Crawl


Crawl (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Like strong creature features of the 1980s, “Crawl,” based on the screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, strips away the fat and dares to focus on the survival aspect of the story. But in order to increase the ante, there is no creature that had undergone genetic mutation or a bizarre alien being that crash landed on our planet. Instead, it takes a realistic approach: a father and his daughter find themselves trapped in their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane—alligators just so happen to be on the hunt for food. In a way, the alligators are simply trying to survive, too. The movie is fun, full of energy, and as it moves forward, I caught myself pulling my limbs toward my torso. Cue the alligator’s jaws snapping shut around a character’s arm.

It is exciting visually. While the storm does not look particularly impressive or expensive, the increasingly terrifying flood does. There are numerous before-and-after shots. For instance, in the beginning of the film, we get a chance to observe the water levels around town as our heroine makes her way through evacuated roads to check up on her father. Then we spend the majority of the picture under a house as our characters evade the hungry reptiles.

Later, when we lay eyes on the outside again, it is shocking how trees are now bent a certain way, cars are floating about, the wind at least twice as strong, and the water can be seen as far as the eye can see. Because there is attention to detail, we believe that there really is a hurricane ripping through the state. Just as quickly, our minds drift toward Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and Dave (Barry Pepper) who are increasingly tired, injured, and bloody. Alligators prove to be most patient hunters.

There is human drama in the middle of this survival feature, but it is the correct decision to minimize it. Flashbacks are utilized to show how close Haley was to her father when she was a child. He was her coach and mentor. Haley is angry at her father but we do not know why initially. We do know, however, that Haley is unhappy right from the opening sequence during swim practice. She is the kind of person who has been trained to hide or mask her emotions. Did Dave push her too hard? Was there a traumatizing event? Is it something else entirely? The story can be seen then from the perspective of a familial anger that must exorcised through great violence in order for the relationship to move forward. Credit to the Rasmussen brothers for their efficiency.

The true stars of the picture are the alligators. Director Alexandre Aja has a knack for showing how beautiful these creatures are… then perverting that beauty into terrifying encounters. Underwater shots clearly serving to admire their sheer size and majesty are examples of the former. Latter examples are the gator attacks on land: how fast, smart, and powerful they are even when they are not in water. Most enjoyable is the fact that the filmmakers are willing to show how an alligator attempts to overwhelm its prey: how it uses its tail, its jaws, its own body weight, even its own surroundings. Each confrontation is different and that makes it exciting.

“Crawl” will tickle those who like their creature features short and sweet… but also dirty and bloody. Whether a chase sequence unfolds indoors or outdoors, it has a wonderful habit of placing the viewers close to the center of action for maximum impact. Every splashing of the water counts. Even tiny bubbles can be detected by these ferocious gators. It inspires us to clean closer yet remain guarded just in case there is a jump scare. In the middle of it, I wished more modern survival horror-thrillers were as lean and efficient as this experience.

All the Devil’s Men


All the Devil’s Men (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Those who don’t mind an action picture with minimal charm are likely able to endure “All the Devil’s Men,” a work filled to the brim with clichés and funny blunders, like a man capable of getting up within seconds of being tasered and a smashed window somehow magically unbroken the very next shot. While not completely terrible as a shoot-‘em-up, ambition and creativity in terms of its characters who are capable of double- and triple-crosses certainly would have taken the material to the next level. It lacks intrigue.

The mission is to capture a disavowed CIA operative (Elliot Cowan) who is currently at the top of the U.S. president’s kill list and extract him from London. Soon he plans to meet with the Russians and purchase a warhead. Naturally, he must be stopped at all cost. Two mercenaries (William Fichtner, Gbenga Akinnagbe) and a former Navy SEAL named Collins (Milo Gibson) are hired to complete the task by CIA handler Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), daughter of a man beheaded on camera by the man of interest. Although the performers are game for their respective roles, it is written all over their faces that they are not challenged by the material.

Numerous line deliveries are flat on paper and downright uninspired when it comes to delivery. I felt uncomfortable as rehearsal-sounding dialogue actually made it to the final product. (At one point I wondered about the length of the shooting schedule. It could not have possibly been more than a month based on the number of scenes that needed to be reshot.) Thus, would-be emotional moments when characters look into the distance and describe what is at stake for them personally are neither dramatic nor resonant. These come across as scenes that had to be inserted between action sequences rather than a natural development when the conflict gets increasingly personal as corpses begin to pile up.

Gibson has the physique of a potential action star (notice how the camera admires his body during the opening shot), but it is difficult to determine whether he has range based solely on this project. As shown by the striking first sequence in Marrakesh, Collins is someone who prefers to work alone—he does not say much but he is highly efficient. Had a keener eye been behind the camera, coupled with a more intelligent script actually interested in men numbed by death and murder, perhaps it have worked as a character study of some sort. Collins is not uninteresting, but the script consistently puts him in situations that are uninteresting. There is a difference.

Shootouts are standard but occasionally exciting. These suffer from diminishing returns, however, because each confrontation is pretty much the same but occurring at a different location. I found it curious that the central villain is not actually the most interesting antagonist. More menacing is a high-ranking henchman (Joseph Millson) who is easily persuaded by money. Deighton is Collins’ friend and also a former Navy SEAL. He is the more effective adversary because he appears to be just as strong, as smart, and as cunning as our protagonist. He seems to enjoy his profession. When the two finally duel, the writer-director, Matthew Hope, proves not to have the wisdom to draw it out a little more. Deighton is such a detestable, weaselly figure. He wish for him to suffer, preferably slowly.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will likely challenge most people’s idea of what a documentary can be. Instead of tackling its subject head-on, it employs a lyrical and ponderous approach—certain to test the patience of those possessing a strict definition of “documentary,” so much so that one might claim that the film is simply a collection of random images that could have been captured with a camera phone.

So then what is a documentary, at least in my eyes? To me, it is an act of capturing reality from a specific perspective. In this case, the picture’s goal is to provide a portrait of how a number of black people live in Hale County, Alabama, specifically those who reside in impoverished neighborhoods, from the perspective of an insider, RaMell Ross, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. An open and seemingly desultory approach is most appropriate because to provide only one portrait of a poor neighborhood could be considered a lie—and an act of further marginalizing an already marginalized community. It is clear that Ross is interested in showing the entire canvas instead of focusing only on a particular cloth of that canvas.

It subverts expectations from a storytelling point of view. The opening minutes show two young men, Quincy and Daniel, who dream of reaching their goals through school and sports. By the end of the film, an argument can be made that only one of them is closer to his goal. The other’s focus turns on his growing family. There is no wrong choice because it is their choice to make.

Notice that every time the two subjects are front and center, the images are shot in a matter-of-fact way. No shots of starry skies, no time lapse photography of highways, not one extended look of an open field. Victories, failures, life, death, and moments in-between are raw and unflinching. I found it fresh that the passage of time is not shown using subtitles or title cards. Instead, we are asked to look at the children and observe how much they’ve grown from one scenario to the next. The documentary spans five years.

Constantly we are reminded, however, that this is not just Quincy and Daniel’s stories. It is about a community: how it celebrates, how it fights, how it mourns, how it copes, how it moves on. We watch children play, tease, laugh, and scream. We see grandmothers get challenged by teenagers—and how these elders snap back. We listen to an old man playing the blues on his guitar. Teenage girls sing despite not knowing a song’s lyrics entirely. A father and son waiting for rain. Blink and miss an insect landing on a fingertip. Churchgoers singing, cheering, yelling, crying. A boy at a barbershop. An infant being buried in a cemetery.

These are impressions—which some may find moving while others are left cold. It all depends on life experiences, I think. I belong in the former group because I grew up in a time and place where neighbors are like second family. People talked to each other, gossiped with one another, and sometimes fought against each other. Neighbors were more than strangers you felt obligated to greet when you cross paths. The documentary is, in a way, about the collective African-American family living in the Deep South.

Out in the Dark


Out in the Dark (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is an LGBTQ film that aims to tell a story from a specific perspective, not just offering yet another typical love story that hits the expected sweet spots which then paves the way toward a doorway of happily ever after. Instead, it aims to show aching truths and confounding realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the deeply-rooted strife affects the every day lives of those who happen to come across love.

Co-writers Yael Shafrir and Michael Mayer, the latter directing the picture, tells the story through a fresh lens and provides voice to a difficult and sensitive subject. In the middle of the story that commands a quiet power, I wondered why we are not provided more stories like this in the west. By putting a face on numerous assumptions and impressions we hear from the news and politicians, perhaps then we would care more about specific conflicts in the Middle East, especially ordinary people who simply wish to get on with their lives. Despite the film’s shortcomings, such as moments of melodrama with family members and ill-paced chases, its angle remains exciting until the final image.

Palestinian graduate student Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) and Israeli lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni) share wonderful, immediately believable chemistry. There is seemingly minimal effort in how the performers interact, whether they are sharing drinks at a bar amongst queer friends or the two of them just hanging out in the apartment. It is in how Jacob and Aloni look at one another in the eyes, perfectly capturing that particular manner of regarding someone from moment of chance meeting until a couple of weeks of getting to know each other—like every moment is to be savored, relished, memorized.

This romantic approach provides the audience a strong core, something to hold onto, to root for, as seemingly unstoppable external forces, like being forced out of the closet by the Israeli Secret Service and complications with one’s student visa, gather even more power to crush the newly established relationship that we grow to cherish and hope to see grow and evolve. I admired that the picture abstains from providing quick and easy solutions to complex problems; even by the end we are left hanging with a handful of questions. However, we do not feel cheated by its denouement because although problems remain, the tone implies hope.

“Out in the Dark” is uninterested in taking sides or placing blame. Rather, it takes a humanistic approach by creating a portrait of those caught in the crossfire of judgment, threats, and violence. Notice its ability to balance romantic elements with gritty, uncompromising situations often found in suspense-thrillers. These extremes, to my biggest surprise, fit together quite beautifully here. It is exciting to think about the possible stories writer-director Michael Mayer has yet to tell. He’s one to watch.

Midsommar


Midsommar (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is further evidence that horror films need not unfold in the dark in order to be effective. Instead of hiding horrific elements and then throwing them at the audience at precisely the right moment, as generic jump scares would, the unsettling and curious images are almost always out in the open, exposed to the harsh light of day. It is a different horror picture, one for the patient viewer who enjoys taking a magnifying glass on a specimen and appreciating how one organ connects to another. It is not without a savage, ticklish sense of humor.

The plot revolves around four male graduate students (Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper) who plan a trip to Sweden to enjoy an idyllic retreat at a commune. They expected to get high and have a lot of sex with exotic women, but this part of their plan is foiled when Dani (Florence Pugh), Christian’s girlfriend, is invited out of pity following a recent family tragedy. Reynor and Pugh possess an interesting dynamic together exactly because they have nearly zero chemistry on top of their characters being romantically involved for the wrong reasons. In a way, the film can be seen through the scope of a drawn-out, twisted break-up. On this level, it is fresh.

The more uninspired choice would have been to jump directly in getting to know the isolated Swedish community and its leaders. But notice how the writer-director takes his time with the exposition. By laying out some of the more unpleasant details of Dani and Christian’s relationship first, we have an appreciation of the more vicious turn of events that occur later. We are not asked to take sides, but we are required to understand.

On the one hand, Dani comes across as needy and clingy even before the tragedy. We all have that one friend who treats everything as an emergency. Can we or should we blame Christian for wanting out of the relationship? On the other hand, at times Christian does not always have the “we” mindset despite being in a serious relationship. As a result, he may come across as detached or cold. I enjoyed that from the moment we meet these two, they are already living their lives. Like in effective dramas, we are tasked to navigate through motivations and psychologies instead of being spoon-fed.

The work commands an impressive eye for detail, from the arrangement of flowers on people’s heads, intriguing patterns on robes, strange figures on wallpapers, down to the guts of an animal sliced open—it dares us to look closer and examine every part of the subject. When a disgusting image is front and center, for instance, not one sharp note or noise is employed to distract us from what we are supposed to digest. Aster gives us the choice of what we want to do with the images. Stare unblinkingly or look away—it doesn’t matter because the representation does not change either way. That’s a powerful statement; it shows that the filmmaker is confident in what he puts forth.

Did I find the movie to be scary? Not particularly. I admired it, especially the creative ways it introduces familiar elements, and sometimes that’s enough. I think the reason is because in my culture, we have some bizarre traditions that may seem somewhat surprising or disturbing to outsiders. The rituals of the Swedish commune presented here are way more out there, certainly twisted and hyperbolic, truly within the realm of the horror genre. I guess I saw the story mainly from the perspective of a person of color who did not only grow up within the culture or perspective of white America. But that isn’t to suggest the picture’s goal is to present social commentary.

Last Ride


Last Ride (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Kev (Hugo Weaving), recently released from prison, takes his son on a spontaneous road trip. Initially, Chook (Tom Russell) believes his dad is a changed man, the trip guised as an opportunity for them to get to know one another and make up for missing time. However, every time Max, the man who took care of Chook when Kev was in jail, is brought up in conversations, Kev takes a defensive stance. Chook sees that his father hates Max, completely oblivious to the fact that his former guardian is dead. The trip, as it turns out, is not for enjoyment nor a way to get closer as a father-son pair but a ruse to evade the police.

Based on the novel by Denise Young and screenplay by Mac Gudgeon, “Last Ride” manages to capture the complicated and often painful relationship between father and son, but the manner in which the narrative is executed leaves a lot to be desired.

The utilization of flashbacks should have been more forceful as to demand attention to memories that can be open to interpretation depending on either an adult’s or child’s perspective. However, these recollections are consistently treated as an afterthought until they are once again convenient to move the plot forward. This is a critical miscalculation because prior to the father-son road trip, memories are all they have of one another. Because the flashbacks lack substance, even though the plot is interesting, we try to dig through but the picture does not give us enough to bite into.

The work might have been stronger if the events that triggered the father and son to go on a journey were shown first, thereby making room for a clear and smooth trajectory in terms of the plot and the pacing. The flashbacks appear and end so suddenly at times that the approach takes one out of the experience as the viewer attempts to measure or get the feel for the central characters’ tenuous relationship.

What the picture does best, however, is setting up various situations designed to harden a child’s soul. A most memorable sequence involves Kev throwing his son into a body of water despite just having been informed that the boy does not know how to swim. Kev, who reckons himself a masculine figure—a real tough-guy—thinks it is the perfect time for his son to learn and the best way to do so is to chuck the boy into the deep end. Russell does a commendable job transforming Chook in small ways which eventually snowball into bigger and surprising changes.

“Last Ride,” directed by Glendyn Ivin, has some complexity in its bones, like the father’s struggle in trying to be good to his son but the bad seems to be ingrained in him, but the presentation of the events occasionally lacks a certain focus or clarity, a quality that is necessary for us to care about and become invested in the harrowing and bleak experiences.

Spider-Man: Far from Home


Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

If there was a “Spider-Man” picture that befits an overwhelming amount of special and visual effects, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is it considering the fact that the main antagonist, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), specializes in creating the most convincing illusions. But those searching for a compelling and mature narrative should look elsewhere, especially since this chapter is right on the heels of a certain character’s death who was particularly close to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Instead, the material focuses on a more convenient route: Peter’s numerous struggles during a science trip across Europe to find the courage to tell MJ (Zendaya) he is interested in her romantically. An argument can be made that this installment, directed by Jon Watts, is a romantic comedy down to its marrow. Missed opportunities abound.

The school trip is forced and unfunny, interminable, a chore to sit through because the actors themselves look bored with what they’ve been handed. While Holland’s boyish charm is consistently on an eleven, matched by Zendaya’s effortless allure as the sarcastic romantic interest, even he is unable to save a tired screenplay from feeling fresh. There are two or three instances when Peter, finally, acknowledges the untimely death of the man he looked up to on several levels and these are the shining moments of the film because the emotions are raw, immediate. It feels right that the mourning must be purged somehow. On top of this, it shows that Holland is a dramatic performer first and foremost—that once he retires the Spider-Man suit, he can have a career with longevity. The writing is not equal to its lead’s obvious potential.

It is a shame, too, because the villain is still interesting this time around. In “Homecoming,” the audience is made to understand and empathize with the man behind the Vulture persona. Here, Mysterio has an excellent point when he claims that a person can be the smartest man or woman in the room but without flair or theatrics he or she is likely to be ignored. Qualifications and experience don’t matter next to someone else who is simply loud or obnoxious. If that isn’t a critique of our society in this day and age, I don’t know what is. This is a fascinating character because he desires what most people desire: to be seen, to be recognized, to be regarded as important. Gyllenhaal knows that he must ground a character whose actions may across as narcissistic and megalomaniacal.

The action sequences bored me. There is not a single one that pushed me to lean a little closer to the screen. Particularly uninspired is final showdown in London. Spider-Man finds himself attempting to destroy countless drones before any one of them gets a chance to shoot him. It is extremely frustrating to sit through because one gets the feeling that the screenwriters, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, have forgotten to show the viewers why the protagonist having to sift through hordes of small robots is actually interesting. There is fifteen to twenty minutes worth of acrobatics and every second feels empty. It is obvious, too, which shots are CGI. One isn’t required to try to be able to recognize them; maybe it’s because the filmmakers didn’t try either. I felt no weight or real danger during the action scenes. I looked at my watch twice.

Although not without its charms, it is clear “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is an inferior sequel. Just because Peter Parker is still a teenager does not mean that his story should remain light and silly. It can still offer funny moments of awkward teenagers simply trying to find themselves. And it should; it is highly appropriate in this version of Spider-Man. But the more daring and wiser choice would have been to tackle head-on the sadness our hero feels for losing a father-figure, a colleague, a mentor with whom he deeply respected. Learning to deal with loved ones who passed is a part of growing up, too.