★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Kogonada has the patience of master Japanese filmmakers. In between moments of action or importance are seemingly throwaway moments: pedestrians crossing the street, the sky’s blinding blue-brightness, plants being watered, children at play. This storytelling technique is most appropriate in the impressive debut feature “Columbus,” a portrait of two individuals—one a local in Columbus, Indiana, and the other a visitor—who must or feel the need to put their lives on pause because of family. These asides, moments of randomness and freedom, are almost acts of exhalation when the film’s protagonists are tired of holding their breaths.
The local is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the visitor is Jin (John Cho), the former caring for her mother who is a recovering drug addict and the latter the son of a professor who has fallen into a coma prior to his lecture. The picture, for the most part, is a collection of Casey and Jin’s interactions—how strangers become friends and then later perhaps something more special.
Fresh is the fact that the relationship is not of a romantic nature despite’s the leads’ wonderful chemistry. It is an exploration of two spirits so different but finding commonalities anyway. There is something beguiling in its simplicity. What they share is beautiful, thoughtful, and often poignant. Surprising moments of honesty—sometimes painful honesty—are in store for those willing to look deep into the characters.
Its pacing is controlled, slow, and mesmerizing. During the aforementioned “throwaway moments,” more than a handful of times I found myself thinking back to a scene that had just unfolded. I pondered over the incredibly realistic dialogue; questioned why or how words are expressed a certain way and what these reveal about the subjects; wondered about body language and how reading it accurately may help to extricate big truths from small lies. Facial expressions do not tell all or may deceive. Casey and Jin are the farthest from archetypes so it is most refreshing when they reveal their thoughts about architecture, responsibilities, their pasts, where they hope to be or become one day.
Stunning shots are peppered throughout, whether it be of local buildings or an interior of a humble home. With the former, notice how angles are more dominant, impersonal, we observe structures from a distance. On the other hand, inside houses, colors and patterns are in command. Posh dwellings are bright, filled with hard, shiny surfaces and collectible decorations. Working class homes, by comparison, are quite somber but these are filled by familiar elements like a soft couch, photographs with cheap frames, a cramped kitchen/dining room where family members actually eat and laugh together. Although images may be worlds apart, Kogonada shifts between them with ease. He has a knack for making the images speak for themselves.
Notice the film’s willingness to be silent. There is no score. We hear cars swooshing by. Birds chirping. Footsteps and shuffling during house tours. Whispers in the library. The trickling of the water fountain nearby. By having no score, there is one less barrier between the subjects and the audience. And so when they reveal themselves, it feels like a friend is exposing his or her soul.
★ / ★★★★
The first date between Jim (Adam Sandler) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) at Hooters is a complete fiasco. The food is terrible, the venue is inappropriate, the conversation is either bland or offensive, and not once did either of them feel a spark that might warrant a second date. They’re convinced they are never going to see each other again. But given that this is a romantic-comedy, of course they do.
The screenplay by Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera is to blame for the picture’s lack of overall energy, entertainment value, and real emotions worth investing in. Without Barrymore and Sandler’s charm, I would not have been surprised if the film had not been given the green light. There are very few things here that makes it worth sitting through for two hours. Why watch this rubbish when Peter Segal’s “50 First Dates,” starring both Barrymore and Sandler, is lightyears more worthwhile?
I laughed a couple of times. Although a cliché, I liked that the single parents either have children that are all boys or all girls. The running gag that involves Hilary/Larry (Bella Thorne) being mistaken for a boy because she clothes herself in an athletic way and has a boyish haircut works for the most part because it is never mean-spirited. Thorne is quite good because unlike the other young actors, she never exaggerates.
Of course there is an inevitable makeover scene when we are shown how beautiful Hilary really is given the right haircut and clothes. But what I loved about it is Thorne’s decision to downplay the character. Everything is exaggerated: the flow-y extensions, the bright short dress, the makeup, and the shot unfolding in slow motion. But what does she do that stands out? She keeps her shoulders square, holding a lot of tension, which looks awkward—but it is right. Hilary comes across as a real person because for years she didn’t feel like she was beautiful. A makeover does not alter one’s confidence—at least not right away. I appreciated that the performer has the insight to keep it somewhat realistic.
I found its representation of Africa insulting at times. Everybody is a caricature in the resort. While the material is supposed to be light, accessible, and friendly, it did not need to be so hyperbolic all the time. Because the representation is so cartoonish, we never get a real sense that the characters are visiting a real and wondrous place. Later in the film, some of the characters claim that they miss Africa. We do not buy it for a second because we know that what they have experienced is a sham.
And then there is the central romance between Jim and Lauren. The screenplay spends so much time showing them interacting with one another’s children that there is not one convincing scene—one that is spot-on—that is dedicated only to the couple. As a result, we understand why they want to spend time with each other’s kids but not necessarily spend time with one another. We never get a sense of who they really are as a couple.
“Blended,” directed by Frank Coraci, is appropriately titled because it is a mess. It does not offer enough moments of subtlety and maturity to appeal to adults. And yet it is also not appropriate for children because it does have jokes that are so inappropriate, it requires parents to do some explaining afterwards. And so who is the target audience? People who want to see Barrymore and Sandler together again? That’s a low bar.
★★ / ★★★★
As far as abduction thrillers go, “10×10,” based on the screenplay by Noel Clarke and directed by Suzi Ewing, is relatively standard in its execution in that opportunities are not taken once and for all to end the life of either the hero or villain until the very last act. It goes by the rule that the running time be as close as possible to ninety minutes. There is great frustration to be had here: Since the characters do not make desperate moves in life or death situations, we never become invested in the survival aspect of the story. However, there are enough plot twists which warrant a light recommendation for those looking to turn off their brains for passable, superficial, and forgettable entertainment.
The abductor named Lewis is played by Luke Evans—a role that any actor with an athletic physique can play. Although Evans is believable in the role—in fact, he appears unchallenged here—the character is neither written with depth nor in such a way that the drama is rooted in something real, tangible, or relatable. Relatively fresh, however, is that Lewis is no common criminal. Having stalked Cathy (Kelly Reilly) for months and finally making a move to kidnap her, in a very public place, no less, we learn quickly he is not motivated by money or sex. Then what does he want?
This reveals the weakness of the screenplay. It takes too much time to get to the point—to reveal the motivations of both predator and prey. As a result, the momentum during the middle portion remains stagnant for the most part, only punctuated by silly chases that end quickly. At least these scenes are edited in such a manner that we have a complete idea of the action. It could have been edited so manically but there is some degree of patience here. Still, viewers are certain to think or yell at the screen: “Grab the gun!” “Shoot him!” “Stab him!” When a gun is located only a few feet away, Cathy chooses to run to the kitchen drawers and search for a knife. She fails even to grab the biggest one. Common sense is far from the picture’s forté.
For a film that takes place in a limited space, it does a solid job in getting us familiar with the setting. For instance, the ten-by-ten soundproof white room surrounded by padding is initially nondescript. But as violence unfolds, it gets dirtier, we see bugs and blood, imperfections on the floors and walls. As for the living space, it is quite detailed. Because Lewis does not reveal much about himself during the first half, we look closer at the decor, photographs, paintings on walls, piles of magazines and books. Does the home look and feel as though it houses a family or a bachelor?
“10×10” is competent but never impressive, tolerable but never that interesting. Its look is rather standard and the camera angles employed are not daring or even playful for the sub-genre. In the middle of it, I began to wonder about my shopping list, whether I had jotted down everything I needed for my next trip to the supermarket.
Trouble with the Truth, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Jenny (Danielle Harris) reveals to her father that she is engaged, Robert (John Shea) is less than ecstatic. He expresses his disappointment by claiming that the man she wants to marry is a doorknob, a pencil sharpener—painfully ordinary through and through. Although the news is about Jenny, the scene quickly becomes about Robert. His current attitude toward marriage is defined by his divorce with Emily (Lea Thompson), a successful writer who had since gotten married to a prosecutor. Shaken by his daughter’s news, Robert calls Emily. She happens to have a trip to Los Angeles the next day and so the former husband and wife decide to have dinner.
Written and directed by Jim Hemphill, “The Trouble with the Truth” is intelligently written and executed with a seemingly real understanding of what it means to be married, divorced, and to reconnect in a different way. The key word is “seemingly” because although I can admit to the picture’s technical proficiencies, I found myself unable to connect to it emotionally and psychologically in a deep way. Perhaps I do not have yet the maturity and experience that are necessary to appreciate all of its subtleties.
Shea and Thompson create believable adults who are once married but are entertaining the possibility of getting together again. I was surprised by the screenplay because instead of making Robert and Emily as likable as possible in order for us to root for them to get together, it seems more interested in revealing their flaws slowly then suddenly, the unanswered questions they have for one another, and the lingering insecurities that have latched onto them despite a period of time of not seeing or talking to one another.
The picture is designed for those who are regaled by observing one event unfolding in real time. Here, the couple discuss a range of topics over dinner at a relatively classy restaurant, from the impersonal to wounds that are only beginning to scab. It is quite beautiful and enthralling how Thompson and Shea are able to create characters with distinct, if not polar, personalities and yet the more they speak, the more we come to understand why they decided to get married in the first place: Despite their many differences, they are willing to meet each other halfway. Conversely, we come to understand why they separated.
And yet maybe the point is not in seeing the trouble to rekindle the romance they once shared. One can argue that it is about a couple getting some sort of closure from one another. Though they are able to speak with other openly, the material really gets interesting when a character moves a little closer and fishes for certain details that he or she has been unsure about for years. The question of how many affairs each had been involved with while they were married is an obvious example.
Shot in warm colors and relaxed pacing, “The Trouble with the Truth” features characters with a lot contradictions and that is exactly what makes them so interesting. They may preach one thing but the real challenge is in figuring out which part of it they really believe. We are placed right there at the dinner table, constantly evaluating the situation, what they are thinking, what they are really saying.
Kid Who Would Be King, The (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
On paper, “The Kid Who Would Be King” is corny: a boy who is constantly bulled at school discovers that not only is he a direct lineage of King Arthur of Camelot, he is destined to stop a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson), imprisoned underground for centuries, from enslaving the entire planet. However, writer-director Joe Cornish consistently finds ways to retool and transform history and mythology in a way that is consistently entertaining. Kid- and family-friendly action-adventures from America could learn a thing or two from this familiar yet refreshing piece of work.
One could feel the writer-director’s love for children right from the get-go. It could have easily been a special and visual effects extravaganza first and foremost, human drama second. Instead, it is the other way around. Notice that despite the incredible developments—meeting an old wizard who is able to transform into a teenager, facing off with an army of fiery skeletons, fighting a dragon—the script always finds an opportunity to pull back and examine friendships, partnerships, relationship with self and family. At the same time, these are never saccharine, simply a natural development of the story. This is a risk because slowing down in the middle of an action-packed journey could prove fatal in less capable hands. Cornish is willing to experiment.
The chosen one is named Alex and he is played with charm and fervor by Louis Ashbourne Serkis. Although the film is largely comic and cheeky, it is correct to cast a performer who can excel in drama because the center of the picture is how Alex relates to those around him: his mother (Denise Gough), his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), bullies-turned-allies Lance and Kate (Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris), and the magical Merlin (Angus Imrie, Patrick Stewart). On top of this, the actor must create a character who is impacted by an absence of a father figure. You see, there is plenty to unbox and it is surprising how the work rolls with the punches and continues to move forward without feeling the need to drive a point across using a sledgehammer.
Despite the dazzling CGI, what surprised me most is how Arthur and his knights are painted. In numerous family-oriented movies where the bullied and the bully are required to team up in order to achieve a common goal, once a bond is formed, no matter how tenuous, it is a straight shot to the finish line. Not here.
I was so impressed that Alex and Bedders are constantly challenged by Lance and Kaye for nearly half the picture. The fact that there is a struggle among their team adds another layer of drama. It even has time to bring up the idea that maybe Lance and Kay are the way they are simply because they are older than Alex and Bedders, thus having experienced the world a little more. They do have a point when they claim that the world is far from a nice place. In other words, Arthur’s knights are not robotic allies; the script has ways of reminding us that they have a mind of their own. However, out of the four, I wish that Bedders had been given more opportunities to shine. His “magic tricks,” mainly serving as comic relief, only go so far.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” is the kind of film that most children would be enraptured by. Yes, there are the usual action sequences that keeps the material moving, but more important, I think, are its messages regarding empowerment, particularly during the second half. It is optimistic and it wishes to say that children can make a world of difference. On this topic, it is not subtle nor does it need to be. With so much junk entertainment aimed for kids, this film provides a better alternative.
Escape Room (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Escape Room,” written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, is that its core premise—ordinary people being stuck in a place and are tasked to extricate themselves out of life-or-death situations—has been executed in better, more potent horror-mystery-thrillers (“Cube,” “Saw” series). In the middle of it, one is forced to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to deliver a more dilute product, one that is clearly made for viewers whose brains have been groomed to go on autopilot right from the opening sequence. For the most part, I found it as dull as tap water with occasional glimmers of curious ideas never expounded upon.
Its idea of entertainment is capturing its characters in panic mode as they attempt to gather clues so they could open a door that leads to the next room. Naturally, more cryptic riddles await. Challenges range from performing under extreme temperatures (would you rather die from heatstroke or hypothermia?) to maintaining focus as perceptions are altered, but it is strange that, from the moviegoing point of view, it never feels like a psychological thriller.
A superficial entertainment is created because not once are we made to understand each character, whether it be how they think, what makes them special subjects, the ways in which they are able to provide results that the Game Masters do not expect. We are given flashbacks designed to underline the connection of the players but these come across as an easy way out, if you will, because the final fifteen minutes is so rushed, interesting ideas are not given a chance to grow and flourish. Sharper writers would have recognized that is correct to end the game about halfway through the material and the other half dedicated to exploring why the so-called game is occurring and who is, or are, in control of it—a standard premise followed by ideas unique to the picture. You see, originality doesn’t always mean having to be distinctive from start to finish.
The actors do a capable job in embodying archetypes, from Jay Ellis who plays a highly confident day trader to Taylor Russell as a timid physics student (Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, and Nik Dodani round up the main cast). However, because most of us have an idea of such archetypes and so, from the way the script is written, we know precisely who will make it to the very end. On this level, it is less exciting; as characters begin to drop like flies, only a minimal tension is delivered because we already have an idea that our suspected central protagonist will be safe. The only question is whether the final ten seconds of the picture would kill off the main character. You know how many of these generic horror-thrillers go; for a material that demands imagination, it is astounding how it lacks this very thing.
I enjoyed each room from the perspective of design (the “upside down” room stands out). Each one is distinct from the other and requires a different way of thinking. Had the writing been wiser, it would have allowed for the characters to grow with each challenge. Instead, they almost always end up in a state of panic—cue yelling and screaming—and so each room is a case of déjà vu. The formula is so crippling, tedious at times, that I imagined the ways I could escape from a room where this particular movie was playing.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Let’s get it out of the way: Even those who know nothing about Pokémon may be able to find some entertainment value out of “Detective Pikachu,” a visually impressive fusion of live-action and computer animation—especially considering the fact that each “pocket monster” is so different from one another, even creatures simply waddling about in the background demand attention. But the problem with the work is straight-forward: the mystery is so elementary, so shallow, so painfully generic, one gets the impression eventually that the screenwriters—Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Rob Letterman (who also directed the picture)—were instructed to keep it light and safe. One marvels at the images on screen and it cannot be denied this particular universe is brimming with potential. However, what get is a crippled piece of work—for the sake of being easily digestible.
Seemingly throwaway moments and shots are creative and amusing. Consider the few seconds on a train as Tim (Justice Smith), our protagonist who investigates the apparent death of his father, wakes up next to a Lickitung. It is not enough that it is pink, quite sizable, and plump, or that it has a long tongue. The details of the tongue—its colors, its texture, the moisture exuding from its pores—are so alive that just looking at the Pokémon is funny in and of itself. What it ends up doing is even funnier.
Another example is a scene involving Mr. Mime. In order to get the next clue that may help to solve the central mystery, Tim and Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) are required to play the Pokémon’s game. Yes, Mr. Mime’s look—particularly its numerous brilliant expressions—demands attention. This time, however, the focus is on the Pokémon’s movement—its agility, precision, how it leans its body weight against thin air. For second we forget we are watching computer animation because the movements are so detailed, they come across as life-like. And then there are those in-between shots when various Pokémon crawl on electric posts as night turns to day. The birds freely soaring across the sky. It underlines a lived-in world.
As I observed images like these, I wished the same level of thought and attention were applied to the screenplay. A potent mystery, one that requires logic, risks, and perhaps even a leap of faith, would have turned the work from a marginally entertaining video game movie into a mystery that just so happens to have Pokémon in it. By castrating the work’s central core—the tug-of-war between mystery and detection—it becomes just another project to be forgotten once the credits roll. I enjoyed, however, that the picture offers a finality within the plot it introduces. Doing so opens up more possibilities for the inevitable sequel. I expect a more daring follow-up.
On a lesser note, some of the performances made me cringe at times. The acting is exaggerated when it is unnecessary. It must be very difficult to have to act next to nothing or something that does not emote. So I refrain from blaming the actors—I recognize that sometimes one must feel the need to be larger-than-life while performing in front of a green screen or a green figure. It is the director’s task, then, to be highly particular when it comes to emotions being conveyed on screen. Hyperbolic expressions and voice acting run rampant here—it is highly problematic that at times I felt like I was watching a movie meant for television. It is the director’s responsibility to demand retakes until every element feels exactly right. The leniency softens the work—a great frustration because the universe introduced is clearly high caliber.
Hansel and Gretel (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) was on his way to visit his mother in critical condition when he receives a phone call from his pregnant girlfriend. The conversation does not go so well and just when he hangs up, he sees something in the middle of the road and swerves to avoid it. The highway is quite windy so the car ends up across the rail and onto a forested area.
Unconscious for what it seems like a couple of hours, he is found by a girl named Jung-soon (Ji-hee Jin) who takes him to her home and introduces him to the rest of her family. They are nice enough to let Eun-Soo stay overnight, but when he tries to find the highway the next day, he ends up back at the house. The looks on their faces suggest that they expected this would happen. Eun-Soo looks for another way out to no avail.
Based on the screenplay by Pil-Sung Yim and Min-sook Kim, “Henjel gwa Geuretel” is composed of many creepy elements from the dark fairly tale and is able to deliver the necessarily visuals designed to establish an off-kilter, isolated world located in the heart of from what it seems to be a magical forest. However, its interesting story is so often dampened by over-the-top sentimentality that it comes off manipulative.
The scenes shot indoors are so catching, I felt like I was right there with the characters as they sport fake smiles in order to hide the fact that something sinister is hiding behind the sugary confections and cute portraits of rabbits on walls. It is typical that each room is well-lit so we can appreciate the flood of colors that manage to complement one another. The camera is quick to focus on specific decorations that appear cute or harmless the moment we glance upon them. But the longer we look, there is a darkness and uneasiness emitted from the objects which reflect how we end up feeling toward the three children (the other siblings played by Eun Won-jae and Ji-hee Hin, both wonderful in providing piercing glares).
Eun-Soo’s early attempts to find a way out are interesting. By about the fourth time, however, it begins to feel repetitive. The problem is that we have been convinced that he is not going to find a way out until he decides to ask the necessary questions. It is most frustrating when the character is much slower than us to pick up on rather prominent clues. Worse, he does not seem to have a plan on how to outsmart the children in question. Halfway through, I began to lose interest because the level of menace has waned somewhat and the pacing has slowed down considerably. While Eun-Soo remains to encounter strange happenings, there is a lack of urgency to them.
The picture’s daze is broken when a flashback involving the children takes center stage. Finally we get to understand how they end up being so clingy to their guests. The explanation is superficial but at least one is offered. However, it does not save the material from the eventual waterworks toward the end. Instead of being in the moment, I started to wonder whether the tears flowing down the performers’ faces were real. The crying feels like a desperate tactic to create a semblance of sadness when it should have trusted us to interpret our own feelings.
“Hansel & Gretel,” directed by Pil-Sung Yim, is successful is setting up a portentous mood but there is not much else to it. Without its wonderful art direction and set design, it emits little magic because the screenplay does not offer enough excitement outside the usual horror pitfalls. Of course Eun-Soo will go up to the attic after hearing thudding noises from above. Naturally, we brace ourselves for the eventual sudden appearance of something hiding in the dark.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., teenagers at the time, were convicted by the state of Arkansas of killing three eight-year-olds: Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—whose bodies were found naked and mutilated in West Memphis’ Robin Hood Hills. Despite overwhelming reasonable doubt that the trio, eventually known as the West Memphis 3, did not commit the murders, they were nevertheless sent to prison by the jury—Echols to receive the death penalty—because it was rumored that they were devil worshippers.
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” does an excellent job in summarizing the events and key information presented in the first two films and introducing a great injustice to a new generation. Equally compelling is the way it introduces new evidence, mainly DNA evidence, and the renowned specialists who go on record stating that they have found no physical evidence that linked the West Memphis 3 to Branch, Moore, and Byers.
It proves difficult not to feel angry toward the incompetence of various people supposedly responsible for protecting the rights of the innocent, from the cops who failed to perform their jobs the right way to the judges who continued to look the other way for almost two decades because they were, essentially, worried about their reputation being tarnished. Mind-boggling as the new evidence are, watching the aged faces and bodies of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr. felt like an invisible hand reaching into my gut and twisting it. Picturing them being in jail for half of their lives is like looking inside a dark dream, a reminder that our justice system, despite its positive qualities, is still very much flawed. And if silly things such as rumors about worshipping the devil could send innocent people to jail, just about anybody could meet the same fate and for equally silly reasons.
I could not help but feel sad for everybody involved. First, justice has not been served for the murdered kids. The killer, or killers, is still out there. Second, the West Memphis 3 have been robbed not only of their reputation but also their youth. Instead of serving time, they could have done plenty with their lives. Echols, especially, has an eloquence and insight about him that at times I pictured him as a counselor or a psychologist in another life. Third, it seems obvious that the families of those directly involved will never completely recover from what happened.
Most fascinating is the transformation of John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the murdered children, from wanting to kill the convicted teens, now men, to supporting their release. Those who have not seen the previous films would probably not completely understand or appreciate the extent of Byers’ ravenous appetite for vengeance back when he was utterly convinced that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr. killed his stepson. Watching him previously compared to this film likens that of a rabid dog that had been miraculously cured. I was amazed; I had to blink twice to make sure that he is the same man who created a fire in the forest and pretended that he’d killed the West Memphis 3.
While “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” eventually introduces a potential suspect, I almost wished it had not. Although very interesting, what if this person, despite major gaps in his statements, is actually innocent? I don’t know. Let’s see if time will tell.
There is one certainty: We do not need another witch hunt.
Ben is Back (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although occasionally adhering to a few tropes of drug addiction dramas, “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, provides a realistic look at a specific person who decides to come home from rehab on his 77th day of being sober in order celebrate Christmas with his family. It is a sad story, so knowing when it comes to which elements to amplify when the heart-tugging moments come around, but it is worth seeing because it is willing to stare into the void of drug addiction.
It treats addiction like the disease that it is. Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the son who insists that he is doing much better and is healthier than ever, and Julia Roberts plays Holly as the mother who wants to make her son feel welcome but at the same time extremely wary that the most seemingly insignificant trigger may result in relapse. From the moment the family sees Ben standing near the front door as they pull up on the driveway, one could feel them getting ready to resume carrying the burden they had dropped temporarily. It is an astute decision for the director to keep the camera inside the car for a few more seconds before the would-be happy reunion, as if the family, even subconsciously, is bracing themselves for another rollercoaster ride. They are tired of Ben, but they must try not to show it.
Particularly intriguing is the decision to show how Ben has affected his community. There are dead bodies in the ground and their families are still in deep mourning, some very angry. And so when depressed parents despise Ben’s presence even at church, we may not know them but we empathize with them, too. The screenplay ensures that we are likely to feel how they are feeling if we were in their shoes. Even Ben believes he deserves some kind of punishment, welcoming it even. He feels sorry, deeply sorry, but the sentiment is too late. Corpses have been buried, money have been stolen, there are new addicts on the street thanks to Ben the former drug dealer.
Performances by Roberts and Hedges are highly watchable and emotional. Tight close-ups are employed generously, but the duo are up for the challenge. The latter shows Ben slipping bit by bit while the former portrays Holly as desperately trying to keep up with her fragile son, to ensure that 1) he maintains his sobriety and 2) she be there to catch him when or if he falls. (They made a deal that he could stay home for Christmas but must return to rehab the next day.) She watches him like a hawk, but, as drug addicts do, he manages to find ways to elude her. Even a few seconds matter. The picture makes a point that their relationship—the addict and the supervisor—is a lot of work, exhausting, untenable. And the story unfolds in just over a day. It communicates, with great clarity, a mother’s love for her child.
Carefully paced and unafraid of raw emotions, “Ben is Back” shows that the road to sobriety is labyrinthine—not just for the addict but also for the loved ones who care. Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing when only one or two variables have changed. And sometimes you are just so tired of having to be the constant source of support that you hope that, against all odds, simply being there is enough. And when it isn’t, well, life has a way of pushing us forward.
★ / ★★★★
Although “Malevolent” is based on the novel “Hush” by Eva Konstantopoulos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Ketai, it does not feel like one because there is a lack of mythos behind the story being told. Instead, it is more in line with badly conceived and even more poorly executed horror films in which paranormal investigators are paid to investigate dark basements, bedrooms, and other creepy areas with a certain horrific past. Naturally, from time to time we observe the action through a grainy or shaky camera. Its tricks become old quite quickly and it tests the patience.
Its premise is promising because the so-called ghostbusters are simply university students who swindle desperate people, often bereaved, for extra cash. The team (Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan) is led by Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who is hinted to have drug problems and owing thugs some cash and so he seizes every potential job despite the fact that his sister, Angela (Florence Pugh), simply wishes for them to have a fresh start in Scotland. (The siblings are Americans.) Unbeknownst to Jackson, Angela has recently developed powers that enable her to see the dead. This is a great runway to lift off from—but the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with the usual machinations of horror films.
From 2000 to 2006, there was a television show called “Scariest Places on Earth” in which a documentary crew visited locations across North America and Europe where paranormal phenomena had been reported. Clearly fake in retrospect, it captured my imagination at the time because it bothered to detail the history of each place. Each episode worked to establish a thick atmosphere of mystery and, eventually, terror. We even learn about some of the equipments employed that allowed us to hear ghostly voices or see shadows that human eyes are unable to see. Take any episode from this show and it would be better than this film. At least each one was only about forty-five minutes. On the other hand, this picture is twice the length and significantly less entertaining.
Spanish and Mexican filmmakers have such talent in changing the gears halfway through—or two-thirds of the way through—by introducing convincing twists and turns. While this film attempts to surprise the audience by moving toward slasher territory during the final thirty minutes, it does not work at all. The reason is because the majority of the work is dedicated to silly jump scares as we follow Angela down dark hallways. There is no story—no meat—to bite into that could then lead to a believable pivot that makes sense to the plot. In other words, the change in tone is superficial and unbelievable. It comes across as a gimmick.
“Malevolent” is low on scares and even lower on imagination. The latter, I think, is the key to telling effective ghost stories. The funny thing about horror films is that they don’t need to be scary as long as they are well-told. It must engage us intellectually and emotionally. Doing so allows us to forget how stupid it is to go down a dark basement after hearing raspy whispers. The best of the genre makes us to want to explore that basement in morbid anticipation.