Girl on the Third Floor


Girl on the Third Floor (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a haunted house movie that brings nothing new to table, but it does a decent enough job to warrant a mild recommendation. The first half of the picture is quite intriguing because the material appears to be interested in exploring and commenting on what it be means to be traditionally masculine in our modern times. It goes out of its way to establish atmosphere, introduce history, and has the required patience in order to achieve some effective jolts (and winces due to gross-out moments involving eye-catching practical special effects). And yet I found myself detached from it; I felt like I had seen it all before.

We observe Don, a soon-to-be father with a criminal past, renovating the suburban house that he and his pregnant wife just purchased. The camera makes the point of observing the subject’s body: how he is built, the details of his tattoos, how he carries himself with confidence and toughness. He looks like a man one wouldn’t want to mess with in a bar. Don is played by professional wrestler and mixed martial artist CM Punk (born Phillip Jack Brooks), and he does a solid job in ensuring that we do not grow bored of his physicality—a necessary element because it is not enough for the screenplay to simply say Don was a crook who got away with his crimes. We must experience that charm and magnetism firsthand because these might explain why he got away with what he did. Brooks fits the role like a glove.

Everyone in the neighborhood is aware that the house used to be a whorehouse. And so when Don interacts with neighbors, they exude a certain knowing. This bit is curious, but it is a shame that the writing avoids delving into the house’s sordid history. We are shown an extended look into the past toward the end that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s very own haunted house picture “The Shining,” but we are never drenched with rich details. Shocks, you see, are expected and common in this sub-genre. But what makes movies standout within this category is specificity, the lore, the world-building. It is a mistake to rely on the usual tropes of eerie figures appearing on mirrors, dogs staring into the darkness, and bizarre noises coming from the other room. While these are expected in a story like this, they do not elevate the material to the next level. In other words, what makes this story, this movie, special?

Taking a look at these elements, they are executed with some energy. There are instances when I thought, “Wow, that’s a well-trained dog. It even has the right expressions for this scene.” Less effective are moments in which ghosts or apparitions are invisible to the naked eye but can be glanced on mirrors. I wondered if people these days still find this trope to be scary. Here, the approach is utilized at least three times. It was already boring in the first attempt. The sound effects, on the other hand, are superior. Marbles hitting the floor and rolling about is never good news. Also enjoyable are the subtle sounds employed, for example, when strange viscous liquids come out of electrical sockets and such. It could have been silent entirely. But adding sound is smart because it creates an impression that the house is alive, breathing, in pain.

It is apparent that “Girl on the Third Floor,” written and directed by Travis Stevens, is given a lot of thought on how to creep out or scare the audience. I think it can be enjoyed by those who go into it with an open mind. Having said that, however, those who are well-versed in the genre are likely able to recognize not necessarily its shortcomings but its potential to become an even more potent experience. Thus, I can’t help but to feel excited for the writer-director’s next project. As far as directorial debut goes, it’s not bad at all.

Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to writer-director Taika Waititi to helm a daring comedy surrounding a ten-year-old boy who wishes so badly to become one of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers, he is beyond excited that the day has finally come for him to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth. Jojo has got blind Nazism on the brain, his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (Waititi). The satire is sharp, biting, and extremely funny (some might claim insensitive or offensive). And yet—the picture is not simply a parade of amusing gags, which range from recurring visual cues to anachronistic songs or phrases. When it really counts, it takes a serious look at having to wrestle against one’s racism, prejudice, and brainwashing. Its satirical jabs command power, but it is also surprisingly emotionally intelligent.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the memorable titular character in a wonderful debut. He exudes charisma and heart; he commits in every dramatic and comic scene as if he’d appeared in an array of projects before. That confidence translates well when he is required to hold a scene against great performers like Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Jojo’s mother, and Sam Rockwell, as a Nazi captain in charge of the Hitler Youth Camp. This is not a role in which a young actor can rely on looking cute because the subject matter proves to grow more complex as the story moves forward. I hope that Davis would choose to play equally colorful personalities with substance in future roles.

Perhaps on purpose, the first third of the film does not prepare the viewers for what’s about to come. Waititi makes the Hitler Youth camp feel, look, and sound like summer camp—only the children are made to go through militaristic obstacle courses, are given pocket knives and handed hand grenades. These segments are filled to the brim with vivid and warm colors, particularly yellow and green, and there is an exciting, anything-can-happen attitude in the air. In every scene and in just about every other line of dialogue, there is either a sight gag or a joke thrown on our laps. A few people might consider the gags or jokes to be offensive—and that is what makes the work a good satire. It’s not safe.

Fast-paced with seemingly a plethora of ideas to spare, the work confidently moves toward a more solemn tone just about halfway through. Its point is to show that Jojo’s desire to belong in a white nationalist hate group and kill Jewish people has dire consequences. When they finally come around, it is a like a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. I admired that even though the work is a satire and its main character is a child, it remains willing to show the evils of the Nazis. The easier choice would have been to show the mother telling his son that being a Nazi is wrong. The writer-director is correct to choose the more cinematic choice: to show how and why fervent antisemitism is a moral corruption, a cancer.

Another strong aspect of “Jojo Rabbit” is the relationship between the boy and the Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic. Their connection is handled with subtlety and insight with an occasional dose of cuteness—never hammy or syrupy. Their friendship is never about romance but reaching a common understanding. In lesser hands, the two young characters would kiss and everything would have turned out all right. But in this film, war has costs. And some costs you can never take back.

Mortal Engines


Mortal Engines (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Boiled down to its essence, “Mortal Engines” is a parable involving privileged whites who desperately wish to maintain dominance over the poor, many of whom are people of color. Those in power reside in a massive mobile city of London, obliterating everything in its path for resources. It is a predator city in which one of the citizens’ respected leaders is Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a man in search of putting together rare materials to create a power source similar to a nuclear weapon. As you see, the central plot and its moving parts are not subtle. But for some reason, the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, buries what could have been a potentially deep, thoughtful, timely story in place of a sort of love story between a girl with facial scarring (Hera Hilmar) and an apprentice historian (Robert Sheehan), which includes an awkward appendage of the former’s origin story. As one expository sequence reveals another… and then another still for about an hour, viewers yearning to be challenged are haunted by rawer images of Londoners treating war like sport. They gather and cheer with ecstasy as their gargantuan home threatens to utterly destroy another smaller and exponentially weaker moving city. Director Christian Rivers is given nothing to work with other than expensive special and visual effects—all smoke and mirrors, no substance.

Charlie’s Angels


Charlie’s Angels (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

A mere fifteen minutes into this generic reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,” I could not help but wish for the screenplay by Elizabeth Banks to drop the constant, in-your-face, obnoxious, try-hard, and superficial “female empowerment” message and just tell a good story with characters worth rooting for. It is embarrassing that the writing is reduced to a chronic case of ass-licking—for the lack of a better term—of the female gender instead of simply attempting to appeal to all viewers regardless of sex. This trend of “elevating” women by putting down males in the movies is getting old, especially ineffective when the strategy is as subtle as swinging a mallet to the testicles.

It is a shame because I enjoyed the casting of the Angels: Ella Balinska as Jane, the badass former MI-6 agent who copes by compartmentalizing, Kristen Stewart as Sabina, the goofy and sarcastic spice, and Naomi Scott as Elena, the engineer thrusted into the world of international espionage following her decision to become a whistleblower against the shady tech company she works for (Sam Claflin). All three actors bring something fresh and exciting to the table, particularly Balinska who is quite convincing in wearing the physicality that the role demands—a feat because experienced Stewart is capable of simply standing in one spot while doing nothing yet standing out like the star that she is.

Banks also directed the film, but the work fails to rise above its contemporaries. In fact, the approach, it appears, is to blend into them as to be forgotten completely. Pick any action sequence, for instance, and notice how it evokes the feeling of a music video: choppy, the sound tending to overwhelm the images, luxury over believability. While the movie is meant to be escapist, it does not mean that realism must be thrown out altogether. Otherwise, how would we come to believe the more dramatic turns?

Speaking of turns, there are numerous ludicrous twists that fail to make sense, from character motivations (especially the villains), head-scratching plot devices, to how one can so suddenly escape from what appears to be certain death. Eventually, we are trained not to trust what is unfolding on screen because we suspect a twist to occur at any given moment anyway. In other words, the reboot makes the elementary mistake of choosing immediate gratification over inspiring us invest into this familiar world with new characters. It seems that there is a lack of careful thought put into the project; this is a prime example of reliance on branding.

Had the writer-director been more ambitious and thoughtful about the story she wished to tell, “Charlie’s Angels” could have appealed to a whole new generation. The star power is there. Even the inimitable Sir Patrick Stewart graces the screen. And one or two of the extended chases—the sequence in Hamburg is a standout—aren’t half-bad. While a next installment is inevitable, it would be interesting to see a different filmmaker at the helm, one whose goal is to make a solid and memorable action movie first and foremost—with or without substantive social commentary.

Blinded by the Light


Blinded by the Light (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fifteen to twenty minutes into Gurinder Chadha’s Bruce Springsteen love letter “Blinded by the Light,” I was unmoved and unimpressed. It throws one cliché after another right onto our laps: a syrupy flashback—narration and all—of childhood friends who dream of escaping from their boring hometown one day, sixteen-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) living in a Pakistani household ruled by a patriarch (Kulvinder Ghir) with an iron fist, Javed walking down a school hallway—in slow motion, no less—during his first day of college… and then laying his eyes on a girl who would later become his first love (Kit Reeve). These are nothing special. Tired, dull. They are, at best, situations we come across on silly television pilots where half the viewership is gone even before the episode is over. But then the film comes alive the second Javed inserts the “Born in the U.S.A.” cassette into his portable player and “Dancing in the Dark” begins to play.

From here the picture shows an understanding of why this particular story, set in 1987 Thatcher era, needs to be told. It is not just about a boy who listens to Springsteen and falls in love with The Boss’ music. It is about how Javed comes to terms with his identity—as a budding writer, as a Pakistani living in Britain, as a son and brother, as a friend—Springsteen’s music just so happens to serve as catalyst. At the same time this coming-of-age story is not afraid to be political. Workers lose jobs as a result of specific government policies. Racists hold rallies demanding that they want their country back—whatever that means. There is threat of violence. At times violence is enacted. Even white children are shown urinating into their brown neighbors’ home.

We are given a thorough look into Javed’s home life. Malik, the father, is proud that he is able to leave Pakistan and start a family in Britain. He loves his family, but we also get an impression that he rules them. It is expected that money earned by his wife (Meera Ganatra), daughter (Nikita Mehta), and son be handed to him. No questions, no complaints. The camera fixates on his hands as money is handed to him. This Pakistani family adheres to tradition. Deviating from it would result in dire consequences—precisely why our protagonist is so moved by Springsteen’s songs because many of them are about rising up against The Man, the establishment, the norm, tradition. As a result, Javed and Malik are often at odds.

But because the screenplay by the director, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Paul Mayeda Berges makes a point to underscore the humanity of each character we meet, not once do we forget that the central conflict is rooted in love. To Malik, success is hand-in-hand with money. There is an amusing—and accurate—exchange between father and son when the former claims he gives the latter so much freedom because Javed is not required to become a doctor. He can choose to be a lawyer, an accountant, or a real estate agent. And so Javed should be thankful to his father for being so charitable. It goes to show that sometimes it is more compelling to see two characters who deeply love each other clash than it is to watch enemies. There is more at stake.

We come across the usual lip-synching and dancing in between comic and dramatic moments, but these are executed with high energy, infectious joy, and freshness. Look at the way the lyrics dance around characters, for example. These are presented differently with each song and depending on the mood of a scene. Notice that sometimes Kalra is actually singing the songs—his voice may not be particularly strong but it feels exactly right because the performer gets to interpret the feeling of the words and phrases instead of simply moving his mouth and allowing Springsteen to interpret for his character. It makes a whole world of difference. It is astute decisions like these that make “Blinded by the Light “ absolutely worth seeing.

Disobedience


Disobedience (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

So few films are able to show with crystal clear quality what they are about at just the perfect moment when their respective stories are about to enter their resolutions. In Sebastián Lelio’s visually spare but contextually elegant “Disobedience,” the scene involves an embrace with no words shared or tears shed, just a common understanding among those involved that life goes on and that sometimes we can choose to be in control of the challenges that befall us. The work is beautiful, occasionally heart-wrenching, and surprisingly hopeful—and it always underlines the humanity of those we meet.

Rachel Weisz plays a professional photographer, Ronit, who returns to her Jewish Orthodox community when her father, a beloved London-based rabbi, passes way. Given that Ronit has been shunned by her community for being a lesbian, it is made apparent her presence is not welcome but one to be endured because she is blood of the deceased. Notice the director’s control of the camera as strangers make a laundry list of judgment as they lay eyes on Ronit. It is no accident that numerous sequences involve entering and exiting rooms filled with people as public and private spheres are brought under the magnifying glass.

In a story like this, it would have been far easier to point at a religion and condemn its practices by, for example, exposing its hypocrisies, underscoring its limitations when it comes to exercising one’s personal freedom, or highlighting the moral inconsistencies that result from attempting to live a life based on a book that was written hundreds or thousands of years ago without taking into account how life or lifestyles have changed over time. Instead, the film chooses to respect the religion in question not by ignoring how it can hurt others but by providing a character so complex that by the end I wished to know more about him.

Alessandro Nivola portrays Dovid, the main disciple of the fallen rabbi. He is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman whom Ronit got involved with romantically, certainly sexually, many years ago. Instead of treating Dovid as clueless, the screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz allows him to evolve. We assume that just because he is a man of faith and continually shows that he values faith above all else, his capacity for feeling or understanding is limited. Nivola plays Dovid with a surprisingly healthy dose of humanity that even when he is at his headstrong, we understand his perspective, why he feels he must fight for what he believes is true—not just because he is pious man but also because he is a husband who genuinely loves his wife. Love can be devastating sometimes.

And so the material takes on several new layers which involves partnership, ownership, and patriarchy. Particularly telling is a scene that takes place at a dinner table with Ronit, Esti, Dovid, along with friends and family of a certain age. Nearly every line is a reminder that Ronit is an outcast not just because she is a lesbian, an unmarried woman for her age, or a daughter who did not stay to take care of her ailing father. No, there is a common understanding she is less than because of her gender. Even the women at that table—even when they choose to be silent—support the notion that men are a tier above.

Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” is teeming with information—should one decide to examine it. Its austere look, particularly in how it avoids showing bright colors or employing an ostentatious score or soundtrack, may quickly bore those looking for a traditional form of entertainment. But these are appropriate, you see, because the film is meant to be melancholy, ruminative, a chance to empathize with people who feel imprisoned by their religious communities. The film is about freedom and it reminds us how we take our own freedoms for granted.

Countdown


Countdown (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another supernatural horror film that takes a specific concept—this time a phone app called Countdown that predicts when a person is going to die down to the very last second—and does nothing special or memorable with it. Comparison to the “Final Destination” franchise is easy but a big mistake, an insult to the series because 1) those films offer rather creative, brutal, and occasionally amusing or ironic deaths and 2) the concept is turned into a minefield of twists and turns. The “Final Destination” films, especially the first two, actually try to be innovative. They’re entertaining.

In “Countdown,” written and directed by Justin Dec, we sit through highly repetitive scenarios in which an eventual victim almost always ends up panicking because his or her time is almost up, followed by a cloaked figure—often spotted on mirrors—being seen looming in background, and the victim being pushed, dragged, and tossed around by an invisible presence. Cue the neck-breaking and skull-crushing. It is exhausting to sit through because everything is so uninspired.

Dec’s idea of what makes a horror film effective is questionable at best. When someone’s body is thrown through a glass mirror, it feels like an action movie because of the way it is shot. When a person falls to his death headfirst from a couple of hundred feet, it feels like an exercise of visual effects due to its in-your-face approach to violence. So often the punchline is a person getting hurt or killed. Why? What’s the point of it? We might as well just sit through a YouTube video that has compiled movie death scenes from the past fifty years.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This picture is heavy on the bang to the point where horror flatlines eventually. There are some attempts at humor, however misplaced, which, for instance, involves a priest (P.J. Byrne) who dresses like a priest but doesn’t talk or act like one (he has tattoos and he listens to hip-hop—ha-ha, get it?). Father John offers some knowledge about the devils in the Bible and how their stories might be relevant to the app that cannot be deleted. The picture comes alive because Father John’s knowledge offers hope against a seemingly insurmountable villain.

The protagonists are neither charming nor interesting. Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who earned her nursing license just recently, is a bore at home and while at work. When faced with the app problem, she acts like any other person. And so it begs the question why she is our heroine when she herself is unable to think or act outside the box. What makes her worth rooting for? What makes her special? The writer-director fails to answer the most basic questions of creating a character worthy of our attention. He was too busy, I guess, thinking of ways to make a death look gruesome so viewers would flinch at the sight of a neck being broken.