The Yellow Sea


The Yellow Sea (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Yellow Sea,” written and directed by Hong-jin Na, is a highly entertaining, sometimes confusing but always interesting, action-thriller from South Korea. It engages the audience by presenting a seemingly straightforward situation and slowly the tentacles of deceit creep out of their hiding places as the protagonist gets deeper into his mission. In addition, the picture offers a sharp eye when it comes to its action scenes, proficiently balancing white-knuckle suspense and well-placed humor.

Gu-nam (Jung-woo Ha), working as a cab driver in China, grows increasingly worried and jealous that his wife, who traveled to South Korea for work, has been cheating on him with no intention of ever coming back—even to provide financial assistance to their child. The pressure to get in contact with her increases with each day because debt collectors need the money that Gu-nam and his wife owe for the visa. It appears most opportune when a leader of the Chinese mafia, Myun (Yun-seok Kim), approaches Gu-nam with an alternative: to go to South Korea and kill a man. Doing so would pay his debt in full. Gu-nam feels he is left with no other choice.

Despite a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, there is never a dull moment because the writer-director has complete control of the material’s tone and tonal changes. Notice that the first third is quite slow, more concerned with showing a man’s difficult situation rather than complicated stunts, and we get a chance to understand how the protagonist’s thinks and recognize his strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the picture offers an opposite approach: fast-paced, adrenaline-driven, noisy. It tests the man to his limits as he follows the strands that might lead to his wife’s whereabouts.

Its chase sequences are especially strong. One takes place in a high-rise apartment building and the other in and on a cargo ship. I found these refreshing because there is something about a mob, whether it be composed of cops or criminals, chasing a man that makes the scene scarier. In many American movies, chases usually involves only two or three people, certainly almost never more than five.

The constant movement in the background, accompanied by screaming and yelling, locks the viewer into paying attention as the distance between the main character and his potential captors grows shorter. In addition, the writer-director is not afraid to make the choice of minimizing the use of guns. Knives are used most often. I smiled at a character using a really thick animal bone, likely to be a femur, as a club. There is creativity here and Na makes smart choices in order to elevate the feel of action sequences.

Another impressive aspect is the film’s use of real cars smashing against one another coupled with really tight editing and most convincing sound effects so that the audience can almost feel the impact of every bump and glass shatter. There is a wonderful balance between close-ups and wide shots so we feel as though every decision by the person behind the wheel counts. There is plenty to appreciate in seemingly simple moments.

The Workshop


The Workshop (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The quietly alluring “The Workshop,” written by Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantent, is courageous because it asks the viewers to empathize with a young man who has the potential to become radicalized by the extreme right. The keyword is “potential” because the material, for the majority of the time, is vague in terms of which path the curious character might take. He shows a number of so-called warning signs of a person who might shoot up a school or a grocery store: He is a loner, he possesses an above average intelligence, he has a proclivity for violence in terms of ideation and media consumption, and he listens to extremist right-wing rhetoric—“so-called” because I do not believe any of these factors, singular or in combination, necessarily lead to violence.

The subject is named Antoine and he is played by newcomer Matthieu Lucci, whose future is so bright should he wish to pursue more challenging roles as he so willingly tackles here. I found that his choices are fresh, particularly in how he portrays Antoine who thinks he is already a man but, in actuality, he is only a boy. Lucci commands great intensity when required and he is readily able to exude warmth at a moment’s notice. Notice how he interacts with adults, especially those who have some sort of power, versus his peers and children. Here is a performer with the potential to make a career of pretending to be someone else. He finds subtleties in his character’s frustration and anger.

The strongest moments in the film involve a successful novelist named Olivia (Marina Foïs) leading a group of diverse teenagers to brainstorm what sort of thriller they should write during the summer. Every single participant commands a distinct personality; even the quieter ones have something important or insightful to say, whether it terms of their group dynamics (sometimes they disagree to the point of physical confrontation about to break out) or the story they attempt to write.

It is so rare, especially in mainstream American films, to show teenagers as they are—flawed, challenging, contradictory, full of vitality—instead of some Hollywood idea, a fantasy of how teenagers ought to think, or act, or talk. Due to the screenplay’s sharply drawn characters, I enjoyed their fierce clashes as well as their unity. Each one has a reason for attending the writing workshop. Most importantly, by sitting in their sessions, we come to understand why the members choose to return for the next meeting even when the previous session may have been awkward, uncomfortable, or downright ugly.

But the main push of the plot involves the instructor’s suspicion that one of her students, Antoine, is a bomb waiting to go off. Although still quite solid, particularly with regards to the author being attracted to fear and threat of violence, I found her investigation to be less interesting than Antoine’s moments of isolation. Lucci communicates so much by simply looking at a distance or the way his body language changes when Antoine senses lies. I think the two would have been more interesting together if the material had further explored the twisted attraction between them. There must be a reason why Antoine follows and spies on his instructor. No, it is not due to a sexual nature. I think it is because, finally, someone recognizes his potential. Look at his family and friends. No one engages him on his ideas.

Some viewers will take one look at Antoine and label him as a young extremist. Although unfair, that’s the kind of world we live in—and I believe that’s the point the film attempts to make, how we are built to judge based on patterns that fit—or at least seem to fit. It has been a while since I have encountered a project that deals so intelligently with a misunderstood young person.

Anna


Anna (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Luc Besson’s action-thriller “Anna” tells the story of a Russian woman (Sasha Luss) recruited by the KGB during the intelligence war against the CIA. A victim of domestic abuse and a drug addict, she considers working for the government as a short-term solution that might lead to a better life, but, after having proven her efficiency as a tyro agent, her superior (Eric Godon) demands that she serve for the long haul—or die. Occasionally entertaining are the ridiculous action scenes in which Anna must storm a place and shoot every person in a suit or uniform, but there is a disconnect between the complex, glossy choreography and the titular character’s desperation to achieve freedom. And so when the busy buzzing of bullets and cracking of bones die down, the personal drama comes across rather disingenuous most of the time. It lacks a certain abrasiveness that allows the drama to become convincing and compelling. The picture, however, is elevated somewhat by supporting actors who strive to deliver solid performances: Luke Evans the brooding KGB officer, Helen Mirren as the sharp and tough KGB handler, and Cillian Murphy as an unwavering CIA agent constantly on Anna’s heels.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco


The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” brings to mind the great filmmaker and photographer Agnès Varda because of the way it focuses, studies, and falls in love with regular faces. Black faces specifically—of varying age, skin color, and personality—are front and center in this beautiful and pensive picture, so filled with small surprises and big emotions without feeling the need to cultivate and deliver a plot driven story where things happen just because it is expected. A case can be made that the fact that things don’t happen, at least in ways we thought they would—is what makes the work special. The film is freedom translated to moving images and I hope that aspiring filmmakers would look at this movie and follow its example. It is an original.

The vibrant screenplay is written by Joe Talbot (who directs), Robert Richert, and Jimmie Fails; it is apparent they grew up and love San Francisco because every breath the movie takes is not a negative space or moment like so many generic films tend to offer. Observe that in between “action” are shots that communicate culture: an old building, a sunset, the night sky, a famous bridge, a strange mode of transport, an antique, people briskly walking to their destinations, an unkempt street corner, the traffic downtown, a mom and pop store. No wasted image.

When characters are engaged in conversation, whether it be outdoors or indoors, there are details that prove not one scene is shot in a studio. Some events are unplanned; the performers go along with them. At times magic is created from happenstances. Look closely enough and notice regular folks—who may not be aware there is a movie being filmed—making direct eye contact to camera. Every second is alive, a risk, a joyous celebration of making a movie, and it feels like being in a specific place at a specific time. At its best, it feels like a documentary. Accidents or mistakes are turned into strengths. There is overwhelming positivity and so we are inspired to embrace imperfections.

The plot—for those who need it—revolves around Jimmie (Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends who decide to squat in a Victorian home after the owners leave due to a death and resulting family drama. Jimmie lived in this particular house when he was a boy and he feels the need reclaim it, especially since it is said that his grandfather built it in the 1940s. There is a four-million-dollar asking price for the house. (Finn Wittrock plays the real estate agent.) There is convincing drama because we know that Jimmie is fighting against the impossible. Time is against him. So is the system. He is not rich. He is black man in a mostly white neighborhood. Just because you want it badly enough does not mean you get to have it.

Homelessness lies in the center of this thoughtful piece. There is the physical definition that every one of us is aware of. After all, people tend to equate San Francisco with its growing homeless population. But then there is the spiritual definition which the film so beautifully explores. Jimmie is so driven, so obsessed, to live in this house he does not own that his identity becomes tethered to his imaginary ownership. When his need is threatened, trauma is revealed not in predictable ways. There is a reason why we meet his father (Robert Morgan), aunt (Tichina Arnold—a very welcome warm presence), and mother (LaShay Starks). We look away from the homeless; Jimmie yearns to be seen.

Before I Wake


Before I Wake (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Before I Wake” combines dark fantasy and horror with mixed results.

On the one hand, there is an interesting story involving a foster child, Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has the ability to turn his dreams into reality, but he is not yet able to control it. There is a curious dynamic between the boy and his most recent foster parents (Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane) because there is immediately a question in our mind whether the couple would choose to use Cody’s double-edged gift so that they could see and interact with their recently deceased son (Antonio Evan Romero). The screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the former directing the picture, does not shy away from human nature—even at the expense of putting a child in danger.

The picture invites the viewer to look at it closely, especially during dream sequences. We are provided peaceful images of butterflies fluttering about in well-lit, well-decorated rooms yet the tone can pivot just as quickly toward darker territory. This is where horror elements come in. Silence is used effectively, particularly during tension-building early in the picture when the audience does not yet have an idea of the threat Cody mentions: The Canker Man, how it appears in his nightmares sometimes and eats people. Notice the careful use of shadows to prevent the viewer from seeing too much too soon. Flanagan has an understanding of how horror pictures work—not a surprise considering he helmed the excellent but largely undiscovered “Absentia.”

On the other hand, the film can be quite repetitive. Jessie and Mark trying to stay awake in the living room by drinking loads of coffee just in case Cody dreams of their son suffers from diminishing returns. Must we really endure yet another discussion regarding how much the couple misses their son? Must we look at yet another family picture with the smiling dead child in it? Perhaps the point is to establish a molasses-like pacing in order to communicate the crippling depression of the household. Repetition can work but the wrinkles in the formula must be introduced with great energy to keep the material from becoming stale.

Although the screenplay gets to it eventually, there is not enough investigation into Cody’s interesting past in order for the mystery to be resolved. For example, the reason why Gore Verbinski’s interpretation of “The Ring” works so well is because it works as a detective story. Time is utilized to soak us into its deepest secrets. Here, only about fifteen minutes is dedicated to stealing official documents, talking to the right creepy people, and going through red tape. As a result, the final third comes across as rushed and superficial.

With a few more passes of revision, “Before I Wake” might have offered a superior experience. The right elements are there, but fat needs to be shed in order to make room for meaty details. As is, it is tolerable but not particularly memorable.

Amityville: The Awakening


Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror film with a standard premise of a family moving into a murder house, a standard execution of hauntings occurring at night, and a standard resolution in which nothing new is discovered or resolved. One gets the impression that writer-director Franck Khalfoun has never helmed a project in which horror, suspense, and thrills must be juggled in order to create a semblance of entertainment. Considering that he has “P2” and “Maniac” under his belt prior to this film, it is apparent he has learned nothing from them. The stench of mediocrity can be swallowed in every square inch of this lame horror outing.

The Amityville murder is a fascinating case because what had occurred in 112 Ocean Avenue was so horrific, the paranormal was employed to try to make sense of what had happened there. But the picture is not interested, not even slightly curious, in putting a new spin on a familiar territory. While it is somewhat fresh that the characters are aware that horror movies have been inspired by the house they now live in, the self-awareness is not matched by an intelligent or clever script. Due to boredom, I wondered how someone like Wes Craven might have carved the screenplay like a pumpkin so that the viewer can taste a distinct flavor on three fronts: the real-life murder, the current story being told in connection to the previous pictures, and as an exercise of the horror genre.

One of its many awful mistakes is treating the heroine, Belle (Bella Thorne), like an object to be desired rather than one to empathize with. Although Thorne is not the most versatile performer, it is not her fault that the person in charge behind the camera is adamant on making her look beautiful, always sporting cosmetics, unblemished, even when the character is supposed to be having the harshest days of living in an extremely stressful environment. Paranormal occurrences is one thing. Her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becoming increasingly obsessed with her twin brother (Cameron Monaghan) waking up from his two-year vegetative state is another beast entirely. There is even room for genuine human drama here but Khalfoun could not be bothered to strive a little more.

Another critical misstep is the lack of genuine horror. The rising action is mainly composed of nightmares and hallucinations which carry minimal consequences. Even putting this miscalculation aside, when one takes a closer look at the approach, experienced viewers are likely to see the jolts from a mile away. For instance, a scene almost always begins in a dark room and Belle feels compelled to investigate a noise in another darker room. Of course there is going to be a punchline—which is almost always an overused jump scare. The writer-director’s lack of creativity and inspiration gets exhausting after a while. What is his goal of making a pointless movie like this?

“Amityville: The Awakening” is dead on arrival, an iteration to be completely forgotten after several days—a well-earned sentence for being so ordinary that it dissolves in the mind the moment its images are processed in the brain. I would say that at least it is only approximately eighty-five minutes long but, thinking more about it, it is eighty-five minutes too long.

Doctor Sleep


Doctor Sleep (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

In many horror movies, there is almost always an assumption that the antagonist is evil. It has become an awful habit not to tell us how evil the villain can be and thus why it must be vanquished at all costs. About a third of the way through in writer-director Mike Flanagan’s occasionally impressive “Doctor Sleep,” it proves to be more potent than its contemporaries: it takes the aforementioned extra step. It dares to show a child murder that includes all the details: how he is targeted; how he is lured; how he is kidnapped; how he is handled; the precise moment the boy realizes he will die that night; the blood gushing from his small frame; the screaming, crying, and begging due to extreme pain; the terror in his last breath. It creates a level of urgency so high, that when the enemies finally get their comeuppance the viewers are inspired to yell at the screen, “Get him!” “Shoot her!” “Don’t let them get away!”

The work is a solid sequel to one of the most iconic horror films, Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable “The Shining.” However, it does not start strong. In its attempt to bridge the gap between the terrifying events that took place inside the Overlook Hotel in 1980 and 2011 when mid-thirties Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has become an alcoholic in order to suppress his shine (psychic powers), the work relies far too often on familiar imagery such as patterns on walls or floors, word-for-word dialogue taken directly from the previous film, its use of primary colors, how the hair of Danny’s mom (Alex Essoe) tend to fall a certain way so that attention is drawn to her ears.

On the surface, those who have seen Kubrick’s picture multiple times may find some enjoyment from spotting every reference. On the other hand, these images and lines of dialogue pale by comparison against the original. There is a sense of preternatural discipline in the predecessor that this one lacks. The mimicry is amusing twice or thrice, but one wonders eventually when the work will forge an identity of its own. Auspiciously, the story moves at a brisk pace; it does not feel like a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Perhaps because the film, based on the Stephen King’s novel, is interested in expanding the story in ways that are curious and magical. For example, shine, as turns out, tend to vary from one person to another—not only by degrees as “The Shining” implied but also in terms of nature. One person’s shine can mean having the ability to read minds, while the next person’s shine means having the ability to control individuals’ actions by mere suggestion. We usually learn the advantages and limitations of these abilities. We meet about a dozen characters with the shine and so we become curious about their specific talents. It is refreshing that our central protagonist, Danny, is not the most powerful. His experience makes him formidable, but there is least one who we feel has mastered her abilities. She is named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of a cult who feeds on children’s shine. Cult members aim to prolong their lifespan.

The story is about finding the courage to move on from one’s past—nothing fresh. Dan is haunted by literal ghosts. Eventually, he lands a job at a hospice and we learn how he earns the titular nickname. (It involves a cat.) Meanwhile, the highly gifted Abra (Kyliegh Curran) must come to terms with her strange abilities by overcoming her fear of being regarded or treated as a freak. Her parents are aware of her abilities, but it is never talked about directly. Why? Because there is shame there. (I wished the screenplay delved into this further.) The template is unimpressive, but there are enough jolts and plot twists that make for an intriguing watch. Dialogue can be as revealing as overt action.

McGregor and Curran share terrific chemistry. Flanagan’s script consistently underlines the big brother/little sister relationship, the connection between the mentor and the mentee. It never syrupy, just sweet enough to hint a possible happy ending for haunted Dan. He deserves it. Curran embodies the role with gusto; she is not simply required to look scared or cute. She possesses a natural knowing look and so we believe the character is beyond her years. I hope Curran would choose character-driven work in the future, rather than just another role for a child or pre-teen that can be played by anyone.

“Doctor Sleep” is not composed merely of cheap jump scares. Horror is often situational—which is an example of a great nod to its predecessor. It is interested in how people relate to one another, what scares them, how they attempt to find solutions. Flanagan understands why Kubrick’s film works and, for better or worse, he dares enough to modernize the scares while putting his own stamp on what or how a horror movie should be like. He is confident of his storytelling, the craft propelling the scares, and the capable cast. It is a worthy follow-up.