg Berlanti’s “Love Simon” from Argentina. Both movies place their central character smack dab in the middle of the pandemonium that is being a high school student and he, undergoing a barrage of sexual confusion and awakening, must face a revolving door of personalities. Both works, too, grapple with feelings like intense loneliness, despite a person being surrounded by family or friends, and the protagonist employs writing as a way of expression or escape. Although Berlanti’s picture is stronger as a whole, certainly more optimistic, Santa Ana’s work offers a rawness and roughness about it that the other lacks. There is a story worth seeing here, but I wished it did not drop the ball during the last five minutes.

Most curious about the film is its willingness to show sexual fluidity in a way divorced from shame and melodrama. If a character subscribes to a label, then great. If he or she doesn’t, not a big deal. What matters more is that we are allowed to observe these young people simply being precisely because they allow each other to be. Some expected elements are nowhere to be found: bullying rooted in homosexual fears, having to come out of the closet at the prom or some silly event, nor are parents shown being livid for having found out their son or daughter’s “huge-ass secret.” We get an impression that these are modern teenagers living in modern times, and they are simply passing through. There’s something refreshing about that.

Our protagonist is named Zabo (Renato Quattordio) who has found a great ally in Pol (Tomás Agüero), an out gay teenager who shares Zabo’s love for music. But we learn in the opening minutes that Pol has committed suicide around the same time a nightclub fire killed a number of their fellow students. When you’re a teenager life tends to move forward in a blink of an eye at times. And so Zabo, who is friendly, charming, and popular with both the girls and the boys, failed to find the time to mourn and truly understand what his relationship with Pol actually meant to him. And if you think it is solely because of Zabo’s blossoming sexuality, this is evidence of how American teen-centric pictures have inundated us with easily definable conflicts that must be ironed out or resolved before the end credits. This one proves to have lasting scars.

We follow Zabo in search of… something. For a while we can only surmise what it is. There is irony in the fact that the more we spend time with Zabo and his overwhelming confusion, the more we have idea of what it might be that he wants. There is Maria (Agustina Cabo) whom Zabo thinks is just perfect for him because they are so alike. She has great hair, expressive eyes, and a confidence about her. There is a smiley brute named Ramiro (Jerónimo Bosia) who fits every personality trait that Zabo looks for in a person. There is also Tina (Malena Narvay) who is funny and exciting but has a boyfriend. And then there is Tomás (Thomas Lepera), one of Zabo’s best friends, who is able to see through the many distractions that Zabo creates in order to make others—and himself—believe that everything is all right. And no, this is not a love story in which Zabo gets to choose a person that will “complete him” or something absurd like that.

And so it hurts to say that the final five minutes is preachy and in need of a complete rewrite. Without giving anything away, the resolution simply does not fit what has been established prior: that Zabo is both sensitive and a fighter, that teenagers are more resilient than what society gives them credit for, that their lives can be messy even though they are capable of smart choices. Sometimes the correct choice is to end a story without a massage. My mouth was agape because of how it badly dropped the ball. There is a perfect moment in which it could have ended. But it kept going just to fall off a cliff.

The Queen of Black Magic

The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Joko Anwar, writer-director of the surprisingly terrifying “Impetigore,” underachieves in “The Queen of Black Magic,” a horror film more in love playing with gore and making the audience squirm than establishing a fascinating mythos we can sink our teeth into. Notice that when violence and blood are not front and center, there is an occasional flatness to the dialogue, the listlessness of the camerawork is palpable, and the setting feels like a set rather than a place of foreboding. What results is parade of horror elements without substance behind them.

The picture is directed by Kimo Stamboel, and perhaps it might have been a terrific idea for him to have revisited Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” prior to shooting a single frame. Because the orphanage in this story, at least in terms of aesthetics, has a real personality to it. During its dull expository sequences, I caught my eyes noticing patterns on the floor (triangles are prevalent), old photographs hung on walls, wallpapers and how the light hits them, and various knickknacks sitting on shelves. It really does look like an established orphanage, one with a history worth exploring. It is a sizable place; the game room, for example, is so far from, say, the main living room, that children are unable to hear their parents yelling and screaming during a time of calamity. I craved for a tour of this place. Is it built on an ancient burial ground?

Hanif (Ario Bayu) spent a significant part of his childhood in this orphanage. Having received news that Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the ophans’ father-figure, is dying, Hanif decides to take his wife (Hannah Al Rashid) and three children (Adhisty Zara, Ari Irham, Muzakki Ramdhan) for a visit. Hanif’s best friends from the orphanage and their wives arrive, too. There are a few attempts at comedy, particularly the guests’ air of privilege (especially their kids) compared to the simpler lives of the current residents, but these come across contrived. Something about the Wi-Fi being weak, the landlines not working, and the food on the table not being enough. In terms of visuals, there is already a clear divide between rich and poor characters, so these are low hanging fruit.

It is expected that this place is full of secrets and so what matters is how they are excavated to create a truly horrifying experience. It fails to deliver on this level because the material spends more effort delivering shock than suspense. However, this isn’t to suggest that it is not capable of the latter. It is. A wonderful scene involves a boy watching a VHS tape—alone and he knows he isn’t supposed to—and in the recording is a woman attempting to walk about with broken feet. We know precisely where it is heading—but it unfolds so slowly (compounded with quick shots of the room from every angle) to the point where we can feel our pulse racing. According to Alfred Hitchcock, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

But such instances of eye-popping moments prove evanescent. When all else fails, CGI centipedes and caterpillars are employed and the actors must pretend these bugs are crawling on their skins, into their mouths, and the like. It is unconvincing on two levels: the CGI is not first rate and the performers tend to exaggerate by jumping about as if their hairs were on fire. However, when actual centipedes are used and a clump of them wriggles about in blood, the actors’ reactions are spot-on. It’s because they’re responding to something tangible.

We learn next to nothing about the titular character outside of her motivations. The way she looks is uninspired, as if the work were stuck in the late ‘80s, maybe early 90s. For instance, she must dress in black, her hair must be a mess, she must look grimy, and she must have more weight than her female screen counterparts. There is nothing progressive or modern about this movie or its style storytelling. If you’re simply going to repeat what had worked before, at least actively work to create an impression, a mere semblance, that what is being shown on screen is innovative.

Made in Italy

Made in Italy (2020)
★ / ★★★★

James D’Arcy’s directorial film “Made in Italy” attempts to tell a story of estranged father and son who must return to Tuscany in order to restore a villa so that it can be in good enough shape to be sold. But the screenplay is plagued by try-hard, vanilla, humorless jokes that one sits through the first thirty minutes and becomes convinced that the work is made for those who are brain dead. It offers no challenge, no originality, no creativity, not a whiff of a believable character, situation, or conflict. What results is a movie to be endured, like a trip to the dentist; I stayed for the view of the verdant Tuscan hills. I knew I should have just YouTubed such vistas.

Liam Neeson plays the father named Robert and Micheál Richardson plays the son named Jack. The former is an artist whose luster in the arts faded following the death of his wife twenty years ago. The latter is a gallery manager who is on the verge of getting a divorce from the very woman whose father owns the gallery. According to Ruth, the gallery will up for sale in a month. Afraid of change and convinced that he loves his job, Jack concocts a plan: sell his childhood home in Italy, a place he hasn’t visited in two decades, and use the money to buy back the gallery. As the pieces of the plot fall into place, viewers require constant defibrillation for having fallen into a coma. The setup is just so boring; one would think that D’Arcy has learned nothing from being in the movie business since the mid-90s. What is his inspiration for this drivel? I felt no fire behind it.

A few examples of so-called humor: Jack wandering in the village and falling over chairs, the father and the son being unable to make even a most casual conversation (“How’s work?”) during a long drive, two animal encounters—one locked in a cupboard and the other in the bathroom—that supposedly terrify these grown men. And then there are the caricatures of potential buyers who stop by to check out the house. These random surges of “comedy” do not work because the writer-director does not appear to understand the type of story he wishes to tell. There is no discipline in terms of tone and atmosphere.

One minute it embodies that of a light comedy-drama surrounding father and son who failed to come to terms with a family member’s death. The next minute it is a romantic comedy between the gallery manager and the Italian chef named Natalia (Valeria Bilello). We are supposed to buy into the romantic spark after the two share one banter. The script assumes that its audiences have never seen a romantic film or a comedy. Just about everything it offers is cliché (winning each other’s hearts through food, sharing a sad or tragic story then looking into each other’s eyes longingly, getting wet at a nearby pond and sharing a kiss). It even fails to get the very basic elements right, like offering us genuine reasons why Jack would be attracted to Natalia and Natalia to Jack. What about them as people other than the fact they’re both single?

I felt imprisoned while sitting through this sunny funeral, filled to the brim with upbeat symphony or melancholic piano keys when it is time to manipulate the comatose audience into feeling something. Although it is only about an hour and thirty minutes in duration, I checked the clock at least four times. I wanted to scream. Not only is the content dull, the pacing is laborious. We wait for the played out moment when the father and son would finally share a tearful hug so the movie could finally end and we’d be free to go on about our day. The stench of this stinker lingers.

The Empty Man

The Empty Man (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

David Prior’s “The Empty Man,” based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, already clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, but I believe this is a rare instance in which a horror film might have benefited had it possessed a running time closer to three hours. It is a long journey, filled with curiosities, mysteries, and terror—which opens in 1995 as two American couples stumble upon an ancient entity in Ura Valley, Bhutan at the end of their five-mile hike. This pre-title sequence leads us to believe that the story will be supernatural horror in nature. But the deeper it digs, my mind couldn’t help but think about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Perhaps it is because there is a palpable sense of foreboding about it. Cut to 2018, we follow a former detective named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) who chooses to help a neighbor (Marin Ireland) when her daughter (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. “The Empty Man made me do it,” is smeared on Amanda’s bathroom mirror and it is written in blood. Despite this ominous message, the cops have reason to believe it is a straightforward runaway case. Yet something tells James that the scenario is a bit off and so he decides to interview one of Amanda’s friends at the high school. Again, there is the mention of The Empty Man.

According to urban legend, if you find yourself on a bridge in the middle of the night, come across an empty bottle, and blow on it, you’d hear The Empty Man’s footsteps on the first night. On the second night, you’d actually see it. And on the third, you’d feel it—because it found you. What’s brilliant about this picture is that we are presented the source of this urban legend—the extended pre-title sequence in the Himalayas. And so when the core is chiseled and misshapen by time and word-of-mouth, we remain to have a solid reference. I wished more horror movies that deal with modern urban legends possess the patience that this work offers.

I enjoyed watching Dale as a man who is both guilt-ridden and in mourning of his wife and young son’s passing. We see glimpses of his nightmares, how he wasn’t there when his spouse lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. Dale plays James as a man who wants to move forward—choosing to take on mysterious case on an unofficial capacity—but his past holds him back like a giant boulder. As the Amanda case gets more bizarre, we can read in Dale’s eyes that perhaps James had bitten off more than he could chew. But he cannot quit; he is too entrenched.

Here is a story in which an argument can be made that the supernatural angle is less scary than what is really going on. Because in the former, without giving important details away, only minimal evidence can be found, circumstantial at best. Myths, rumors, and urban legends—they’re just words that can be heard, read in books or online articles and blog posts. But when there is tangible proof that something sinister is afoot, one that involves people in your lives, this is far more chilling because it forces you to re-evaluate how you’re living your life, how you see random people in the street, and perhaps relationships closest to you.

This is the point when the movie begins to fall apart. The overall mystery is fascinating and the lead character is someone we wish to follow, but because the film, especially since it is of a certain genre, feels the need to wrap up under a time limit, the resolution is rushed to the point where it gives the impression that it is uninterested in tying up loose ends. Clearly, the writer-director is more than capable of doing so because the work has proven its patience and penchant for details. When the film is already nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the correct choice is to take the story to completion even if it requires an hour more.

“The Empty Man” misses the mark by a hair.

Death of Me

Death of Me (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Here is a story that takes place on a gorgeous Thai island filled with beautiful people and curious customs, but the screenplay by Arli Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish is left to sit under the sun to rot, as if setting alone were enough to save an elevator pitch: “The Hangover” but a horror film. It is lazy, uninteresting, not at all entertaining, and borderline offensive—both in terms of how the filmmakers expect that what they deliver is good enough for their viewers and its one-dimensional portrayal of an eastern culture whereby superstition and pseudoscience hold enough weight to challenge reality. A way to deal with the latter in a respectful manner is to provide complexity—the very element that this picture sorely lacks. It makes for a depressing experience.

The enigma is this: Married couple Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth), covered in mud and grime, awake in their Airbnb with no memory of how they got home. They wish to return to the mainland, but passport is required for travel. Theirs is nowhere to be found. Desperate to find answers, Neil figures that his cellphone might contain pictures of their wild night. He finds a two-hour video and hits play. It shows Neil not only choking Christine to death but also burying her lifeless body. But this cannot be. His wife is sitting next to him, very much alive.

This is a premise with potential because it promises an investigation: westerners navigating their way through a foreign land in which everything is challenge, from the geography of the island, having to think twice when taking action out of respect local traditions, down to the language barrier. But the film is a classic case of a movie that never stops beginning. Halfway through its running time, the couple remains flabbergasted about their memory loss and their progression in finding out the truth is pretty much nonexistent. We feel the work biding its time to reach the ninety-minute mark. It doesn’t respect us because it fails to value our time.

One of its circuitous approach is pummeling us with hallucinatory sequences so generic and dull that at one point I wondered if director Darren Lynn Bousman had actually seen effective, dream-like, horror pictures pre-1990s. Because to say that his approach being laughable is to be kind: “real time” events are presented in regular color and hallucinations are given a blue-green tinge coupled with quick, manic cuts. There is no flow, no rhythm, no flavor. It looks uninspired and downright ugly. One cannot help but to wonder, too, that perhaps Bousman made the picture under duress; it feels like a project helmed by a most jaded and pessimistic filmmaker who ought to find another career path. I was disgusted.

Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” is brought up at one point. Clearly, that is the inspiration for this drivel. But if one were to put that 1973 classic right alongside this film, the difference is night and day. The former is rooted in suspense. It involves a lot of genuine questioning—and at times we don’t know the sort of questions to ask because the events are increasingly bizarre. That movie is constantly evolving. “Death of Me,” on the other hand, is stuck with a premise that goes nowhere until the final act, if that. It wants us to ask questions but there is no sense of wonder or mystery. On offer is simply a parade of events in which the punchline often involves Christine screaming, yelling, passing out, and waking up in a different room.

I wished I was passed out before the movie started so I’d have no memory of it.

The White Tiger

The White Tiger (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.

Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” based upon the novel of the same name by Arvind Adiga, is the type of rags-to-riches story that gathers quiet power. We know where it must begin—a poor child living in an obscure village who dreams of making it big one day—and where it must end—a man wearing an expensive suit and a solemn expression—yet when it is time to make a statement about modern India, particularly the ever-growing chasm between the privileged “masters” and the working class “servants” in relation to traditionalism, capitalism, political and moral corruption, it is consistently sharp, occasionally subversive, and surprisingly emotional. This is an angry picture that employs elements of feel-good entertainment as a mask.

Adarsh Gourav plays Balram who makes it his goal to become a driver for the family of a local coal baron—even though he does not know how to drive. Balram considers this job as a stepping stone for better opportunities therefore a means of pulling himself—and his family—out of poverty. Proving to be highly determined and a quick learner, Balram learns how to drive (with thanks to grandmother’s two hundred rupees) and is assigned as a chauffeur for the baron’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who has just returned to India, along with his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), after having just finished his education in the United States. Balram looks to Ashok as a model for success: well-traveled, wealthy, educated; it is curious how this relationship develops. We know, too, how it might end for them.

Gourav portrays Balram with an infectious goodness and so we cannot help but to root for his success. But most wonderful about the performance are the quiet and telling moments in which those eyes remind us with stunning clarity that although there is an inherent lightness to Balram, he is an opportunist. This trait is ingrained in him because of where he comes from, the subconscious lessons he absorbs when the poor turns against its own, when even your own family can get in the way of your happiness and the great things you wish to accomplish. He is always watching, learning, and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get ahead of the pack. Because we are provided a true understanding of Balram’s cunning nature, this character stands out from stories of this type.

The movie is not afraid to underscore the clear divide between the rich and the poor outside of where they live, the clothes on their back, the food they eat, and how dirty or clean they look. While also important, these are surface characteristics. Heartbreaking moments come in the form our protagonist time and again—like a dumb dog—somehow believing that he is considered to be a friend by those he serves because they have begun to treat him relatively well when things are good.

But when his masters feel the grip of their problems tightening around their throats, they lash out at the defenseless, at people like Balram who will take the blow—metaphorical and literal—because either they feel they do not have a choice (your replacement is always waiting) or that they feel it is simply a part of the job description. At times servants are treated worse than animals. I spent part of my childhood in Asia and I appreciated that this aspect of the story is observed with unblinking honesty without melodrama—as if to say, “Here’s the reality. Do what you want with it.” (The Chopra character, who grew up in New York City, provides the western voice/outrage, especially in regard to the employer-employee abuse.)

Although a rags-to-riches story on the surface, I loved how the picture does not necessarily leave all of us with a happy feeling. I think the final act’s emotional power lies in the sacrifices Balram has made to the point where we barely recognize the lively, optimistic boy we met in the village. Sure, he has the business, he has the clothes, he has the money… but what else? If your definition of being successful is divorced from money and luxury, the picture will leave you a sort of cold feeling. Balram may have pulled himself out of poverty, but it is demonstrated to us, in subtle ways, that perhaps he is stuck in another hole. Maybe he just doesn’t know it yet.

The Vanished

The Vanished (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Although a terrible miscalculation as a whole, you have to hand it to writer-director Peter Facinelli for flooding the screenplay with countless red herrings. Just when you think you have the mystery surrounding a possible child abduction all figured out, the material takes an outlandish step forward and introduces the idea that something even more sinister is at play. “The Vanished,” originally titled “Hour of Lead,” is like a freeway pileup: you know what has happened is awful and that it won’t get better despite your rubbernecking, yet still you cannot look away.

One of the most obvious problems is its lack of tonal control. The plot opens with the disappearance of a ten-year-old girl named Taylor (Kk Heim, Sadie Heim) when she and her parents, Wendy and Paul (Anne Heche, Thomas Jane) decide to go camping at a lake during Thanksgiving holidays. The campground is forty miles from the nearest civilization and it just so happens there is an escaped convict hiding in the woods. Cue the parents panicking when they discover that Taylor is not in the RV, the outhouse, or by the dock. She and her father planned to go fishing that afternoon.

Given the sub-genre, it is expected that the work will tiptoe the line between drama and thriller. What really happened to the little girl? Who is—or are—responsible, directly and indirectly? Can the couple’s relationship withstand this traumatizing event divorced from the outcome of Sheriff Baker’s investigation (Jason Patric)? Facinelli is so confident with the screenplay that he decides to take on a big risk: introduce darkly funny moments as the distressed parents choose to lead their own investigation right under the noses of cops scouring the grounds day and night.

Here is further proof that dark comedy is incredibly difficult to pull off. Wendy and Paul are not written as sharp as they can be and so when something amusing happens, discerning viewers will see through the seams almost immediately. An example is when they break into a neighboring RV. They are shown being nervous and alert as they search through drawers, closets, and secret hiding places. They suspect that the owners may arrive at any second. And yet the couple find the time to stop in the middle of their desperation to argue—all for the sake of giving us light chuckles. Not only does it ring false, it impedes the momentum of the scene.

When back in their own RV, they argue again. Sometimes they find themselves throwing objects at each other or making a mess just because. This formula is repeated throughout the picture’s nearly two-hour running time—which feels closer to three—and tension is slowly spirited away. The constant bait-and-switch, coupled with Wendy and Paul’s increasingly outrageous decisions, is so exhausting that we are conditioned to no longer care about the life of the missing girl; we simply wish for the body to be found so that the movie can end.

The real funny thing is, I can imagine this story working had it fully embraced the very element that makes it special or stand out. I got the impression, or some semblance of it, that the writer-director intended to make a statement about abduction or missing persons pictures. These movies tend to follow a certain trajectory, mood, or feeling and so he wanted to upend it in small ways. But the correct decision might have been to satirize the sub-genre completely: maintain a straight face on the surface but inside a riotous exploration of how parents’ fears can push them to entertain insane actions for the sake of preserving their progeny. Heche and Jane appear all in. They deliver the required emotions regardless of the incompetence manifested on the script. I wished the writer-director was, too.