Tag: john cho

The Grudge


The Grudge (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” is a most tepid a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on.” It is so uninspired that in the middle of it, I was compelled to check if this writer-director was the same person who helmed “The Eyes of My Mother,” a terrific debut film about how crippling loneliness and deep trauma can destroy the soul of a person. This remake, on the other hand, is not about anything—of substance or value. It contains plot, characters, and lame attempts to scare but it is hollow inside. Who is this movie for? Other than to make money, what is the point of it? Who can be proud of putting this junk out there and wasting people’s time and money?

We learn nothing about the vengeful ghost other than it possesses the ability latch onto a person once that individual visits the place it is haunting. In the opening scene, which takes place in 2004, we meet a terrified Tokyo-based American nurse (Tara Westwood) who calls home to inform her family that she’ll be returning. In 2006, we meet Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who moves to Pennsylvania following her husband’s death due to cancer. She is assigned to work with Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir) and soon they visit a possible crime scene involving an abandoned car with a rotting corpse inside. They find an address in the glove compartment: 44 Reyburn Drive. Another cop mentions the Landers case and soon the curious Detective Muldoon becomes obsessed in learning more about the triple homicide.

We meet almost a dozen characters between its 2004 and 2006 timelines. Although they are played by the likes of John Cho, Frankie Faison, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye, these performers are given nothing substantive to work with. And so, in order to create a semblance of intrigue, a few of them rely on histrionics, from yelling to extreme behaviors, and the rest utter lines in a most robotic fashion. Even they are unable to mask their boredom despite being in the movie—and being paid. It is clear that the problem lies in the screenplay. It commands no tension.

Consider: we already know the fates of most of the characters given that Detective Muldoon has a police file in hand. (While Westwood tries her best in looking thoughtful while staring at the photos, notice her character’s detective work is minimal at best. We do not get a sense of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and attitude toward her line of work.) And so it is most critical to present intriguing details specific to the unsolved case. Every scene must function as a step forward to a conclusion that’s sensical within the story’s universe despite its supernatural elements. You guessed it: This is a horror film so generic that mere ten minutes into it, one can surmise that it will offer a non-ending. It assumes that viewers are stupid enough to mistake its laziness for being chilling. This is most pessimistic filmmaking.

Even the special, visual, and make-up effects are not at all memorable. For example, when a figure pops out of the corner of the screen, it is so instantaneous that we never get a chance to appreciate the performance behind the would-be scary facade, the minute touches on dirty or bloody clothing, the look of death or anger on their faces. It gives the impression that the filmmakers themselves are not proud of their work. This “Grudge” lacks energy, an eye for what makes a scary situation effectively, basic pacing, and a distinctive vision. A cheap haunted house walkthrough is scarier than this. And a lot shorter.

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Mirai” proves to be the kind of picture that sneaks up on you. Its plot did not impress or surprise me in any way: A four-year-old (voiced by Jaden Waldman) is unhappy with the fact that his parents (John Cho, Rebecca Hall) must now divide their attention between him and his newborn sister. It is a template from hundreds of movies aimed at or for children; during the first twenty minutes or so, I questioned whether the material would be daring enough to veer off into a different, unexpected, or more interesting direction. Somehow, almost miraculously, it did—not just in one direction but many. The work is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda with insight, empathy, and perspicuity. Here is an example of a story with a simple plot but the depth of what it is actually about is filled with great emotions and wonder.

The story unfolds in an episodic manner—appropriate because 1) it captures how we, as adults, tend to remember our childhood and 2) how children can relate most to overpowering emotions, even when they do not necessarily comprehend them, particularly when in conflict with siblings or parents. In a way, Kun’s journey toward becoming a more self-aware individual must be executed precisely as such because our lives are composed of fluctuating and colorful impressions. And although the storytelling unfolds this way, there is a distinct rhythm to it, the pacing is constant, tension builds, and the wisdom it imparts are precise but never preachy.

There is magic in the film which comes in the form of an oak tree in the backyard. It has the power to send people into the past, present, and future. It seems to be triggered by intense conflict among family members, particularly the boy’s relationship with his parents and baby sister. Ironically, however, this is the least extraordinary element. More astounding is, for instance, how simply going through a family album demands curiosity despite the medium being animation.

Patience is employed, combined with a relaxed energy, when we must observe characters remembering who they were or loved ones who have died. When someone points at a face on a photograph, we cannot help but wonder about him or her because each picture is vivid with both details and personality. Even when a group photograph is shown, notice how each expression is different even just slightly. It feels like going through an actual photo album. Kun’s family history feels vibrant, alive. There is a moving sequence when Kun meets his great-grandfather as a young man who loves horses and motorcycles.

Perhaps the most enchanting chapters involve the boy realizing that his parents were once young, too. They had lives before he was born, they had dreams, they nurtured hobbies, they grappled with failures and sadness. Kun throws temper tantrums when he does not get his way—but not always. The decision to write the character in an unpredictable fashion forces us to anticipate how he might react given a set of challenges. The sharp screenplay possesses subtle ways of reminding us of his growth—incremental most of the time but with occasional leaps forward. The boy keeps silent about having the chance to peer into his parents’ youth, but we recognize the exact moments when he begins to regard them differently.

Told at a child’s eye level, figuratively and at times literally, “Mirai” inspires us to love our loved ones a little more, to consider why they are the way they are at times. It is a work that can be enjoyed by the entire family. I think children would not only enjoy it, it might inspire them to look through photo albums and ask about each person’s story. The film is a celebration of life.

Columbus


Columbus (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.

Gemini


Gemini (2017)
★ / ★★★★

As the minutes trickle away, especially after the murder of interest, it begins to feel blatantly obvious that the material does not know where to go. At times it appears as though “Gemini,” written and directed by Aaron Katz, wishes to be a film noir. When it no longer feels like wearing this suit, it goes for a standard murder mystery. And all the while it wishes to make a statement about Los Angeles and its celebrity culture: the agents, assistants, superfans, paparazzi, and those involved in making movies; it is a mess and by the end, the viewer no longer cares about the answers it provides—probably because those experienced with mysteries have long figured out its endgame.

The assistant who investigates her client’s murder, an actress (Zoë Kravitz) whose career is currently red hot, is played by Lola Kirke, sporting a mannequin-like facial expression almost throughout the entire picture. To me, she delivers an interesting performance because it appears as though Jill is sleepwalking after the trauma of coming across her friend’s corpse. But the screenplay fails to give an intriguing performance any support. Naturally, the assistant is the number one suspect from the perspective of a detective (John Cho) who is assigned to the case.

There is a mechanical pattern to its attempts to increase the tension: Jill enters a hotel room, a house, or a place of business—basically any place where she shouldn’t be—because she is following a lead. The threat is almost always someone potentially finding out about what she is up to. What if the killer is the person whom she least suspects and he or she happens to be nearby? The formula exasperates rather than entertains the viewer because there is no variation in the expected beats. With a running time of less than ninety minutes, breezy for a mystery-thriller, it still drags.

Notice how the dialogue sounds so overwritten. When there is conflict between two characters, one of them suddenly begins to sound like the writer typing the dialogue and trying to make exchanges sound intense instead of actually being in the moment and embracing its messy intensity. And because we notice that the character and the words he employs does not sound like himself within moments of great friction, we are taken out of the moment. Thus, the drama comes across as false and occasionally laughable.

It is clear that the picture’s strength is its visuals. There are moments, especially scenes that unfold at night, when Los Angeles looks like an underworld of darkness and neon lights. Perhaps the only element missing is an eighties soundtrack. But kaleidoscopic visuals do not make an intriguing or ingenious mystery. The writer-director must have a screenplay so sharp that by its opening scenes its claws have us by the throat and never let up. There is no surprise to be had here, just a whole lot of boredom.

Searching


Searching (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Once in a while a film like “Searching” comes along to show that a device currently being used to tell certain stories is so limited, it manages to set a new standard. “Searching,” written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, directed by the former, unfolds, for the most part, on a computer screen, but it is confident enough to break from the conceit when the time is precisely right. In a way, allowing our eyes to focus on a box full of icons, missed call and voicemail notifications, webpages, and chat windows is an act of creating a sense of claustrophobia. Getting out of that box eventually is thus an act of exhalation and yet the tension remains since the mystery is yet to be solved.

The mystery involves a widower (John Cho) who begins to suspect that his teenage daughter (Michelle La) is missing after she failed to come home from study group and did not attend school the next day. His fears escalate when his calls go to voicemail directly, his texts remain unanswered, and discovering later on that the weekly money he gave his daughter for private piano lessons did not go toward that at all. In fact, the piano teacher claims that Margot had stopped her lessons six months ago. Cho is nearly every frame and he delivers a spectrum of emotions as a parent who grows increasingly desperate to find answers regarding his child’s whereabouts. It is said that great performers can tell a story even when being shot only from the chest up. I’ve never seen him this good in a lead role.

Perhaps most enjoyable about the picture is that it puts the viewer in the shoes of a parent who investigates. Following the mouse’s arrow going from one website to the next may sound unappealing at first, but those familiar with websites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail, Venmo, and Tumblr will immediately recognize the logic of the investigation. More importantly, however, those who are less familiar are still able to follow because it is shown that each one has a specific purpose.

For instance, Instagram is more aligned with posting a picture with a short caption underneath while Facebook tends to showcase statuses and events. Venmo involves currency while YouTube involves easily searchable videos (with toxic comments to boot). In other words, the technologies used within the conceit of staring at a computer screen is made accessible—crucial in telling stories that we can invest in emotionally.

The story offers a minefield of twists and turns. Particularly enjoyable is we get a chance to suspect that anyone and everyone could be involved in Margot’s disappearance—even the father who is apparently so distraught, he would be willing to attack another person in public just to get the next big clue. At one point, I wondered whether the parent was simply using the various technologies to record his misery and all of the effort he put in finding his daughter—just so he wouldn’t be a target of suspicion by the authorities. (I suppose that shows the way I perceive humanity at this point.) Better yet—even when a figure in Margot’s life may no longer be a suspect, we wish to take a closer look. Just like Cho’s character, we cannot help but wonder if we made a mistake in treating something trivial but turning out to be critical in order to solve the puzzle.

“Searching” knows how to build suspense effectively, from the way the score builds from silent to frantic down to the manner in which editing is utilized to paint a picture of how a father feels when he has finally discovered a trail of breadcrumbs. But even when there are breadcrumbs, an individual makes so many footprints online that we wonder if these crumbs would lead to another dead end. But that is what skillful mystery-thrillers tend to offer: A series of hopeless situations illuminated only by opening a locked door after sleuthing and taking on seemingly insurmountable hardships.

Star Trek


Star Trek (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While investigating reports of lightning storms in space, U.S.S. Kelvin, a Federation vessel, is attacked by a gargantuan Romulan ship. Nero (Eric Bana) demands the U.S.S. Kelvin’s captain (Faran Tahir) to reveal the location of Ambassador Spock. Meanwhile, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is assigned to oversee and ensure safe evacuation of the ship. As luck would have it, his pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison) goes on labor.

Infused with wild energy, charming performances, and an imaginative script, “Star Trek,” directed by J.J. Abrams, made me pay attention to a franchise I had no interest in whatsoever. It understands the art of intrigue. While names like “Kirk” and “Spock” are easily recognizable names, it is a curiosity–to non- or semi-fans anyway–how these characters so opposite in personalities will learn to set their differences aside and form a team that saves lives both human and alien.

After a moving opening sequence, a parallel is immediately established between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). They struggle to keep their emotions in check, an element that they must learn to reroute and control if they were to successfully become leaders and partners in the U.S.S. Enterprise. As a child, it is suggested that Kirk has a lot of anger due to not having a stable father figure. Over time, he drinks and gets in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Spock is bullied for being a half-blood, his father a Vulcan and his mother a human. His anger for being considered less than festers within.

Despite the non-stop action after revving its engine and flying into the depths of space, the script has enough humor to keep it grounded, from Jim pursuing Uhura (Zoe Saldana), an ace xenolinguist, to physical stunts that go awry somewhat or completely off the rails. The comedy usually functions as release during the more intense sequences. The scene involving three characters diving through the atmosphere and attempting to land on a drill that works as a signal jammer has an excellent balance of thrill and laughter.

The more overt visuals are spectacular, but I was most impressed during the early scenes that take place on Earth. I liked the way a flying cop vehicle feels so right chasing a kid driving a car clocking in at over eighty miles per hour–with the Beastie Boys blasting from the speakers, no less. There is also a bar where humans and aliens can go to have drinks. A feeling of integration, I think, is crucial if we are requested to buy into a universe where humans can time warp and explore various alien worlds and cultures.

It might have benefited from establishing a more interesting villain. Nero does a lot of snarling and bossing around but at times I was bored by him. The talk about his planet and family–yada-yada-yada–get old after a short while. Not once do we see him step off his ship and actually do what he needs to be done. If I wanted to hear more yelling, I would rather watch more in-fighting within the U.S.S. Enterprise, the power struggle between Spock and Kirk.

“Star Trek,” written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, emphases how disparate characters come together to form a team that we, as intelligent audiences who care about motivations as well as stellar sci-fi action, can stand behind and root for. We remember the adventures not because things explode–since those are a dime a dozen–or implode–less common–but because we understand and feel the chemistry among the key players.

Smiley Face


Smiley Face (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

This movie is a smogasboard of cameos ranging from the most familiar names and faces–Adam Brody, John Krasinski, John Cho–to those whose faces are familiar but their names give us a hard time recalling–Jayma Mays, Marion Ross, Rick Hoffman. But this movie would’ve been a complete mess without Anna Faris. She once again proved to me–twice to this year along with “The House Bunny”–that she can elevate an average movie into a pretty good one. For me, Faris is like Steve Carell: both can stand in one place and not do anything but they never fail to make me laugh out loud. I was shocked when I found out that Gregg Araki directed this stoner comedy. It’s the complete opposite of the moody, serious, and masterful “Mysterious Skin.” What I like about this film is that it’s so random and pointless to the point where it got me thinking. I know it may sound weird but I thought this picture had something to say about the way we live our lives; how random it is, how things don’t quite go the way we expect them to be. When such disappointments happen, we may feel angry or sad or both, but by the end of the day, we should just be thankful that we’re alive–that we are able to feel these emotions and (possibly) learn from our experiences. Araki really shows his talent during some silent but exquisite scenes, especially that one scene when Faris was sitting on the beach, facing the wind and the sand as the sun sets. I’m really glad that a friend recommended this to me (he’s a big Anna Faris fan) because I decided not to add this movie to my Netflix upon its release since the premise sounded lame. Yes, it’s stupid and can go in a million different directions, but I learned to embrace its positives. It’s funny, the performances are pretty good (especially Faris), and strangely thoughtful.