Re-Animator (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that embraces H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West—Re-Animator,” and injects it with wild enthusiasm. What results is a bloody, in-your-face, nearly genius horror-comedy so wildly entertaining, it is impossible to look at without being enraptured by the bizarre images: a cat in pieces still wiggling about, a headless neurosurgeon (yes, ironic), giant intestines seeming to have a mind of its own… It’s totally bonkers. But it’s a good movie, certainly worthy of a cult following, because director Stuart Gordon, who co-writes the screenplay with Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, commits to the idea all the way to the finish line.

Herbert West is one of the most memorable mad scientists I’ve come across in the movies. He is played with gusto to spare by Jeffrey Combs. When Herbert enters a room it feels as though he sucks on all the air from it. He is so rigid, so stern, so unrelenting when it comes to achieving his vision of defeating death, you take one look at the medical student and you are convinced morality and ethics are of no importance to him. What matters is results, and he will get it. And so when he answers a roommate ad posted by Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), one of the most promising young physicians in Miskatonic University, it is expected that Dan’s future is sealed.

Love can be felt in every touch of makeup and special effects. Whether it be a rotting hand or eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and then exploding, the filmmakers consistently frame these images in such a way that they look disgusting and beautiful—you want to cringe at the sight of them yet at the same time want to study them closely. I was especially tickled by the more realistic effects like when the superstar scientist Dr. Hill (David Gale) gives a demonstration on how to extract a whole brain from a corpse. His students are unfazed—with the exception of Herbert who despises the man for being a plagiarist. The sight of Dr. Hill still being in science, and thriving, enrages Herbert. He must get on with his late-night experiments.

The picture is peppered with deadpan humor, from the way characters respond to the reality that, yes, the dead can be brought back to life (with certain… concessions) to how a head severed from its body is still able to control the body and perform rather complex tasks. The writers are correct in allowing the more improbable occurrences happen later on because by then we are engrossed by the story’s mental universe. We grow curious of what else the work has in store. And how left-field happenings can surprise us in delightful and horrific ways.

Filmmaker James Wan has claimed that horror are the best-made movies in terms of craft. This is highly applicable in “Re-Animator” because so many pieces must be controlled to create a believable and fun experience, not just in terms of blood—how much to use, when to use it, getting just the right consistency to be convincing, and how to make it look good as it spatters on the wall—but also when to use a real head versus a mannequin, how to best angle the camera so that a mechanical effect can look more natural, down to the appearance of the zombie serum so that it looks portentous and capable of standing out amidst the chaos.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen

The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)
★ / ★★★★

If I could describe “The Babysitter: Killer Queen” in one word, it would be “interminable.” It is the very definition of a lazy sequel to a well-intentioned but middle-of-the-road horror-comedy which accomplished only one thing: It is made abundantly clear that Samara Weaving and Judah Lewis—babysitter and child, respectively—are stars. Since then, the former has had a breakthrough, but the latter has not. Every second of this follow-up, directed by McG, is a sobering reminder that Weaving and Lewis deserve far stronger material that is equal to their talent. Look closely and notice how it feels as though everyone in the film—veterans and relative newcomers alike—either looks or sounds half-asleep because the screenplay is not only dead, it stinks of putrefaction.

The story picks up two years following Cole’s encounter (Lewis) with a satanic cult. No one believes the boy’s claims due to lack of physical evidence from the crime scene. And so, Cole, now a junior in high school, is put on multiple heavy medications in order to get his “delusions” under control. His parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb—in demeaning roles that require them to divide their individual IQ by 3) do not know what else to do given their son won’t admit that he made “all the cult stuff” up. They wish to send him to a school for troubled teens. Maybe that’ll fix him.

This could have been a powerful jumping off point for the story, an excellent chance to critique 1) how modern American teenagers are overly medicated and 2) how parents, usually from privileged backgrounds, crave easy fixes for their children. Instead, the material busies itself with hyperbolic—at times downright cartoonish—representations of American high school life: bullying from peers, blissfully unaware adults, how teenagers nowadays just want to get away from their parents and party. Are you asleep yet?

It is all supposed to be comic—hip because pop culture references are thrown onto our laps nearly every other scene—but the experience is actually empty because there is a deficiency of honesty to the material. Here we have Lewis who has the gift of being able to modulate minute facial expressions (observe closely during the rare dramatic scenes as Lewis relaxes his face, how he allows us to read precisely what Cole is feeling and thinking at the time) and he is forced into a character who did not grow emotionally or psychologically from his traumatic experiences in the predecessor. Why should we root for him this time? Yes, a new reason is required. It is not enough that his life is in danger. What about it?

I blame writers McG, Dan Lagana, Brad Morris, and Jimmy Warden for not understanding and loving teenagers—and for not wanting to understand and love them. What they understand and love is the money, the budget, the funds to make just another forgettable movie to pad their resumes. If they really did care, even if the end product turned out badly, we would have sensed even a whiff of it. I felt nothing from these filmmakers other than greed and pessimism.

And so we go through the motions of watching Cole and Phoebe (Jenna Ortega), the transfer student and eventual romantic interest, kill new and returning satanic cult members one by one (Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Andrew Bachelor, Hana Mae Lee). It usually ends with someone getting decapitated, run over, or maimed. Cue the painfully fake-looking blood and chunks gushing out of orifices. CGI and the like. Fake explosions. It is all so tiring. How many times must we be subjected to the same formula with the same outcome? How is this entertainment? What does McG want the viewers to take away from all of this? Other than to eradicate our brain cells, what is the point of this movie?

“The Babysitter: Killer Queen” is made by people who do not care if you throw away an hour and forty minutes of your life. They take you for an idiot because they expect you to be entertained by delivering material that belongs not at the bottom of the barrel nor directly underneath said barrel—but several yards deep into the Earth. This sort of passionless, flavorless, by-the-numbers dirge should not make it onto any film. It is an insult to sit through a project that lacks intellectual curiosity, the desire to show audience genuine humanity, the willingness to come from a specific angle and offer comments or critiques about where we are as a society. Film is not just a medium. It must be used—to show where we are (or were) and where we must go.

Effective movies within the horror and comedy genres are pointed—so pointed at times that they have the power to incite conversation. The filmmakers involved here possess no understanding or appreciation of this fact. And so this trash is a result. No one should be surprised.

Police Story

Police Story (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right from its opening sequence which involves a sting in a squatter area, “Police Story” proves to be no ordinary action picture. Director Jackie Chan, who also stars as Ka Kui, a cop for the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, demonstrates his keen eye for location, the people who take up space in a particular area, and how they move, whilst interacting with the environment, when chaos is turned up to 11. This sets the tone for the film. On the surface, there appears to be pandemonium. But look closer and realize there is great control—discipline—in how action is set up and executed while incorporating happy accidents along the way to create an exciting, fun, and unique final product. There is plenty to appreciate here.

One is Chan’s penchant and talent for doing his own stunts. There is electricity and intention behind every move: whether he’s throwing a punch or the one avoiding it, whether he’s dangling off a double-decker bus with an umbrella, or whether he’s sliding down a pole—smashing glass along the way—several stories high. The eye-popping and jaw-dropping sequences demand attention. Even more impressive is when Chan is required to lug another actor around as their characters get themselves in sticky situations.

But the magic is not just the actor doing his own stunts, you see. Observe a little more actively and note how Chan always accompanies his physical prowess with easily readable emotions on his face. His expressions help to amplify the mood of a scene. Compare the silliness that unfolds in the apartment of a key witness (Brigitte Lin) Ka Kui must protect so she can testify in court the next day to the desperate, nail-biting final confrontation in a mall. Chan delivers a real performance; he steps on set not as a stuntman but an actor who just so happens to do his own stunts. It makes a whole world of difference, especially considering the fact that the work is prone to sudden shifts in tone.

For the most part, the picture commands a comic feel: mistaken identities, the ennui of the every day while on the job, ironic details among cops, lawyers, and crooks. It is a movie that works hard to make us smile. In just about every scene, a wink can be found. Even when Ka Kui steps on manure, the obvious comedy is never treated as the punchline. But when it changes gears suddenly—a cop who struggles to shoot at suspects in the middle of an operation, when a girlfriend is thrown down a flight of stairs—it is jolts us into paying attention. Chan is the anchor—as actor and director—that holds the ship together. He doesn’t rely on charm.

I wished we got to know more about the main woman in Ka Kui’s life, particularly the girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung), who appears to have more in her than simply looking concerned. Our protagonist seems to love her, but we never get a chance to see them engage in real conversations. At times I felt annoyed that just when May is about to say something of substance, possibly about his safety (or lack thereof) in his occupation, she finds herself cut off by the more dominating personalities. This is not a knock on Cheung, but I felt her talent can be utilized better in slower, thoughtful stories. This one zips along with energy to spare.

Despite this shortcoming, “Police Story,” delivering astonishing practical effects right after another, is a delight from start to finish. Even the final minutes dare to hint at a deeper conversation surrounding limitations cops come across when facing men who possess considerable wealth, power, and influence. There is suggestion that everyone is just dancing around the fire. Ka Kui makes a decision. And there is catharsis.


#Alive (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The title points to the possibility that this undead picture will explore the role of social media following a rapid spread of a virus infection, but screenwriters Cho Il-hyung (who directs) and Matt Naylor set this curious angle aside in favor of typical isolation humdrum that we’ve seen countless of times before in American and international films alike, from the experimental indie to the mainstream variety. What results is a likable but disappointing traipse through the familiar instead of a daring foray into new horizons. There is nothing special to see here.

The opening sequences show promise. We meet a young man, possibly in his early- to mid-twenties, named Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in) who is supposed to be the stereotypical male Zoomer (Generation Z—zombies, get it?)—obsessed with video games, very much in tune with technology and social media, whose alarm goes off at 10 o’clock in the morning. We observe Joon-woo as he learns about his new reality, from news on television to YouTube videos. So far, so good. But in zombie apocalypse films there is a certainty: internet will go down, news will go off air, cell phones will be of little use. This is the point in which the writers ought to have exercised their wildest imagination. They do not rise to the task.

Instead, we go through the usual (but necessary) motions of the character running low on essentials like food and water. (But there is plenty of spirits in the liquor cabinet.) Eventually, our protagonist begins to feel lonely in his high-rise apartment considering that his parents and sister have not returned for days—likely to be dead due to an ominous voicemail. These standard trappings are almost boring—but nearly every moment is elevated by the highly expressive Yoo. There is an air of effortlessness about him; he has a prodigious talent for finding just the right rhythm and conjure entertainment out of ennui, humor, and desperation. In the middle of his one-man performance, which lasts until about the forty-minute mark, I became convinced he should be cast in major Hollywood productions—especially in smart romantic comedies.

A major plot point is his interactions with a neighbor who lives across the building. Her name is Shin-hye (Kim Yoo-bin) and she no typical damsel-in-distress. I enjoyed that Kim portrays Shin-hye with a certain toughness but one that is never off-putting. We get the impression that, in terms of survival, Joon-woo needs Shin-hye more than the other way around. When these characters are apart—with zombies waiting below—there is a slight tonal shift from survival horror to an unlikely romance—curious but it has nothing at all to do with the picture’s thesis regarding the role of social media while self-isolating in the face of a pandemic.

Zombie cosmetics are nothing memorable. I’ve seen better makeup work from the early seasons of Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.” However, there are a few inspired moments. For instance, the undead are able to remember things they knew how to do when they were alive like opening doors. They are sensitive to noises so anything above a certain decibel triggers them to run like hell to the source of the sound. Perhaps the best is a terrifying scene involving a fireman who remembers how to climb. I wish there had been more of these genuine thrills in order to make up for its thematic shortcomings. By all means, distract us by using adrenaline-fueled encounters and creative kills. Many who sign up for zombie movies want to be scared. Social commentary done well is icing on the cake.

“#Alive” is as limp as a zombie that hasn’t had its pound of flesh for weeks. While I found some enjoyment out of it, mainly due to the performance by the lead actor, most of what’s at offer is neither fresh nor inspired. There are countless zombie flicks out there. Here, the filmmakers underachieve on two fronts: a) to make their work stand out and b) inject enough inspiration so that it stands the test of time despite the familiar trappings. Like so many other films, including the ones outside the undead sub-genre, those shaping the picture have failed to ask themselves what makes this story worth telling—and sitting through.

Seventh Son

Seventh Son (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

If one signs up only for the scenery then “Seventh Son,” loosely based upon Joseph Delaney’s novel “The Spook’s Apprentice,” receives a most enthusiastic recommendation. It offers eye-catching vistas of verdant meadows, ominous forests, tranquil lakeside homes, perilous cliffs, a cloister hidden in the mountains, a walled but lively city burned to the ground. But outside the handful of terrific visuals, the story is a bore for the most part. It is correct for the plot to be straightforward: Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the last knight of his kind, is on a mission to end the life of a witch, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), who killed his apprentice of ten years (Kit Harrington). The journey toward the destination, however, is problematic: it is riddled with pesky asides, like a romance between Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), the new apprentice, and Alice (Alicia Vikander), a half-witch whose mother is loyal to Mother Malkin. I found most of the action sequences to be somewhat exciting and well-choreographed. But nearly every time the action dies down and the two lovebirds must exchange words and make physical contact, the movie screeches to a halt. It isn’t that Barnes and Vikander do not share chemistry. A looming apocalypse is simply far bigger than whether or not they’ll end up together. Perhaps a more crucial shortcoming: We never get a chance to appreciate the apprenticeship, what it entails outside wielding weapons and learning concoctions. As a result, the picture is like store-bought soup: if not without flavor, it is missing a memorable personality, spices that make the dish pop or taste special. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight. Directed by Sergei Bodrov.

Silent Place

Silent Place (2020)
★ / ★★★★

If your film is going to be a blatant rip-off of John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” you’d better have good ideas and a strong execution to back it up. “Silent Place,” written and directed by Scott Jeffrey, is unable to step outside of its inspiration’s shadow and so every minute feels like a drag, a cheap imitation, a wasted opportunity to take already existing ideas and push them to the next level or branch off them to make this particular story worth telling. The picture runs for about eighty minutes, but it feels twice as long.

Especially problematic are its moments of action. No, not sequences where our protagonists find themselves running desperately from a gray, rubbery-looking humanoid creature with sharp teeth but no eyes. I refer to moments when a person must get from one place to another, almost tiptoeing, while keeping noise to a minimum since the antagonist is especially sensitive to sound. These moments are filled with dead air—funny because the score is almost always booming. It feels the need to always push us to feel a certain way instead of relying on its images and circumstances to get our hearts to beat a little faster.

“A Quiet Place” does right what this movie does dead wrong. For instance, instead of the camera always focusing on the face, there are tension-filled moments when we are looking at the characters’ legs and feet. Since we might have an idea as to where or what they are about to step into (a toy that may alarm, a rope that triggers a trap that creates noise, and the like), suspense is created from seemingly simple movements. We hold our breaths due to anticipation. Here, we always focus on facial expressions—redundant because we already know the hunted are terrified. Changing the strategy from time to time goes a long way. Jeffrey’s film appears to be stuck with its usual bag of tricks. It gets real tiresome.

The plot involves a family of four (Ryan Davis, Stephanie Lodge, Georgina Jane, Jake Watkins) visiting the country because the mother’s father is sent to the hospital once again due to heart problems. Rita fears for her aging father’s decreasing quality of life and so she wishes to be there for her lonely mother who pretends to be strong in the face of uncertainty (Helen Minassian). I enjoyed the scenes in which the visiting family find themselves stuck in a rural community that is somehow seemingly abandoned. It is eerie that in the middle of the day, the picturesque town is dead silent. Not even birds can be heard chirping nearby despite the fact that there is an abundance of trees. What happened to this town? Naturally, the family members decide to split up to investigate. Cue the countdown to their discovery of blood spatters.

You may be thinking that the situational horror described sounds extremely generic. That’s because it is. The real question though is how is such an ordinary template executed? Are there enough details to make the situation specific to this story? Do characters respond to challenges in ways that are practical and intelligent? Are there surprising revelations along the way? Inspired scares? Neat special, visual, and practical effects? It is apparent that the film underachieves across these categories.

Most frustrating is when our protagonists learn that the monster uses sound to navigate, they fail to utilize this knowledge to gain the advantage. Instead, they make even more unnecessary noises. It’s enraging. The screenplay tends to rely on them gambling their lives instead of looking around first to see which object, or objects, they can use to deceive the creature. And get this: Not one of them bothers to go to the kitchen and grab a weapon. We can only take so much lack of common sense.

The poor quality of “Don’t Speak” has little to do with limited budget. The best horror flicks tend to have smart and resourceful characters. If we feel that the protagonists are really present and actively thinking of ways to extricate themselves out of tricky situations, excitement follows. But not here. We get the impression that people make it through the end not because they are most fit but because the plot requires a survivor (or survivors). It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ken Loach proves once again that a filmmaker with a keen eye for detail can make any subject feel fresh and engrossing. In “Sorry We Missed You,” the veteran director fixes his lens on a British family of four who are neck-deep in debt and up to their eyeballs in stress. It is told with deep humanity, scalding honesty, great empathy for the working class, and seething anger toward a system that values profit over lives—a system that has somehow become the norm in our modern society. The picture makes the case that working people to the bone isn’t sustainable. Something has got to give.

Much of the work is composed of following the Turners’ every day lives: Ricky the delivery driver (Kris Hitchen), Abbie the home care nurse (Debbie Honeywood), Seb the increasingly rebellious son who skips school to paint graffiti (Rhys Stone), and Liza the daughter who feels helpless in preventing her family’s disintegration (Katie Proctor). The work adopts a specific rhythm depending on the person we are following. For instance, when we spend time with Abbie in various homes, it is quiet. People move and speak slowly. There is a stillness to the camera. People make eye contact. Contrast this against Ricky’s occupation: high tension, always on the run, time is money. People who receive packages cannot be bothered to say, “Thank you.”

Each member of the family is given a chance to have a mirror held up to them. Blink and you’ll miss these richly rendered moments. The viewer cannot be blamed for wanting to look away once in a while because circumstances shown therein are or were reality for most of us. I think those who come from working class families are likely to be hit quite hard.

You recognize those moments when you wake up in the middle of the night and find your parents asleep on the couch, bone tired from working all day, with the television still on. Waking up in the morning and parents having already left for work. Dragging your sibling out of bed because no one else will do it. Coming home from school and still there isn’t a soul around. There’s no food, so you pour a bowl of cereal. You must be autonomous in doing your homework. No one will breathe down your neck about it. And no one will double check your answers. Loach captures these moments with vivid clarity. He takes their time with them. It is never syrupy, never preachy. It’s just how life is for his subjects—and for the many people around us.

Especially memorable are Ricky’s interactions with his no-nonsense, unsympathetic superior. In a most matter-of-fact way, Maloney (Ross Brewster) explains to Ricky the importance of the barcode scanner, how it is essentially Ricky’s lifeline. Those waiting for their packages to arrive do not care about the deliveryman. What matters is the price of the product, knowing when the product will arrive, and getting the product in their hands. I jolted into paying attention because I recognized truths in what Maloney had to say. I feel irked when a product doesn’t arrive on time. I never consider the possibility that perhaps the person doing delivery is overwhelmed, that there might have been a family emergency, or that he or she could have encountered problems with the vehicle, or been engaged in a traffic accident.

And I think that’s the goal of this movie: To inspire us to look at ourselves, recognize our privilege, and give others a break when we can for others may be fighting battles far more challenging than ours. We might not be in control of our society or where it is heading. But we are in control of how we choose to treat others. There are times when that’s enough.

So, you see, this is not a depressing film. It is realistic, but never depressing. If it were depressing, it wouldn’t attempt to galvanize the audience to want to take control or action. The screenplay by Paul Laverty underscores the destructive impact of unquenchable capitalism on families, but it is sharp and quite skillful in taking it to the next level—how this particular story applies to everyone across the globe and among varying age groups. Do not miss it.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be remembered as a minor work of writer-director Charlie Kaufman. It is composed of elements that could make a great film—a statement—about life, death, aging, and the sweet moments in between, but these components are not put together in a way that inspires immediate recognition of precise thought, feeling, or past experience without wringing out the brain for possible meanings. To say that the picture is weird is inaccurate; it isn’t—at least not really. I’ve seen far stranger movies—Guy Maddin’s works like “The Saddest Music in the World” and “Brand Upon the Brain!” quickly come to mind. As the movie goes on, it unravels into a tangent rather than providing a strong closure for its thesis.

The most fun I’ve had while sitting through the film is coming up with ideas in regards to what’s really going on just underneath its typical setup: a woman (we are introduced to her as “Lucy” but she is later called “Louisa” and a few other names), played by Jessie Buckley, travels with Jake (Jesse Plemons) to the country so she can meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). They’ve been dating for six weeks. Or is it seven? Lucy is unsure.

Via narration, we learn that Lucy feels as though the relationship is not going anywhere and is considering breaking it off. Right from the get-go, there is something strange. It appears—rather it feels—as though Jake can read Lucy’s mind. Is this actually the case or is he simply intuitive? We spend twenty minutes in the car as the couple discuss science, novels, poetry, and movies. Is it possible viewers are meant to feel trapped with these characters? In a Kaufman picture, anything is possible.

The farmhouse sequences are thoroughly engaging, from the tour of the barn with the symbolic sheep and the story about pigs being eaten alive to really bizarre and erratic behavior by Jake’s parents. It brings to mind haunted house movies and supernatural novels in how the writer-director plays with time and makes observations about memories, impressions, and forgotten details—ghosts that linger—not just Lucy’s, or possibly Jake’s, but our own. At some point, I wondered if the story is an echo: Lucy and Jake repeating the same day over and over again until either a wrong is set right or light is shed upon ignorance. It also made me consider how I process time, where I am in my life, what I’ve experienced and have yet to experience. Clearly, there is poetry to these scenes.

I also found the events inside the house to be riotously funny at times, from the image of a dog drying itself as if stuck in a time loop and Collette’s scene-stealing laughter turning into desperate wailing within a span of five seconds to morbid possibilities of what the basement contains to Thewlis’ interpretation of dementia. This is peculiarity done right. We are challenged with what to do with the images we are provided. I found humor. Some, I imagine, may find horror. Or sadness. It shows the helplessness and frailty that comes with old age.

Far less effective is when Lucy and Jake are back in the car. This is when the film starts to get repetitive. On the surface, it is different from the previous car sequence. They are traveling in near total darkness. There is a snowstorm outside. Lucy’s patience is wearing thin because Jake seems unable to take a hint that she just wants to get home. He suggests they stop by for ice cream. Is this supposed to be a portrait of mid- to late-stage marriage? The pacing slows as more ideas are thrown around… only this time there is minimal tension due to familiarity.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the novel by Iain Reid, offers plenty of foreplay but no powerful punchline. The latter half is so desultory (“experimental” or “unconventional,” if one were to be kind) that at some point, we sit through an interpretive dance and a musical number—right after another. Although I recognize what it is trying say with these overt performances, they remain just that—performances—instead of Kaufman putting what he has to impart into context (loneliness, regret, longings, imaginings). It’s unfortunate because the picture ends with humanity but decorations around it distract from the wrinkles that actually matter.


2012 (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Although a portrait of the end of times, disaster flick “2012” is meant to be fun and entertaining. But what results is a work that is over reliant on CGI, coupled with wafer-thin characters with nothing of interest to say or do other than flail around when the occasion calls for it, to the point where it is impossible to believe—let alone emotionally connect—in whatever is unfolding on screen. The movie boasts a budget of 200 million dollars, but it proves unable to buy deep imagination, genuine excitement, and a wellspring of creativity. All it manages to offer is empty spectacle: giant crevices dividing grocery stores in half, massive tidal waves engulfing the Himalayas, state-of-the-art ships capable of housing a hundred thousand individuals. What makes the movie special?

The screenplay by Roland Emmerich (who directs) and Harald Kloser is not without potential. It requires sitting down, thinking about, and discussing which elements are worth delving into and which aspects should be excised altogether. An example: The material wishes to make a statement about how we as a society can so easily turn against one another in life-or-death situations. But notice the work’s failure in showing specific examples that make a lasting impression. In a movie with a running time of nearly a hundred and sixty minutes, it is not asking a lot to show regular folks fighting for resources. The camera is almost always on the powerful, the rich, and the brains working for the government. Worse, like clockwork, these people have the tendency to deliver tedious speeches about survival, heroism, and importance of coming together. It lacks a dramatic anchor.

Our anchor, I guess, is a work-obsessed author named Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) whose most recent novel tells the story of how humans deal with the apocalypse. His work was panned by critics for being too naive and optimistic. Jackson must now face a real-life apocalypse. If you think his naïveté and optimism are bound to be challenged by a dead screenplay, think again. Naturally, the way he perceives the world is solidified. The writers have failed to ask themselves how drama can be mined from a character whose ideals are not challenged.

You know it’s coming: Jackson is divorced, but he still loves his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two young children (Liam James, Morgan Lilly); he would do anything to make sure they survive. Despite the Jackson character being provided a lengthy (and boring) exposition, Cusack is given nothing substantive to work with. This character’s trajectory is predictable from the beginning all the way up to the moment when the two former spouses lock eyes and fall in love again. And can you believe it? This is not the only romantic angle proposed by the script. The other one, between a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the president’s daughter (Thandie Newton), is so undercooked that had it been removed completely, it wouldn’t impact the story in any way.

Back to what most viewers likely signed up for: the special and visual effects. Sure, they look expensive at first glance but look closer: when performers are placed amidst the destruction, there is a glaring disconnect because it is obvious they’re acting in front of a blue or green screen. Consider the scene where Jackson must escape Los Angeles with his family on a limo. Homes, small businesses, landmarks, and gargantuan skyscrapers collapse all around, the score is booming, and there is deafening yells and screams. It drags for so long that near fatalities are reduced to running gags eventually. Suspense and tension devolve into physical comedy. Control—of effects, of timing, of editing—could have turned the sequence around. It were as if everyone in charge of helming the picture fell asleep at the wheel. It’s depressing.

Although science is thrown out the window, I enjoyed how the filmmakers find the time to explain how solar flares (releasing particles called “neutrinos”) lead to the destabilization of the earth’s mantle. Yes, it’s ridiculous. That’s not a question. But I think those who have little or no knowledge of geology and physics can follow the movie’s logic because the animation is presented in a clear and precise manner. This short segment reminded of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” specifically the computer model that showed how water moved from one compartment to another which led to the sinking of the purportedly unsinkable ship.

I Know What You Did Last Summer

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
★★ / ★★★★

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a parade of beautiful actors looking tormented in a wan, straightforward slasher flick. There is not one surprising element here worthy of strong recommendation. It begins with a moral conundrum: While on their way home from the beach, four friends (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr.) accidentally hit a pedestrian on the highway. Do they take responsibility and call the police or do they get rid of the body? There is no movie in the former choice and so once all is said and done, the story jumps a year later when Julie (Hewitt), now a failing freshman in university, receives an ominous note suggesting someone had seen them commit murder. Sure enough, Julie’s friends are killed one by one eventually—by order of importance: predictable, tedious. These scenes are not especially creative, memorable, or gruesome. I felt no glee from the filmmakers in wanting to entertain us. At least one or two chases are extended enough to create minimal tension. The work is based upon Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name, but we learn nothing about the four friends other than their superficial traits: Julie feels the most guilt, Helen and her vanity, Barry the tough guy, and Ray the bore (we learn the least about him—an obvious red herring). Why should we care about these people? It is not enough that a man (or woman) in a rain slicker with a hook wishes to kill them. And, just like forgettable horror pictures, it has the nerve to set up a sequel with—you guessed it—a lame jump scare. Directed by Jim Gillespie. Screenplay by Kevin Williamson.

Edge of Seventeen

Edge of Seventeen (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Edge of Seventeen” continues where standard coming-out-of-the-closet comedy-dramas usually end which makes this picture, written by Todd Stephens and directed by David Moreton, an instant standout in the sub-genre. Too many LGBTQIA+ movies, especially those designed for mainstream consumption, are forgettable precisely because they end up following the same parabola while reaching alarmingly familiar conclusions. It is rare when a film like “Edge of Seventeen” comes along for it has courage to tell you that coming out to your family and friends does not magically turn your life around. It provides the possibility that things can get messier and more complicated—which is okay because adapting to change takes time. It is more interested in presenting reality than providing a false sense of security.

The story revolves around Eric (Chris Stafford), a soon-to-be senior in high school who gets a summer job at a theme park in food service. There, he meets Rod (Andersen Gabrych), an Ohio State University student who seems genuinely interested in getting to know Eric. Although the screenplay underscores the attraction felt by the two men, this is no ordinary romance. The feelings are real, but the writing proves sharp in that for there to be convincing drama, the two must be separated. Otherwise, the story becomes about the couple rather than Eric who struggles with self-acceptance. The presence of the Rod character is solely meant to jolt Eric’s latent homosexuality. It is beautifully done, quite elegant and unexpected. And it is right.

Another insight the writing provides is that there is a crucial difference between coming out and accepting one’s sexuality. Coming out can be easy, for some. But looking inside—really checking in, asking questions, and being honest—that’s far more challenging. It poses the question: How can one so easily accept being different—being gay—when society trains you to believe that being different, odd, strange—queer—is inferior to being “normal”? How can you fit in when the standard—the expectation—is heterosexuality and heteronormativity? I loved how this film is about ideas first rather than comic strip situations that characters find themselves in then having them react.

Notice how the film takes the time to show conversations—no score or soundtrack playing in the background—that look, sound, and feel real. Standouts are exchanges between Eric and his mother (Stephanie McVay): how he shares with her a song he’s been working on, what she thinks about it, and if she regrets dropping out of college (she studied music) in order to start a family. We also spend ample of time with Eric and his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes), who is obviously attracted to him. We see them being called names at school, at parties, and other social gatherings. And we also see why. They don’t dress or act or try to force themselves to get along with their peers. We get a sense that they’re outcasts even before they’re called freaks. Naturally, this friendship is tested when Maggie learns about Eric’s secret. I appreciated how it goes in unexpected and occasionally painful directions. I appreciated its honesty in suggesting that sometimes even the strongest friendships are unable to weather certain storms.

“Edge of Seventeen” is not for viewers who are 1) looking to feel good about themselves and 2) unwilling to go delve deeply in what the filmmakers are actually communicating about the realities of being gay and coming out. The story, like life, is left in an open-ended manner. It trusts us to evaluate where Eric’s relationships might end up based on the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout our time with them. Ultimately, I found optimism in Eric’s story even though it is more bitter than sweet. Eric is only seventeen. He has so much more to experience. Why box him into a defined ending just so we can feel good? The astute and penetrating filmmakers really thought about what they wished to accomplish—and it shows.

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another comedy with a terrific premise—a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to become a writer is hired as a rock critic—but just about every time the film appears ready to take off, the screenplay falters, crashes, and gets mired in repetitive exposition. What results is a death march to the finish line: the main character is flavorless; her journey, while eventful, is without soul, and the lessons she learns about herself and adults around her are common sense for smart, well-grounded teenagers—someone she is already supposed to be. I didn’t believe a single second of this movie; I found it no better than a trip to the dentist.

The film is based upon the novel of the same name by Caitlin Moran. It is a shock that she penned the screenplay because we are not given strong reasons why Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein, sporting an awful British accent) is a protagonist worth following. The intention, I think, is to tell a story of a person who feels ready to take on the world but is limited because of her age, lack of experience, and that she comes from a humble background. In order to compensate for the elements she lacks, she feels the need constantly underscore her talent for words. That’s a workable template, but it isn’t compelling when details and realism are lacking.

In the final scene, Johanna turns to the target audience—young women—and essentially reminds them that her journey is meant to provide female empowerment. Because she is able to claim a happy ending, so can those who are watching. While I support the idea of stories imbuing power to young girls, I couldn’t but help feel confused because Johanna’s struggles are not specifically tethered to her gender. In fact, her endeavors relate to nearly everything about her except her sex. There’s a glaring disconnect.

Perhaps we are meant to notice the fact that Johanna is the only female writer hired at D&ME (say that three times as quickly as you can), a London-based paper specializing in covering the latest music bands and trends. But no drama is excavated upon her hiring. The men look at her not because she’s a woman but because she is young and naive. Johanna is a music writer who can quote “Ulysses” from memory and yet she hasn’t even listened to The Rolling Stones. Of course she’s going to be considered as a joke. Who can take you seriously in a specific field when you do not possess the most basic knowledge required of that field? It’s not about gender.

Instead of focusing on the drama between Johanna and her colleagues, plenty of attention is placed on how much money she has begun to make. Apparently, it’s a lot, despite working for the magazine for only a few weeks, because she is able to dissolve her family’s debt. She even buys them a new van at some point. Obviously, this is a fantasy. And so the screenplay is required to make a story realistic through other means. Otherwise, we as viewers do not connect with the material in ways that we can or should.

“How to Build a Girl,” directed by Cody Giedroyc, is a frustration nearly every step of the way. Johanna is surrounded by personalities more interesting than her. Examples: her father (Paddy Considine) who still clings onto his dream of becoming a big rockstar someday, her gay brother (Laurie Kynaston) who just so happens to be her best friend, and musician John Kite (Alfie Allen) whose songs possess a sadness and yearning to them. These three make Johanna more interesting because despite her superficial quirks and occasional obnoxious personality, she is flavorless, flat as tap water. Why see this when Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is in existence? The filmmakers fail to provide a compelling answer.

Vincent N Roxxy

Vincent N Roxxy (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

The dramatic thriller “Vincent N Roxxy,” based on the screenplay and directed by Gary Michael Schultz, showcases a terrific cast that can embody any emotion required to create a convincing reality of simmering violence waiting to reach a boiling point. But those expecting a standard thriller with a typical parabola to make the story digestible will surely be disappointed. Instead of painting violence as beautiful thing, as often seen in mainstream projects, here is a film that showcases violence as ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking. There were instances when I found myself wishing to look away from the images on screen.

The near-brilliant piece begins as a thriller and quickly detours into a sort of romantic side quest involving the titular characters. Roxxy (Zoë Kravitz) being hunted by thugs (led by Scott Mescudi, a performer to watch out for) and without any money, Vincent (Emile Hirsch) offers to help her to get back on her feet by allowing her to stay in his family’s farm (manned by Emory Cohen who plays Vincent’s brother). Notice how the technique behind the camera changes as it fluidly enters and exits two distinct genres.

For instance, when Roxxy and Vincent are sharing a meal in a diner, the camera is up close and personal, desperate to catch every emotion as the duo flirt and attempt to get to know one another better. The lighting is soft, there is music playing in the background, the scene is inviting, lovely. One wonders at the possibility of Hirsch and Kravitz starring in a mature romantic comedy about young people figuring out where to sail their lives. But when violence breaks their bubble, Kravitz’ and Hirsch’s faces turn hard, stern, shades of blues and grays dominate background, sounds of blows to the body are amplified because there is no soundtrack or score. It is unpredictable in that we do not know which type of scene we will encounter in the next five minutes—a rare treat nowadays.

I admired how it takes its time. In standard crime-thrillers, the pacing is usually hurried, the dialogue lightning fast, leaving little room to breathe in order to get our adrenaline going. But here, there are stretches of ennui—which will surely bore some of the audience—which fits the thesis of the story and its characters. The movie is about people who must suppress their anger—which comes from the environment, unmet expectations, the past they either ignore or try to run away from, the suspicions they have of one another as they head toward their futures. The third act impresses as its throws one curveball after another.

“Vincent N Roxxy” is sort of a love story, but it is a love story that is not necessarily romantic. For example, the script touches upon the love between brothers despite the fact that one chose to run away when their mother was ill while the other chose to stay. Although the moments of violence are shocking indeed, equally surprising are its moments of genuine sensitivity, how it gets us to empathize with and be sympathetic to our tragic protagonists.

Jurassic Park III

Jurassic Park III (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

Joe Johnston’s “Jurassic Park III” suffers from similar problems as Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” only it is even less ambitious. This time, the plot revolves around a straightforward rescue mission of a pre-teen (Trevor Morgan) whose parasail crashed in Isla Sorna, the island we came to know quite well in the predecessor, where bioengineering company InGen bred various creatures that roamed the planet during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Although exciting in parts, the picture is a product of diminishing returns: there is a lack of freshness in the majority of chases: setup, initial jolt, a whole lot of running, followed by last-minute saves. To claim there is minimal drama would be an understatement.

There are only two sequences worth sitting through: when we first come to meet a Spinosaurus and the Pteranodon attack amidst a heavy fog. With the former, the screenplay does a solid job in communicating that a Spinosaurus is equal to if not a greater threat than a Tyrannosaurus rex. Although silly, I was entertained by the duel between the two creatures especially because it gives us time to observe how they attempt to render their prey helpless. For instance, the T. rex. tries to overpower its enemy using its size and body weight. But when it comes to the Spinosaurus, it is more reliant upon its agility and jaws. Look how it twists its neck at every opportunity in order to get the upper hand. I got the impression, too, that perhaps it is more intelligent than the T. rex. (But we all know that when it comes to intelligence, Velociraptor is king.)

As for the Pteranodon scene, it is unlike any of the dinosaur attacks we’ve encountered throughout the “Park” series. While there is running, there is a whole lot more jumping and gliding. Aerial shots are terrific, especially when the Pteranodon, while grabbing hold of a human, is required to maneuver among cliffs and other obstacles. Its astounding speed in combination with the thick fog, there is tension that a character may be in real danger should we lose sight of him or her. Bonus points for injecting personalities to the infant Pteranodon, not just in the way they sound but also in terms of movement. Because they are not quite so adept in using their wings, they jump—adorable but also terrifying. I wish the picture consistently functioned on this high level of creativity.

Like “The Lost World,” when the action dies down, the work reverts to a state of comatose. The couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) who hires Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) as a “tour guide” is not only boring but bad caricatures. I felt they were stripped right out of generic suspense-thrillers in which their offspring has been kidnapped and in dire need of rescue. Cue slight bickering for comedic effect. And, of course, they are required to get a little closer or learn to appreciate each other more before the end credits. All that’s missing is a renewal of their vows.

It is so disappointing because there are a few characters worth getting to know. First, there is the technology-averse Dr. Alan Grant. Neill infuses him with big personality, but the screenplay by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor fails to get him to say anything remotely new or interesting. Laura Dern, as Dr. Ellie Sattler, makes a quick appearance but she, too, is not used in a way that elevates the material. An argument can be made that the best scene involves no dinosaur at all, just Alan and Ellie—former colleagues and former lovers—spending time with one another, looking in each other’s eyes, talking about science. So why aren’t these two in the middle of this film?

Another potentially curious character is Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), Dr. Grant’s graduate assistant. Instead of functioning as an awkward appendage for the majority of the picture, why not write this character, for instance, into Dr. Grant’s likeness? Never mind the surprising moments of blind heroism; that’s an easy similarity. But actually write a character with whom we feel to be Dr. Grant’s equal—but young, ambitious, and especially driven. As we observed in “Jurassic Park,” the Dr. Grant character becomes a more curious specimen to study the more often he is surrounded by minds and personalities that challenge him. So why not apply a similar approach to this project?

The answer to both questions is that it requires more effort to create memorable characters that feels exactly right for the story being told, not to mention the themes being tackled, compared to creating superficial and expected thrills. Laziness is what prevents “Jurassic Park III” from truly taking off. There is nothing wrong with a standard rescue mission plot. But the details must be specific and emotions behind them must ring true when the occasion calls for it. Otherwise, it is just another romp in the forest with CGI dinosaurs—watchable but not impressive.