Signs


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.

The Lion King


The Lion King (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Favreau’s photorealistic CGI orgy “The Lion King” exists solely to underscore the superiority of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 classic family film. On every level—from the animation, the dialogue, the timing between words and actions, down to the majestic score and toe-tapping songs—it is without question that the latter is better, stronger, more emotionally intelligent and involving. And so one is forced to wonder, “What’s the point of retelling the same story, one that is occasionally a shot-after-shot replica of the original?” The movie does not provide a good enough answer. If one were naive, one might believe it is out of curiosity and nostalgia. The reality, however, is that the film is meant to be another cash grab.

There is only one sequence in which this modern interpretation does something exactly right. At one point in the story, it is assumed that Simba (voiced by Donald Glover), future king of Pride Rock, perished in a stampede along with his father, Mufasa (the inimitable James Earl Jones). The knowledge of Simba’s survival, now an adult lion who lives in a faraway land, must make it to Pride Rock. Instead of copying a simplistic, straight-to-the-point sequence from the animated film, we a follow a clump of Simba’s mane going through a journey. It is executed with a sense of wonder, humor, patience, and magic. Had the rest of the work functioned on this level, the film could have served as a natural extension of the source material.

The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. Jones as Mufasa is perfect and there is energy behind JD McCrary’s work as Young Simba. However, John Oliver’s interpretation of the motormouth Zazu, majordomo to the king, is awkward and forced. At times I found it to be irritating and unpleasant. Beyoncé’s Nala, Simba’s best friend and eventual romantic interest, is extremely distracting. Every time Nala speaks, it reeks of Beyoncé rather than the personality of the character. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s comic relief Pumbaa and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous Scar, are tolerable but nothing special or memorable. The voice work is such a mixed bag that one cannot help but wonder if these people were cast simply because of their names, not because their voices actually fit the characters.

Every song is done better in the original; they had more life, were more transportive, and certainly more emotional. Perhaps it is because in this film, there is an attempt to modernize the songs. Listen to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and notice there is a lack of verve behind brilliant one-liners that just so happen to be sung in a song. Emphasis is placed on the beat, for instance, rather than the clash between the cub who would be king and the annoying red-billed hornbill assigned to protect him. Do not get me started on “Be Prepared”—which is supposed to underline Scar’s thirst for power; he so wishes to be king that he is willing to forge a partnership with the hyenas to murder his own brother. This song is completely butchered here. “Hakuna Matata” is supposed to be fun, but the meta-jokes in terms of visuals overwhelm the meaning of the song. Meanwhile, “Spirit,” an original piece, does not hold a candle against any of the songs, new or old. In fact, it feels tacked on, a bizarre appendage.

Spiritualism oozes out of the original’s every pore. It is expressed through kaleidoscopic colors, voice talent that feels exactly right, humanistic dialogue (which is ironic since the characters are not human), down to the highly textured and detailed animation. At times the animation style may even undergo hyperbole in order to make a point. It goes to show that photorealism comes with an important cost: a story that is supposed to be larger-than-life is reduced to something ordinary. For a story that unfolds in the wild, it lacks joy and freedom.

Sweetheart


Sweetheart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A creature-feature with enough expected elements to scratch the itch of those invested in the sub-genre, “Sweetheart” tells the story of a young woman named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who finds herself washed ashore on a small deserted island. Not only must she contend with hunger and exposure, it seems there is a monster living in a hole just off the island. It tends to come out only during the night. Co-writers J.D. Dillard (who also directs), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer possess an understanding of the genre. They keep it short and sweet with just the right amount of tension, violence, and gore. It’s a good flick to watch during a rainy day.

Clemons does plenty with what she is provided. It is a role not reliant on words or dialogue and so she is required to communicate thoroughly using her eyes and body language. Right when we meet Jenn as she regains consciousness on the beach, Clemons plays the character with a level of alertness, intelligence, and grit. Because she portrays Jenn with a high level of urgency from the get-go, even though we already have an idea regarding the initial elements she must come up against, we become interested in how the character might fare on this island. I enjoyed moments of humor, particularly when our heroine is learning how to open coconuts, how to fish, to trap larger prey. Desperation can be played for suspense and thrills. But it can also be played for humor.

The monster living in the ocean is terrifying precisely because not much of it is shown. We learn a number of things about the creature (Andrew Crawford), like how it sounds, how it prefers to hunt, how it moves on land versus water, how sensitive it is to sound and smell, what it prefers to eat, if any. It is a formidable enemy not just because of its incredible speed, strength, and body size; Dillard drenches the monster in mystery. It is the correct decision not to explain the creature’s origins or whether it has a special weakness. The only thing we know for certain is that it must die in order for Jenn to live or possibly even escape the island.

The picture’s weakness involves additional human characters introduced about two-thirds of the way through (Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence). I will not reveal who they are, but I found them to be of great annoyance. I was particularly surprised by how generic Cohen portrays his character since he is a character actor. I felt no inspiration from him this time around. Clemons completely overpowers her co-stars nearly every second they share the screen. And when Clemons is not in the frame, I caught myself wondering where Jenn is and what she is doing.

However, the Cohen and Lawrence cardboard cutouts introduce an idea: that Jenn is a person with whom others find difficult to believe. Is it because she has a history of lying and getting caught? A simple case of being a poor storyteller? Is there something in her life back home that contributes to a potential attention-seeking behavior? The screenplay fails to delve into this curious topic—which I think is a big mistake. But putting these planks of wood into the mix long enough to broach the subject allows the creature to function as a metaphor for the story.

Little Women


Little Women (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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

For the most part, the picture is composed of impressions; it is almost like a collage. When Jo the writer (Saoirse Ronan) decides to chop her hair off for a noble cause only to cry about it that same night. When Amy the painter (Florence Pugh) wishes to get revenge on Jo and so she decides to hit her elder sister where it hurts most. When Meg the actress (Emma Watson) confesses to her husband she is bone-tired of being poor. When Beth the pianist (Eliza Scanlen) contracts scarlet fever for trying to help out their indigent neighbor in the dead of winter. Despite the differences among the young women, the writer-director manages to find and underscore their similarities in just about every scene. Even when the sisters clash, there is an underlying message they are family first. It proves a warm feeling, at times even simply a flicker of it, in the face of life challenges big and small.

There are two timelines seven years apart: When the March sisters are still living under one roof and when they have taken their separate paths. Because Gerwig’s energy as a director can be felt so strongly, it would have been preferred if she had found a way to show the past and current time outside of the warm/yellowish and cold/bluish color palettes, respectively. The approach is too ordinary, generic, for Gerwig’s caliber. Perhaps the fresher choice would have been to choose one color palette and relied on cosmetics or clothing style to reflect where the sisters are in their lives. An argument can be made that there is already a vast difference in how the characters look and carry themselves as youths versus young adults that changing up the hues is unnecessary, maybe even heavy-handed.

Although the story focuses on the young women’s pliability and strength, it finds no need to bring down its male characters—which is so unlike movies these days that wish to make a statement. On the contrary, it treats both sexes as real people with real feelings, real thoughts, and real problems. Appropriately, the central couple, Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), is provided complexity even though they do not undergo a standard courtship.

There is tension in the possibility of the two being romantically connected because we learn that Jo regards marriage as a sort of prison, an act of relinquishing freedom as a writer, as a woman, and as a writer who happens to be a woman. Her ambitions are great and nothing may get in the way of it. Laurie, on the other hand, is a classic romantic. He is kind, patient, and giving. We know he means what he says, and he does love Jo, possibly more than Jo even realizes, but we wonder if his values match that of Jo’s. It is without question his ambition is smaller than her’s—possibly because he was born in an affluent family. Thus, we wonder if they can remain happy as a couple, and as individuals, in the future. The question is whether or not they will end up together, but rather whether they are right for each other. There is a difference.

This is only one example of the many compelling relationships in the film. Nearly every one is given detail and dimension. Interestingly, notice that the most telling moments are the quiet sort. For instance, early on in the story Laurie is welcomed into the March’s home after helping Meg get home due to a twisted ankle. Chalamet stands in one spot and allows his character to enjoy the laughter, the chatter, and the commotion in the house. Laurie does not say a word, but the camera observes him closely. I am convinced it is the precise moment when the character decides to be part of this family. The March may not have a library or a grand piano as his palatial home does. But there’s always warm food on the table, there’s happy screaming and cackling, teasing, and somebody to lean on. The movie is a reflection of what many of us wish to have. And, for some of us, a reflection of the things we have lost. It is a worthy retelling of a classic novel.

Jacob’s Ladder


Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorp prove to have no understanding of why Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” works as psychological thriller because this remake gets just about every element wrong. It is neither psychological nor thrilling; it is composed merely of would-be creepy or shocking images that are ineffective, a few downright laughable, because there is minimal context behind them. While an attempt is made to avoid telling an identical story as its inspiration, it fails to drill deeply into the connection among post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and war veterans. Instead, these fascinating and important subjects are summarized into post-it notes—notes from bad and reductive movies, not even from textbooks.

It fails to establish a dream-like tone or feeling—a crucial element so that later on we could not help but to buy into the story’s nightmarish and hallucinatory sequences. Instead, observe closely on how the one-dimensional screenplay often builds up to a standard chase scene where Jacob (Michael Ealy), a trauma surgeon, ends up cornering a person of interest who disappears into thin air the very last second. How convenient. This formula is tired, boring, and highly repetitive. It commands no tension and each attempt is less effective than the last.

In the middle of this misfire of a remake, I began to feel sorry for Ealy who deserves better than this train wreck. Watch him closely during the more dramatic sequences, particularly when Jacob’s seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. You will see a performer begging to be challenged. Director David M. Rosenthal neglects to recognize his lead’s strength. Ealy is capable of looking vulnerable and tough, sometimes at the same time, at a drop of a hat. He is so expressive that at times allowing the camera to focus on his face is enough for us to get a readout of what his character may be thinking or feeling. Instead, Jacob is forced to go into all sorts of histrionics—like writhing on the floor, wailing, screaming, and such—in order to create a semblance of torment and urgency.

But the thing is, the material is already about a man’s anguish since he is slowly realizing that maybe he can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Urgency comes—or should come—in the form of viewers wishing to know more about the curious story and its shady characters. But because the screenplay is stuck in the limbo of providing easy answers, all mystique is lost. The movie clocks in at only ninety-three minutes, but it feels much longer. One of the reasons is because we already know all of its tricks after the first act. And so we grow impatient for the movie to surprise us at least once. It never surprised me.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is a remake without flavor, purpose, or spine. Perhaps the initial draft wished to say something of value about how our American society tends to treat our troops once they’ve come home from war—that maybe we celebrate them more when they are stationed in foreign lands, much less when they are home and in need of the best healthcare. But somewhere along the way substance is diluted in order to make room for jump scares.

About Last Night…


About Last Night… (1986)
★ / ★★★★

Danny (Rob Lowe) and Debbie (Demi Moore) decide to build a relationship from a one night stand. They are physically attracted to one another but neither is completely sure if they were ready for a mature, mutually beneficial relationship. Still, they decide to move together with the hope that the latter crucial ingredient will somehow fall into place. After a few months of living together, Danny and Debbie, in their own ways, begin to yearn for their former single lives.

Based on David Mamet’s play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and written for the screen by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, “About Last Night…” is a tolerable romantic-drama because of its somewhat erotic love scenes but the love story tests the patience. Because it becomes obvious to us early on in the protagonists’ relationship that they may not be a good fit for one another, the material forcing the characters to play catch up is not an involving experience. Although Lowe and Moore are appealing together, I was mostly bored by the story. It is about thirty minutes too long.

Danny and Debbie have their own personalities but they are upstaged by their best friends. James Belushi plays a party-loving guy and every time he is on screen, he floods the frame with energy and color. Although I found his character, Bernie, a bit abrasive and over-the-top at times, at least he made me laugh. That is more than I can say about either Danny or Debbie. These two are pleasant but they are not the most exciting—either together or apart.

Belushi needs an equal and Elizabeth Perkins, Debbie’s roommate and best friend, is up to the task. Perkins plays Joan as a huge Debbie Downer, the kind of friend who one almost would like to hate from a third party point of view because not once does she root for Debbie’s romantic life to turn out well. She fears that if Debbie got into a relationship, she would end up being the third wheel. Her solution is to act unpleasant around Danny. Because she is unlikable at times, she is not boring. We have a defined opinion of her. Less can be said about the couple.

That is the picture’s main problem: the two central characters have middle-ground personalities, attitudes, and outlooks on life. It makes them lukewarm, almost soporific. It does not help that Lowe and Moore are not the most versatile performers. In some scenes, they are downright terrible. Still, at least they try to emote when the occasion calls for it instead of simply standing there like a pile of wood. It is difficult to invest in characters who are thinly written and portrayed.

Perhaps “About Last Night…,” directed by Edward Zwick, ought to have focused more on having more love scenes because that is its strength. Everything else is corny, from Danny wanting to open up his own restaurant to Debbie telling Joan that she loves her anyway even though Joan wanted the relationship to crash and burn from the moment Debbie and Danny met. Give me a break. If the screenplay had any semblance of reality, these two so-called girlfriends would no longer be friends by the time the movie hit its third act.

Luce


Luce (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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

The first curiosity begins with the act of a concerned teacher having a meeting with the mother of the student with whom she suspects to be a possible threat to the school. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigned her students to pick a historical figure and write a paper using their chosen figure’s perspective. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—model student, ace athlete, excellent debater, and soon-to-be valedictorian—chose Frantz Fanon, a theorist who believes in using violence against those he disagrees with. Ms. Wilson was so disturbed by what she read, she took it upon herself to search through Luce’s locker. She found illegal firecrackers—enough to create a shotgun blast. The screenplay by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah is correct in not allowing the viewers to read any portion of the paper. Doing so leaves plenty to the imagination.

The drama unspools from here onwards. Given that Luce was adopted by white, affluent American parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) at the age of seven from a war-torn country in Africa, it touches upon race. Specifically, what it means to be a young black immigrant in America, the expectations one must grapple with in order to avoid being just another stereotype. It broaches the topic of parents’ hardships and sacrifices for choosing to adopt instead of having and raising a biological child. Specifically, what they lost, individually as well as a couple, in the process. It tackles the subject of knowledge, how we cannot un-know information and the numerous implications that come with it. Clearly, the material is not simply interested in shocking plot turns. It is interested in providing context; it aims to inspire debate.

From the moment we meet the Edgars, notice right away how they do not feel like a family. They live in the same house, eat the same food, converse, laugh, make jokes, travel together once in a while—but there is a disconnect. This is an excellent choice by the filmmakers. It shows that even before the first controversy, there is something… not quite right about the Edgars. Perhaps the revelation regarding the essay and the firecrackers is simply a catalyst of what must be brought to the forefront. But this is no ordinary drama. In the end, there is little catharsis. There remains great uneasiness, questions, pain. It is apparent that the work is not for those who wish to feel good in a traditional sense.

“Luce” is based on a play screenwriter J.C. Lee, and it shows. Confrontations evoke a strong personality to them. Words are memorable because they hurt like daggers. It is fond of close-ups, as if to savor every minute emotion. Rooms tend to have a feeling of coldness to them even when it is full of people. When characters recall traumatic memories, we paint vivid portraits in our heads. It is mesmerizing nearly every step of the way.