31 (2016)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burrowers

The Burrowers (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Boiled down to its essence, J.T. Petty’s horror western “The Burrowers” explores the white man’s fear of The Other: Irishmen, black folks, indigenous Indians—these may as well have been monsters, less than animals, in the eyes of the white man. And in this story, there are literal monsters that come out at night to take people from their homes and feed on them. The white man and those whom he considers to be inferior must team up and learn to work together in order to eliminate an immediate threat. Although certainly meant to be for entertainment, the work makes a rather critical statement about how America works in a nutshell.

I relished its macabre sense of humor. The story takes place in the Dakota Plains 1879 and the first shot involves a marriage proposal. The beautiful woman goes missing and Coffey (Karl Geary), desperately in love, goes on a mission to retrieve her. For a long while the picture is told through the prism of optimism. These men in cowboy hats sporting guns and can-do attitude surely must save the day. They may have their differences but surely they can learn to see past the pettiness and get the job done. After all, lives—innocent lives, especially since the missing includes children—are more important than squabbles, right?

Well, it seems Petty has learned a thing or two from Hitchcock at his peak. Halfway through as bodies begin to pile up, we start to question that perhaps the messages that the filmmaker wishes to impart about America and its deeply racist history is more important than following the expected parabolic path. Notice the manner in which the pacing slows to a snail’s pace somewhere in the middle as characters are shuffled around like a deck of cards. Those who we believe must make it to the very end for the sole purpose of plot are now cold underneath the ground—well, actually, warm because the creatures in question tend to paralyze their soon-to-be form of nourishment and bury them alive so their victims’ organs can rot before the big feast—and those we think will not make it far remain thriving. Fresh decisions like these manage to keep the picture afloat despite sudden changes tone and pacing.

Although not especially memorable, I enjoyed the look of the creatures. It is the correct decision to keep them hidden in shadows and tall grass for the majority of the picture. Instead, we hear the chittering sounds they make before the attack. Is this their form communication? A way to intimidate? Can they help it? On the occasional moments we see them front and center, I was reminded of naked mole rats on steroids. There is gore but emphasis is not on the amount of blood and how they spurt out of arteries. Rather, what’s important is what they do to the human bodies once they have one trapped. Thus, we believe why these creatures have existed even before the white man arrived in America—and even before man existed. The burrowers are not only ancient but also formidable. The screenplay is so elastic, it even has room to make a statement about man’s destructive role in the environment.

“The Burrowers” may not be big on overt scares but it is willing to take on a number of ideas that will continue to remain relevant for years to come. And because some of the topics it touches involve racism, racial injustice, destruction of nature, and the like, that in itself is horror. Most modern horror films do not even dream of being about something. Some simply strive to deliver shock and call it a day. Here’s one with a point to make.

Warning: Do Not Play

Warning: Do Not Play (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Please play because Kim Jin-won’s “Warning: Do Not Play” is a solid exercise in mood and paranoia. It can be criticized for the more clichéd aspects of the story, like the protagonist always ending up in places where she shouldn’t be then having to fight for her life, but that is not the point. The goal is to provide a creepy time and it works. Unlike most modern horror movies that mire themselves in busyness, noise, and jumps scares, this one often chooses stillness, silence, a growing sense of unease.

The desperate Mi-jung (Neo Ye-ji) has two weeks left to submit a workable film or else she’s out of a job. She is so stressed, she has started to have nightmares of being stuck in a movie theater with a ghost. A friend and possible romantic interest, Joon-Seo (Ji Yoon-ho), tells her about a film, submitted by a university student as his final project some time ago, that was so scary, audiences left the auditorium in the middle of the showing because they couldn’t handle the images on screen. At the time the director of that feature, Jae-hyun (Jin Seon-kyu), claimed it had been shot by a ghost. No one has heard of him since. Wishing to know more about the movie and the filmmaker, Mi-jung decides to investigate and, if possible, get her hands on a copy of the urban legend.

One of the strongest elements in this gem is the writer-director’s ability to get us into the headspace of our heroine. She is often alone in her apartment. She finds herself lost in her notes, movies, her own thoughts. We see glimpses of her past when she tried to commit suicide in a bathtub. Was she bullied? We are not provided precise reasons why she felt she needed to end her life. And when she is outdoors conversing with another person, it is as though she isn’t fully there. We feel this dark cloud hovering right behind her, the blinding need to make a horror movie—it just has to be horror—even though she lacks compelling inspiration or original vision. Because we are given time to appreciate her motivations and circumstances, we understand why she feels she must gamble her life constantly to have a taste of recognition.

This is a story, I think, about social approval. The ghost—which looks rather scary not when it moves but when it stands still with those bulging eyes staring deep into your soul—works as a metaphor for that voice in our heads that tells us we must constantly deliver, move forward, and accomplish in order to be regarded as a productive and/or successful member of society. It is the pressure that we put upon themselves and how we mistaken that at times for purpose.

Does Mi-jung want fame? I think she does, more than she herself knows or cares to admit. At least more than the need to exorcise the sadness and tragedy of her past. This is the aspect of the screenplay I felt could have used further development. I enjoyed that for this particular character, it is important that she be lauded or celebrated or else she does not feel complete. I don’t think she really cares whether her work is an original or a forgery so long as someone else elevates her with congratulatory words and handshakes.

The final act might have been more effective had the more overt horror elements, like characters being dragged across the room by an invisible presence and dying in gruesome ways, been more subtle and the tragedy of human foibles been amplified. The former gets repetitive after a while. Still, “Warning: Do Not Play” is worth seeing because it is not just a horror movie offering cheap scares. It has something to say about human nature.

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl (2020)
★ / ★★★★

“I’m Artemis Fowl. And I’m a criminal mastermind,” declares the twelve-year-old at the end of the movie. I was stunned because although nearly ninety minutes had passed, we learned nothing of value about the titular character, such as why he’s interesting or why he’s worth following, nor do we learn how he became a criminal mastermind after one so-called adventure. I never read Eoin Colfer’s young adult fantasy novel of the same name, and this movie made me not want to.

The film suffers from basic screenplay and direction problems. Although the target audience is between six-year-olds to pre-teens, there is no reason for such lazy and reductive dialogue. It makes the mistake of assuming that kids are not smart enough to wade through subtleties and deep emotions; subplots and timing; intricacies and complex motivations. And so notice how lines are often descriptive, flat, expository. Take away the actors reading lines in their own unique ways and note how all the characters sound the same. For a story involving humans, fairies, dwarves, goblins, and trolls, there is a painful lack of imagination, drive, and entertainment. This is no replacement for the “Harry Potter” series.

The direction by Kenneth Branagh is rushed to the point where the story becomes nearly incomprehensible. There is a skeletal plot: Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) hopes to rescue his father (Colin Farrell) from an evil fairy (voiced by Hong Chau), but doing so requires retrieving an artifact called the Aculos, the fairies’ most powerful weapon, and exchanging the item for Artemis Sr. Conveniently, the good fairies have lost the Aculos. Commander Root (Judi Dench) leads the search party. Just by reading this description, you will have an idea of how things will unfold. I bet even you can come up with more creative ways to unfurl the plot. It offers no surprises, no thrills, no magic—it works as an anesthetic because by the end you feel nothing other than unadulterated boredom.

It is simply a showcase of special and visual effects, noise, and set decoration. I liked the palatial home of the Fowls. Inside is a feast for the eyes: a massive kitchen, a chic library, loads of stylish staircases, and Artemis Jr.’s bedroom is very modern yet still childlike. I enjoyed that the mansion has its own lighthouse. I wanted to visit to look through books and curious collectibles, sunbathe and surf, examine plants and bugs around the vicinity. I didn’t care for how the fairies looked, how they moved or flew, or how pointy their ears looked. The “giant” dwarf (Josh Gad—who also provides irritating narration) is obviously a nod to Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” franchise only without the charm. And speaking of “Harry Potter,” the troll in “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which was released in 2001, looks so much more enchanting than it does here. The troll therein causes all sorts of chaos and destruction, but it has no personality.

By the end of the of picture, Artemis Jr. has formed a team composed of six individuals. Of course, it promises a sequel. But a big problem: Take any one character and choose another—these two have not shared one convincing moment in which the two find commonalities and connect in a meaningful way. The writing and direction are so busy and rushed that character development is not even a footnote. The work is such a miscalculation that it even has the bravado to show a death only to bring that character back to life after a few seconds. Then a joke is made about playing with the viewers’ emotions. I just found it to be sick and disgusting. This project should have been aborted because there is nothing worth following through here.

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The kind of movies I look for are the ones that inspire my being to pause somewhere amidst the curious happenings and force me to think, “Spielberg made this,” “Tarantino made this,” or “Herzog made this.” In the middle of this purposeful, angry, at times moving and educational picture, I couldn’t help but think, “Spike Lee was the only person who could have made this” because the work possesses so much flavor and personality, the experience leaps out of the screen to slap us and shake us; it is alive, humorous, tragic, ironic, and timely.

It goes beyond politics. There are jabs against Donald Trump, his presidency, and his racist remarks (and actions) against African-Americans and other minorities, but the screenplay by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Neo, and Kevin Willmott is correct to treat it as a symptom of the malignant tumor that has been wreaking havoc within the veins of US of A since its inception. The plot revolves around four Vietnam war veterans who return to the country that, for better or worse, have shaped who they are. They wish to retrieve a case full of gold. But this being a Spike Lee Joint, this shiny thing is metaphor: of ghosts, of corrupted souls, of what has been stolen or denied by a country that used, abused, and sold slaves so it could become what it is—a world leader, a superpower, a bully, a mess… yet somehow still regarded as an ideal by most nations. It is a story, too, about contradiction and hypocrisy.

But foremost: it is a story about forgiveness. It doesn’t seem at that way even already an hour into the picture. I admired that about it. Spanning about a hundred and fifty minutes, it takes its time to allow the pieces to fall into place. It invites us to look beyond the action and consider our world. It implores us to really look at it, to ask ourselves if we’re proud of it, if we feel comfortable for children to live and thrive in it. So many mainstream movies these days, many of which are forgettable, settle for shallow entertainment. Nothing at all to say about the world around us, our history, where we’re heading. As it has always been with Lee: To be political, to voice out injustice, to act as a megaphone is entertainment. He doesn’t want us to turn off our brains; he wants us to turn it on, to push it, to challenge the system of oppression.

We meet Eddie the businessman who exudes success (Norm Lewis), Otis who left someone important in Vietnam (Clarke Peters), Melvin the conscience and pragmatist (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Paul the wild card (Delroy Lindo). We hang out with these men as they laugh, drink, and reminisce. The writer-director shows them looking at the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese looking at them. The camera pinpoints skin color, physical stature, hair, voice, how a person carries himself or herself within a defined space. It is an observant picture, certainly daring and willing to ignite fierce discussion. There is not one shot that comes across as a waste.

But how can there be forgiveness, healing, when so much injustice and anger remain? The film does not provide answers, but it presents a microcosm in the form of Paul mourning over a dear friend—someone he looks up to, one whom he considers to be a brother—whose name was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Notice the technique used during its flashbacks: Norman is shown as an ideal. A case can be made that we never truly get to know him as he was, only in the mind of Paul—the man whose body got to go home to America but whose soul remained in Vietnam alongside the corpse of his friend. Paul is such a shell, he finds he is incapable of loving his own son (Jonathan Majors). David looks at his father and he seems lost. They are tethered only by genetics. It is a sad sight to see and feel. Wonderfully performed by Lindo, Paul is one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in recent memory.

Does the movie provide catharsis? Yes and no. There is catharsis on screen which involves shootouts, deaths (black, white, American, Vietnamese, French), and tying up loose ends by showing signed checks, hugging, solidarity, and people shouting “Black Lives Matter!” Perhaps I don’t feel there is true catharsis because I am a person of color in America. That when I go to the Midwest, for example, I am not seen as an American but The Other. A second-class citizen. But sometimes it is enough that a film takes a shovel, dig deep, and further expose what has long been dormant. Or at the very least serving as reminder of what we have yet to work on.

Family Name

Family Name (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Macky Alston, who is white, was sent by his father, a reverend and a civil rights activist, to an elementary school that was predominantly black. During his time there, Alston noticed a curious detail: many of his black schoolmates shared his last name. Alston, now an adult, goes on a mission to answer why this is—and it is directly related to his ancestors having owned slaves in North Carolina. “Family Name” is a fascinating and revealing documentary. Initially, it is about answering one person’s questions regarding his lineage, but eventually it evolves into an investigation of secrets, memories, and longings that have been brushed under the rug.

Its best moments involve the writer-director asking challenging questions to those who agreed to be interviewed. Black people of various backgrounds and age groups are asked probing questions whether they still feel angry about slavery; how they feel when they walk around plantations where black people were abused, raped, given as gifts; how their lives have been shaped or impacted by having known someone—a great-grandfather, a great-grandmother—who was a slave. Words do not reveal all. For example, Alston’s grandmother provides answers we can hear, but she also gives out answers we can only see. Look closely at the body language when some of the more pointed or surprising questions are brought up.

And then Alston turns his camera on his father. The reverend recalls a specific experience when he was in the Navy that completely changed his thinking, attitude, and treatment toward African-Americans. He used to be racist. But since then he dedicated his life to lift up his community—and making sure that black people get equal rights as whites. Laidback and gentle, it was a struggle for me to picture him before he decided to turn things around. But then he goes on to explain his family background, how he was raised, and what was considered to be acceptable thoughts and behavior when he was growing up in a bubble of an all-white community.

It is interesting that the filmmaker decided to include his thoughts about the project as a whole the deeper he gets into his investigation. He admits that there are times when even he doesn’t know where the film is ultimately heading, that his goal is constantly changing—that maybe it is going this way because he fails to have a complete grasp of the subjects and people he’s exploring. Perhaps his limitation is a result of the divide between cultures and time. He acknowledges his white privilege (without using the exact phrase) and the possibility of that serving as a filter. I found the inclusion of his thoughts to be appropriate because the documentary is first and foremost a personal story.

In the opening lines, Alston reveals to us that he has always felt like the black sheep of the family. He is gay and so he understands that certain things are better off not talked about, swept under the rug like one’s ancestors being one of the largest, if not the largest, slave owners in North Carolina. In his quest, we learn about Alston’s motivations as a white man, as a gay man, and, most importantly, as a journalist whose job is to get the facts and report them. This documentary goes through obituaries, gravestones, census data, family photos, books, and random folders that haven’t been opened for years. It is a small picture, one that takes its time, but its scope is impressive.

“Family Name” is one of those movies that I’m glad exists. It may not be visually polished and the sound can use a bit of sharpening at times, but I was riveted by it nonetheless. I admired that its goal does not involve changing anyone’s minds. It simply stands by the fact that the truth exists, should one bother to look (and listen), and it is up to us to do what we please with it: embrace it, fight it, sweep it under the rug and hope that we forget. In life, that’s just how it is.

Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

I don’t care for cars. I can admire one, if I try, for how it looks or how fast it is. But why does a brand, or make, or model matter when the point of the thing is to get you somewhere? I knew nothing about Ford or Ferrari, even less about their rivalry in the 1960s, but director James Mangold has helmed a sports drama involving race cars in a way that is human, entertaining, and accessible. It is not about cars but the people behind them: drivers, designers, businessmen who finance the endeavor of creating the greatest race car the world has ever known.

There is an excitement in Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller’s screenplay. It is quick to establish why Ferrari must be crushed: These Italians are conniving, stuffy, up themselves. Reductive but an effective way establish a bar that must be met and then surpassed. The irony: The more we get to know the American executives working at Ford, we realize many of them are not unlike the Italians they are attempting to defeat. Quicker still is its skill in communicating who the central players are and why we should care for their stories, within and outside of the company they work under.

Christian Bale plays Ken Miles, a World War II veteran who fixes cars for a living. Miles’ other half is not his wife (Caitriona Balfe) but a friend, former race car driver, and current car designer Carroll Shelby portrayed by Matt Damon. Notice the way these characters are introduced. They are more stubborn than two mules. Because of this, Miles and Shelby clash but they remain friends because they have learned to respect one another. So, it is critical that when we see them together on screen for the first time we feel there is already history there.

I certainly did and everything else after that, when it comes to the duo, is convincing. Sure, their partnership is challenged at times, which is expected from a drama, but the trials never feel so big as to be insurmountable. More often than not, their interactions are played for laughs; this approach works because Bale and Damon choose to play their characters with a certain cool. “I am this way, take it or leave it.” One is less stubborn than the other. But only because this person has a better strategy in playing the long game.

Less impressive are fake Hollywood moments designed to stir up emotions. Particularly memorable is when Mollie, Miles’ wife, decides to drive so recklessly, as if she were on a race track, because she knows her husband is not being honest with her about his desire for wanting to race cars again. This, and a few others like it (will the Ford executives allow the unwieldy Miles to race and represent their company in the 24 Hours of Le Mans?—we know the answer to this, so just get on with it), is not a convincing exchange because the attention is on the busy aspect of the action instead of the content of what is being discussed. (Will they hit a fence? A mailbox? A person crossing the street?) It would have been a different scene altogether had these two adults been talking in their living room or kitchen and there is only silence and disappointment between words. I did appreciate, however, that Mollie is written to be an understanding wife who knows her husband inside and out instead of a shrew who serves only to get in the way of her partner’s professional goals or desires.

The centerpiece of the picture is, of course, the showdown between Ford and Ferrari. The 24-hour race at Le Mans could have been so tedious—how many times can two vehicles pass one another over the course of a day without getting… tiring (it’s easy picking)?—but the filmmakers are correct to underscore the drama of what happens outside of the race cars. The title may be “Ford v Ferrari,” but the juice is the in-fighting between company men and the outsiders they hired in order to lift these company men and their image so products can be sold and their bank accounts get fattened even further. That is what this movie is really about.


Gremlins (1984)
★ / ★★★★

The horror-comedy “Gremlins,” written by Joe Dante and directed by Chris Columbus, is an excellent example of a movie so reliant on special and visual effects that substantive portions of the story are ignored altogether. It is a shame because it starts off with a curious premise: a teenager (Billy played by Zach Galligan) is given a mogwai by his inventor father (Hoyt Axton) as an early Christmas present. But, according to the Chinese shop owner where the cute, furry creature came from, three rules must be followed: do not expose it to bright light (especially sunlight), do not expose it to water, and do not feed it after midnight. Naturally, the rules must be broken so we see what happens next. Still, must it be so boring?

The movie is rated PG and so it is expected that children be exposed to this drivel and find it entertaining somehow. I find it insulting that the material belittles how smart children can be. I think intelligent kids would find it repetitive and preposterous because the filmmakers fail to offer a consistent sense of wonder. There is no central idea or concept that ties the movie together.

Sure, the mogwai is adorable with its big eyes, floppy ears, and how it is able to utter short phrases but… what else? After about thirty minutes of capturing our attention, the screenplay proves it has nothing of value to show or say. There are bits and pieces of characters making remarks regarding foreign items, tools, or appliances being inferior compared to American. What else is foreign? The mogwai. But this angle—which could have been interesting—lacks supporting details.

Speaking of lacking, there is a sweet, potential romantic connection between Billy and Kate (Phoebe Cates). Galligan and Cates share such solid and believable chemistry, their characters can sit together at a table and say nothing yet they would still be adorable. So, why aren’t these two allowed to speak like actual teenagers who, by golly gee, may actually want to get to know one another a little better? Notice how their scenes almost always feel rushed. As it were a chore to have two humans share a whiff of intimate dialogue. Maybe it is easier to show puppets causing trouble (and murder) around town. Its priorities disgusted me.

It isn’t like the mogwai in its final form looks that impressive. It looks cheap—the angry eyes, green skin, sharp teeth—and it moves like a robot. We’re supposed to laugh, I guess, that the mogwai (which have multiplied at an alarming rate), have watched television and so they try to emulate what they’ve seen like hanging out in bars, smoking, getting drunk, gambling, and the like. And when it goes for the horror (read: lame jump scares), there is no sense of craft or suspense. It is all about delivering something ostentatious like someone getting stabbed, or bitten, or being thrown out of a window. These violent scenes are not even remotely darkly comic because to do so requires cleverness. And the movie is supposed to entertain children?

As I sunk into my chair racking my brain as to how “Gremlins” became a “classic,” I realized how nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This movie is awful because it is simply a parade of midget scaly monsters causing chaos in a small town—comparable to a generic episode of “Goosebumps” which is actually more merciful because each episode is only about twenty minutes. This movie is nearly two hours. (It feels longer.) There is no story worth telling here, just filmmakers who needed to make money. It is clear their hearts weren’t in it. And if the movie could be destroyed by sunlight, I say expose every copy because it is junk and deserves to be forgotten.

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

The supremely confident directorial debut of Andrew Patterson tells the story of two teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico who come across strange sounds through the radio while most of the town residents attend the first basketball game of the season. It is without compromise: dialogue-heavy, unfolding in real time, penchant for long takes, ostentatious (but accurate) in terms of embracing the 1950s milieu, and demanding viewers to adapt to its offbeat rhythm—there is no typical three-arc structure of storytelling to be had here. What results is a work that coaxes those looking in to catch up to it despite the fact that UFO stories have been done to death. It is anchored by two strong central performances by Jake Horowitz as the smooth cool local DJ Everett Sloan and Sierra McCormick as the plucky sixteen-year-old Fay Crocker. Fifteen minutes into the picture, I was reminded of films in the 1940s and 1950s where characters have real drive and personality; I wished to know more about this duo as young people with potential bright futures outside of the UFO plot. Even the supporting characters—an old lady (Gail Cronauer) and a voice via telephone (Bruce Davis)—command attention. This is a film in which words, sounds, and timing—together—is paramount; tension depends on the synergy among them. I look forward to Patterson’s follow-up.


Phantasm (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who wish to insert square peg logic in a round hole are certain to be perplexed by “Phantasm,” a surreal, dream-like horror picture by writer-director Don Coscarelli. It is confident in what it is supposed to be so it does not bother to slow down and explain anything; it expects the audience to be able to keep up because not only are we intelligent, we possess similar fears that its characters have: loss of loved ones, abandonment, facing uncertainty and the unknown. It presents paranormal phenomena as they are: sometimes inexplicable, sometimes scary, sometimes curious, sometimes commentaries or physical manifestations of what’s unfolding in our own psyches. It is a film rich of ideas.

It begins with a thirteen-year-old named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) who witnesses a mortician (Angus Scrimm) carry a coffin on his own without effort. Instead of proceeding with its burial, The Tall Man puts it back into the hearse. What is to be done with the body? Proceeding sequences follow this formula: a boy observes a seemingly strange event and he—and we—interpret what might be going on. At times there are overt answers—like what happens to the corpses The Tall Man collects—but there are other instances when there are none—like why the Tall Man takes a specific form of a woman (“Lady in Lavender” played by Kathy Lester) to lure men into Morningside Cemetery. The unpredictability of what will or won’t be explained adds to the mystique and joy of the experience. Cue the creepy but terrific soundtrack.

Remove the supernatural aspect of the story completely and therein lies an interesting relationship between two brothers, Mike and Jody (Bill Thornbury). Their parents have died recently, and Mike has developed an irrational fear—or is it?—that it is Jody’s turn to go away next. His solution is to follow his big brother everywhere he goes. Literally everywhere: at home, at a bar, in the cemetery—his eyes must be on his brother all the time. The work is a horror picture on the surface but deep down it is a story of loss and trauma.

Amongst the insanity that unfolds, the writer-director ensures that we have an appreciation of how the brothers are like around one another. We are shown Jody’s kindness and patience, his courage, how he is a role model for Mike. And so we understand why Jody is important to Mike outside of the fact that Jody is the only family left for the lonely teenager. Naturally, the two must team up against an antagonist that is beyond anything they’ve ever faced. But even then the villain itself… does not truly fit the mold of a typical antagonist.

The figure we come to know as The Tall Man minds his own business. When one really thinks about it, it is Mike and Jody who consistently get in the way of The Tall Man’s daily and nightly activities. At least initially, the mysterious mortician does not wish to go after them or their friends. Most of the time he is on the defensive: to protect whatever it is he does—which I will not reveal. When ignoring the problem seems to worsen it, attempting to silence the pesky brothers—always breaking into mausoleum, making mess, causing trouble for the dwarves (yes, there are dwarves)—is the last resort. This is an amusing, unexpected, and creative perspective. It is not just about delivering violence and gore.

“Phantasm” may not boast the best acting. The skill of editing is even questionable at times. Blood looks like cranberry juice. But it goes to show how inspired ideas and passion can take a work quite far. There is always something curious, nightmarish waiting at the end of a typical setup like when one goes down the basement, opens the front door, opens a casket, peers into a strange apparatus, flicks a lighter in the dark… Coupled with an increasing sense of dread, its images might be inexplicable on occasion but they stick in the mind and stay there.

The Mummy Returns

The Mummy Returns (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

For the many things that Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy Returns” does right, the few that are wrong—dead wrong—manage to overshadow the positive qualities. There is a sequel worth telling here, but an uninspired third act, which is special- and visual effects-heavy, nearly derails what could have been a grand family-driven adventure involving mummies, Egyptian gods and their armies, resurrections, and those reliably horrifying flesh-eating scarabs. The attitude here is “bigger must be better,” but it loses much of its charm in the process, especially when taken side-by-side against its well-balanced predecessor.

A few years have passed since Rick the adventurer (Brendan Fraser) and Evie the librarian (Rachel Weisz) met and got tangled in their first adventure. They now have a young son, Alex (Freddie Boath), while Jonathan (John Hannah), Evie’s brother, still manages to get himself in trouble without meaning to. When the screenplay plays upon the personality dynamics of these characters, not only is it fun but also a natural evolution for the characters we have come to love in the previous film. One of the best decisions in this earnest follow-up is that it assumes the viewers have seen the original and so there is minimal backtracking. This helps because the plot demands a constant and breathless forward momentum in order to prevent most viewers from poking at the plot holes.

Familiar villains resurface, like the immortal priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and the woman he loves named Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). And there are new ones like Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the cult leader whose aim is to find Imhotep’s body and resurrect him, alongside the deadpan funny Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is given the task to babysit the feisty Alex. I enjoyed watching these antagonists because I felt they fit this particular universe. Most ineffective is the addition of The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who is given some background in the opening sequence, making a deal with Anubis and the like.

But when The Scorpion King appears in the final act, it’s utterly ridiculous; he is completely composed of CGI, he has no personality, just a really ugly sight. It is so uncomfortable to see Johnson’s face plastered on a giant scorpion. It would have been much preferred to have Johnson—without computer magic—battle it out with Vosloo and Fraser. Must The Scorpion King be a literal scorpion? It just doesn’t work. Not even on the scale of tongue-in-cheek silliness. What a waste of budget to have created something so unnecessary and worthless.

Needless to say, the first half is far stronger than the latter half. The “must drink from the Nile” sequence in the ancient ruins where we are reintroduced to Rick and Evie (she’s tougher now) possesses so much energy and wit, it functions as a promise of a good time. Then it is followed by a rescue mission in the British Museum of Antiquities which then results in an extended chase scene (with wall-climbing mummies) in London involving a double-decker bus. It is all so propulsive. But alas, the film begins to run out of steam about halfway through. There is one too many flashbacks.

Reliance on CGI is not the only key shortcoming. The second half might have been less problematic had there been further character development between Rick and Evie. Despite being married for years, it’s bizarre that many of their scenes are reductive and almost always ending up with a kiss. I felt the talents of character actors Weisz and Frasier being wasted every time Rick and Evie go for a forced kiss. At one point, someone (finally) declares, “Get a room!” Clearly, more effort is put into how to make, for example, a wall of water look good than to provide more depth or dimension to its characters. This is why when someone’s life is threatened, there is minimal drama—even for an action-adventure.

The Mummy

The Mummy (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” is a love child of Steven Spielberg’s rousing “Indiana Jones” pictures and 1930s screwball comedies. It could have easily made the mistake of relying on special and visual effects to create a semblance of fun and adventure, but notice its love for juggling cheeky dialogue, CGI effects and practical cosmetics, and propulsive action sequences. What results is a work that’s a real joy to experience, savor. It is apparent that those behind and in front of the camera are having fun and so we cannot help but have fun, too.

Loosely adapted from Karl Freund’s 1932 classic of the same name, Sommers’ version is a proud action-horror adventure flick. Its goal is to draw a smile on your face. Giant wall of sand, flesh-eating scarabs, salt-acid booby traps, creepy catacombs, resurrection spells, rooms filled with gold, the ten plagues of Egypt… somehow these are interwoven into the story in a way that make sense. It helps that the pacing moves so swiftly that it does not leave much room for us to breathe and think. It is often that the next plot twist is waiting right around the corner.

When it does leave moments of pause, like characters sitting around a campfire or observing someone make a mess of a library or watching a horse versus camel race, emphasis is placed on the environment. It involves us by inviting us to look at the surrounding area and appreciate how hot it must be out there in the sand dunes, to imagine the hours it would take to reorganize (or peruse) books that have fallen out of shelves, to feel the excitement of treasures (and curses) have yet to be discovered. Subtle details are what separate a generic action movie from an action picture that you wish to revisit again and again.

The film is elevated by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’ terrific performances. He is an American adventurer/treasure hunter who comes across the location of Hamunaptra, also known as the City of the Dead, only to be driven away by guards called The Medjai (Oded Fehr) that wish to keep the site unknown to the world. She is a British Egyptologist who wishes to get her hands on an ancient book after her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), gives her a present that so happens to be a key of sorts. (Inside it is a map to Hamunaptra.) Fraser and Weisz evoke an innocent and playful sexual chemistry; they don’t have to try so much to be likable together or apart. When together, they deliver their lines not with a wink but an earnestness—to discover one another and whatever it is they hope to find throughout their journey. The romance is effortless.

Less interesting is the central villain named Imhotep played by Arnold Vosloo. Although I enjoyed that the character simply wishes to resurrect the woman he loves (Patricia Velásquez), there is a problem that cannot be overlooked: strip away Imhotep’s superpowers and invincibility and realize this antagonist is not at all interesting. It is probably why the filmmakers make the choice of Imhotep having to destroy something or kill someone nearly every time he makes an appearance on screen—to create an illusion of formidability because there is not much else to the character. Still, it beats another antagonist wishing to take over the world.

“The Mummy” is popcorn entertainment through and through and there is no apology offered. Why be shy of its identity when so many elements are working in its favor? Call it cheesy, silly, or inconsequential. I ask, “So what?” There is room for movies like this—and there is certainly an audience for movies like it. If only other projects were equally unabashed, more mediocre movies that took the half-assed, halfway approach would have likely ended up better than they did.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The plot of “Hounds of Love,” written and directed by Ben Young, revolves around a kidnapping, but that is not what it is about. Strangely enough, it is about being a mother and how that link between parent and child can be such a powerful force, it can circumvent rhyme and reason. There are two mothers in the story. The first is Maggie (Susie Porter) who is divorcing her husband (Damian de Montemas). Her daughter, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), is having a difficult time coming to terms with the separation. She will be the one to get kidnapped. The second is is Evelyn (Emma Booth), one of the abductors and killers along with her partner John (Stephen Curry). Maggie and Evelyn do not share the screen and never exchange words. Yet when the final act rolls around, the material commands power. If only the rest of the picture were as strong.

One of its strengths is the matter-of-fact way of showing horror and violence. The film is shot so simply, it gives the impression that the person in control of the camera does not have any experience. This isn’t to suggest that the work is without discipline. On the contrary, it requires a keen eye and authority to capture images as they would behave or unfold in real life. Notice, too, there is no score to mask the sound of a blade making contact with the skin, when a punch lands on a face, or when a victim screams for help. We are meant to process the fact that the random kidnappings, torture, and killings can occur anywhere.

The writer-director is not interested in elaborately choreographed attempts at escape nor does he try to terrify the viewer solely by overt violence. Instead, even though the characters are not especially apt at articulating their thoughts and feelings, the subjects almost always try to put into words what it is that moves them. Sometimes they are incapable. And this adds to their growing frustrations and need to be in control. Those looking for dialogue-driven situational thrillers should look elsewhere. The pacing does not move swiftly; it languishes.

I did not mind the lack of obvious explanation in terms of the kidnappers’ motives. There are enough crumbs laid out for us to be able to put the pieces together. In a way, the screenplay assumes audiences are smart. However, when the story moves toward Vicki’s mother—how the police fails to take her concerns with utmost gravity, the clash between her and her former husband post-abduction, and the letter she receives via mail from Vicki who claims to have run away—there is a lack of urgency in these scenes. It is in these moments that the viewer should learn how Maggie thinks, processes, and responds to a crisis. There is a stark difference in tension when the focus shifts to Vicki’s mother.

Evelyn, on the other hand, is a bomb waiting to go off. We have a thorough appreciation that this woman has been put upon for decades. Every little thing can threaten her; she becomes especially jealous, almost in a self-destructive way, when John appears to show special interest in their most recent prey. Booth plays her character as woman who wishes to yell out her problems and frustrations, especially those that involve her children, but must remain silent because her partner demands that everything be clean, civil, normal. Their lives is anything but. One feels dirty spending so much time in these monsters’ home.

“Hounds of Love” is not afraid of brutality, but it is also capable of taking suggestions and allowing our minds to construct what is happening or what just happened. This is the difference between telling a story that is violent, ugly, unrelenting and just another torture porn horror show. Although not for most viewers, especially the impatient ones, I still think the work is worth seeing at least once for its brave, risk-taking approach.

The Vatican Tapes

The Vatican Tapes (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Modern exorcism movies are a dime a dozen and the bar is low. Yet still “The Vatican Tapes” fails to separate itself from the pack. This is because the screenplay by Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin lacks imagination. It appears to be content in borrowing ideas from other supernatural movies, putting them in a blender, and then presenting them to us in the most ludicrous fashion possible. By the end of the picture, we are taken to the Vatican secret archives—polished, high-tech, bringing to mind posh offices in spy movies. It feels like a completely different film.

There is no scares to be had here, just a laborious descent to the inevitable confrontation between a man of the cloth and the person believed to be possessed by evil. Olivia Taylor Dudley plays Angela, an ordinary girl who begins to experience strange phenomenon—like losing control of her body—right on her twenty-fifth birthday. Soon ravens attack the bus she’s on. Her throat gets so dry at times, drinking a ton of water does not appear to help. At one point, her boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), and father, Roger (Dougray Scott), are unable to wake her up from a deep sleep. There is something really wrong—not just with the woman but also the movie because all these strange happenings fail to generate suspense or tension.

“What makes a possessed person scary?,” I asked myself in the middle of boredom. It is not because of all special and visual effects involving cosmetics, like how the dark circles around Angela’s eyes would ebb and flow. It is not because of her video recordings undergoing “glitches” and when paused at the right time a demonic figure can be seen. Still, it is also not because of other people getting near Angela and suddenly they’re attempting to kill themselves. No. What makes a possessed person scary is rooted in something more realistic: That possibility the person we come to know and love is no longer there. The idea that a friend or a loved one’s physical body is still walking and talking but we can no longer relate with them, for whatever reason, is a universal fear. In other words, paranormal activity is merely a tool that can be used to amplify common fears. The writers do not have an understanding of this.

And so we go through the motions of following Angela’s ordinary journey from her apartment, to the hospital, to the psychiatric facility, and back home again. In between these change in locations, Father Lozano (Michael Peña) gives Pete and Roger assuring words and looks. Clearly, Angela’s condition is getting worse yet no one is angry at the incompetence of the would-be professionals involved. But I guess so long as the priest says everything will turn out all right, it must be so. When one looks at the big picture, it is amusing that a solid case can be made that it may be unwise to trust men of the cloth because they don’t know what’s happening either. It bothered me that not one of the doctors suggested that Angela, given her current condition and a big piece of her genetic history is unknown, may have some sort of mental illness like schizophrenia.

Aside from imagination and creativity, there is also a lack of energy in “The Vatican Tapes.” The dialogue is so flat, for instance, it borders on soporific. When objects move on their own or when animals act in a bizarre way, the camera just sits there. No passion can be felt from this project. I felt like the filmmakers decided to make a movie just because they could. Or for the money. Because if they really wished to entertain, they should have been the first ones to notice that what they have is dead on the water even before the first image is captured. It is without question the work requires major screenplay revisions. Or simply dump it in the trash.