The Assistant

The Assistant (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

First one in, last one out. This has been the life of Jane since having taken on the assistant position just five weeks ago for one of the heads of a major film production company based in New York City. She is played with deep nuance by Julia Garner, capable of making us feel specific emotions, and to what degree, oftentimes without saying a word. When writer-director Kitty Green focuses on her subject’s face, especially during moments of great stress, the dramatic picture functions almost like a thriller in that we wish to scream for Jane—out of frustration, out of anger—to get the hell out while her humanity hasn’t yet been spirited away by a job that demands a person to look the other way for the sake of getting ahead.

The story unfolds over one work day. We observe Jane heading to and entering her place of work while it’s still dark outside. Much attention is paid on her usual menial tasks. There is no dialogue, just sounds of her footsteps, her breathing, files that must be organized, the printer vomiting out scripts, schedules, photographs. These are shot with great patience and a terrific eye for framing. Notice the minimal use of primary colors. The color gray and bluish-gray pervade the screen. The workplace feels like a cold storage for the dead or dying. We can almost hear a pin drop.

We study Jane’s face. Her work might be boring to us—and it might be boring to her as well considering her level of education and drive—but notice there is not a moment in which she fails to take every single chore seriously. The action around the character may be considered nondescript, but the character herself is never boring. Garner reminded me of a young Meryl Streep because it inspired me to consider if certain quirks possessed meaning not in terms of plot but in terms of character. It is without question she’s one to watch.

Once more people are in the building, we are tasked to observe the workplace environment. It is uncommon for people to look at each other in the eye—especially, for example, between a lowly assistant like Jane and a powerful executive in a suit. There is no laughter among co-workers despite their stations being only a few feet away. Not even a smile. Competition can be felt in the air. It’s the kind of workplace where people snicker and gossip when they notice you did something even remotely wrong. When there is laughter, it is the polite, professional laughter shared among people with power. Assistants are invisible… unless they are needed. Or had spoken or did something out of turn. I wondered if the writer-director, clearly confident with her material, intended for the viewers to ask, “Why are we like this to one another?”

This is a movie that shows more than tells. A typical moviegoer can dismiss it for not being exciting. And he or she would be right, if one only considered the surface. It is not for everyone, certainly not for impatient viewers, but it is for me. Some may claim that the picture only takes off the moment Jane decides to visit the head of Human Resources (Matthew Macfadyen) and report a possible inappropriate relationship. But I disagree.

I believe this is the climax of the picture, the scene that puts a face on her highly toxic work environment. It stands out because it is the first time that we get a chance to look at power not as an idea but as an ordinary man who silences legitimate concerns in order to maintain status quo, to protect those already in power, to keep the small powerless. This is a microcosm of modern America.

Random Acts of Violence

Random Acts of Violence (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an intriguing story buried in “Random Acts of Violence,” based on the graphic novel by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, but screenwriters Jay Baruchel (who directs) and Jesse Chabot seems to have injected more effort in delivering gruesome kills and how to make them as gory as possible instead of honing in on the protagonist’s childhood trauma and how that routed and elevated his career as a comic book artist. What results is a work that is frustrating to sit through because while it is able to reach a few inspired moments, particularly in delivering wicked images right before a murder, there is a glaring lack of compelling substance.

The comic book artist is named Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) and he is on a road trip with his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), publisher (Baruchel), and assistant (Niamh Wilson) from Toronto to New York City. Experiencing a drought of inspiration on how to end his long-running comic book series “Slasherman,” which is based on real-life murders on the I-90 from 1987 to 1991, he hopes that he can come up with something of value—a message or statement that his readers will find unforgettable—by the tour’s end. During their trip, however, bodies begin to pile up and the murders look eerily similar to killings illustrated on Todd’s R-rated comics. Clearly, this premise offers a wellspring of potential for further exploration. And playfulness.

But the final product leaves a lot to be desired. Notice the script’s lack of polish. For instance, when Todd and Kathy (Brewster) clash in regards to what they wish to accomplish using the Slasherman legend, there is a lack of conviction. The former leans on almost idolizing the figure. When challenged about what he wishes to communicate about his work’s level of violence, his reaction is to go on the defense. The latter, on the hand, strives to publish an independent work that focuses on the Slasherman’s victims. She feels that, in the comics, they are marginalized, treated as tools, then forgotten. When Todd and Kathy conflict, their disagreements lack maturity. The lines uttered come across whiny and amateurish—as if the duo hasn’t been in the business for years. This glaring lack of authenticity takes us out of the picture and so the drama is not believable. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the chemistry between Brewster and Williams, especially when they manage to hit the right notes of a scene.

The use of flashbacks becomes a distraction eventually. When adult Todd experiences extreme highs and lows of emotion, an image of young Todd (Isaiah Rockcliffe) bathed in reddish and purple colors is displayed on screen. It appears the boy is transfixed on something but we are not shown as to what until the end. These repetitive flashbacks hamper the momentum of increasing tension, especially when those whom Todd cares about find themselves in mortal danger. The better approach is to allow a scene play out in its entirety; giving the audience no moment of pause or breath. There is no suspense created when we are forced to stare at a child’s familiar expression during the middle of the action.

It fails to play upon a level of self-awareness that is innate in a plot like this. Although this might be an artistic choice, which I can accept, other elements alongside it—convincing character relationships, strong ear for dialogue, cogent statement(s) it wishes to get across about our relationship with violence, defined or blurred demarcation between fiction and real-life, an artist’s responsibility, if any, toward his work and his fans—do not function on a high enough level to create a substantive work worthy of examination and rumination. It seems content in introducing ideas and then disposing of them just as quickly or whenever convenient. I wished the screenplay had been given more time in the oven because it could have been a different beast entirely.


Furie (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Furie” attempts to generate superficial entertainment by throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. It wishes to tell a story surrounding a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter from organ traffickers while combining elements of martial arts, gangster picture, and family drama into the mix. It is an interesting experiment—colorful but isn’t always effective. The core is the bond between Hai (Veronica Neo), the mother, and Mai (Mai Cat Vi), the child, but notice how their interactions are almost always reductive and saccharine—the charade is borderline soap opera. I never believed that the ten-year-old was raised by a woman who hailed from a rough background in Saigon who then moved to a remote village to escape her sordid past. Mai is too sweet, innocent, and weak—embarrassed that her mother collects debt in order to provide for their two-person family. I felt as though the child is present only because the plot demands for someone important to be taken from our heroine which would then trigger action sequences. The choreography of martial arts scenes get the job done but when compared to the greats, it is nothing special. I felt the stunts liken that of a dance—there is a lightness to them—rather than a painful means to extract the necessary information in order for Hai to get that much closer to rescue Mai. Even the material’s approach in tackling the concept of extracting organs from children lacks viciousness. I sensed that perhaps the screenplay by Kay Nguyen is not interested in bathing in the underworld so long as the work is within five feet from it, just enough to detect its stench. This is a lazy approach; details define a story. A lack of daring prevents this film from becoming memorable entertainment. Directed by Le Van Kiet.

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Richard Jewell is an easy target: he is fat, a bit weird at times, and he still lives with his mother despite being fully grown and financially independent. And so when he, while working as a security guard, finds a bomb and alerts the proper authorities during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, his status of being a hero is short-lived. Jewell is falsely accused and vilified as a hero bomber, especially given his questionable track record, like pulling over drivers from the road even though it goes beyond his role as campus security and breaking into students’ dormitories for drinking and threatening them should they fail to comply.

The beauty of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is that it is a condemnation of the FBI, the media, and, perhaps most importantly, power worship. The mess—the tragedy—that is Jewell’s character assassination results not because of one factor but a network of conflicting aims and motivations. The FBI feels pressure from the nation to capture the bomber. Since they have no strong lead, they latch onto the lowest hanging fruit and construct a story from there. (It didn’t help that an FBI agent was assigned to work at the event but failed to detect that there was something wrong until it was too late.) Speaking of stories, the media is always hungry for the next big one, the story that will sell the most papers, get the most viewers, generate the most gossip and speculation.

And speaking of viewers, in a way, Jewell wishes to be viewed or seen, be regarded as important for performing a job the best he can. His goal is to become a cop someday. It sure beats being seen as just another dumb, oily-faced fat guy who delivers mail in the office. Jewell is a type of man who puts law enforcement on such a high pedestal that when he himself becomes the prime target of investigation, he gives off the impression that he does not understand the severity of what he is being accused of and what will happen to him should the FBI get their way of arresting and convicting the wrong man. He wants to help them when he should be helping himself.

This is the central drama of Eastwood’s story. It is told in a compelling way. The events presented—nearly every single one told with clarity and precision—incite frustration and anger but it is not without amusing human moments, like Jewell’s relationship with his Snickers-loving friend and lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell—brilliant as usual). Even before Jewell is accused of a crime he did not commit, we come to understand how his job and personal histories, on top of his physicality and personality quirks, can be used to weaponize, to create a monster out of someone who simply wishes to do the right thing.

The film is supported by strong performers, particularly by Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Kathy Bates as Barbara Jewell, the silently suffering mother. There are heartbreaking moments of the son and his mother just sitting in the apartment in loud silence as the buzzing of the rabid media can be heard from outside. We feel their thoughts racing, their helplessness, the tension in their bodies. How can they possibly win against the U.S. government and the media machine? Who can they trust when even Richard’s friends and colleagues agree to wear a wire so that the FBI can listen in on their private conversations? When will it all be over?

I wished the picture had fewer “Hollywood” moments. For instance, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a highly driven journalist (translation: bitch—which I thought was heavy-handed and at times inappropriate) who works for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, somehow having broken into Bryant’s vehicle despite the car being surrounded by reporters and cameramen. Or when characters, who are supposedly intelligent, do basic investigation so late in the film, such as covering the distance and noting how long it takes to walk from where the bomb was left to the payphone that actual perpetrator used to call 911. Or when a character, who has a big role in amplifying the false accusation, cries during a moving speech. These, and others like it, ring false in movie that is absolutely worth seeing.

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The stupidity and lack of attention to detail in “We Summon the Darkness” are on full display in one scene. If you have eyes, it is impossible to overlook. In the kitchen, members of a religious cult attempt to smoke out their victims who are hiding in the pantry where light can be seen from under the door. Inside the pantry, we see a young man with a deep cut on his arm bleeding to death while leaning against the door in order to prevent cultists from getting in. A pool of blood collects where he sits. Back to the kitchen: no blood—not even a hint of it—is seeping through from the other side. Not a figure or a shadow can be seen desperately moving about. Eventually the frightened hunted use rags to seal the crevice. Still, light from under the door flows uninterrupted. It is clear that this sequence needed to be reshot and yet director Marc Meyers submitted a work so substandard, it is actually insulting. I’ve seen student films with significantly less budget that are executed and put together better than this scene.

You know when a movie tries so hard to hide its twist that it becomes glaringly obvious what that is mere ten minutes into the picture? Such is the case here. If you have an IQ above 50, it will come to no surprise that Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth) have a strong connection to the recent killings being covered on the news. Screenwriter Alan Trezza puts all his chips on this so-called left turn that the exposition ends up dragging on for nearly half the picture. It is brazen. But it is also interminable. These young women have nothing interesting to do or say—nor do their prey: three friends, formerly in a band together, attending a heavy metal concert (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, Austin Swift). Set in 1988, exchanges lean on naming heavy metal bands. If I wanted a list, I’d go on Wikipedia.

And so slashing and killings begin. With the exception of one kill involving fire, the rest is standard violence and gore. Even during its darkly comic moments, I never cracked a single smile or smirk. I did, however, catch my eyes rolling twice or thrice. I asked, “Why are these characters making the worst decisions?” and “Why do they trip so often?” about five times. Each. Its faux edge can be recognized by even the most near-sighted. There is nothing surprising or creative in terms of chases and (finally) going for the jugular. Naturally, a gun must be employed and—surprise, surprise—characters claw and scratch at one another as it is thrown across the room. At this point, there is about thirty minutes yet to be endured.

The material wishes to comment upon religious zealotry. Here, the villains—followers of God—are convinced they must kill and make it look as though satanic cults are responsible. By instilling fear, amplified by the media, the unconverted will feel the need to follow God. (The story takes place in rural Indiana.) On paper, it may sound appealing, but I didn’t find this satiric angle to be fresh in terms of execution. I think it is because the filmmakers fail to balance horror, thriller, and dark comedy so that the elements work in synergy. This is a classic example of how hard it really is to make an effective satire. Sure, there is a message—an obvious one but it’s there. But does it provide insight? The answer is no. Yes, there is a difference.

Performances are all right. Of note, however, are Daddario, who takes on a role that’s different for her, and Johnson, who possesses an interesting face and a gentleness that makes you want to get to know what his character is all about. I liked that Daddario’s Alexis is so over-the-top while Johnson’s Mark is more relaxed. Yet both are equal in energy. I felt as though their take on their characters are just right for the material. But the rest of the work is a miscalculation, a drivel, a death march to the finish line.

Fantasy Island

Fantasy Island (2020)
★ / ★★★★

The premise of “Fantasy Island” promises limitless imagination: the tropical paradise possessing the ability to grant its guests’ deepest desires. It is even capable of bringing the dead back to life. But the movie is dull, repetitive, devoid of original ideas and so it relies on familiar tropes to create a semblance of suspense, and it feels closer to three hours than two. In the middle of it, I questioned whether the screenwriters (Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow [who directs]) actually intended to make a good film. Clearly, there is more to making a movie work than simply slapping together a hodgepodge of ideas. The end result is convoluted dross.

There are a handful of familiar faces, from Michael Peña as the enigmatic keeper of the island, Maggie Q as a guest who wishes to get back together with an old flame, to Michael Rooker as a ragged onlooker who appears to know precisely what’s going on in the island. These three have appeared in better movies and delivered much stronger performances. Neither hyperbolic nor downplayed acting could save a screenplay that is dead on arrival.

Perhaps the most curious performers are Lucy Hale as a young woman who wishes to enact revenge on a high school bully and Portia Doubleday as the reformed tormentor. Hale’s Melanie is now the pretty girl and Doubleday’s Sloane is married but unhappy. Throughout their time on the island, their dynamics shift. There is potential in their storyline. But the movie is filled with so many characters—less interesting ones—that the duo never gets the arc they deserve. And so when the would-be surprising final act comes around, we meet it with a shrug rather than a heartfelt desire to know the specifics.

One important trait the picture lacks is intrigue. Nearly halfway through, we are taken to a place that explains the island’s source of power. This is simply the setup but the script treats it as the punchline. It is an alarming “So what?” moment. We wait and wait for an answer but it never comes. This lackadaisical and half-hearted approach bleeds into the guests’ fantasy. We learn about their wishes but the writers fail to turn information into genuine humanity. Why tell this story when we couldn’t care less for the VIPs running around the island? It should have been an easy task because, whether we care to admit or not, every one of us has something we wish to change about our pasts.

If the point of the feature is to exercise special and visual effects, it fails on that level too. Black water coming out of people’s eyes, a burned figure popping out of unlikely places, people falling off a cliff and splattering on the rocks below, even simple gunshots to the head look cheap and unconvincing. Aerial shots of the island look great… but it is so sunny, bright, and postcard-looking that we are forced to wonder which images are CGI and which are real (if any). From a visual perspective, the work never becomes an enveloping experience. It does not help that each fantasy appears to be set on a different part of the globe.

“Fantasy Island” made me wish I were sitting through a better movie. One that offers deep imagination, varying levels of mystery and terror, and characters worth following and rooting for. Notice its level of ordinariness, its lack of flavor. Fantasies and nightmares never break from being told in a linear fashion. Really think about it: When you dream, it is rarely this way. Images are never this tame, storylines are never this boring. When our mind works things out, sometimes it is nonsensical. This picture cannot help but to explain, especially when antagonists reveal their motivations. This movie is not about anything. It exists simply to rake in the cash by capitalizing on the Blumhouse brand—which is depressing.

Project Power

Project Power (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Project Power” is “X-Men”-lite without the interesting mythology and biting social commentary. Written by Mattson Tomlin, it appears to be content in just being an action flick with some sci-fi leanings and a few corny jokes peppered along the way. While there is nothing with such an approach, there is a nagging problem: The elements it does offer seem to function at only half potential. What results is a watchable but entirely unmemorable project that by the end imaginative viewers are forced to consider possibilities had more creative, ambitious, and experienced filmmakers were at the helm. The premise is so fun, it can ignite a film franchise or television series.

The secret project involves a pill that grants superhuman powers for five minutes. In mere six weeks, this drug has completely overtaken New Orleans—so much so that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have had much trouble taking down criminals who have access to it. The catch: the person who consumes the pill has no idea what type of power he or she will exhibit. And because the drug is unstable, some who take it will explode. This role of chance is a masterstroke and it is a shame the screenplay fails to capitalize on it.

At least the three central protagonists have personality. While Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn up the charm to expected levels—the former having been the original test subject of the project who is now on a mission to rescue his daughter (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from the villainous Dr. Gardner and the latter an NOPD cop who chooses to consume the drug in order to even out the playing field when dealing with beefed up baddies—it is Dominique Fishback who shines as Robin, a drug dealer who aspires to become a rap artist. I enjoyed moments when the picture simply sits back and allows Robin to spit out killer rhymes. It’s clear that Robin has the talent for it and so we wonder how her future might be like should she take the opportunity to leave drug dealing behind, graduate high school, and focus at who and what’s important in her life.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the picture is its aversion to human drama. For instance, Robin’s mother suffers from diabetes and so money is always an issue because they have no health insurance. But what about the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of a family dealing with this chronic illness? Another example: We never get to see Frank (Gordon-Levitt) interact with his fellow cops in the force. We get one exchange between Frank and his captain (Courtney B. Vance), but the setup and twist are entirely expected. Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is reduced to having flashbacks of his daughter being taken from him. Clearly, more attention is put into how to make special and visual effects look cool.

Having said that, I enjoyed the CGI for the most part. The more ostentatious ones, like when a man’s entire body is ablaze and everything he touches is reduced to cinders, are certainly eye-catching, but those that impressed me most are a bit more restrained. A standout includes Frank facing off with a man with elastic limbs and they are required to battle it out in a tight space. Due to the enemy’s bizarre (and amusing) ability in addition to having such a limited room to move around, we are that much more drawn into the action. I wished, however, that the leader of the project, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who works for private defense contractor Teleois, had been given more things to do outside of looking menacing and giving orders. Therein is a classic case of henchmen outshining their superior.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” delivers C+ entertainment when it is apparent the template is capable of delivering at higher levels. One angle worth exploring: Teleois targets residents of New Orleans, in which the black population is close to 60% according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, as test subjects for the Power drug before it goes national. There are overwhelming evidence throughout history that people of color were more often used as guinea pigs since black and brown lives were considered to be more dispensable than whites lives (Tuskegee experiments, Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Project 4.1, among others). So why not acknowledge and shape a universe based upon this fact (or other well-documented, real-life issues or events) so the story commands real punch behind it? Why not strive for more?

The Pool

The Pool (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is curious that the situational horror “The Pool” opens by exercising its shoddy visual effects: a man (Theeradej Wongpuapan) at the bottom of a dried up swimming pool being hunted by a hungry crocodile. It is six meters deep; no ladder, no one else around to ask for help, no apparent means of escape. Nothing about the confrontation is believable, let alone terrifying, because it is obvious the actor is performing in front of a blue screen. But that’s what I enjoyed about it: It makes no pretense in regard to its limited budget. This first scene is a rebel yell that writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng plans to push his wild concept all the way through the finish line. However, it cannot be denied that the journey there is not always first-rate entertainment. Logic is thrown out the window one too many times in order to introduce more conflict rather than to amplify those already present, particularly when the man’s girlfriend (Ratnamon Ratchiratham) enters the equation. Tension could have been far more potent had this been a man versus nature story, not man and his girl. When not illogical, the screenplay goes for syrupy drama (cue the soap opera-like flashbacks), and eventually its anti-abortion stance gets in the way of straightforward storytelling. I felt that its edges are softened for the sake of stroking the more conservative viewers’ bubbles. The third act shows it is more than capable of treading darker territory and yet shies away last-minute. It chooses a happy ending over one that feels right for the material. By doing so, its power is lessened significantly.

Jeepers Creepers

Jeepers Creepers (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“You know the part in scary movies when somebody does something really stupid, and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

Although Trish (Gina Philips) warns her brother Darry (Justin Long) not to climb down the jutting pipe that is sitting a few feet away from the entrance of an abandoned church, he remains convinced he heard a voice down there. The person, or persons, may be in dire need of help. After all, while driving along the countryside highway just minutes earlier, Trish and Darry witnessed a man throwing what appears to be two bodies down the pipe—covered in white sheets with red stains on them—the very same man who terrorized them on the road with his souped up old truck sporting the license plate BEATNGU. Up until this point in the film, creature-feature “Jeepers Creepers,” written and directed by Victor Salva, is wonderful entertainment, expertly balancing tension and laughs as audiences are played like a piano.

However, it is let down somewhat by a soggy middle portion and an uninspired final act. The latter is especially problematic given that the more people there are on screen, the material tends to rely on the usual tropes involving cops, guns, and monsters. They shoot at the thing yet the abomination doesn’t even recoil. Naturally, cops have poor aim. And they gawk when action is required. The third act is an exercise of futility, of effects, and of tired clichés which accomplish nothing other than to sideline Philips and Long’s terrific chemistry as siblings who squabble and tease but their love for one another cannot be denied.

When stripped all the way down, an argument can be made that this is a story of a brother and sister who must face change when they least expect it. It is no accident they are university students on their way home over break. There are a few examples that denote change. There is talk about their mother being unhappy in her marriage. Trish and Darry take the long way home because Trish has just gotten out of a relationship. And soon the duo must graduate and take on the “real world.” It is no coincidence that the villain they face resurfaces every 23 years, to kill and feed. 23 is when young adults usually begin their lives and careers outside of university.

When the film focuses on Trish and Darry’s experiences out in that lonely country road, it works. Even a desperate visit to a diner has a darkly comic tinge to it. Clearly agitated and horrified, the locals simply stare at them rather than offering to help. Even the cops do not believe what Darry claims to have seen down that pipe. This supports the idea of the siblings having to face a challenge together, everyone else is decoration. But then the work begins to unspool.

I liked the look of The Creeper (Jonathan Breck), with its dark and leathery skin, sharp and stained teeth, its intimidating stature. Although it’s quite tall, it moves like a dancer. It makes sense that it is fit considering it is a hunter. Less intriguing is its apparent lack of weakness. It gets shot (pistols, shotgun). It is run over by a vehicle more than three times. It seems invincible, unstoppable. Eventually it lays dying in the middle of the highway but there is no drama because we know all too well it will get up again.

The idea of an insurmountable enemy can work, especially when it is supposed to symbolize or function as metaphor for something else, but it requires a sharp and deeply intelligent writing. However, since the screenplay is only interested in superficial thrills starting with the middle potion, the monster that won’t die feels more like a caricature rather than a truly formidable force. Notice how we tend to learn about it through secondhand tales rather than simply showing us.


Jaws (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Many of today’s horror movies, especially those with bloated budgets, have proven one too many times that there is nothing particularly scary about people being killed on screen. They may be gruesome, ugly, bloody, or especially violent—perhaps all of the above—but real scares, those that crawl their way into the mind and attach themselves there, are often confused with evanescent jolts or shocks. They can learn a thing or ten from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” based upon Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel (who also penned the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), not because it is the granddaddy of summer blockbusters nor due to its reputation as being one of the all-time scariest movies. The reason is far simpler: It is pure craft from top to bottom.

When we finally lay our eyes on that great white shark, we do not see a mechanical, malfunction-prone prop. We see a living, breathing, eating machine—teeth the size of shot glasses—a real threat to those living and vacationing on Amity Island during the Fourth of July weekend. On the surface, the shark “appears” (we do not actually see its full body until late in the picture) every fifteen to twenty minutes to eat—or try to eat—people. But really look at what’s happening. These suspenseful and thrilling expository sequences are designed so that Spielberg can feed us information about the twenty-five foot, three ton creature.

For instance, the first scene involving a teenage girl who goes skinny dipping at night tells us the creature’s level of stealth. Although it is quiet out there in the ocean—minimal wind, no boat or planes passing by, and the girl herself isn’t even madly splashing about—she is not able to detect the shark coming… until its jaws are latched onto her leg and she is being dragged to and fro. Another example: the scene involving two fishermen at the jetty who think they can catch the shark nilly-willy. This sequence is meant to show the shark’s sheer power. I can go on. Later, we are forced to appreciate the shark’s intelligence. Then much later, its tricky instinct. We learn why it is an apex predator. Then it gets real scary: The second half combines all of its traits (supported by John Williams’ unforgettable score), and we watch spellbound.

There is another monster in the film—human greed. Despite pieces of human body parts being washed ashore, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) insists that the beaches remain open. He pretends to care about the local business owners and yet he is often surrounded by men in suits, men in power, men who have a stake on the local economy, perhaps men also elected in local office. Our hero is Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a recent transplant from New York City who wishes to do the right thing for his new community. Not only does he need to face bureaucracy, he must also wrestle against ignorance.

Scheider is wonderful in the role. His interpretation of Brody reeks of goodness at first glance, and he is a good person, but the character’s more complex layers are revealed during quiet moments with his family (sometimes with a drink in hand), when he listens closely to the expert opinion of enthusiastic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss—terrific), when he looks at the cantankerous shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw—a scene-stealer) and try to make sense why the man in front of him is the way he is. This trio of vastly different personalities and temperaments is great entertainment—take away the shark and there is comedy a-brewing.

“Jaws” is the kind of work that one can visit every year and it never gets old. It is timeless precisely because it gets the island setting right, from the streets where vehicles are mere inches from one another… yet there remains a positive feeling in the air, inside establishments where people can be heard talking over one another (notice how some lines of dialogue do not have anything to do with the plot), down to how it is really like simply sunbathing at the beach—the gleeful screaming of children, adults gossiping and cackling, sloshing of the water, revving of motorboats, when the wind picks up just a little. “Jaws” is entertainment of the highest order not just because elements that make up a genre movie are present; it actively works to transport us into a time and place as if we live there.

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.