I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kim Jae-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is no ordinary revenge story. I think the point of making a film as violent and as ugly as this is not only to touch upon what vengeance does to a person and of those around him but also to ask viewers how much blood, disfigurements, dismemberments, and other horrific images they can handle—all for the sake of entertainment. I admire and find value in it because the director takes an idea and goes for it without compromise. Needless to say, the picture is not for everyone. But it is for those willing to embrace the fact that within the depths of our humanity, our goodness, resides a monster. Some have no control of it.

The movie is dark, foreboding, and the morality it offers is quite bleak. It opens with a stranded woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) who calls her boyfriend, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-Hun), while waiting for professionals to arrive and fix her tires. She is approached by Jang (Choi Min-sik), a bus driver for a learning center with a penchant for kidnapping, raping, and murdering women, and offers to help. Joo-yun thanks him but insists that she prefers to wait for the servicemen. Soon Joo-yun’s severed head is found washed up under a bridge. Soo-hyun vows that he will find her killer and make him feel the suffering she felt before her death.

The opening act is beautifully operatic which culminates in a night time search for Joo-yun. The camera glides in and out of crowds as we strive to make sense of how much they know, if they have any leads or have found any clues, and get an overall feeling as to whether those aiding the search are optimistic or much less so. Of course, we already know Joo-yun’s fate so the outcome of the search is negligible. Still, there remains great tension because Soo-hyun is on the scene and he does not know what we know. How will he react? It is most appropriate that this tragic sequence ends while fixated on his expression. We are made to recognize the moment in which a part of him dies upon learning that his fiancée is dead.

Small but effective surprises pepper the story. One of them is that it does not require ample time for Soo-hyun to get to Jang. This is an astute decision made by screenwriter Park Hoon-jung. After all, this is a revenge story, not a detective story. But devil is in the details: What happens when a man who feels he is wronged gets his hands on the wrongdoer? Another surprise: the killer is not kept in a room to be tormented in every way possible. This would have been too ordinary, too easy, too generic. And it does not make a strong statement regarding Soo-hyun the secret agent, whom we assume to have a strong sense of justice and fairness, a professional who likely has planned out his life with a woman he intends to marry.

This is a classic character study in a sense that everything about our protagonist—qualities that make him Soo-hyun—is stripped away throughout the film. Like a fish flopping about as it struggles for air, we watch him try to survive when he has nothing else to hold onto other than his unadulterated and inconsolable rage. We then must ask: Which is the bigger monster—Soo-hyun the hunter or Jang the hunted? Then later: How do we define “monster”? Should the word be defined on a case-by-case basis? Is that even the right word? I enjoyed that the picture’s ideas are on constant state of evolution. We search for answers not for the film but for ourselves: our own understanding, our own fears and anxieties. This is a psychological thriller that inspires the viewer to look within.

Those who dismiss “I Saw the Devil” as nothing but extreme and violent are downright wrong. I mentioned its level of insight. But it is also disarmingly humorous on occasion, particularly the wacko visit to a pair of cannibals (Choi Moo-sung, Kim In-seo). Of course Jang would be acquainted with such folks. Naturally, there is an extended hallway sequence. Yet despite sudden fluctuations in tone, tension and curiosity persist. How will this specific story be resolved? Can it be resolved? Kim is in control of his material every step of the way.

The Warriors

The Warriors (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

It’s sort of a miracle that Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” manages to work as an action film because it is driven only by two factors: visual pageantry and unadulterated attitude. It thrusts us into a world of street gangs—communities—that constantly fight for their place in New York City. We are not informed when the story takes place, but I think it is set some time in the future when rule of law barely has a grasp on the rest of society. The movie is fresh, entertaining, at times episodic, and transportive in that we crave to know more about its universe and its characters who value belongingness and the idea of family above all.

The plot is straightforward. During a gathering in the Bronx, the beloved leader of the Gramercy Riffs named Cyrus (Roger Hill), who has just delivered a speech about the importance of maintaining peace amongst the gangs, is shot dead. Chaos ensues, cops arrive at the scene, and soon enough The Warriors are framed for the murder. The Warriors’ even-tempered leader, Swan (Michael Beck), decides that they must make their way home from the Bronx to Coney Island—which will be not an easy task considering the likelihood that they now have a bounty on their heads.

The Warriors encounter a handful of groups on their way home, but each confrontation is different and memorable. For instance, the first gang we meet, The Orphans, actually possesses the numbers to stop The Warriors and deliver them to the Riffs. Members are on the streets, inside buildings, atop roofs. But notice how the screenplay by David Shaber and Walter Hill underscores the personality of this group, how their toughness and grittiness is a mask (maybe that is their real costume), how most important to them is idea of being recognized and respected by other groups. And why is that? Because they grew up as orphans. They yearn to feel wanted, to belong, to be regarded as worthy. What could have been a standard fist-fight and the like is turned into something else worthy of thought and consideration.

Another example: Crossing paths with the a group who refer to themselves as the Baseball Furies. Unlike The Orphans, they are not given a chance to speak. However, the camera inspires us to study them: how they wear matching baseball uniforms, how they don various colors of paint on their faces, how their expressions are mostly blank. Clearly, these are men who are strong and not afraid of confrontation. Thus, The Warriors must deal with them in a different way than they did The Orphans. Throughout the picture, this level of thought and freshness is maintained—which creates an engaging experience.

There is one aspect of the film that should have been explored which might have helped to take it to the next level. Of the nine unarmed Warriors delegates sent to Van Cortlandt Park, there are two strong personalities: Swan, the natural leader, and Ajax (James Remar), the brute spitfire. Some level of respect can be felt between the two, but it is apparent that the latter genuinely believes he is the better leader. And so there is conflict there, beginning with what to do as a group following the assassination. Moments of conflict between Swan and Ajax are telling, but there aren’t enough of it. The Warriors must face other gangs, but there is also tension within the group. Surely there is more drama to be mined from two fronts than just one.

Nevertheless, what’s at offer in here is fun, creative, very much worth seeing at least once. It is consistent in drawing a smile on my face because although it is an action film, there is barely any visual effects employed. Explosions and shootouts are kept at a minimum. Here is an action picture stripped bare. And how it dares to top itself one scene after the next. Do not miss this.

The Grudge

The Grudge (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” is a most tepid a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on.” It is so uninspired that in the middle of it, I was compelled to check if this writer-director was the same person who helmed “The Eyes of My Mother,” a terrific debut film about how crippling loneliness and deep trauma can destroy the soul of a person. This remake, on the other hand, is not about anything—of substance or value. It contains plot, characters, and lame attempts to scare but it is hollow inside. Who is this movie for? Other than to make money, what is the point of it? Who can be proud of putting this junk out there and wasting people’s time and money?

We learn nothing about the vengeful ghost other than it possesses the ability latch onto a person once that individual visits the place it is haunting. In the opening scene, which takes place in 2004, we meet a terrified Tokyo-based American nurse (Tara Westwood) who calls home to inform her family that she’ll be returning. In 2006, we meet Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who moves to Pennsylvania following her husband’s death due to cancer. She is assigned to work with Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir) and soon they visit a possible crime scene involving an abandoned car with a rotting corpse inside. They find an address in the glove compartment: 44 Reyburn Drive. Another cop mentions the Landers case and soon the curious Detective Muldoon becomes obsessed in learning more about the triple homicide.

We meet almost a dozen characters between its 2004 and 2006 timelines. Although they are played by the likes of John Cho, Frankie Faison, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye, these performers are given nothing substantive to work with. And so, in order to create a semblance of intrigue, a few of them rely on histrionics, from yelling to extreme behaviors, and the rest utter lines in a most robotic fashion. Even they are unable to mask their boredom despite being in the movie—and being paid. It is clear that the problem lies in the screenplay. It commands no tension.

Consider: we already know the fates of most of the characters given that Detective Muldoon has a police file in hand. (While Westwood tries her best in looking thoughtful while staring at the photos, notice her character’s detective work is minimal at best. We do not get a sense of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and attitude toward her line of work.) And so it is most critical to present intriguing details specific to the unsolved case. Every scene must function as a step forward to a conclusion that’s sensical within the story’s universe despite its supernatural elements. You guessed it: This is a horror film so generic that mere ten minutes into it, one can surmise that it will offer a non-ending. It assumes that viewers are stupid enough to mistake its laziness for being chilling. This is most pessimistic filmmaking.

Even the special, visual, and make-up effects are not at all memorable. For example, when a figure pops out of the corner of the screen, it is so instantaneous that we never get a chance to appreciate the performance behind the would-be scary facade, the minute touches on dirty or bloody clothing, the look of death or anger on their faces. It gives the impression that the filmmakers themselves are not proud of their work. This “Grudge” lacks energy, an eye for what makes a scary situation effectively, basic pacing, and a distinctive vision. A cheap haunted house walkthrough is scarier than this. And a lot shorter.

A Dirty Carnival

A Dirty Carnival (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of Yoo Ha’s “A Dirty Carnival,” we are given the impression that it is a gangster picture told through a romantic prism, yet another story of a young man who joins a gang in order to better the life of his family, sickly mother and all. It is quite surprising, and enthralling, how adding one character manages to shift the dramatic tone and plot parabola almost completely. Suddenly, the material is alive and crackling. Some familiar elements remain, like having to deal with rival gangs and the like, but we are kept on our toes as to how they might play out given that the screenplay proves to be malleable enough, readily changeable depending on what it hopes to subvert about hardcore gangster flicks.

The character that serves as spice is Min-ho (Namkoong Min), a childhood friend of Byung-doo, our central protagonist, who aspires to become a film director. Min-ho hopes to make a gangster film for his debut and he figures he needed to perform research by means of interviewing actual gangsters and being in the action when things go bad. It is so fascinating that without this character, Byung-doo is just another low-level thug with a good heart. Jo In-sung plays the boyish looking gangster with a transparency so accessible, it feels almost bizarre at first he is cast to play what we expect to be a rough role. But it is actually correct to make such a left-field decision because a) Jo is strong in the role and b) his youthful look strips away some of our defenses. And so when he is thrusted into sudden fits of violence, it is shocking, horrific.

I admired the work’s schizophrenic tone. In one scene, for instance, rival gang members are fighting tooth and nail under a bridge while increasingly covered in mud and blood. The next scene, we observe people having a quiet drink that leads to some karaoke. And the scene after that, a person is being bludgeoned with a bat. You never know what’s coming. It is exciting, amusing, and occasionally creative. I felt the writer-director’s fondness for experimentation. Some risks pay off, some do not. But what matters is that the work is never boring—especially since it has a running time of two hours and twenty minutes. It glides right through.

What I find most ironic about this odd gangster flick is that we get a handful of exchanges between Byung-doo and his superiors. There is much discussion about money, territory, who needs to be killed, and what favors need to be done should someone wish to climb up the ladder. But what’s even more tension-filled is Byung-doo simply trying to connect with a woman who works in a bookstore, Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young), a childhood friend and crush, how, in a way, he feels he must prove to her that being a gangster is not really who he is.

But is he not? How can Byung-doo expect to convince someone otherwise when a simple thing like getting a phone call from work can completely alter his disposition from a sensitive, loving man to a murderer who makes his victims “disappear”? I found a sadness in Byung-doo and Hyun-joo’s relationship—or whatever it is that they share. Our brains already know there is no way of it ever working out. But our hearts say otherwise. And I think that’s the crux of this film. Just as we fight against our instincts, so does Byung-doo. From this angle, the film gets the story precisely right.

But what of Min-ho? A case can be made that he fights against his instincts, too. Those eyes know that he is constant danger while being surrounded by killers who walk, talk, and laugh just like regular folks on the street. But the artist in him is compelled to tell his subjects’ stories. Surely there is a line he cannot cross. Is he blind to it? Every person we meet here has a blindspot, whether it be family, friends, money, or ambition. Min-ho uses his camera for living. What is he blind to and will it be his undoing?


Mayhem (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Joe Lynch’s action horror-comedy “Mayhem” is supposed to be a satire of toxic corporate culture. But what is the point of it when there is no venom behind its sting? What results is violent but pointless movie that finds itself unable to move past its initial idea; it is a classic case of a film that never stops beginning, a bore, redundant, in desperate need of rewrite. Halfway through, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for co-stars Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving, talented performers with charm to spare but are given nothing to work with and so they rely upon histrionics in order to create a semblance of character substance. Matias Caruso’s screenplay is not worthy of their talent.

ID-7 is a virus that readily infects people, rendering them unable to control their deepest, darkest impulses. It is also called the “Red Eye” virus given that those infected tend to exhibit pink eye. There is no cure; it goes away on its own or it can be alleviated using a neutralizing agent. This is all the information we get concerning this virus—presented during the first fifteen minutes. Just like the dead script, neither the virus nor the concept behind it fails to evolve. Because of this, the material is drained of intrigue over time. Eventually, we are left with only violence.

Even then the violence is not all that entertaining. Recently fired Derek (Yeun) must fight his way to the top floor in order to try to get his job back. Surely if he could get an audience with the CEOs, they would be sympathetic to this plight. Naturally, he must face-off against those involved with his firing, from those directly responsible for placing blame on him regarding a botched multimillion-dollar case (Caroline Chikezie) to those who have knowledge of the facts but decided to look the other way (Dallas Roberts).

Scissors to the hand, fire extinguisher to the face, saw into a chest cavity—bloody, brutal, shock and awe. The camera moves with energy and seeming purpose, but the screenplay and the editing lack the synergy (and rhythm) required for these sequences to actually be engaging. Since there is a constant air of superficiality, violence often comes across fake and forced. Its shortcomings are especially apparent when Derek and Melanie (Weaving), a client whose home is on the verge of foreclosure, must take on a horde of office workers. There is lack of discipline in the framing, action beats, and catharsis. It’s all so exhausting and boring.

Thoughtful viewers will pick up on the possibility that the filmmakers have failed to ask themselves, “What’s the heart of the story we’re telling?” This should have been an accessible, relatable movie because millions of people out there work in soul-sucking jobs, thankless jobs, unrewarding jobs—which is not limited to being in an office or sitting in a cubicle. And that breeds anger—in oneself, toward others… So why isn’t the picture more in touch with its humanity? That is because it is easier, you see, to create images of destruction than to show violence within. Since this film is afraid to explore the latter, what we do see—which is the former—offers nothing worthwhile. Just empty busy work.

Blood Vessel

Blood Vessel (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

One of the problems with the Nazis-messing-with-the-occult-yet-again story of “Blood Vessel” is a lack of forward momentum. There is a simple plot, characters whose sole purpose is to be slaughtered, and neat practical effects, but the first half is such a trial to be endured that most viewers will be compelled to check out before the undead in the coffin wakes. Why is it that in this day and age of horror films, screenwriters still think it is a good idea to require the audience to endure a barrage of wooden personalities arguing with what to do next after finding themselves in a life-or-death situation? How is that fun for us?

The reason, I think, is that arguments—superficial ones—are easy to write. Yelling creates an illusion of conflict. In this story, which takes place during the tail end of World War II, Americans, British, Australian, and Russians are added into the mix. They clash, decibels increase, and glaring intensifies—yet there is a heavy gloom of boredom. This is a film in which it is not a good idea to keep the monster hidden for so long because the characters are given nothing interesting to say or do. Why not simply cut to the chase?

Notice that as folks are killed off, there is an improvement in the flow of the movie. I wished to know more about the Teplov the Russian sniper (Alex Cooke), particularly the stories behind his scars, from bullet wounds, knife fights, to animal attacks; Jane (Alyssa Sutherland) and her motherly nature, even toward the cowardly spook that no one trusts (John Lloyd Fillingham); and how Sinclair (Nathan Phillips) becomes the de facto leader of the group when things go from bad to worse. Still, the script’s ear for dialogue, written by Justin Dix (who directs) and Jordan Prosser, could have used more polishing. The performers seem up to the task.

The Nazi vessel commands minimal personality. In the middle of it, I was reminded of Rob Hedden’s “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” because although that sequel is silly as hell, it is actually enjoyable to watch doomed characters running around that ship. We get a sense of geography, there are kills that take place in confined and open spaces, walls are slashed, doors are broken, glass windows shatter. In this film, characters touch objects as if they were in a museum. Are the props that fragile or expensive? There is a lack of rawness in the action. And so a level of urgency is sacrificed, too.

The living dead—whose precise nature I will not describe—looks good. I appreciated that heavy masks are employed to underscore the feral and otherworldly nature of the villains. Their powers are not new or surprising, but they get the job done. I would have loved to learn more about their history. A case can be made that, like the human characters, they are simply trying to survive. So is it fair to label them as monsters?

“Blood Vessel” fails to offer engaging content that would have allowed it to rise above its contemporaries. With its curious setting, a few badass protagonists (Teplov deserves his own movie), and formidable antagonists, clearly basic elements are present to make a superior work. But the magic proves to be in the details yet again. The writers made the mistake of putting more effort into creating shallow drama instead of enriching the story’s lore and mystique.

The Biggest Little Farm

The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm” is a nature documentary that should be required viewing in schools because it is able to show the interconnectedness of life so clearly. It is one thing to learn about it in books, but it is on another level to see it unfold entirely. The film, which encompasses seven turbulent years, is funny, surprising, educational, quite sad at times, and it possesses to ability to make the viewer feel small, to inspire us to think about our place on this planet through the microcosm that is Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California, an hour drive north of Los Angeles, a farm that was once so dead, the soil so dry, the new owners—John and Molly Chester—and their team had to build a station dedicated solely for composting in order to even have a chance of possibly reinvigorating 200 acres of land. I watched spellbound.

We are presented more than a dozen examples of interconnection and self-sustainability. For instance, the more cows brought and born into the farm, the more flies they attract since the cows produce more waste. The more flies there are, the more eggs they lay on excrement since the larvae requires nutrient-rich environment. And the more fly larvae, chickens could be brought in to feed on them. And so in the long run, farmers would spend less money on purchasing chicken food for hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens. The money could be used on other goods or investments… like bringing in more cows for meat, milk, and the like. It is amazing that although the picture offers a short running time of ninety minutes, it is incredibly efficient: we are provided one informative example after another without coming across like a lecture.

Also communicated clearly is why the Chesters decided to go for their dream of creating a traditional farm. “Traditional” meaning that diversity is paramount—a type of farm we see in children’s movies like “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web.” You see, most farms nowadays are monotype—an egg farm dedicated for raising chickens, for example. Most amusing is that an adopted dog named Todd essentially triggered the couple’s decision to start actualizing their dream. And it is quite astonishing how the Chesters’ lifestyle changed through the course of seven years, beginning from a small, cramped apartment in Santa Monica, CA to the wide open spaces of a farm full of life. The journey is fascinating and hard work—to say the least. Once there is a solution to a problem, more problems arise. It requires constant creativity to be able to keep up with creating a successful farm.

Prior to the making of this terrific documentary, Chester has had experience in film. He commands a keen eye for interesting and beautiful images like piglets and calves being born, butterflies leaving their cocoon to take their first flight, owls roaming the night sky, hundreds of ducklings squeaking in a tiny box. Beautiful, too, in my eyes, is manure filled with maggots—held by a hand wearing no gloves. We also see corpses of chickens having killed by coyotes during the night. I appreciated that the picture’s idea of beautiful is not defined; it is interested in showing what is real and it is up to audience how to process the images they are given.

There is a joyous, celebratory feel to “The Biggest Little Farm” that I believe would appeal most to people who find a certain connection to nature. What is the movie about? It depends. Looking at it as a whole, I think it is about a quest for happiness. In the middle of the movie, the Chesters find themselves encountering so many issues on the farm—like pipe issues, toxic algae bloom, overpopulation of pests—but at the same time we consider the alternative: They could still be stuck in their tiny apartment in the city, their dreams still just dreams.

May the Devil Take You Too

May the Devil Take You Too (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Timo Tjahjanto takes his sequel to “May the Devil Take You” in an interesting direction: Underscore the relationship between Alfie (Chelsea Islan)—our heroine and one of the survivors from the first feature—and the Devil in a way that promises there will more terrors to come after this installment. The reason why this chapter must exist is clear. Alfie has had extensive experience in dealing with what’s beyond the human realm. Such encounters tend to stick to her like a curse. She can save herself, her family, and strangers who ask for help. Although she is able to triumph in individual battles, is there actually a chance for her to win the war?

I enjoyed this follow-up a bit more than the original because I felt it is more ambitious with its ideas. Alfie is no longer the girl who just so happens to have a father who sacrificed his daughter’s soul to quench his greed. She is now a symbol, an example, and perhaps even hope of outsmarting the Devil in its own twisted game. Islan’s Alfie here is not only more confident, she is a fighter: for herself, for her little sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab), and everyone else who find themselves haunted by the beyond due to an adult figure making a similar deal with the Devil.

The setup is perfunctory but it does the job. A group of young adults who used to reside in the same orphanage kidnap Alfie and Nara. Some of them are convinced that Alfie may be able to stop an evil spirit from claiming their souls. The apparition is named Ayub (Tri Hariono) and he craves revenge. The children he abused murdered him and left his body in the cellar. Just like the previous film, this story unfolds in one place—an orphanage of physical, mental, and sexual trauma. None of the characters are well-adjusted; they’re barely even functional.

It is quite astounding that there is only a two-year gap between the release of the original and the sequel because the special, visual, and cosmetics effects are far more advanced here. Perhaps it is due to having a higher budget, but I wouldn’t put money on it. We’ve seen time and again that all the money in the world is no substitute for old-fashioned craft. I think Tjahjanto studied the first outing closely and took notes of elements that could be improved upon.

For instance, women with long, black hair wearing white gowns is so often used in Asian horror. At this point, it’s tired and dated. But look at how Tjahjanto handles them here. Instead of placing emphasis on the whole body, how it moves down hallways and the like, focus is from the chest upwards. The horrifying make-up, occasionally mixed with CGI, coupled with exaggerated facial expressions create terrifying, claustrophobic encounters. This is also a bit quieter than the original so there is more room for creepy, goosebump-inducing moments.

What prevents the picture from functioning on another level is, like the predecessor, a lack of convincing human connections. For example, Alfie and Nara’s interactions are often shallow reminders that they’re sisters. But we already know that. What else is there to their bond? How has their relationship evolved ever since the events in the first movie?

As for the orphans, there are far too many of them. Although we get the sense that a few are closer than others (like Budi and Leo, the suicidal and the alcoholic played by Baskara Mahendra and Arya Vasco, respectively), it is never shown to us how close they are as a collective. In a horror movie with a handful of characters introduced at once, it is paramount that the screenplay be thoroughly efficient in getting us to care about as many of them as possible. Otherwise, they’re just sheep to be gutted. At least majority of the practical effects are on point.

May the Devil Take You

May the Devil Take You (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

In the middle of this overlong supernatural horror film from Indonesia, I couldn’t help but admire Timo Tjahjanto’s willingness to put every trick he’s learned from ‘70s and ‘80s terror flicks into a blender and then force the mixture down our throats until we grow sick of it. It cannot be denied that the writer-director of “May the Devil Take You” loves both horror movies and horror images. But it also cannot be denied that the screenplay lacks critical details that would allow the story being told to stand out from its classic inspirations (Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead,” William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” to name a few) and modern contemporaries.

It starts off with great potential. Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) is desperate to become rich and so he makes a deal with the Devil through one of its priestesses (Ruth Marini). The opening sequence is inspired because it feels specific to a culture. Sure, we get the usual blood sacrifice, circle of magic with a star in the middle, and creepy incantations. But what witchery involves, for instance, having to consume a lock of hair? It gets stranger from there. It is near impossible not to watch wide-eyed as bizarre images flood the screen. The introduction promises freshness, boundless energy, a good time.

But it is a nosedive from there. For years, Lesmana experienced financial success, particularly in making investments, but when he is required to pay the second time, he finds himself unable to deliver. Years pass and Lesmana is on his deathbed with a mysterious illness. His biological daughter, Alfie (Chelsea Islan), who he has not seen for a decade, decides to visit, perhaps to say goodbye. But Alfie is not the only visitor. From the moment she stepped into the hospital elevator, she feels there is a presence. Initially she chalks it up to exhaustion, her mind playing tricks on her. But then it appears again behind a hospital curtain, right next to her father.

And so we go through the oft traverse parabola of a loved one visiting a mysterious place out in the country in hopes of finding answers. In this case, Alfie goes to her father’s abandoned villa to find something that might help to cure Lesmana’s affliction. There is a curious angle to be had here. Unlike Alfie, Lesmana’s second wife, a former actress (Karina Suwandhi—quite villainous but ultimately underused), and his three stepchildren (Pevita Pearce, Sam Rafael, Hadijah Shahab) are already on the scene—not to find answers but to acquire valuable items they could sell. It is obvious that this is not just a story about having to fight the Devil.

It is also about biological and adoptive children finding commonalities through tragedy. A few questions worth considering: What does Lesmana mean to Alfie when he hasn’t been a father to her for a decade? What does Lesmana mean to his stepchildren when it is apparent that their mother loves his money more than the man? And how might the children move forward should Lesmana die? It doesn’t work because the dramatic foundations are largely absent.

More effort is put into how to make human levitation look convincing, how to make a possessed person crawling up the walls as creepy as possible, how to make breaking or cutting limbs look extremely gross and painful. While these horror images are given appropriate love and care, and some of them are quite impressive, it’s a challenge to become emotionally invested in the story when a similar level of effort is not given to character details and relationships. When new bonds are formed and then broken later on, notice it is a struggle to feel a thing. So then what is the point of telling this particular story? It might as well not have been told at all.

“May the Devil Take You” shows that just because inspirations are there doesn’t necessarily mean a picture is able to stand strong on its own. While it isn’t a requirement to be original, the human factor must be well-defined, it must possess a certain flow so that we buy into the changes the characters undergo, and it must make sense from an outsider’s point of view so we are able to sympathize and empathize with whatever is going on. Here, somewhere along the way the human element becomes an afterthought.

Weathering with You

Weathering with You (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When writer-director Makoto Shinkai hams up the drama, “Weathering with You” becomes an intolerable and exhausting experience. The final thirty minutes of this animated film involving a runaway fifteen-year-old boy who meets a girl with the ability to control the weather simply by praying to the heavens is so tonally schizophrenic, it is downright laughable at times. It is not enough that an unusual summer storm threatens to submerge Tokyo. Our protagonist is hunted by the police like a common criminal. A person is held at gunpoint. Somebody goes missing. A child is taken to a counseling center against his will. I sat back in utter confusion and disbelief; I couldn’t wait for the awkward and uncomfortable turn of events to finally end.

There are few good ideas here. During the first act, it is established that Tokyo is a place where outsiders can run toward and find belongingness, perhaps even family. The material comes from an optimistic perspective, but at least the themes it attempts to tackle possess a semblance of focus and clarity. It is not blind to the dangers of, for instance, a high school dropout having to fight for survival in a city where crime and destitution are prevalent. It is necessary that Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) be shown sleeping in the streets and having nothing to eat at times. And so when he crosses paths with fellow outcasts who have come to embrace the city as home, we wonder about their own histories and how their pasts might shape how they view and treat the newcomer.

Although undercooked, I enjoyed the subplot involving Hodaka being hired as a live-in, part-time employee by Keisuke (Shun Oguri), a middle-aged man running a two-person publishing company. We observe their day-to-day routine. We notice the way Keisuke regards Hodaka, that perhaps the man considers the boy to be younger version of him. Or perhaps the boy is a substitute for another person whom Keisuke cares deeply about. Or both. In any case, this father-son, employer-employee, local-transplant relationship could have been so much deeper. I think that had the writer-director been not so adamant about the teen romance being the centerpiece, this newfound connection would be the natural focal point.

It cannot be denied that the story is rooted in drama despite the magical realism that is weather control by means of prayer. The story takes off when Hodaka learns about Hina’s ability (Nana Mori). Since the two are living on their own, with Hina supporting her younger brother as well (Sakura Kiryu), they are desperate for money. And so the two decide to use Hina’s ability in order to make a quick buck. Given that Tokyo is experiencing a record-setting summer rainfall, people are desperate for sunny days. There is believable humor in the duo meeting all sorts of folks with their own stories to tell (a wedding, a death anniversary, an outdoor market, a child who wish to spend time with her father in the park, among others). The weather control angle is simply a device to tell humanistic stories—and it should have remained that way for the rest of the picture.

Instead, viewers are inundated with Hodaka’s fear of losing Hina. According to legends, those granted the power to control the natural elements are eventually spirited away. The problem is, the writing fails to evolve the romance past the boundaries of a teenage crush. Hodaka’s feelings for Hina is treated like some sort of great love—which it very well might be but we do not experience the relationship challenged or grow in meaningful ways. In fact, a case can be made that interesting bits are lost among montages (coupled with pop songs) designed to denote passage of time. I got the impression that Shinkai wishes to show a romantic love so epic that it rivals natural disasters. However, the necessary substance is just not there. And so the romance comes across contrived.

“Weathering with You” boasts eye-catching animation. Images involving rain and fireworks made me blink twice—I found some enjoyment in differentiating among hand-drawn animation, computer animation, and a mixture of both. They feel so alive. Realistic. Having said that, animation is simply a medium. Although elements that can make a terrific story are present here, they lack the connective tissues required so that they function as foundation. The romance on offer here is far from special.

Yes, God, Yes

Yes, God, Yes (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Karen Maine’s directorial debut needs a massive electric shock to the chest because it is dramatically and comically dead. For a story about a teenager who is raised in a Catholic household, attends Catholic school, and is neck-deep into the Catholic community, it should be filled to the brim with savage humor—and genuine humanity. After all, its purpose is two-fold: to underline the countless hypocrisies within such institutions (students of faith and leaders alike) and how such organizations tend to create young adults who are ill-equipped to handle the world outside of one’s bubble. “Yes, God, Yes” means well. But it is toothless.

Natalya Dyer plays Alice, our central protagonist who chooses to follow her curiosity. I enjoyed her performance for the most part; I believed the mix of horror and temptation in those eyes every time Alice faces new situations—often sexual—like receiving racy photos from hairychest1956@aol.com, being invited to partake in cyber sex, discovering the pleasure of masturbation, and learning about what “tossing salad” actually means. Dyer is required to walk the line between being naive and sheltered without coming across as dumb or stupid. She gives the impression that she’s aware of the fact that pushing the character to the latter extreme, especially a work peppered with satirical elements, is likely to make Alice unworthy of our time. She acts with intention, but the material is not worthy of Dyer’s talent.

The story unfolds in two places: at the Catholic school and at a four-day Catholic retreat. The former is a near waste of time—and film—when it absolutely should not have been. In smart comedies, expository sequences manage to lay out the stakes. In this film, we meet Alice but everyone else around her is a complete and utter bore, from Alice’s fair-weather best friend Laura (Francesca Reale), Alice’s crush Wade (Parker Wierling)—who has a girlfriend, to the by-the-book Father Murphy (Timothy Simons).

Although these supposedly key figures—ones who will help, inadvertently, our heroine to solidify her attitude toward living her own life, under her own terms, while still possibly holding onto her faith—attend the retreat with Alice, they are not given anything of note to say or do. Instead, they drop in and out whenever convenient to say the same things only using different words. Halfway through, we still wait for the supporting characters to act human. A comedy doesn’t work when everyone is a robot or a cardboard cutout. Where’s the funny in that?

We already know that religion and hypocrisy walk hand-in-hand. The writer-director appears to be stuck in this glaringly obvious and oft tread idea. What results is a lack of dramatic parabola. The movie is tonally flat; events happen but they offer no effective punchlines. Maine fails to evolve her story in a way that is believable, pointed, perhaps even heartfelt. I got the impression as though she thinks her audience are composed only of high school students who possess an extremely narrow definition of religion, that perhaps religion and faith are synonymous. We all know it isn’t. It’s more complex than that.

I felt neither challenge nor a daringness to this picture. If it is a passion project, I felt no passion from it either. With so many first-time filmmakers appearing to put their all into their debut piece, if what’s on display here is all what Maine has to offer, I question her as a storyteller. Because if that’s all there is, she’d be wise to find a new vocation. Still, I hope I am proven wrong in her next film. (If there is a next one.) It’s always nice to be surprised.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Remove the gruesome, in-your-face murders and mutilations and notice that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” remains to be a thoroughly effective horror film. Inferior slasher films forget that violence does not define horror even though it is or can be a part of it. Director Tobe Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Henkel) commands a complete understanding of this simple but often overlooked idea. What results is a horror film for the ages: violent—yes—but also loud, uncomfortable, atmospheric, and filled to brim with unusual and downright chilling images. (A hammer being dropped on the ground repeatedly, for instance, allows us to appreciate its mass. And so we buy it when that hammer is used to bash in someone’s skull.) One does not walk away from this picture without a strong impression. It demands that you have an opinion.

Images outside of what we consider to be “typical horror” are seared into my brain. A terrified woman slides accidentally into a living room full of feathers. The camera observes with great patience; it allows us to appreciate what she finds to be frightening in that room. There are bones all around—most appear to be from animals but it is clear a few are human. But the bones are not randomly strewn about. They are used as decorations—a nudge to the real-life murders that Ed Gein committed. We notice the panic building in the woman’s body and eyes… yet she does not scream. At least not yet. Instead, we hear the manic clucking of a chicken in a cage from a few feet away, as if to communicate that this human is invading its space.

Another standout moment involves a second woman being driven from location to another. Her mouth is gagged, her hands are tied, and her head is covered with a sack. She lays on the floor of the passenger’s seat… which is important because it further underscores that she and her kidnapper are not on equal footing. Her assailant, the driver, holds a stick with his right hand and continues to hit her—and then laughing to himself—until they reach their destination, as if to remind her who’s in charge, who has the power. This is a work that does not rely on dialogue for meaning; it assumes we are intelligent enough to recognize what’s terrifying about a situation outside of the usual slicing and stabbing. It wants us to undergo an experience rather than simply sitting through one. There is a world of difference. And the answer lies in craft.

The plot revolves around Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother named Franklin (Paul A. Partain) who go on a trip, along with Sally’s boyfriend (Allen Danziger) and two friends (William Vail, Teri McMinn), to visit their grandfather’s grave. Word has gone around that a person, or persons, has been robbing graves and mutilating corpses. They did not plan to stop by grandfather’s abandoned house but one thing leads to another and they end up going there, unaware that right next door is a family of cannibals (Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan). One of them wears human skin as a mask (Gunnar Hansen). We learn his name is Leatherface.

There is a rawness to this picture that I found to be beautiful and transporting. In its opening minutes, we can actually feel the heat of the sun by how sticky and sweaty the characters look inside their van. Their clothes are stained with sweat and grime. Perhaps they have not taken a shower for over a day. When they step outside, the photography highlights the dryness of the land. We see and hear heavy breathing when a person’s face captures the sun’s rays. We feel like one of the travelers and we already know it’s a very bad idea to pick up a hitchhiker.

Notice its use of sound. It assaults the eardrums. An obvious but important one is the revving of a chainsaw, Leatherface’s weapon of choice. When it roars, you feel it in your gut the whole time. Combine this sound when the masked killer chases after his victim. They run and run and run—in the dark, amongst dead trees, inside houses. Notice, too, how the distance between predator and prey tends to decrease over time. You are compelled to pull your limbs closer to your torso. And then the screaming begins. We stare into the victim’s desperate eyes in quiet surrender and wonder how the hell she can possibly get out of the house of horrors and live to tell the tale.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is without question that George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has shaped the landscape of the modern zombie movie. But unlike most of its seedlings, this independent horror classic offers minimal gore. Due to budget constraints, it is forced to rely on steady pacing, mounting tension, precise framing between predator and prey, and smart timing when it comes to detailing information about the undead. It works because of its simplicity. By leaving just enough for the imagination, it lures us into its world where the line between the living and the dead is so tenuous that a friend or family member one minute can become a flesh-eater the next.

A portentous visit to the cemetery becomes a death sentence when siblings Barbra and Johnny (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner) come across a lumbering man in a suit. This is a terrific opening sequence because it underscores the material’s ability to change from silliness to viciousness at a drop of a hat. Observe closely during the first contact between the living and the undead. The camera does not observe from a distance or mere few feet away. It is placed in the middle of the scuffle, as if to highlight the size and strength of the assailant.

The dead might walk slowly, but it is not harmless even when by itself. When it is within grabbing distance, it takes advantage and it becomes a challenge to escape. It can be punched, kicked, scratched—but it feels nothing. The grip just gets tighter. A horde of zombies is another matter entirely. You can run. But they will walk and walk until you can run no longer. The desperate Barbra, too, notices that they do not take their eyes off her. She tries to hide, but they seem to always know where she is. What is scarier than knowing deep down that you will die and it is only a matter of time? This film plays upon this impending sense of doom all the way to the finish line.

Introducing colorful personalities for the slaughter is a trait that many zombie films have adapted and made their own. Here, one becomes seven before the halfway point, but the interactions between Barbra and Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who stole a truck to escape from fifty to sixty zombies near a diner, remains fresh. No, it is not because they find a special connection, or attraction, or some other nonsense that doesn’t fit into the survival story. It is the exact opposite: Barbra and Ben do not get to know each other.

In fact, Barbra remains traumatized from her encounter in the cemetery. These two are simply shown co-existing in a farmhouse that is slowly becoming surrounded by the undead. Sure, they conflict once or twice. But it is never personal. Every waking moment is a struggle for survival. The same cannot be said between Ben and the remaining personalities—heated exchanges that touch upon power and race. Keep in mind that this film was released when America was undergoing social and political upheaval. It cannot be denied that the Romero (who co-writes with John. A Russo) is making—not just a statement—but a stand in regards to human rights, specifically black rights in the US, as to say, “What is more horrific than racism?”

While I recognize the picture’s importance and numerous positive qualities, there are a number of continuation errors that cannot be overlooked. They occur enough times that encountering them took me out of the experience. An example involves Barbra, having just entered the farmhouse, deciding to go upstairs. She stops in her tracks because right at the top of the stairs is a rotting skull staring at her. She freaks out and remains downstairs. Later on, however, when Ben chooses to move the body, the corpse’s head is not rotten at all. In fact, it looks like a beautiful woman who’s simply asleep.

Another example: when a character is being stabbed to death with a trowel, notice that no blood spatter is shown during the time of the killing. But, toward the end of the scene, we see blood on the wall… but its consistency and pattern do at all match the feverish violence—it were as if somebody faced the wall and squirted corn syrup from a bottle instead of using a brush of some sort to make the image look more convincing. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with budget. These can be solved with a careful eye, a higher level of perfectionism, a willingness to get it right rather than simply having something on screen.

Regardless, “Night of the Living Dead” is a strong picture because it possesses real ideas and it is not afraid to offer specificity—traits that copycats sorely lack so it is to no one’s surprise that the majority of them end up becoming substandard. The best moments in the film are when characters simply listen intently to the radio and watch television as officials offer insights about the bizarre phenomenon and advice regarding what to do to stay alive. Less really is more.

The Nightshifter

The Nightshifter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Dennison Ramalho’s “The Nightshifter” tells the story of an assistant coroner named Stênio (Daniel de Oliviera) who possesses the ability to talk to the dead. We do not go through the standard motions of the man discovering he has such a gift nor is it revealed to us that he does anything particularly special with it. To him, communicating with the flesh of those who’ve passed is like breathing; he does not even blink at the fact when the meat lying on the metal table—no matter how deformed or rotten—begins a conversation. It is most frustrating then that screenwriters Cláudia Jouvin and Dennison Ramalho fail to take such a terrific (and fun) premise in interesting and memorable directions.

About a third of the way through, it is reduced to just another story that involves a haunting. While some may claim that since the film is based upon the novel by Marco de Castro, it is tethered to follow the content within the source of material. This is incorrect. Those who pen the screenplay are responsible for ensuring that the movie rendition is fresh—even if it means jutting off in unexpected directions. Consider the landscape of horror films that touch upon hauntings. The list runs for about a mile. Now consider a protagonist who has accepted the fact that he can share words, feelings, ideas, and secrets with the dead. How many films come to mind?

When reduced to its most elementary parts, “Morto Não Fala” is a cautionary tale of jealousy. Stênio discovers that his wife (Fabiula Nascimento) is having an affair with a baker (Marco Ricca) and so the assistant coroner uses information—a secret—revealed by a corpse, who was a member of a gang, to his advantage. The overworked and underpaid Stênio believes that by getting rid of his competition, the way Odete sees him—and therefore their marriage—will improve. Stênio is dead wrong on all accounts. Naturally, his plan backfires.

The practical effects of cadavers being cut open and organs being stripped out are realistic and beautiful. I am tickled every time there’s a new body being delivered which means it is time to make that V-shaped incision and let the blood gush out. Effects involving corpses coming to “life” is a curiosity. It is a challenge to discern at times whether the face is actually moving or if CGI is employed. It looks off—but in a good way. A level of uneasiness is created when the dead body is moving its mouth. Stênio remains unperturbed.

The spooky happenings inside Stênio’s house command no excitement. It is especially lame when some ostentatious event—like Stênio waking up in the middle of the night and discovering that a room is completely covered with razor-sharp kite strings—is actually just a figment of our protagonist’s imagination. Burnt looking figures appear. And furnitures move on their own. The lives of Stênio’s children are threatened. A kind neighbor named Lara (Bianca Comparato) gets involved eventually. She’s dedicated to protecting the kids. And no one sits down to have a serious conversation about the supernatural goings-on they’ve just witnessed. So they never get a chance to move forward together and actually attack the problem in an effective way. It is all so pedestrian. These loud scenes not only drag, they do not reveal or underscore details regarding Stênio’s double-edged gift.

“The Nightshifter” begins with an exclamation point but ends with a barely a whisper. It is sad to experience the trajectory of what could have been a strong film that can be both horrifying and darkly comic and have its potential be thrown away to quench audience expectations. This also could have been an effective character study of a man who has a family but is quite lonely because his wife despises him and his son does not respect him. Couple that with a job that requires nighttime isolation—he is surrounded by the shells of what once were people who laughed, cried, got angry, exercised kindness and at times cruelty. Maybe a movie of that caliber will be made one day—hopefully by filmmakers who are so courageous and confident with the material that they approach their project without compromise.