Stay Out Stay Alive


Stay Out Stay Alive (2019)
★ / ★★★★

“Stay Out Stay Alive,” written and directed by Dean Yurke, attempts to be a morality tale of greed, but once all the pieces are in place to get its rather standard and uninspired messages across, the work gets mired in one horror cliché after another: screaming at walkie talkies, falling over while on the run in a forest, shadowy figures blending in the background, personal revelations meant to inspire sympathy. It’s all so tired. From the moment the characters find themselves stuck in a hole filled with gold, the picture goes nowhere. With a running time of just above an hour and twenty minutes, it feels much closer to two hours.

The only time the picture comes alive is when Barbara Crampton is on screen. She plays Ranger Susanna who wishes to find the five college campers (Brie Mattson, Brandon Wardle, Christina July Kim, Sage Mears, William Romano-Pugh) and warn them about an upcoming storm. Ranger Susanna may be in the film for a total of ten minutes, but she is curious because she possesses story in her eyes. When she looks at somebody, we wish to know what she’s thinking. Her experience as a ranger comes through, and so does her respect for the land with a tragic history.

When Amy (Kim) and her friends stumble upon the nineteenth century goldmine that Donna (Mears) has fallen into, questionable—at times downright nonsensical—behavior begins to pile up. An example: Donna’s foot becomes lodged in a rock, but she, along with the others except for Amy, insists that no help be summoned due to the fact that there is gold to be excavated in the mine. There is not one person who brings up the idea that they can simply return to the site once Donna has been rescued. This lack of common sense serves the plot, you see. And we must endure it.

But I say we deserve better, especially in situational horror movies like this one. An argument can be made that if characters are written smart and they prove to be resourceful yet still fail to extract themselves from an increasingly sticky situation, that is far scarier—certainly more engaging—than a movie that plays itself dumb and thus expects the viewer to be on that level. Its self-imposed limitations have nothing to do with the small budget. It is all about the imagination of the screenplay and how that is translated on screen.

The hammy acting is the least of the picture’s problems. In fact, I didn’t mind it. In a movie so devoid of creativity, at least the performers try to make something out of near nothing. Other than the scene-stealing Crampton, I quite enjoyed Wardle as the boyfriend whose greed gives the impression as though he has been possessed by evil down there in the mines. While the performance is not special by any means, at least the character doesn’t dissolve into the background like the mousy Kyle (Romano-Pugh) and the naive Bridget (Mattson).

I wished we were given more images of the redwood forest—as it is without the unimpressive visual effects like gusts of wind, spirits roaming about, various tremors—and the contents of the diary that’s been sitting in the mine for several decades. When it lets our minds fill in the gaps of the story’s mythology, a whiff of a superior movie can be detected. But alas.

But I’m a Cheerleader


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jamie Babbit’s uproariously funny “But I’m a Cheerleader” is a satire of conversion therapy programs and the idea that sexuality—a trait that is genetically hardwired—can be altered or fixed “if you just try hard enough.” What makes it special is that although humor is painted with broad strokes at times, stereotypes coming hard and fast, it has bite: it does not shy away from the cold fact that this pseudoscientific practice is ineffective, harmful, and inhumane. One minute you’re laughing and the next you’re horrified by some of the things loved ones say to their sons, daughters, friends. They claim to love their gay son or lesbian daughter. But reality is that their love is not unconditional.

This is not the kind of LGBTQIA+ picture that is prudish with its subjects’ sexuality. On the contrary, what’s fresh about it is that its images are so over-the-top, some of the jokes fly right over your head because there are instances where you sort sit back and absorb what had just been shown or said. It is meant to shock and overwhelm, as if its purpose is to make up for the collective American culture’s longstanding history of homosexual repression. I admired it most when the movie is clearly angry, livid, just underneath its playfulness.

An early example involves our protagonist, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), coming home after school to find out that her parents, her friends (Michelle Williams), and her boyfriend (Brandt Wille) have conspired to send her to True Directions, a two-month, five-step program for heterosexuality led by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty). The humor comes in the form of why Megan’s inner circle feels Megan might very well be a lesbian: her vegetarianism, posters of women in her bedroom and locker, the fact that she does not enjoy making out with her boyfriend. But something chilling: Nobody bothers to ask Megan whether she wants to attend the program or how she feels about the idea. She is forced to do so because others feel the need to have her corrected. She must be corrected or else they do not want her to be in their heteronormative lives.

The picture is criticized for its stereotypes, particularly its portrayal of the “campers.” I think those who see weakness within this aspect of the film have missed the point. (My issue is with its throwaway ending; its vision is so original for the majority of its running time that surely we deserve a more daring final few minutes.) The movie is a satire and so exaggeration is one of the tools that can and, I think, should be employed to get the point across. Some of the male homosexuals are shown to be feminine in a hyperbolic way (example: nasal voice, hanging wrists, being terrible at sports, and the like). But that’s the point.

Because in True Directions, males’ feminine behavior (and in turn females’ masculine behavior) must be eradicated, erased. And then they must be taught “traditional” behaviors (men are strong so they should be able to chop wood; women are dainty so they must excel at housework). There is no room for political correctness in effective satires. To do so is an act of removing teeth from material that should have a harsh bite. I would even go as far to say that satires—good ones—should be offensive. Because if a satirical work doesn’t offend anyone, then who is the movie for? More importantly, who or what is the movie against? What is its stance?

Notice that although the material makes fun of everyone on screen—yes, even the campers—the screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson shows a real love for its young subjects. It allows them to talk to one another in comic and tender ways—sometimes deeply; it is willing to show their sexual desires; the hurt they feel someone calls them “dyke” or “faggot,” especially their parents; the relief that takes over them when a person accepts them for who they are rather than their masks. This is not a comedy without a soul or a brain. Behind the chuckles and laughter are truths that everyone call relate with, gay or straight. And that is why “But I’m a Cheerleader” has gained a cult following—and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

The Quarry


The Quarry (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Look underneath the surface of a familiar plot—a cop (Michael Shannon) suspecting that the man who has moved into his small and economically depressed Texan town might not be who he claims he is—and realize that there is plenty of ideas bubbling. First example: A murderer-turned-drifter (Shea Whigham) assumes the identity of a preacher and devout Christians flock into his church like cattle. These people, the majority of them Mexican who do not speak and/or understand English, are so moved by his sermons, they claim that none of the previous preachers are able to communicate to them like he does. With him, they actually feel close to God. (Since he has no prior experience being a preacher, his sermons consist of him just reading through the Bible.) Second example: A man of the law, who is white and whose father was also a cop, is willing to bend rules and look the other way just to get a conviction. He is racist in a subtle way, perhaps even only subconsciously, and yet the woman he beds is a Mexican. Clearly, the work, based on the 1995 novel by Damon Galgut (adapted to the screen by Scott Teems, who directs, and Andrew Brotzman) wishes to make comment on authorities, the hypocrisies within such powerful institutions, and our responsibility—through science and logic—to clear the fog and help others from getting lost in it. Even the church in the film doubles as a courthouse once every one or two months. Talk about emphasizing the importance of separating church and state. Clearly, elements are present to make a compelling dramatic thriller. And yet it isn’t. Far from it. Think of children who try to tell stories. “Then this happens… then this happens.” This slow-burn thriller fails to capture a consistently engaging flow. Connective tissues are not established in a way that ideas jump off the screen and relate to our humanity.

Latter Days


Latter Days (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

One scene perfectly showcases why “Latter Days” does not work as a convincing human drama. Christian (Wes Ramsey), having just confronted by his love interest (Aaron played by Steve Sandvoss) of the possibility that there might not be anything else to him other than being a physically beautiful party boy, visits a man named Keith who is dying of AIDS (Erik Palladino). For a while, Christian and Keith are provided dialogue with spark; the screenplay introduces the idea that Keith is a reflection of Christian should the party boy continue the path he’s on. But notice how the scene ends. A psychic or magic element is introduced which completely derails the grounded human angle.

This lack of restraint is pervasive, particularly in the third act in which drama on the level of soap opera takes over. So much is going on that at some point we lose or fail to appreciate the passage of time—necessary because lovers Aaron and Christian are supposed to be fighting their own seemingly insurmountable challenges. Aaron must deal with his homophobic and devoutly Mormon family who would rather have a dead son than a gay one; Christian must learn to be alone and possibly move on from the man he thought he loved. On paper there is conflict, but much of the story’s power fails to translate on screen. And just as suddenly, the picture simply… ends and it feels like all problems are solved.

It is a shame because Sandvoss and Ramsey share good chemistry. The script sounds forced from time to time, but the actors are true professionals in that they commit and inject a real sense of joy, especially in some of the awkward-sounding confrontational exchanges. Their charisma, together and apart, is so strong that despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, we come to appreciate that there is more to the repressed Mormon missionary and the party animal who begins home a different man every night.

Another weakness: the work fails to communicate why Aaron’s religion is important to him. We see him studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, but what is it about his faith that helps to define him as a person? Having come from Idaho and being raised by religious parents isn’t good enough. To answer the question is to separate character from caricature.

In regards to Christian and his party-loving ways, this character is more defined. He recalls a heartbreaking memory about his father who took him hunting. The father believed that if his boy killed an animal, it would make him a man—it would stop him from becoming queer. This memory gives us enough information to consider why Christian lives the way he does. The connection between his past and present is touching and beautiful, but I will not detail it here.

Supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. We learn not one interesting detail about Aaron’s fellow Elders played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rob McElhenney. And even less when it comes to Christian’s friends and co-workers at the restaurant, one of whom is played by Amber Benson. Jacqueline Bisset plays the restaurant owner; there is whiff of enigma in her Lila, but I think it is because she is the most subtle performer of the bunch. Those eyes tell a story. She need not say a word to capture our attention. I wish the screenplay adapted her elegant approach.

Written and directed by C. Jay Cox, “Latter Days” did not move me emotionally. I recognize a few of its strengths. I recognize, too, that the love scenes may be titillating for some. The actors’ built bodies are well-photographed, the lighting sets up the right mood, and they do not end too quickly nor do they wear out their welcome. But the storytelling must be strong. It must be told with focus, energy, and grace. It must be paced well. Otherwise, nearly everything sticks out like elbows.

Honeyland


Honeyland (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

One of the beautiful characteristics of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland” is that you wouldn’t know it is a documentary unless you are told it is. That is because it is not a typical documentary: no voice can be heard from behind the camera, the subject does not look at the lens to answer questions, and there is not a single title card meant to provide explanation. We are simply dropped in the mountainous region of the Balkans and we follow a woman named Hatidze trying to make a living by taking care of her bees and selling their honey at the nearest market in Skopje—several hours away from her home should one travel on foot. And she does. Where she lives, there is no car or buses because there is no road, there is no electricity, and there is no running water. It is impossible not to be fascinated by this beekeeper.

The majority of the film is composed of silence—which makes images stand out. We observe closely as Hatidze takes care of her ailing and bed-ridden eighty-five-year-old mother: we are there as Nazife is fed, when she wakes, as she attempts to move her leg upon her daughter’s insistence that she cannot remain in one position for so long. We watch as Nazife is bathed, when her hair is dyed, as the mother and daughter kiss each other good night. In front of us is love at its rawest being captured on film. As Hatidze sits right next to her sleeping mother, we look at her face and a freight train of questions run through our brain. I wondered if she was lonely, if she considered getting married, if she wanted to live somewhere else less isolated. Does she feel anchored because of her mother? What is her opinion of the outside world?

Some of these questions are answered as the picture moves forward. And some are not—which is perfectly all right considering the other rich details the film provides. For instance, it is educational in that, solely through observation, we learn specific tips on how to handle bees. On occasion, Hatidze wears a veil to protect her face from stings, but notice she never wears gloves. Her arms and hands do not appear to have been stung despite a lack of protection. When she handles the honeycombs, she is always calm. She ensures that she takes only half of the honeycombs and leaves the other half for the bees so that more can be made. There is a zen-like quality in her relationship with the bees. We never learn how long she’s been a beekeeper, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn if she has handled bees since childhood.

Conflict comes in the form of a family (Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam, and their seven children) moving right next to Hatidze’s home. They have cattle but there is barely any grass. There is always commotion due to the energetic children. Hussein decided to start beekeeping for extra income. Hatidze welcomes the changes. Maybe it beats being so silent all the time, being lonely, being bored. There is a beautiful relationship between Hatidze and one of the boys—who absolutely despises working with his father when it comes to handling bees but actually finds it lovely when Hatidze shows him the ropes. Kids are smart. They can easily pick up on the energy, feelings, and mood of a situation.

For example, the boy’s father is financially driven. Handling of the bees must be done quickly. There is often panic when things go wrong. By contrast, Hatidze goes with the flow. She is not afraid to put her face close to the bees and their honeycombs. When bees get stuck in sticky goo or are suffering, she takes notice and knows what to do. She explains how things work and why; the boy is not asked to do anything that may be uncomfortable. Yet the picture does not paint the father as corrupt, evil, or the like. Raising a family, especially a big family, requires money. We understand that and Hatidze does, too. Still, Hatidze has the right to speak up when her own means of making a living is threatened.

But that is not all. Hatidze’s relationship with the Sams is only one aspect of the film. The bigger picture involves our role in the destruction of our environment, the decline of biodiversity, our contribution toward climate change and global warming. “Honeyland” is a terrific documentary for all ages. It is specific, wild, curious, and eye-opening at times. It inspires you to want to take a look inside tree trunks, to look at the organisms hidden amidst soil and grass, to look at the sky and think, “There is a big world out there. I wish to experience more of it. So how can I help to preserve it?”

Satan’s Slaves


Satan’s Slaves (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Joko Anwar’s “Satan’s Slaves” plays upon haunted house tropes that plague horror movies in the west. It’s a mixed bag because the setup possesses details specific to Indonesian culture, but the punchline is familiar and tired some of the time. Cue shadowy figures coming out of their hiding spaces in the middle of a rainy night. I found this aspect of the picture to be uninspired at best and downright boring when pieces are awkwardly put together. This is not the ideal showcase of the writer-director’s talent.

The first half of the picture intrigues. We meet the family of six and learn plenty in regards to their dynamics as a unit. The matriarch (Ayu Laksmi), once a successful singer, has been ill for years. She is bedridden, her skin suffers from severe discoloration, and she is unable to speak. When she needs help, she summons using a bell. Those familiar with horror films will recognize almost immediately that the bell will become a source for scares. While these expected sequences do not break any ground, they do the job. I craved for more creativity.

The patriarch (Bront Palarae) must deal with not only mounting medical bills but also his children’s needs. I wished this character were developed more. After all, he and his wife share a history. It is strange that we never learn anything specific, surprising, or peculiar about their relationship. Thus, when mother is dying and father is right beside her, it feels like a portrait of two longtime roommates rather than of husband and wife. Father being off-screen for the majority of the time due to having work in the city, which is hours away, does not alleviate the lack of connection between he and his spouse as well as he and the children.

Rini (Tara Basro), the eldest, tries to provide around the house—from emotional support to making meals—while Tony (Endy Arfian), the second eldest, attempts to help financially by selling objects he values (his motorcycle, jewelry). Meanwhile, Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) are absolutely terrified of mother; not once do we see them interact with her. We do, however, observe them at play. They’re cute and tender toward one another. The screenplay provides enough detail for each offspring and so we believe right away that they’ve lived under the same roof their entire lives. Quickly establishing their bond is critical because the conflict relies on challenging that bond. The writer-director proves to be up to the task.

The usual scares can be effective at times because the work is willing to take on arrhythmic beats between setup and punchline. Perhaps most effective are the haunts involving the two youngest. Ian is unable to speak so we anticipate him facing evil when he’s alone in a room (preferably when every else is sound asleep). But effective, for instance, is the small moments that occur once his instinct forces him to go on the run after recognizing he is not alone. Notice how the work takes its time. No one comes to his rescue right away—a trait uncommon to horror films in the west. In American movies, for instance, it is considered to be too cruel to allow a child character to be terrified for a prolonged period of time. Not here.

Meanwhile, Bondi looks on at the graveyard… which is only several yards away from their house. He is petrified of the idea of the dead rising from their graves. I found it interesting that Bondi gets only one or two in-your-face supernatural encounters. Most of his scares depend on imagining or anticipating that something might happen.

I found the third act to be messy and poorly executed. There are far too many characters running around and things pop out left and right. Naturally, there are convenient saves. I found no excitement, thrills, or scares from such drawn-out sequences, just busywork and loud noises. Clearly, Anwar’s strength is playing it small and personal. Minimal special and visual effects. Going for the jugular when we least expect it.

The Stuff


The Stuff (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Blind consumerism is the subject of satirization in “The Stuff,” written and directed by Larry Cohen, a comedy with splashes of wild inspiration and patches of going for the lowest hanging fruit. All of us can relate to its premise: chugging down an extra glass of soda when we know it is related to certain types of cancer or eating an extra burger while being fully aware of its connection to heart disease. They just taste so good. “Just one more,” we tell ourselves. “What harm could it do?” This film pushes these ideas to extreme levels. But I say, on some occasion, not extreme enough. It loses its satirical edge from time to time.

The Stuff that has captured the American public imagination is a dessert. It looks like melted marshmallows and it is described as sweet. It is so addictive that it is considered to be a threat to ice cream—which ice cream companies are not happy about. So ice cream executives hire industrial saboteur David Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) whose nickname is “Mo.” He is called that, he explains, because whenever he gets something, like money, he always asks for “Mo.” His goal is to find out how The Stuff is made. Mo is clever, resourceful, good at his job, and has a good sense of huMOr. This nickname is even tethered to the thesis of the film. Careful thought is put into the screenplay.

Special and visual effects are hit-or-miss. The Stuff being a sentient entity that seeps out of the ground, it looks terrific when simply shown bubbling about in its natural habitat. However, when it expels itself out of animals and humans in order to attack its prey, it is neither scary nor amusing because it is painfully obvious that a mannequin is employed or the CGI sticks out too much from its environment. Couple these shortcomings with substandard editing (the sequence involving a dog attacking its owner quickly comes to mind), there is a disconnect between how the images come across and how we are supposed to feel. The better choice might have been to remove the more ostentatious effects and simply trusted our imaginations to do the work.

The most effective sequences involve people realizing that their loved ones have become addicted to and are taken over by The Stuff. Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes up hungry one night and notices that the dessert is moving on its own inside the refrigerator. He refuses to eat it and warns his family what he had seen. Naturally, they do not believe him. Those who have seen at least one “Body Snatchers” picture will likely know what might happen next, but there remains a creepiness, an intrigue, to the work. I think it may have something to do with the anticipation that something big (Mo’s storyline which involves corporations and detective work) will collide with the more humble aspects of the plot (Jason, a helpless pre-teen, living in suburbia).

The military angle is a complete misfire. This is the point in which the story devolves into a wan action picture. There are far too many characters on screen for anything to come across as genuinely suspenseful, thrilling, or horrifying. It does not help that more than half do not have anything of value to do or say. It simply becomes an exercise of effects—like shooting at people taken over by The Stuff then showing the corpses—rather than a rumination of what it is about our own needs and desires that are already so self-destructive and self-consuming which are then amplified exponentially by politics and marketing. When the picture is about ideas, it excels. When forced to become standard entertainment, it withers away.

Dark Waters


Dark Waters (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Horrifying, meticulous, and eye-opening, Todd Haynes’ legal drama “Dark Waters” is a blatant reminder of how far industrial companies will go to rake in profits—even at the cost of their consumers’ livelihood, health, and lives. The story unfolds over a decade and a half yet there is not a dull moment; nearly every scene is purposeful in that it strives to provide the requisite information so that we have an appreciation of the momentous case that Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer who had just made partner in Taft, Stettinius & Hollister in 1999, took on against DuPont, a company guilty of knowingly exposing people to toxic chemicals. Shocking and detailed evidence date back to the 1970s—based on DuPont’s very own studies. It is near impossible not to feel enraged while sitting through the film. I watched with great fascination.

To this day, we must live with the chemicals that DuPont released into the environment. Make sure to sit through the title cards near the end credits for staggering statistics. The reason is because these synthetic chemicals—without going into scientific details—are “forever” in that our bodies cannot break them down. And so they remain inside of us. Yes, extensive studies have shown they can cause different types of cancer.

The film does an incredible job in telling and showing what the chemical called PFOA (also called “C8”) does to people, animals, and the environment. Some viewers may get lost in scientific and legal terms. But unforgettable are images like organs that have ballooned, blackened teeth, unusual animal behavior, bruises and scabs on skin, bleached rocks sitting at the bottom of what should be a clean and safe stream.

I admired the picture’s willingness to show detective work. It is not enough to show hundreds of boxes sitting in a large room. We are shown Bilott opening these boxes and combing through stacks of paperwork. We look at the paperwork; we read the underlined and highlighted words; we try to understand the notes written on margins and between lines of text. We examine photographs. We listen in on phone calls. We grow frustrated at the rigged system designed to squash the helpless.

Haynes’ camera is used like a microscope in that we come to learn how Bilott thinks. This is not a movie in which inspiration is treated like a lightbulb going off suddenly. Inspiration is rooted in humanity, in anger, in frustration, in the act of demanding justice like when our protagonist—our hero—is confronted by a farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), about the landfill runoff that had been killing his crops, his cattle, and, unbeknownst to him, his family.

There are terrific performances all around. Ruffalo grounds Bilott in such a way that he is approachable, fiercely intelligent, hardworking, and a bit naive in the beginning when it comes to how much power an industrial company possesses and how it wields that power. Ruffalo embodies Bilott’s physical and mental degradation in a believable manner. Here is a character whose body is dead tired but his mind is always racing. Another standout is Tim Robbins as the chairman and managing partner at Taft; I enjoyed that Robbins, usually a natural and charismatic scene-stealer, refrains a bit here. It’s difficult to read what those eyes are thinking; I loved the intrigue. Also, Bill Pullman has a short but memorable role as a colorful trial attorney.

Who is “Dark Waters” for? The answer is everybody. It will make you want to look at your kitchen appliances, your raincoat, your carpet, foam, cardboard packaging… even the water coming out of the faucet. In other words, it opens our eyes and makes us question how every day objects can impact our health. It is not about paranoia, it’s about being informed.

Tolkien


Tolkien (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When I see or hear the name “Tolkien,” my mind teleports into a world of overwhelming imagination: colossal dragons keeping terrified knights at bay, aging wizards wielding wands as long as their beards, strange and mystical places, indomitable fellowship, heartbreaking sacrifice, an epic battle between good and evil. It is most disappointing then that this biographical drama about the formative years of John Ronald Ruel Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult)—is diluted in such a way that by the end it looks and feels so ordinary, the viewer is left to wonder why the man in question is special. I sensed the goal is to create a picture worthy of being taken seriously rather than to remain true to the artistic spirit of its subject.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances. Hoult portrays the adult Tolkien with a sense of charisma and flair; when he reads words off books out loud, he made me listen closely to cadence and attitudes of excerpts in the off-chance that what is being read might have impacted the author in surprising ways. But the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford dedicates so much time in showing the subject either in love or heavy-hearted that his talent for creating languages that roll off the tongue is constantly overshadowed. Hoult is that rare performer who exudes a physical strength and intelligence without having to do much, and so it is strange that the material fails to play upon that strength.

We get it: Tolkien is smitten with fellow lodger Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a pianist who yearns freedom from the woman who decided to take them in following their orphanage. But surely there are many more interesting events in Tolkien’s life outside of the standard romance? For instance, I enjoyed learning about Tolkien’s best friends—Geoffrey the poet (Anthony Boyle), Robert the painter (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher the composer (Tom Glynn-Carney)—and noting their similarities and differences. Although Tolkien does not come from a privileged background, all four Team Club, Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) members are artists who yearn to be free of traditional expectations regarding which careers they should pursue. Their parents wish for them to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. Through their fellowship, they encourage each others’ work. To me, this is the more interesting angle of the story.

The movie is also plagued with an unnecessary structural issues. For more than half of its nearly two-hour running time, the story is told in flashbacks. We first lay eyes on the protagonist, feverish and desperate to find Geoffrey the poet in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme. War images are not at all convincing on their own. But to inject fantasy elements on top it is another miscalculation altogether. The point, I suppose, is to juxtapose Tolkien’s inescapable reality with the images in his head waiting to be put on paper. But it is ineffective here because the depiction of the horrors of World War I is not established in the least. Thus, there is no drama, just a choreography of men holding muskets, charging the front lines, explosions, painful screaming.

“Tolkien” is directed by Dome Karukoski, and the project is most effective when two people simply sit down and have a conversation: about societal expectations, about what it means to be young and poor, about language as sound versus language as meaning. I can imagine that the author’s formative years is far more interesting—and challenging—than what this film shows. Otherwise, he would not have created such memorable fantasy epics that have something compelling to say about human nature. In the end, the film is just another Famous Writer movie with minimal personality and vision. It fails to take risks in order to be respectable.

A Hidden Life


A Hidden Life (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

I walked away from Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” thinking there is a better movie yet to be made about Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer who refuses to pledge loyalty to Adolf Hitler and fight for Nazi Germany. Based on his religion and morality, which the material treats, quite astutely, as two separate ideas, Hitler’s actions are evil and the war is occurring for all the wrong reasons. I admired its intention to tell Jägerstätter’s story and I do hope more stories of conscientious objectors during World War II garner more attention and be put on celluloid. However, at times Malick’s penchant for poetic shots of the sky, meadows, streams, and longing faces (cue the ever-present spiritual score) takes away tension and raw emotions instead of amplifying them. A handful of techniques, especially when man relates to nature, are taken right off Malick’s superior works “Days of Heaven” and “The Tree of Life.” What results is a work with a running time of nearly three hours—completely unnecessary because a. the provided content is stretched to the point of repetition and b. it will likely repel most viewers from seeing the picture. Isn’t the point to bring Jägerstätter’s story to a wider audience? Still, I appreciated learning about Jägerstätter not only as an anti-Nazi figure but as a humble man, devoted husband, and father of three girls. He is not a man of words, but Diehl portrays him as a person with deep thoughts, possessing an understanding of what it means to be a man of faith. Inspired by the book “Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison” by Erna Putz.

The Dirties


The Dirties (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

“What are you doing? It’s me.”

It is almost impossible to go through this movie without feeling a heavy knot growing in the pit of your stomach. We know that its final destination is a school shooting. And director Matt Johnson (who co-stars and co-writes) spends ample time putting all the pieces into place until the horrifying but well-earned first gunshot. The film is suspenseful and scary, but it is also very funny and sad—certainly compelling at times because it is honest about high school life, especially in the way it captures how it is like to be an outcast.

I saw myself in best friends Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) even though I do not consider myself having been a victim of bullying. The recognition comes in the form of how the two boys relate, like their passion for making movies, putting on costumes, laughing and making fun of themselves. The silly jokes that are only hilarious to them while strange in the eyes of others. It is in how they’re relaxed when around one another, how they know precisely what the other is thinking when their eyes meet at the same time. I believed that Owen and Matt have known each other for more than half their lives; they’re always on the same wavelength.

That is, until they are assigned a school project which involves making a short film. They choose to make a comedy called “The Dirties” which is about killing a gang of high school bullies. Although creative and energetic, bad words and guns are prevalent—totally not appropriate to be shown in class. We already know what the teacher will say when he sees the rough cut. Still, Matt and Owen comply. They have no choice; it’s due to the next day. For one of the boys, though, the project continues after the video is shown in class. He decides that those who’ve tormented them for so long deserve to die. So, he goes to the library to ask for the high school’s blueprints. He is amused by how easy it was to get.

I appreciated that the picture does not diminish bullying in high school. For instance, when Owen is smacked in the head with a rock, not only are we shown the blood, time is taken to underscore the fact that Owen is unable to stand up—due to the pain and, perhaps more importantly, for being completely humiliated. I noticed myself feeling so upset and angry—like a friend was being bullied right in front of my eyes. I caught myself thinking I wanted payback. Enough is enough. The writer-director (Evan Morgan co-writes) has done such a terrific job of welcoming us into Matt and Owen’s little world that we feel like we are one of them.

I think “The Dirties” makes a strong double bill with with Gus Van Sant’s excellent “Elephant.” Both involve high school shootings. Their tones are completely different. Yet the tension, and suspense, in both films are high. Both possess a gritty, realistic feel to them. Their endings are handled very differently. But both are effective. Do not miss this one.

The Silence of the Lambs


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It seems everywhere she goes Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), one of the top students at the FBI training academy, feels the male gaze caressing her: the local cops who find a corpse that had been underwater for days; her fellow trainees and superiors; the director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Anthony Health); even the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), dubbed Hannibal the Cannibal by the media, the former psychiatrist Clarice has been assigned to interview in order to gather information about a recently infamous psychopath known as Buffalo Bill—whose M.O. involves removing women’s skin after murdering them. He intends to stitch the skins and wear them. “Are you about a size 14?”

“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and directed by Jonathan Demme, is first-rate entertainment. It is filled to the brim with sharp, intelligent, and fluid dialogue; carefully calibrated performances that not only demand viewers not to blink but also invite us to lean in and listen more closely; and memorable images so graphic at times that when we close our eyes our brain traces the outlines of grotesque images in the back of our eyelids. It is a psychological thriller so potent, tension gathers every step of the way—and it doesn’t let go until Clarice’s gun is fired in the expertly paced final ten minutes.

The picture’s centerpiece is the interaction between earnest Clarice and cunning Dr. Lecter. The relationship is curious because it is strictly a business transaction, a bartering of crucial information: Clarice provides details—sometimes painful details—about her past, Lecter gives insight on how to detect and capture Buffalo Bill. There is no trace of romantic connection. Not even a twisted father-daughter connection. It is a thrilling chess match between two perceptive individuals must who must work together in order to achieve their goals.

I think deep down they like each other. Perhaps there is even respect there. This is a masterstroke in an already top notch material. It is a true horror film in that we are asked to identify with a serial killer who eats his victims and feels no remorse. There is no explanation offered regarding this compulsion. It just is. Hopkins appears on screen for less than fifteen minutes in total yet his presence can be felt throughout. The level of menace he injects in the Lecter character is so high that it is able to pierce through every scene with ease. He need not be mentioned because Foster carries Clarice’s exchanges with Dr. Lecter like a scar. She is challenged to think like him but at the same time overcome him in order to avoid being played.

Demme possesses an understanding of how to capture situational horror effectively. Forget corpses on a platter or blood spatters as security guards are beaten with a truncheon. Look at the way images are framed as Clarice walks down the hall seconds before she introduces herself to the notorious Dr. Lecter. Observe the manner in which Buffalo Bill interacts with his victims, particularly the scene where he tries to copy the way a woman screams. On the surface, it appears as though he’s simply mocking her misery. But no. Like Clarice and Dr. Lecter, Buffalo Bill is a person who studies, who yearns to be free through a kind of transformation.

Pay special attention to the finale when Clarice must make her way through the dark… while the killer, standing about five feet away from her, wears night vision goggles… gazing at her. All of these examples require patience to unfold so that they truly get under our skins. We remember them not necessarily for the images but how they make us feel, how anticipation grips us by the throat.

Host


Host (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

In just under one hour, director Rob Savage (who co-writes with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd) is able to tell a satisfying horror tale about a group of friends who summon an entity through a seance using the Zoom app in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wears its inspirations on its sleeves—“Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended,” and “Friend Request” quickly come to mind—yet it is able to take note of what worked and makes them more potent. I wish more movies can be as direct and efficient; it is apparent the filmmakers value our time.

We are not meant to get to know any of the characters—not even Haley (Haley Bishop), host of the video chat who has hired Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to guide them through the seance. However, we are presented just enough details in order to get a surface feel of the participants’ personalities, from Haley who holds a certain respect (and thrill) in communicating with the dead, Caroline (Caroline Ward) who is open to an experience that may or may not turn out to be a dud, to Jemma (Jemma Moore) who is clearly in it just for the laughs.

One trait they all have in common: They miss each other after having been quarantined for months. Their apartments look messy and lived in—one or two in need of serious vacuuming. We also get a sense that some of the girls are closer to some than others—a delightful, realistic touch that did not be included in a breezy horror picture. But because it is there, it sets itself further apart from its contemporaries. Future works to be inspired by this film should take note.

There is restraint in utilizing special and visual effects. Naturally, there will be jump scares. When a character faces a dark room and points out to others that she sees something standing there, cue the countdown to the “Boo!” moment. Sometimes there are jolts. But other times the lack of it is unsettling. Its ability to change gears keeps us on our toes. The work does not always feel the need to show in order to pique our curiosity. There are instances when the horror relies upon knowing with absolute certainty that an apparition is in the room but a girl is helpless from doing anything about it. But because she is panic-stricken, she just has to know where it is in order to cope. And so she disperses flour all around the room.

There are far too many moments when characters are pulled or dragged around by an invisible force. One or two times does the job; five or six times is laughable. Still, I admired “Host” what it is able to accomplish with minimal budget, a short running time, the many familiar (and problematic) tropes it embraces, and its knack for finding ways to sell the familiar as fresh. I am interested in seeing the screenwriters helm an original work far more daring than this one. This is a solid showcase of their potential.

Bloodline


Bloodline (2018)
★ / ★★★★

First-time director Henry Jacobson wishes to tell a story about a monster hiding in plain sight in “Bloodline,” a psychological thriller so devoid of suspense, creativity, and drama that to say it is a Great Value version of the television series “Dexter” would be an insult to the brand—because the brand is meant to save us money while the film wastes our time. Nearly every second of its ninety-five minute running time feels like pulling teeth because no tension is accumulated; we are simply meant to sit through a series of would-be shocking events which almost always end up with a victim getting his or her throat sliced open. Cue the blood spatter on the killer’s face.

In the middle of it, I wondered if Seann William Scott actually read the screenplay before signing on for the project. He must have because it is obviously an independent film with limited budget—not at all a multimillion-dollar franchise in which an actor gets paid the big bucks. Did he owe someone a favor? Was he threatened to do the picture? Is this a two-part deal? In any case, his talent is wasted here. His character, a high school counselor who has a new baby at home, is not written with searing insight, great depth, and surprising details—strange because the intention of the work is for us to look at Mr. Cole and recognize eventually he is a portrait of evil. It is not enough to show him killing people that he thinks deserve to be punished; we must have an understanding of what makes a complex subject tick. What is/are his moral code(s)? Does he have any? Whatever the case, what makes this character worth looking into?

Mr. Cole’s penchant for killing stems from a traumatizing childhood event. (Aren’t they all?) These flashbacks lack control in terms of editing and how it is shot. They are presented to us randomly, perhaps when the subject becomes so stressed in his home life and/or while at work. The intention, I guess, is to show that he has such a flimsy grasp on reality that his mind must reach back into the past in order to cope. It is most unconvincing because the material also suggests that Mr. Cole is addicted to killing. It cannot be both because these are two different needs. There is a lack of both consistency and a basic understanding of abnormal psychology in Avra Fox-Lerne, Henry Jacobson, and Will Honley’s screenplay.

Strong debut pictures are usually propelled by great energy. At times first-time filmmakers wish to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their project—just in case they will not have another opportunity to make a second movie. In “Bloodline,” it is almost the exact opposite. There is no sense of desperation here channeled into something positive. It is lifeless, dour, and nearly every element feels constricted. Listen to the dialogue, for instance. It sounds like actors are reading from the script instead of simply being. Look at how scenes are shot indoors versus outdoors—there is little difference. It is no wonder the work is flat in look and feeling.

Even the relationship between husband and wife (Mariela Garriga) is most unconvincing. We are supposed to notice a difference in how their lifestyle changes as a couple once the adorable baby arrives—when it is not painfully apparent the performers are carrying or interacting with a doll—but there is nothing to sink our teeth into because minimal context is provided when it comes to how their lives are like before parenthood. It does not help that Scott and Garriga share no chemistry. When they are in bed together, it feels like a bad joke. We wait for the punchline.