Rust Creek


Rust Creek (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The backwoods suspense-thriller “Rust Creek,” written by Julie Lipson and directed by Jen McGowan, is clearly inspired by noir pictures of early Coen Brothers, but the overall experience is less than satisfying due to its tonal shifts, particularly in the middle of the picture when our heroine, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), is rescued by a man named Lowell (Jay Paulson) whose job is to cook meth for the very same people that Sawyer is running away from. While the relationship between Sawyer and Lowell is intriguing and the actors manage to sell how their characters regard one another over time, there is not enough excitement in the main narrative surrounding two rednecks (Micah Hauptman, Daniel R. Hill) whose goal is to kill the college girl who escaped from their initial assault.

Sawyer is a believable character who is strong and tough without the material constantly dangling these elements in front of the audience. I think it helps that Corfield chooses to internalize nearly everything that happens to Sawyer instead of going for the more overt emotions—like screaming, shouting, and crying—in order to earn our sympathy. I felt as though she trusts the writing and direction to punch through the expected chases and left turns that come with the genre. And yet, when necessary, there is a softness to Sawyer. Her surprising connection to an unexpected ally, Lowell, is fresh: I cannot remember a hillbilly in another thriller who is actually smart and shown to have deep thoughts.

Less interesting are the cops in charge of investigating the missing woman. Sheriff O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan) appears to be extremely sharp when introduced but progressively gets dumber as the film goes on. Deputy Katz (Jeremy Glazer), a wide-eyed rookie with enthusiasm to spare, too, is promising initially. I believe the reason why they get less interesting over time is the plot requires them to not know as much as the audience in order to delay the action. Because if they were as knowledgeable as us, the movie would have been over thirty minutes earlier. I wished the no-nonsense Commander Slattery (John Marshall Jones) took over the case completely because his presence is so strong, he is not required to say a word to command the room.

The extended chase scenes are realistic, horrific, and beautiful. Overhead shots of injured Sawyer really capture the fact that our protagonist does not have a chance in those woods. By showing the massiveness of what’s around her, she looks so small and insignificant. She may scream and cry out for help but there is no one there to listen except the birds. Time is also against her since she is bleeding out. And because she is disabled, even climbing a small hill, for instance, becomes a challenge. Notice McGowan’s control of the camera as she forces us to view the action through Sawyer’s perspective. When she is down on the ground, the camera is limited to a certain height or angle, especially if there is no hope of achieving a certain goal.

Clearly, thought and effort are present in “Rust Creek” and that is why I am giving the film a marginal recommendation. However, it would have been a far more potent survival thriller had the noir elements been sharpened. When tension cuts like a scalpel, you know you are sitting through a first-rate thriller.

It: Chapter Two


It: Chapter Two (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie with elaborate set pieces and a willingness to experiment with different types of horror, “It: Chapter Two” is only entertaining parts. Perhaps the problem can be attributed to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It spends far too much time communicating how the Losers, now adults (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean), have become traumatized from their encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) twenty-seven years ago. Not one of their plight is particularly compelling or original and so it is a curiosity why the material feels the need to spell out the psychological underpinnings of their behaviors. I found it needlessly expository.

The opening scene is most promising because it underscores the idea that people around us can be just as evil—if not more—as the supernatural kind. A romantic date is turned into something so awful, the events linger in the mind for a while. One is led to believe, if one is not familiar with the source material, that perhaps we will learn, in detail, about Pennywise’s history, why he—or it—is driven to terrorize this particular town. Is it solely for its own survival or are the people’s behavior in this place (homophobia, racism, xenophobia) directly tethered to his bloody rampage? However, as the film goes on, we learn only one bit of critical information about the villain. Pennywise is pushed to the side until climactic special and visual effects extravaganza.

It is not without good performances. Hader stands out as Richie, a man with a secret, whose life is so sad and lonely that he became a comedian in order to utilize humor as armor. I am familiar with Hader’s more dramatic roles but never have I seen him as effective as he is here. At times I caught myself looking in his direction while sharing the same frame as powerhouses like Chastain and McAvoy—highly efficient performers who can do next to nothing and yet remain in control of the screen. It helps that Hader gets some of the best lines. He sells every single one with conviction; we believe this character exists out there in the world. An argument can be made he is the heart of the film.

The movie offers fewer terrifying moments than the predecessor. Part of it is because we are following adults instead of children; there is a natural instinct for us to want to protect children and get them out of harm’s way. But the more interesting part is a lack of effective build-up to the scares. I can think of one exception: Beverly’s return to her childhood home when she is welcomed by the current tenant, an elderly lady whose father joined the circus. Other than this standout, a deliciously devious sequence, the rest of the Losers’ encounters with their pasts feel as though these were taken from other generic made-for-TV horror pictures.

Of particular annoyance is the numerous hallucinatory sequences. I felt as though these comprise the majority of the second act. Sharp writers should recognize that events surrounding hallucinations suffer greatly from diminishing returns. And yet it remains adamant in employing this approach without sudden, genuinely shocking left turns to keep us invested.

Both “It” chapters are based on Stephen King’s novel. His works are notorious for being a challenge to put on screen so that the movie is just as effective or even better than its source material. It is because many of his work are so pregnant with imagination that even the most expensive special and visual effects are not able to match the images formed in our minds. Despite the yelling, screaming for help, and terrorized expressions, “Chapter Two” feels like just another scary movie. It is a disappointment because “Chapter One” is a killer springboard.

High Life


High Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The obtuse but consistently fascinating “High Life” tells the story of a group of criminals, each one either sentenced to life in prison or on death row, who are given the chance to serve science by going to space, approaching the nearest black hole, and collecting its rotation energy. On the way there, most of them participate in an experiment involving artificial insemination led by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a doctor who murdered her family. The work offers a tight and slow pacing but never boring, supported by numerous ideas like the value of a life within a microcosm, freedom in an enclosed space, and what it means to have purpose during what is essentially a suicide mission.

There is a strong possibility that most may sit through the film and find little to no value in it. The closing chapter, after all, is anticlimactic, tinged with sadness, and open-ended. One cannot be blamed for asking, “What’s the point?” But I believe the aim of the screenwriters, Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the former directing the picture, is not to tell a work with a defined shape through precise plotting. This is supported by a non-linear storytelling followed by some vague build-up surrounding fates of particular characters—some die in the hands of one another, others choose to kill themselves, one or two entirely by accident. It is a prime example of a story in which the value lies upon the journey more than the destination.

The work is shot with a keen eye. Never mind the neon lights. Beauty lies in actual details, like the many routines the criminals must partake in, especially when inside Dr. Dibs’ highly impersonal clinic. For example, because she rules over that space, and knowing her obsessive approach to create a life in space, bodies are treated like cattle. She does not ask questions unless answers may be relevant to her work. When she herself is asked questions, she is often dismissive. When a participant expresses distaste for her project, concerns are not addressed directly or elaborated upon. She values her samples over the people who provide the samples. A case can be made that the character symbolizes the oppressive system back on Earth. And yet Dr. Dibs is not portrayed as a villain.

Aside from Binoche’s single-minded “second chance” doctor, another standout character and performance is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson. In the opening sequence, we learn he is the only adult survivor aboard the ship. But he is not alone. There is an infant with him—a little girl that we assume to be the product of Dr. Dibs’ artificial insemination project. I found it strange but curious that although Monte and the baby is supposed to be the heart of the picture, given they are introduced prior to the rest of the characters, I did not find myself invested in their relationship or story. Or perhaps we are meant to feel this way, to prey on or capitalize upon our assumptions that a father figure and a helpless child must be the focal point not only within the vastness of space but also among criminals of varying degrees—from petty crimes, drug addicts, to rapists and murderers.

“High Life” offers an enveloping experience, filled to the brim with thick atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. In some ways, the core is a muted horror film surrounded by ideas closer to science-fiction. Like the Dr. Dibs character, it is, for the most part, impersonal. It is uninterested in making us like the characters. In fact, we are encouraged to dislike some of them. On the surface, viewers may sneer at all the artificiality—its use of light, the synth music. But I think that those who manage to see through the fog may find something worth examining.

Coming Home


Coming Home (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★

Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a captain in the Marines, is to leave for the Vietnam War. He tells his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), who has learned to accept her husband’s duty, that he feels like he is going to the Olympics, so very proud and eager to represent his country. When he leaves, Sally figures she needs to do something to pass the time so she volunteers at a VA hospital nearby. There, she crosses paths with a high school classmate, Luke (Jon Voight), who has been sent home due to paralysis from the waist down. Soon, the two begin an affair, but reality must be dealt with when Bob returns.

While its attitude toward the Vietnam War is crystal clear, “Coming Home,” based on the screenplay by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, is atypical in that a love story is sandwiched in between political statements that are heard and seen. It does a good job in telling a story specific to its time period but still giving the romance an air of universality.

Without strong central performances, the film would have been preachy and phony. Voight is especially effective as a war veteran who is required to go through a thoroughly convincing emotional and psychological transformation. By learning to accept the limitations of his lower-body paralysis, he is making a statement that he is not shackled to his past—an important difference between the two men in Sally’s life, why she is willing to put her marriage in jeopardy. When we meet Luke, we feel his rage in every waking moment, from the simmering sarcasm to explosive fits. When we leave him, though anger remains, it is channeled in a healthy way. We are hopeful about his future.

The audience is always on the outside looking in as characters with no experience in the war make comments or take courses of action that underline a lack of understanding or a willingness not to understand. For example, Sally’s friend, Vi (Penelope Milford), wonders what her brother (Robert Carradine) could have gone through that was so bad when he was in Vietnam for “only” two weeks. She says it in a way that is insensitive but at the same time we realize that she does not mean anything malicious by it. Scenes similar to this make the picture rise above a schmaltzy love story between two people since supporting characters are allowed to face real concerns and questions in their own lives.

The third act coming down to Bob finding out about the extramarital affair is not as disappointing as how it is handled. There are shouting that neighbors can hear, a threat of violence, Sally comforting her husband and expressing her love, and an effort to convince someone not to succumb to feelings of anger. It feels as though the writers set aside what makes the story worth telling in order to focus on the melodrama, the very element that it needs least.

Directed by Hal Ashby, “Coming Home” flourishes most during conversations between two people, the tug-of-war between wanting to challenge one another and a willingness to reach a middle ground. It is also very good in showing how current and former servicemen’s faces change when conversations turn to the topic of war or what they had experienced. Though the pain, the frustration and the anger are muffled at times, they are there and will be there until one’s memory is no longer.

The Hurricane Heist


The Hurricane Heist (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s something freeing about action films that commit to an idea so completely that they risk being labeled dumb, nonsensical, pointless, or all of the above. “The Hurricane Heist,” directed by Rob Cohen, is one of those movies. It presents a simple premise and everything around it is cheesy popcorn—and might say mindless—entertainment. One must be in the right mood and mindset to appreciate this kind of movie because an argument can be made it is a one-note joke throughout.

The plot revolves around bad guys who wish to steal six hundred million dollars from the U.S. Treasury as a massive hurricane rages on outside. Not only does the natural disaster serve as a distraction, should the government become aware of what they are up to, sending soldiers to the facility would not be an easy task. The “old money” is meant to be shredded anyway so it is only logical, at least to the bandits, that they take and make use of the cash. Naturally, there are already rogue agents inside the facility. All would have gone according to plan if it weren’t for the pesky Special Agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace); the exposition reminds us several times that she always does the right thing. She is smart, cautious, and resourceful. The thieves’ ringleader, Perkins (Ralph Ineson), has a habit of underestimating her, and the allies she acquires along the way, despite his team members dropping off like flies.

You know a movie doesn’t care about how it comes across as long as it knows it is providing entertainment when the actors who are supposed to underline the heart of the picture play their American characters—brothers from American south (Toby Kebbell, Ryan Kwanten)—with variants of Australian and English accents. (The brothers, one who runs a repair business and the other a weatherman, lost their father in 1992 as Category 5 Hurricane Andrew ripped through the south.) While initially distracting and amusing, particularly when the brothers reconnect after from what it seems to be several years of not seeing each other in person, eventually we forget about how they pronounce certain words. The action pieces get so big and so busy that words no longer matter.

And here comes the physics-defying stunts. For example, there is an amazing black, tank-like, Batmobile-looking rig (à la “Batman Begins”) that has these drills underneath that could pierce through the surface of the road. Doing so would tether the vehicle in place. Should it get hit with an amazing amount of force, it would be able to withstand it with minimal wear and tear. Its passengers would feel shaken for a few seconds but suffer no broken bones. Not even bruises, it seems, because they are able to run around with ease and get thrown about (more stunts!) in every imaginable way. It is a wonderful ad to a fictitious vehicle. Truly, they have fun with the idea.

And then there is the hurricane. It makes the movie “Twister” (underrated) look like a documentary. While the monstrous mix of wind, rain, thunderstorms, and occasional livestock does not look particularly first-rate, it is so exaggerated to the point where it looks genuinely threatening. Seeing bad guys getting sucked into its vortex is pretty fun. (The screaming remains audible despite the barrage of sounds.) And then there is science-talk about the eye of the hurricane and its edges. I don’t think it is possible for a cyclone to go around 600 miles per hour in the first place. And yet some buildings remain intact, more or less. Clearly, the movie is meant to be unbelievable. I cannot deny I had a good time.

Long Shot


Long Shot (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Odd couple comedy “Long Shot” is a one-note joke elevated by charming performances by Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, she a beautiful and statuesque U.S. secretary of state who intends to run for president and he a progressive journalist who looks like Regular Joe. Polls predict he will not be good for her numbers. Peppered with light chuckles due to occasionally sharp jabs at our current political climate—the systemic corruption, money in politics, the idiots in office—there is a hint of a merciless romantic comedy here. Instead, we are handed a diluted satire meant for mainstream consumption. When a joke is considered to be too smart or hitting too close to the gut, the strategy is to show slapstick or gross-out humor. As the film drags somewhere in the middle of its two-hour running time, accompanied by awkward tonal shifts, one cannot help but consider a better alternative: a deeper exploration of the clash between ideals of two people on the same side of the political spectrum and less focus on how they would be perceived by the public as a couple. Written for the screen by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Directed by Jonathan Levine.

Labor Day


Labor Day (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

While looking through the comics section, thirteen-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is approached by a bleeding man and asks for help. The man’s name is Frank (Josh Brolin) and he has escaped from the police while at the hospital due to appendicitis. Adele (Kate Winslet), Henry’s depressed single mother who rarely goes outside except for the monthly visit to the store, does not want to help the stranger, but her son’s safety is at stake. So they take him home. The plan is to have him over only until next morning. But the trains do not run on holiday weekends.

“Labor Day,” based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, is not the subtlest small town drama that focuses on a two-person family in an emotional rut. However, it is spearheaded by rock solid performances by Brolin and Winslet and supported by an equally strong acting by Griffith whose character is required to communicate a balance of sadness and strength to come off as a believable short-term support system of his character’s depressed mother.

Though censured for its melodramatic tone, the criticism should have been more focused on the fugitive written too nice at times. Although there is a level of danger to Frank during the scene in which he is introduced, once he gets to the house, the threatening element about him disappears too quickly—a problem because Adele and, to a degree, Henry are still wary of the man’s intentions. Thus, the character lacks a well-defined arc which renders the flashbacks—glimpses of his younger self (Tom Lipinski) and the circumstances that led to his incarceration—informative but powerless. The most effective dramas are almost always driven by character arcs—this also being a character piece—and so it is somewhat off-putting that the stranger is not given more complexity.

We experience the story unfold through Henry’s perspective. We feel the sweetness and tragedy of his relationship with his mother, fears and anxiety of possibly being separated from her, and the hope of possibly having a much-needed father figure in his life. Though they may come off syrupy at times, I still enjoyed the scenes between the boy and the convict on the run. Though they are strangers, their interactions are rich such as when Henry is being taught how to fix a car and how to throw a baseball. Compare these with scenes between Henry and his biological father (Clark Gregg) and we wonder if Henry being around Frank in the long run would be more beneficial for the boy.

The inevitable attraction between a convict and his hostage may sound tacky but it works here. Winslet does a commendable job communicating so much with only her eyes and how slowly she moves. Her character has so much nervous energy and fragility that just about every action she makes while out in public can be a source of concern. We believe that what we have in front of us is a woman who needs a little bit of fire—for her sake and her young son’s.

At one point in “Labor Day,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jason Reitman, Henry’s biological father tells his son that the reason why he left them is because he just wanted to live a “normal” life. In other words, he could not continue living with a depressed person. I wished the picture had more of that searing honesty. The confession did not have to be kind. It did not have to be right. It just needed to be true. Henry looks at his father and for once there is respect there. It dares the viewer not to be moved.