Pieces of a Woman

Pieces of a Woman (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Sometimes a baby just… dies and there is no medical explanation for it. “Pieces of a Woman,” based on the stage play by director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, is an examination of what happens when a couple is unable to face this reality and move on from their loss as a unit. They cannot comprehend it. Or don’t want to comprehend it yet because the experience is too raw, too painful, out of their control, insurmountable, and perhaps there is a bit of shame there. Here is a film that asks, “What’s wrong with that?” and moves forward.

Although a story of loss, it does not dictate how a person should grieve; it is uninterested in showing what is right or what is wrong; and it does not bother when to separate order from the chaos for the sake of the next plot development. In a way, everything bleeds together. I felt a freedom in this work that I wished were more prevalent in American films.

Everybody wants to talk about the twenty-three minute, single-take birth scene, how impressive it is technically. What’s funny is that I didn’t even notice until the scene is nearly over because I was so engrossed with what was happening: Martha (Vanessa Kirby) going into labor at home while her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), telephones Barbara, their midwife. It turns out that Barbara is helping with another labor and thus unable to make it. And so a back-up midwife named Eva (Molly Parker) is sent in her place. Blame will be placed on Eva for the death of the infant.

Because Eva is not the couple’s first choice, the scene becomes an examination. I found myself watching like a hawk, noting every single thing—right and wrong—that may possibly lead to the death of Martha and Sean’s daughter. Tension-filled right from the moment Martha announces she is feeling intense contractions, the work does not bother to mask its final destination. The intrigue, you see, is in the details presented within the single-take, not the fact that the technique is employed or the technical maneuverings themselves. The point is the experience—the terror and beauty of it—and Mundruczó places us right in the middle of the action. We observe, helpless.

What happens after is equally curious, days later and then weeks at a time. Because we are provided mere snapshots of the physical and mental states of Martha and Sean, I found it almost impossible to take sides. Discerning viewers will likely remind themselves that they are not being provided a complete picture. At times it is up to us to fill in the gaps and so we put a bit of ourselves, our experiences, into the work so we could have something more to work with while considering the big picture. As a result, your interpretation of a character will be different from my interpretation of the same character.

Consider: it is clear that the couple is so different from one another, almost polar opposites. On the one hand, Martha comes from a wealthy family (Ellen Burstyn), clearly well-educated and well-connected. On the other, Sean is poor, ill-tempered, a former drug addict, and, in his own words, boorish. We never meet his side of the family. We watch how they cope not only in regard to their child’s death but also when it comes to their withering partnership. Just about every snapshot is an opportunity to observe their defense mechanisms in action.

What I found fresh about this couple is that it comes across as though the director did not bother to capture the performers having or sharing chemistry. I appreciated this laid back approach because if you take a real close look all around you are bound to find more than a few couples who choose to be together even though we, as outsiders, feel they do not have or share chemistry. Or much in common of anything. But the more we observe Martha and Sean, together and apart, we come to appreciate small details that may illuminate why they forged a relationship. But this isn’t to suggest that the screenplay goes easy on either character. I loved that it is more interested in their shortcomings than their triumphs.

Some tools of manipulation are overt: the camera panning over dead or dying plants in the household, a melancholy score that never lets up, a mangy dog making its way through the snow and the character it makes eye contact with is meant to be informative. But because I was able to get into the picture’s unusual rhythm early on, I didn’t mind so much. There is a genuine sadness to this story I was able to connect with on a gut level, and I was always curious as to how Martha might make it out of her silent rage, her crippling depression, her private shame.

The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Naive viewers who walk into the picture thinking it is yet another story of a beautiful couple on a European holiday are in for a vicious surprise in Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers,” based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan and adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter, a thriller so carefully calibrated that the experience of watching it is like figuring out how to solve a Rubik’s cube. You think you know where it is heading but, just like the labyrinthine city of Venice, there are paths that may or may not lead anywhere. And because of this, the work is not for most audiences. It is, however, for those who crave intriguing character studies.

We look at the couple in front of us, and we are inspired to make numerous assumptions. It isn’t that the screenplay is opaque. On the contrary, it is so detailed and confident in regards to what it is really about that we entertain any and all possibilities. It is obvious that Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Colin (Rupert Everett) are well-to-do, educated, and worldly. We get a feeling they’ve known each other for a long time. We feel they care for one another… but we question how deeply when the two don’t even share the same bed. Is this the only type of room or arrangement that’s available in the hotel?

Mary calls home, talking about missing her children. We look at Colin. We study his face. He looks disinterested, perhaps even exasperated with the fact that he and his lover are on vacation yet she keeps bringing up the fact that she misses her kids. So then we ask ourselves what exactly is the nature of Mary and Colin’s relationship. We see them in gorgeous Venice, but might the more interesting details be found in the home, back in England? I admired that the material is so rich, it inspires the viewer to consider alternatives, what we don’t see on screen, how the characters really are when not visiting a foreign country.

There are questions in regards to the central couple which is made more complex when they meet a man named Robert (Christopher Walken). Unbeknownst to Mary and Colin but known to us, Robert has been following them around the city and taking their pictures. Eventually, Robert slithers his way into their lives, regaling with them stories about his childhood, particularly how his father, whom he admires, ruled his family with an iron first. Walken is terrific as an enigma who employs his talent for storytelling in order to lower his listeners’ defenses. There is a darkness in Robert that I found to be alluring, which perfectly complements the light from his wife Caroline (Helen Mirren).

Caroline, too, is a mystery. A case can be made she is the more poisonous of the two considering her skill for detailing her vulnerabilities. I was excited by Mirren ability to talk and act a certain way, Caroline’s eyes always possess a curious hunger. What does she and her husband want from the British couple? Their beauty, their way of life, their passion? It’s really puzzling because I think what Robert and Caroline share is already an exaggeration of what Mary and Colin have—or seem to have. So they must want something else… Right?

Surface-level viewers will summon the word “perversity” to describe either the picture or the contents within. But I think “The Comfort of Strangers” is a portrait of an all-consuming passion, how it spills and causes a flood. And sometimes how it has the power to touch other people’s lives and infect them—which has its advantages and disadvantages. It is a not a reductive predator and prey story; I think it is a more nuanced work in that it is willing to show that monsters can possess humanity, too, and there is something about the insane—the extreme—that is enticing. Not only do I consider that message to be honest, I think it is brave.

Bad Day for the Cut

Bad Day for the Cut (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

An appropriate double bill with Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” the gritty revenge-thriller “Bad Day for the Cut,” written by Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin, directed by the former, makes a familiar statement regarding the cycle of violence, what it does to the person inflicting it and how it impacts those around him, but the work is able to find fresh notes in order to remain compelling. These notes often take the form of very dark humor—like a person falling to his death a funny way, being pummeled with every day appliances, a person failing to heed one’s own advice which leads to severe repercussions, and the like—and these are executed with verve, irony, and purpose. But that is not all. There is a mystery worth uncovering in the middle of this story.

Donal wakes from a strange dream of his mother (Stella McCusker) vacuuming in the forest. He thinks he heard her scream for help and so he steps out of his newly painted van to investigate. He sees a fancy-looking man (Stuart Graham) stepping inside a vehicle but unable to chase it down. So, Donal runs inside the house and discovers that his mother has been murdered. He thinks, at first, it is a simple case of wrong place, wrong time robbery. That is, until a few days later when two men are sent to murder Donal but making it appear as a suicide.

Nigel O’Neill plays Donal, an aging single farmer who is very close to his mother. The screenplay makes it clear that Florence means everything to Donal and so when he decides to avenge her, it feels like the natural conclusion for this particular character. O’Neill ensures to portray Donal not as a rabid dog in thirst of blood but as a complex person who must face being abandoned. It just so happens that the abandonment angle of the story involves honor and an eye for an eye. Although a story of revenge, Donal is never portrayed as an action hero—which is the correct decision because his vulnerability and lack of physical prowess allow tension to accumulate. One false move and it would be his turn to be buried in an unmarked grave.

There is a curious relationship in the film: Donal and Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), one of the men sent to kill him in cold blood. Although there is no excuse for Bartosz’ actions no matter how difficult his circumstance, at least in my eyes, the screenplay finds a way for us—and Donal—to empathize with him. This character, too, is a source of black humor. Like Donal, the young man is also an inexperienced murderer. Throughout their time together, we observe the two men forge a partnership, perhaps even a sort of friendship. Bartosz is a symbol of hope for the lonely Donal who is grieving and does not have friends. He wants to connect but unable to. Perhaps there is something to other people’s claims that Donal is too close to his mother. It can be inferred that maybe he has a tendency to shut out everyone else.

“Bad Day for the Cut” is a twisty revenge picture but also a character study. It is an unusual combination, but it does wonders when done right. As is the case here. The central mystery—why the frail old woman is killed—is teased with appropriate length and later given clear, satisfying answers. Performances are all committed coupled with a rhythmic dance between shocking (read: delicious) violence and black humor. In other words, the picture is entertaining in an unconventional way—which makes it fresh, exciting, and a joy to sit through.


Antebellum (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ “Antebellum” makes a statement that although African-American slavery is bound in history books, racism and racial inequality persist to this day, that systematic oppression of non-whites, especially the black community, is embedded in our nation’s marrow. While the intention speaks many painful and angering truths about where we are as a modern American society when it comes to race, it cannot be denied that the film is plagued by missed opportunities. For one, it relies too often on plot twists to shake the viewer out of ennui—ironic because it commands puissance when it simply focuses on how slaves are treated in a plantation run by Confederate soldiers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Robert Aramayo).

It is near impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, but I will tread carefully. The thesis of the picture involves ghosts of the past having the power to linger and haunt the present. We follow Veronica (Janelle Monáe) in the plantation as she witnesses her neighbors being shot after having been captured for trying to escape, black bodies being cremated in a brick outhouse that’s smaller than a shack, whites exercising their power in every look, breath, and implication. Notice that during these moments the camera possesses a certain level of alertness, so much so that it brings attention unto its itself. But why?

This is because although the surface is a drama, there is something far more sinister at play here. It is a horror film because it holds up a mirror on who we are as a twenty-first century society. Black people may no longer be picking cottons in the field till their backs are raw, black people may be able to participate in elections and hold positions of power, and black people are no longer whipped unconscious for simply giving a white man a certain look. But it doesn’t mean racism has been uprooted. It’s just that oppression has evolved, took on a different form. And so the movie changes form, too. When it does (without giving anything away), intrigue is thrown out the window.

I found it has nothing compelling to say about race or race relations. People of color live and breathe images that are portrayed on screen and so there is nothing surprising or revealing about them. In other words, the screenwriters have failed to relate or connect the movie’s second form to its original state in a way that serves as a shock to the system. In fact, it does the opposite. The pacing gets mired in languor and the tone’s urgency is spirited away. It becomes a struggle to care. It shouldn’t be this way considering that fact that when you turn on the television these days, there is constant reminder that black lives are worth less than white lives.

“Antebellum” is a movie of the moment, but it lacks special insight that allows it to stand strong alongside, for example, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Remi Weekes’ “His House.” Showing brutality is not enough nor is providing a clever plot twist or two. Although it showcases beautiful cinematography, particularly outdoor shots of the plantation, this alone isn’t enough either. The positive elements must be put together in a way that is rewarding and satisfying as a movie and as a statement piece, especially when its goal is to incite conversation.

The Pale Door

The Pale Door (2020)
★ / ★★★★

It looks and feels like everyone on screen simply puts on costumes of cowboys and witches, and somehow the fashion show is supposed to be enough to get us to care about its characters, to be curious of the mythos involving the American West and witchcraft, and to be entertained just because there is a body count. “The Pale Door” is an insult to the horror-western sub-genre; not only does it lack the fangs to compel the viewers into paying attention, it lacks the bite in order to allow the work to stand out from its contemporaries and leave a positive, long-lasting impression.

The screenplay by Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, and Keith Lansdale offers plot but no drama, dialogue but no conviction, conflict but no reason. It creates a depressing film, the kind that pushes you deeper and deeper into the couch until you nod off and dream about something else far more interesting. This is a positive alternative considering that being awake and trying to pay attention breeds confusion, frustration, anger, and—eventually—total surrender. As I turned off the television, I felt a pang of regret. “Why didn’t I turn it off halfway through?”

Still unconvinced? Then let’s go on. A gang of thieves, led by Duncan (Zachary Knighton), are hoping for a massive payday. According to their intel, in which Wylie (Pat Healy) is in charge of, a train is transporting a safe that houses great riches. But once the thieves manage to get aboard, there is no safe. Instead, there is a chest… and something appears to move inside.

This so-called train heist is executed so poorly, for a minute I had to convince myself it wasn’t a spoof. There is no energy, no excitement, no semblance of tension. We hear gunshots going off (with the occasional blood spatter on the window), but the film offers no discernible choreography. We have no idea from which angle the thieves are shooting from, for instance. Targets simply drop dead as if they had brain aneurisms. It’s so laughable and silly… until you realize there is more than an hour left of the picture.

It doesn’t get any better. Soon one of the thieves is gravely injured. They are informed there is a town a nearby. Perhaps there is a doctor there who can help. This is where the witches come in. Although I admired the look of their true form—diseased and rotting, as if they’ve been burnt, dumped in a well, and marinated there for weeks—there is nothing about them that’s unique or interesting. To make them modern-scary, these animalistic witches are capable of climbing walls and ceilings. But why? It isn’t enough that they do not die when shot in the head and the like. They are required to behave like zombies and Japanese ghosts. What is the inspiration for this drivel? It comes across as though the approach is simply to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But it is not done in a fun or joyful way; it reeks of lacking concrete ideas.

The heart of the picture is supposed to be the relationship between two brothers, Duncan and Jake (Devin Druid), orphaned at a young age due to intruders having broken into their home in the middle of the night to kill their parents. However, neither of these characters are written in such a way that we feel their humanity during quiet moments. They speak of their dreams, their goals, and their love for one another, but not once do we get a chance to feel their resolution since the work does not possess the ability to show how drama unfolds. Just because there is something being shown on screen does not mean there is actually something occurring.


Tenet (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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It is ironic that although Christopher Nolan’s latest project is propelled by big ideas—so-called inverted entropy, reverse chronology, how we perceive the flow of time, cause and effect versus fate or destiny—not much of value can be gleaned out of it. Because given the choice between patient analysis (whether in regard to the paradoxical concepts it broaches or the curious characters we end up following) and spectacle, the screenplay almost always chooses the latter. Halfway through, I couldn’t help but wonder how the picture might have ended up differently had the writer-director been given only ten percent of its two hundred million budget. By the end of it, it made me yearn for the Nolan who helmed the excellent “Memento” and the humble but terrific “Insomnia.” At least these projects come across as though they’re actually about something.

“Tenet” is a showcase of special and visual effects. This is a fact that cannot be denied. Nearly every other scene must offer something eye-popping, luxurious, beautiful, expensive. An early standout involves a scientist explaining the concept of inverted entropy through an example—how an object that possesses such a characteristic, when in action, is perceived to be traveling backward in time instead of forward. Thus, a gun that is shot (forward) is actually a bullet being caught by the gun (backward). Watching this sequence is like sitting through a neat magic trick; it made me smile. However, the more it is exercised, our curiosity and excitement tend to wane.

The reason is because not much is done to explore this fascinating phenomenon. We are provided rules but not exceptions, a fairly labyrinthine plot but not a convincing, involving human drama. It were as if Nolan had forgotten one of the basic tenets of science-fiction: That underneath the most complex ideas, mysterious alien worlds, and unimaginable unknowns must lie humanity so bright, flaws and all, that it outshines—no, overpowers—every other element that can be bought by money. Notice that if you strip away this picture’s spectacle, it is reduced to a series of expository dialogues backed by an out of control score designed 1) to drown out the boredom and 2) to create an illusion that something monumental is transpiring on screen. Discerning viewers will not be fooled by such decorations.

The endgame is as tired as they come: prevent the end of all humanity. To achieve this, a CIA agent is recruited to uncover the source of items that possess aforementioned inverted entropy which are becoming more prevalent by the day. It is believed that these items come from the future. Our lead character is known only as Protagonist (yes, this cringe-worthy decision deserves an eye-roll) and he is played by John David Washington, a performer of considerable talent who is stuck playing a one-note caricature of a hero. (Observe, for instance, that not once are we given a glimpse of what he thinks of the mad journey he is thrusted into.)

Although Washington shares chemistry with his co-stars, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, portraying Protagonist’s handler and the wife of a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh), respectively, the material never bothers to slow down and dig deep so that we are provided a thorough understanding (and appreciation) of their relationships and motivations, individually or as a collective—strange because it is required that they work as a team during the third act to accomplish their personal and professional goals. And because these connections are tenuous at best, would-be heart-tugging moments during the movie’s closing minutes come across disingenuous, forced, fake. It is clear this is not Nolan at his best as a storyteller. Nor is he at his most passionate as a filmmaker who wish to take his craft to the next level.

I’m not sure who the movie is for. It is not for viewers who love science or science-fiction. The universe presented here is not detailed enough to be worthy of close inspection. It has nothing of value to say about us as a species or as a modern society. It is cerebral-lite, one cousin removed from being a dullard. It is not for viewers who love visceral action movies either. Aside from a plane crashing into a building, most of the stunts are too choreographed, clean, offering minimal risk or danger, simulated or not. And it is not for viewers who wish to experience a new angle regarding time travel. In fact, a handful of themes and ideas here are better examined—and played with—in a Netflix original series called “Dark” co-created by Boran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. In short, there is almost no joy to be had in “Tenet,” a project of half-cocked ideas, generic execution, and empty dynamism.

Die Hard 2

Die Hard 2 (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

It cannot be denied that “Die Hard 2,” directed by Renny Harlin, is bigger and more elaborate than the original in terms of special effects, stunts, chase sequences, and villainous takeover. But it isn’t necessarily better. For one, believability is thrown out the window—so much so that even our hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), now an L.A.-based cop visiting his in-laws in the East Coast for the Christmas holidays, acknowledges the near impossible odds of he coming upon yet another terrorist plot. You’d think that its self-awareness would be charming—and it is once or twice—but after such one-liners are uttered, the picture reverts to by-the-numbers and occasionally thrilling action.

What elevates the predecessor is style. There is a foreboding feeling about it even before terrorists set foot inside the Nakatomi Tower. The group leader was played by Alan Rickman, commanding a genuinely ominous presence, so controlled and calculating. We are reminded of the antagonist’s cold-bloodedness every fifteen minutes. Here, the man who takes over the airport is played by William Sadler, the character being a former colonel in U.S. Special Forces working for a deposed dictator (Franco Nero) currently on his way to the United States. Sadler is physically fit and his expression is stern, but his presence is not imposing. He fails to put a stamp of originality to his character. I felt the actor delivering a performance instead of being. As a result, when McClane and Sadler are finally face-to-face, there is only minimal tension. Because we know that the villain is one-dimensional, there is no surprise in store that may blindsight McClane.

I enjoyed the realistic look of the airport. People look as though they intend to get somewhere; holiday cheer can be felt in the air. It is so crowded, you believe the story really is taking place amidst the holiday rush. When a chase gets busy, for instance, McClane and his target can readily disappear into the sea of sardines. They trip, fall, and get funny looks when they bump into someone. I enjoyed it most when the picture forces us to pay attention to the action, not necessarily in terms of who lives or dies, or even the level of creativity of the sequence. By simply making the eyes dance, we feel we are a part of whatever is going on.

However, minimal time is spent on terminals. Instead, much of the action unfolds in and around the communication tower where air traffic flight director Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson) and airport police captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) struggle with how to regain control of the hacked systems. Humor, I guess, is supposed to be had between McClane and Lorenzo butting heads but I found it to be more of hindrance, a nuisance, in a film attempting to establish a sense of tone and urgency. I yearned for the predecessor’s quiet moments in which McClane is forced to observe the things he has no control over. Death contributes to his guilt, but it also strengthens his resolve.

There is something personal at stake for McClane, but the execution is lacking. His wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), is on her way from Los Angeles. Because the communication tower is compromised and the guiding lights on the landing strip are turned off, planes are unable to land safely. It is only a matter of time until fuel runs out. Bedelia’s talent is wasted here. She is stuck on the plane with an opportunistic TV reporter (William Atherton) who has placed a restraining order against her for having punched him in the face in the previous picture. But nothing of interest is done with either character. For the most part, it feels like a waste of film. The whole thing is a tired setup for the hero and the belle to hug and kiss once the day has been saved.

“Die Hard 2” stands in the shadow of its predecessor, and it shows. Perhaps the better choice would have been to overhaul the formula and establish new rules and expectations. What’s at offer is tolerable and occasionally terrific—like McClane attempting to stop a plane from taking off late in the picture and the tight-lipped colonel’s idea of “punishing” those in command of the communications tower for insubordination—but it fails to take the franchise to the next level.

Die Hard

Die Hard (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If a movie is only as good as its villain then “Die Hard” is exciting, amusing, always one step ahead, patient when necessary but more than capable of delivering maximum damage at a moment’s notice. Alan Rickman plays Hans Gruber, leader of a German terrorist group that seizes a Japanese corporation in downtown Los Angeles during Christmas Eve. When this well-dressed and enigmatic figure is introduced, he doesn’t say a word yet manages to communicate plenty. Those eyes are sharp, studious, polished, always in control. He commands the posture of a tactician, clearly an antagonist who is equal to our hero, John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, an NYPD cop with plans of spending the holidays with his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and two children. Unlike Gruber, McClane is rough around the edges, physically fit, charming and warm. Their single commonality is a high level of focus on getting the job done. Which one will prevail?

We know the answer and so that question is not compelling. Worthy of considerable attention, however, is how action sequences are setup and heat up to boiling point. Notice the surreptitious takeover by the villains, for example. We see their faces although their expressions are blank. When they kill, it is matter-of-fact, business as usual. Their experience lies in their confidence. Thirteen people manage to lock down a forty-story building in a matter of minutes. We do not hear terrified screaming until there is no hope for escape. This sequence, and others like it, would have been reduced to a typical shoot ‘em up in the hands of lesser filmmakers. But director John McTiernan understands the value of mystery and suspense in an action film.

The goal of the villains is not revealed until deep into the picture. No ransom is made; in fact, they do not wish for the police to be alerted of their presence. This paves the way for well-timed comic moments involving McClane’s desperation of getting the LAPD into the action. He knows he is no action hero who can bring down over a dozen men packing serious fire power. McClane bleeds, he is bruised, he gets tired. And he is not above being paralyzed by fear on occasion. (He doesn’t even have shoes on.) What makes the character relatable and worth rooting for is that he knows he is one person facing impossible odds. Still, he endures because he has a job to do. Key is Willis’ portrayal of McClane as an everyman, not an action figure.

But the tug-of-war between Gruber and McClane is not the only angle of entertainment. An LAPD cop named Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) forges a connection with McClane over radio, almost poetic in that these are two men of the law based on opposite coasts. They josh, reveal aspects of their personal lives, encourage each other when things turn grim, and do their bests to prevent the situation from spinning further out of control. Although McClane is married, unhappily for the time being, the relationship between Powell and McClane is the closest the picture gets to romance (“bromance”). Another source of amusement: bureaucracy from the LAPD deputy chief (Paul Gleason), FBI agents’ hubris (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush), and scoop-hungry members of the media. Whether we are inside or outside of the seized tower, the film remains crackling.

What of the action scenes themselves? They are not repetitive. We are provided three or four shootouts but they do not last very long. Hand-to-hand combat between our hero and a brutish antagonist, check. But most engaging and fun are moments in which our protagonist must slither his way in and out of vents and atop elevators. We learn about his level of resourcefulness, that he himself thinks that what he is doing is preposterous. “Die Hard” is a prime example of an action film teeming with personality. And that is why it is memorable.

The Cleansing Hour

The Cleansing Hour (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Selling one’s soul in order to get recognition on social media is an idea worth exploring in “The Cleansing Hour,” based on the screenplay by Damien LeVeck (who directs) and Aaron Horwitz, but the picture is so bogged down by ostentatious exorcism tropes that it feels as though half of its running time is dedicated to showing what viewers expect, from objects being flung across the room to characters meeting gruesome fates, rather than delivering what is right for the story being told. What results is a work that gets mired in special and visual effects—empty, repetitive, tiresome—while its more notable ideas take a back seat.

The plot revolves around best friends Drew (Kyle Gallner) and Max (Ryan Guzman) who live stream fake exorcisms. Although they have a sizable audience who actually believe that such exorcisms are real, Drew, who works behind the camera, thinks they can draw in more people by expanding their toolkit outside of exorcisms. But Max, the star of the show, doesn’t care to do so; he is happy just to be recognized by fans, perhaps even sleep with them once in a while. He does, however, wish that he be verified on social media already—for that blue check is a mark of influence, of authority. You see, even on the level of character—money versus fame—there is something worth looking into. Yet the drama is never mined.

A movie like this is further evidence that exorcism movies can be deceptively simple. It is not about creepy demonic voices, learning a demon’s name so it could then be expelled from its host, or showing excessive gore and projectile vomiting. Successful exorcism movies are about our latent fears, desires, trauma embedded in our subconscious.

In this story, the heart of the picture is the friendship between Drew and Max. Flashbacks are employed to show us that the two have known each other since they were children and have endured various torment in school in the hands of a nun. Perhaps this trauma remains to be the glue that binds Drew and Max even though their friendship has become twisted, perverted, unhealthy, one-sided. Notice that without these flashbacks, there would be nothing of note about the duo. The actors share no believable chemistry nor does the screenplay bother to go out of its way to underscore that even though the relationship has been reduced to a business, the two would remain to have each other’s backs—just like when they were children.

And so there is no drama. When faced with a demon (Drew’s fiancée is used as a host, played by Alix Angelis), we simply sit back and watch Drew and Max scramble about, scream in horror, and look directly to camera as they confess their sins to their fans. Cue the fans’ concerned expressions. We are detached from their plight, knowing that it is only a matter of time until the demon goes about its usual bodily contortions and psychokinesis.

Another disappointment: For a story that places emphasis on social media, the camera does not linger long enough on the stream of comments being submitted by fans. There is a disconnect. We see faces of select concerned viewers—from Washington D.C., South Korea, to Israel—but some of the comments (from what I gathered between quick glimpses) are quite negative, relishing on the violence that’s unfolding. Why not also show the faces of those who thrive on schadenfreude—regardless of whether they believe a real exorcism is happening? Even on this basic level, the work fails to paint a fuller picture.

Elizabeth Harvest

Elizabeth Harvest (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is said that curiosity killed the cat, but one actually sits through “Elizabeth Harvest,” written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, and one could not be blamed for theorizing that it could be due to coma-inducing boredom. For a story that’s quite labyrinthine with its plotting, not to mention the true identity of its key players, the screenplay lacks genuine intrigue necessary to compel viewers into paying close attention. Should you choose to sign up for this, prepare for a sci-fi thriller that moves at a snail’s pace which offers few rewards, if any.

There is nothing wrong with the five performances. There is a translucent quality to Abbey Lee’s portrayal of the titular character, a woman who dreams of getting married and being whisked away from her problems. There is feline-like feel in the way she looks directly at the camera when required and the manner in which she moves her limbs when she senses danger. Ciarán Hinds plays the husband who is at least thirty years Elizabeth’s senior. Henry is a brilliant scientist, a billionaire, living in an isolated and palatial home. The couple shares no chemistry—which is appropriate—and the two actors try their best to make the two pieces fit.

This terrific disconnect, however, is not mired to perfection by the writer-director. Instead, the film proves reliant upon twists and turns instead of establishing a Kubrick-ian feel to the place, that this lonely estate atop the mountains is pregnant with dark and unimaginable secrets. Also notice how we are never provided a mental map of the residence. A handful of chases occur, but the whole charade comes across as though it had been shot in a studio. Although luxurious items abound, there is a cheap quality about the would-be exciting sequences. When all else fails, the score pummels the eardrums. Surely we deserve better.

There are three more performances. Henry lives with his son, Oliver (Matthew Beard), who is blind, and Claire (Carla Gugino), the housekeeper. Right from the get-go, we look at the body language and eyes of Oliver and Claire—it is without question they know something… strange is taking place. Beard and Gugino play their characters like close fists… until they are not. Somewhat of an interesting angle is who these people actually are, specifically their perspective in regard to the sick goings-on in Henry’s haute couture house of horrors. Had the screenplay functioned on a higher level, a case could be made that Oliver and Claire’s stories—together and only together—is the heart of the film. Them being pawns to whatever charade is going on, but deciding to partake anyway, is what makes the story human and therefore interesting.

The last performance is by Dylan Baker who plays a cop named Logan. He drops in from time to time to check on… curious activities. He wishes to interview the new wife (the script does not provide a sensical reason) but she always seem to be napping in the middle of the afternoon. Until one day, it is Henry who is supposedly asleep. Baker is the most underused of the bunch—a head-scratcher because the actor is capable of racking up tension, for example, with the slightest alteration in posture, a look, or cadence in his voice. But this is unsurprising because the screenplay has a habit of choosing easy thrills over effective, crafty, slow-boil suspense.

I found not one cinematic quality in “Elizabeth Harvest,” a movie with two or three neat ideas that touch upon concepts like love and obsession, identity and freedom, science and ethics. And not once did I feel like I was in the hands of a storyteller who is savagely smart—about the genre, the oft tread themes it tackles, or film as medium in general. There is nothing special in the way this project is put together or presented. I checked the clock a total of three times.

The Outpost

The Outpost (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

A soldier shouts, “We won! We won!” after a B-1 bomber swooped in and eliminated the remaining Taliban that surrounded and overran PRT Kamdesh, an American outpost inconveniently located in a valley that is surrounded by the ominous Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. As this supposedly joyous proclamation is heard, the camera fixates on dead or dying faces of American soldiers while they’re carried away to their next destination. Observant and sensitive moments like this allows “The Outpost,” directed by Rod Lurie, to move beyond the confines of typical war action-drama.

Ricocheting bullets, deafening explosions, mangled bodies, and painful deaths abound. But the picture, based on the Jake Tapper’s non-fiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” is most powerful during its quiet and blink-or-you’ll-miss it moments: a soldier admitting that he no longer has it in him to go back out there and fight—yet no one blinks an eye, a leader who is an expert in finding ways to hide that he may in fact be a coward, an outcast who becomes increasingly alienated by the frat culture in his outpost, phone calls home that reveal the men’s true natures. It is the human details that make the material compelling. Credit to screenwriters Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy for consistently underscoring the fact that just because one dons an army combat uniform does not transform a person into Rambo. These are but men who must do their jobs to the best of their abilities despite impossible circumstances.

Curiously, the work is divided into chapters based on the commander in charge of PRT Kamdesh at the time, from Captain Keating (Orlando Bloom) who has a real knack for connecting with the locals and getting them to cooperate against the Talibans to Lieutenant Bundermann (Taylor John Smith) who must take over temporarily when Captain Broward (Kwame Patterson) is relieved from his command. During each chapter, we learn about the soldiers in the base by what they talk about, how they interact, what they do to pass the time, how they respond to conflicts inside and outside their walls, sometimes how they struggle with their own selves and their natures.

It is so interesting that at times I wished every key character is given internal monologue. I was especially fascinated by Specialist Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) who always finds himself as a target because he is so unlike the other guys. He is quiet, intense, often in self-isolation. When he does express genuine concerns, he is punished for crossing the line. Jones is terrific in the role—perhaps the best of the bunch. Not once do his eyes fail to tell a specific story or emotion. And his body carries the weight of his character’s many thoughts and frustrations. Will Carter break when the Talibans inevitably come down the mountains to try and exterminate them?

Another wonderful decision by the filmmakers is taking the time to emphasize geography. It isn’t enough to show the surrounding mountains that tower the outpost. At one point, we are taken outside the walls and onto higher ground. Because we see what the Talibans see, we get a chance to think how they think, especially how best to effectively attack the outpost given that the Americans not only have more weapons, they have more advanced weapons and varied resources. Thus, the base must be taken down quickly. Given the height advantage, what is the best approach to strike fear and panic, so that the enemy is compelled to rush to failure?

Joint Security Area

Joint Security Area (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the story opens when a member of the Swiss Army Forces is sent to investigate a double murder at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that separates North and South Korea, Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security Area” is not so much a murder mystery but rather an excoriation of bureaucracy, of those in power, and of disguising status quo as peace. The core of this drama, certainly an anti-war picture, is friendship shared between two South Koreans and two North Koreans, soldiers tasked to guard their respective territories but instead finding themselves opening up to something new or different, anything outside of simply spending another long day looking through binoculars and wondering what soldiers on the other side are up to.

In the middle of this humanistic picture, I realized it is quite possibly the first time I was seeing North Korean soldiers portrayed as complex people. In the news, in books, and in the movies, North Koreans are shown as if they were robots, either marching in unison or standing as if paralyzed on the spot. Here, they can look stern in uniform and wield guns in menacing fashion, but they are also capable of joking, laughing, experiencing sadness, and saving lives outside of their bubble. Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun play Sergeant Oh and Private Jung who find Sergeant Lee (Lee Byung-hun), soldier from the south, within North Korean territory after he gets separated from his scouting group. Sergeant Lee has stepped on a mine; Sergeant Oh and Private Jung decide to help him even though their training dictates that they to kill dirty capitalists on the spot. Why didn’t they do what they were programmed to do?

What I find beautiful and compelling about this film is that questions are raised about one character but real answers can be found by understanding someone else. It is the very definition of empathy, and the work requires the audience to tap into it. In the case Oh and Jung, we spend ample time with Lee and Private Nam (Kim Tae-woo) in the South Korean border house. They are so bored, and when they are aren’t, they’re worrying about trivialities. The mind has to go somewhere. Soon, the four soldiers are under one roof drinking, playing games, and opening up about their private lives. We find ourselves caught up in it… until we are reminded once again of the murders that took place. What exactly took place that led to bloodshed?

The investigation is led by Swiss Army Major Jean (Lee Young-ae). She is under the impression that she is sent to the DMZ to extract the truth from the suspects and submit an official report. She expects a cut-and-dried solution. But then again she is under the assumption that the demarcation between north and south is clear and defined. It is, after all, what we see on television; it is what we are told by those who have power and willing to work to maintain that power. There is a curious but unexplored detail about the major being biracial (caucasian mother, Asian father) and how (or if) that may be tinting her lens as a neutral figure, as a professional who studied law, as a woman in a line of work by which the majority are men. There is a strength about Lee that I wished was tapped into a lot more.

The director exercises an eye for visual pageantry that gets his points across in a most efficient manner. Consider, for instance, the distance between the North and South Korean border houses. They’re within eyesight, not more than a hundred yards away. Yet the space in between requires constant monitoring. Any sign of crossing a literal painted line would summon men with big guns. Also, the bridge that crosses the demarcation between North and South Korea is literally called “The Bridge of No Return.” With a name so dramatic, you wouldn’t think it’s a wooden bridge. But it is. And it doesn’t even look all that sturdy. Park possesses a knack for highlighting silliness but at the same time it is a sobering reminder of what is. It’s as if he’s saying, “Surely we, as an intelligent species, must be better than this.”

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” tells the story of a man who struggles with a disease. When the beast takes over, he becomes unrecognizable even to those who are closest to him. When challenged and pushed to a corner, he retaliates by bringing on the hurt. And when he feels he is no longer in control, he proves to have a knack for going for the kill because he is observant and sensitive underneath the police uniform. Officer John Marshall (Jim Cummings) is an alcoholic. And his latest case involves having to hunt for a serial killer who is believed by some to be a werewolf.

Cummings writes, directs, and stars in this gem of a horror-comedy: riotously funny one minute, horrifyingly gruesome the next, and lodged in between are moments of genuine humanity. John is a father, a son, a police officer, and a man whom the town looks up to for leadership and assurance when things go horribly wrong. Although John has these roles, he is unable to fulfill or excel at them—not even a single one. And so, feeling most inadequate, he goes home and turns to what he knows best: being an alcoholic. Down he goes the rabbit hole. The next day begins and he finds himself a foot deeper into the unsolved case. The vicious cycle continues.

There is overt violence—women being stalked and attacked under a full moon, their severed body parts and eviscerated organs exposed in daylight as investigators gather evidence and the media fishes for juicy details in time for the six o’clock news—and there is the metaphorical variety described above. Wonderful about the picture is its zen in balancing both; one fails to shine without the other, just like how there can be no comedy without drama. There is never a one-dimensional moment, not even when the werewolf shows itself fully and goes for the jugular.

Alcoholic John is surrounded by people who love and care about him, from his seventeen-year-old daughter (Chloe East) who tries to be understanding even though it is apparent John has always put his job ahead of her, fellow officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhomme) who always seems to bring a calm to his manic energy, to his father, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), who insists on going to work even though his body is beginning to fail him. Through their eyes, we not only learn about our protagonist, we see him clearly when his own mind is invaded by fog. Like Cummings’ brilliant debut film “Thunder Road,” this film is a story of redemption. Despite the gruesome killings, it coruscates with optimism, humor, and pathos.

Particularly outstanding is its editing. The more pressure is inflicted upon John, the more fragmented the images are put together. It creates an impression that the subject is drowning, splashing about madly, desperately gasping for precious air. Yet, like a classic alcoholic, John fails to ask for help. Jokes are built upon John’s inadequacies, histrionics, and fears. But these jokes prove informative because there are deep truths to them. The screenplay tasks us to be like the trio who love and care for John: We must separate the monster from the man.


Possessor (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is the type of story that needed to be told straight because it is teeming with terrific ideas that touch upon what it means to be human in the modern age where we are becoming increasingly reliant upon advanced technology in order to reach milestones. Instead, the picture gets mired in entertaining unnecessary decorations, like showing how two consciousness battle within one brain or having to discern what is real versus a hallucination, that the work loses its way eventually. It is without question this is a step back for the promising writer-director who helmed “Antiviral,” one of the standout feature films of 2013.

Vos (Andrea Riseborough) has a curious occupation. She is an assassin, often assigned to kill high-profile targets, but her body stays in one place. When plugged into a machine, her mind invades another person’s who is rendered deep into unconsciousness. It is critical that this man or woman—the host—be known to the target because prior to the murder, motive must be established so that, on the surface, it is an open-and-shut case. Once the target has been eliminated, Vos is then required to put the gun inside the mouth of the host and pull the trigger. However, during her latest assignment, Vos is unable to perform the last bit. She gets lucky enough that the cops show up in time to shoot the host dead. But what about the next job?

With such a creative, energetic, and brutal first act, Cronenberg promises a wealth of social commentary. We are provided no reason as to why Vos, clearly valued by the covert organization, is showing weakness when it is apparent she has had extensive experience with assassination. This is where Riseborough’s performance comes in. She portrays Vos as tired, overworked, possibly even depressed. Although Vos’ work is science-fiction, she represents the average worker, wrung out until she is no longer useful to the elites, to the company, to the stockholders.

Vos’ direct superior, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), claims she cares about her best performer’s well-being. There is a disconnect between performance and character. Leigh suggests that Girder is genuine with her intentions. When she looks at the exhausted Vos, there is a warmth in those eyes but also an awareness that the relationship must remain professional. But the screenplay suggests otherwise, partly because it is undercooked. We go through several sequences where Girder ensures that Vos, for instance, is able to retain her self of self right after a job, but the women’s connection is never allowed to go beyond a professional level. This disconnect between actor and script might have been interesting if the third act were expanded upon. Instead, the picture simply fades to black, offering no explanation, no punchline, and certainly no solace.

Vos spends the majority of the time inside the body of a man. He is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), fiancé of Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of a rising data-mining company owned by John Parse (Sean Bean). This breeds curious avenues worth exploring—gender, sexuality, and sexual fluidity—but these topics are not melded into the main plot in a way that doesn’t come across forced or contrived. As a result, when Vos is exploring her male host’s body, the assassination aspect of the story takes a backseat. Momentum is sacrificed.

Still, I couldn’t help but to admire Cronenberg’s ideas. I find it entertaining from the perspective of experimentation rather than a satisfying, well-rounded entertainment. Thus, I recommend “Possessor” only to those who yearn to watch something out of left field without the requirement of the work achieving its maximum potential. One wonders what Stanley Kubrick or, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan might have done differently to tell this sort of story.