Tag: letterboxd

My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary “My Octopus Teacher” tells the story of a man who felt he needed a radical change in his life. Inspired by his relationship with the ocean as a child along with the time he spent learning how to track animals from the San people of the Kalahari Desert, filmmaker Craig Foster decided to go back in the water with the hope of re-centering himself. And what he finds in the kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa is Octopus vulgaris (common octopus), highly curious about the human visiting her territory. Foster followed this octopus for about a year and a rollercoaster of emotions was captured on film. Nature lovers should not miss this doc.

The kelp forest offers astounding beauty. Foster does not make a point of it, but when the camera goes down on the ocean floor, there is a richness of life that can be found in every corner. When you think that a spot offers nothing but white sand, something suddenly moves inside it—a patient predator waiting for unwary prey. When the camera is turned upwards onto the surface of the water, the light is so beguiling that it feels like looking through an elegant veil draped between two worlds. The work is so poetic at times that at one point I caught myself thinking, “What does a sea creature think about when it looks up at the surface?”

Then a different type of beauty is captured as the free-diving Foster swims through kelps, various schools of fish, pyjama sharks, jellyfish, and unrecognizable detritus. The longer we spend time underwater, we note that “kelp forest” is such a general way of describing a place teeming with complexity. There is geography within that forest. We learn where sharks hang out, for instance, and which places they tend to avoid and why. And performing a dive at night turns what we know inside out. There is never a dull moment because the environment is so alive, so alien, yet incredibly humbling. It is educational—and spiritual—nearly every step of the way.

There is plenty of narration—which I imagine will rub some viewers the wrong way. But it is necessary because right from the beginning it is established that the film is a personal account of a someone who desperately needed to be reminded that he is alive; that he matters as an artist, a husband, and a father; and that he has something of value to impart as a naturalist. This is not strictly a nature documentary. It is a documentary with nature elements filtered through the spirit of a human being who is down or depressed about his own worth.

And so it is critical we hear how Foster expresses surprise, for instance, when an invertebrate, one that is well-known within the scientific community as being a highly intelligent antisocial predator, appears to want to engage and develop a bond with a stranger who drops by on a daily basis. Via narration, he describes what occurs in the water or what he thinks and feels when the octopus is not in her usual place of shelter. But discernible viewers will appreciate the growth in the man—that having a purpose, having something to look forward to on a daily basis, is directly related to the subject eventually having the ability to break out of the rut, to free himself from the shackles of great unhappiness that bogged him down. In this film, diving is a metaphor for self-reflection.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” marks the first time when I truly felt that the DC Extended Universe has the potential to challenge and possibly surpass the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although I enjoyed Joss Whedon’s 2007 version despite its glaring shortcomings, it is without question that this “Justice League” is a more realized and cohesive film—not because it boasts a running time of four hours but because of what is incorporated, explored, and ironed out within the given time span. There is a reason for its daunting length.

Consider the Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) characters whose superhero counterparts are The Flash and Cyborg, respectively. These two have not had their own standalone movies and so it is crucial that those unfamiliar with them be hooked in learning about who they are in an incredibly busy story that revolves around an apocalypse and the resurrection of Clark Kent / Superman (Henry Cavill) who perished in Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Although the Allen and Stone storylines are not in any way profound, patience and genuine humanity can be felt in the way they are told. And so we grow to care for them outside of their abilities: Allen for his youthful effervescence, drive, and sense of humor; Stone for his isolation, anger, and shame—tasty appetizers for when they (finally) get their turn in the spotlight.

The central villain’s motivation is presented with much needed clarity here. In the 2007 cut, one of my complaints is that he is dull and so the visual effects that pervade the final stretch turned the picture into autopilot—a snooze. Here, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) still must collect powerful, highly advanced machines called Mother Boxes. There are three of them and when synchronized they have the terrifying power to destroy worlds.

The crucial difference is that Steppenwolf in this version wants to return to his world after he earns the approval of the ominous Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). An antagonist wanting to destroy a planet is a Tuesday and so it is correct to give the character, an extraterrestrial, an additional quality that is much more grounded in humanity. (How’s that for irony?) And because Steppenwolf’s core motivation has changed, I felt elated (after a big sigh of relief) when Snyder proves to have the insight to alter the final act completely. To have left it as it was would have been a disaster, nonsensical, not to mention lazy and inappropriate. It shows that he has a specific vision of the story he wishes to tell.

Outside of characters, the flow in storytelling is noticeably smoother. Most apparent is Snyder’s cut being divided into chapters and each one offers a dominant theme. Once a theme is tackled, it is then provided layers in succeeding chapters. Thus, over time, connective tissues among events, character arcs, and Easter eggs—within this film, those that came before, and what is yet to come—grow strong; I found the juggling of numerous plates to be elegant, entertaining, and occasionally impressive. At one point I thought, “Why can’t all DCEU movies be like this?”

There is improvement in the way dialogue is handled resulting in rhythm changes. Forced humor is dialed down from nine to about a two. A misplaced joke can derail an action sequence—a handful of examples can be found in Whedon’s film. In addition, some of the more awkward pauses and knowing glances have been eliminated. For instance, when characters engage, particularly between Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck), there is constant bubbling urgency in putting together a team who can defend earth from invading forces. In this film, there is a clear and correct leader: Bruce Wayne—not Wonder Man, not Batman, the flawed but well-meaning person behind the mask.

But there are fresh additions, too. Note an early scene following a brief and cold interaction between Batman and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), how an Icelandic folk song is incorporated which serves to underscore the latter’s relationship with the locals he protects. Could it have been left on the cutting room floor and the movie would have been the same? Possibly, yes. But since it is included, it works as an extra detail that might explain why Aquaman is reluctant to join the Justice League at first—that by deciding to join a fight, it is an act of putting those whom he cares about in the line of fire, too. (Not to mention the song is quite beautiful.)

If this “Justice League” is a sign of what’s yet to come from DCEU, brace for impact.


Alone (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“You will reach your destination in 4 days,” according to Jessica’s GPS while on her way out of the city toward her new home for the time being. But this is a thriller and so we know that her plans will soon be thrown out the window. She is traveling by herself and so we know, too, that she must encounter a stranger, most likely a man, and will give her a hard time. From there, It is only a matter of time until the sick cat-and-mouse situation leads to violence, murder, and revenge. This is a skeletal checklist of a woman-in-peril thriller. “Alone,” written by Mattias Olsson and directed by John Hyams, is not original—nor does it need to be. But it must be entertaining from more than one angle. Otherwise, why make a picture when you have only one thing to say or show?

I enjoyed the film to some extent, but the problem is that it does not go far enough. It starts off slow but with enough sense of foreboding and drama. We look at Jessica, played by Jules Willcox, and immediately noticeable, almost palpable, is a great sadness written all over her face, starting with her eyes. The score is minimal and utilized sparingly. When her car is out of the city and surrounded by mountains, rivers, and trees, there is a constant reminder that not only is she isolated—physically and mentally—but that she can easily be crushed like an ant—and I think she feels small, too. Something happened to this woman, and what she is about to experience will remind her of her strength, her power to forge ahead despite what life throws at her, no matter how unexpected or unfair.

That’s the intent anyway. If I don’t describe the movie in this way, I suspect that most audience will not “get” what the story is truly about. Many will claim it is about another serial killer picking out some poor woman to serve as his latest victim. But had this movie been dirtier, perhaps more fast-paced, with a real mean streak when it comes to violence and gore, the message would have been clearer. The thing about exaggeration, especially in suspense and thrillers, is that it inspires people to pay attention—both on the level of what is shown on screen and, for more discerning viewers, why the movie is functioning as if on steroids. And when exaggeration is lacking, as the case here, especially for long periods, it inspires viewers to relax or tune out. I was able to stick by the picture because I look for new wrinkles in an oft tread path. I can only imagine that casual audiences will be less forgiving. There’s irony in that.

The story is divided into six chapters—“The Road,” “The River,” “The Rain,” “The Night,” and “The Clearing.” One way or another, these are elements that our heroine must contend with in order extract herself fully from a tricky unnamed villain portrayed by Marc Menchaca (he is credited as The Man). The Man is an expert spectacled liar, the kind of guy you won’t look twice at a convenience store even if he dropped a case of beer on the floor. He is that ordinary. Naturally, this man will be the constant threat to our protagonist. He is persistent.

I appreciated that when this character is introduced, facing the terrified Jessica while in her car at the motel parking lot, it is readily apparent that he is turned on by her fear. He greets her not with a mask or any sort of disguise—but with a smile. That smile does not translate to “I’m friendly. What’s your name?” It is a smile that says, “I will have you locked up in my basement in a couple of hours.” Willcox portrays Jessica as if on the verge of an emotional breakdown. That is the correct choice because then it makes sense that the character is highly sensitive to slightest suggestions or implications. The first part of this story—the tease—is stronger than that half-pulled punches in the latter half. This is where my earlier critique concerning the lack of exaggeration comes into play. Once the intrigue is shed, now what?

“Alone” is worth seeing at least once, especially those who are aspiring filmmakers. It is apparent that the work is made under a limited budget, but it does get more than a handful of elements right such as the heroine’s backstory, a portentous atmosphere, and the earlier encounters between Jessica and The Man. But the later portions needed to be just as strong in different ways than we have just seen. (But note that the final five minutes is terrific.) Even though the setup is familiar, the goal should be to keep viewers guessing anyway. The best thrillers are in a constant state of evolution.

Game of Death

Game of Death (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the cryptic item in “Game of Death” is a board game, I believe the film wishes to contradict the asinine idea that video games lead to violence—exactly by delivering content that is violent by nature as to underscore the point it aims to get across. The movie is bloody, borders on satire, very funny on occasion, and at times purposeful in making viewers feel uncomfortable. Yes, the horror is embedded in the gruesome kills. But the horror, too, lies in the fact that we as a society would rather place blame on art—like video games—or politicizing an urgent issue rather than looking in the mirror, taking responsibility, and evaluating how we can better ourselves not simply through prayers but by means of actionable policy.

The connection between board games and video games is established right from the opening credits, from the pixellated and colorful graphics to sound effects that bring to mind games from the NES and SNES era. There is even a montage in the latter third, specifically when select characters go on a killing spree, in which the movie steps away from live-action and dives into what appears to be a series of quirky 2D role-playing video games. It is creative and cute, but at the same time it is energetic and it is obvious that directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace are purposeful in what they wish to show and when.

But what the work wishes to communicate does not stop there. I think it also has something to say about white lives and white privilege. Coming off the opening credits we meet teenagers hanging out in a well-to-do suburban home, no parent in sight. They are sexualized, they do drugs, they call each other derogatory names (but are pet names to them); notice how the first few minutes is shot like a music video… and almost like softcore pornography at times. The images, the dialogue, the way the characters are dressed (or not dressed) are so over-the-top that the whole thing incites judgment.

Superficial viewers will decry, “These damn millennials! Bunch of do-nothings! *grumble grumble*” But that is only part of the point. The purpose is to instill a distinct impression so that when these fun-loving, lustful teenagers come across the board game ominously named Game of Death—a game that requires those who have chosen to participate to kill a certain number of people under a time limit or end up having their own heads explode at random—we believe we have a strong sense of who they are and thus can place each of them on a moral spectrum, such as who will decide to partake in murdering innocent people, who will refrain, who will bite it first, and who might change their minds.

A strong impression paves a way for efficiency, especially in a work that possesses satirical elements, which is critical in a movie that is barely an hour and ten minutes. There are seven characters here and there is no way to get to know them thoroughly (Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman, Catherine Saindon, Nick Serino, Thomas Vallieres). So the approach must be broad but at the same time pointed enough to provoke a powerful emotional reaction—if that’s disgust, aggression, or waspishness then so be it.

Out of the seven, only one is a person of color (Erniel Baez). Tyler does not kill to save himself. Most of the others, who are white, decide whether it is all right to kill a friend, a creepy neighbor, a random stranger who appears at a wrong place and a wrong time (is it a sign?), an elderly person who is otherwise healthy, people who are sick or dying, and even an innocent child. They look at others and think, “How are their lives of value compared to mine? Should I take their lives so I can go on with mine?” Look at how the police never seems to catch up with the perpetrators.

It is without question that “Game of Death” is rough around the edges. Some of the dialogue on paper could have undergone more polish. Even some of the line deliveries ought to have been reshot. But I think the movie can be visually exciting and it is propelled by infectious energy. I couldn’t help but to recoil a little when a head was about to explode. It shows us in vivid detail how a head gets so swollen that looking at it becomes uncomfortable. When it pops like pimple and all the brain meat/juice slosh out and spray about, it is almost like a sigh of relief.

If you consider yourself to be an adventurous viewer, take a chance on this. It just might rub you the right way. If it doesn’t, well, at least you’ve seen a film in which the filmmakers are all in.


Hosts (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes attempt to tell a home invasion story with a supernatural twist. While the intent of delivering originality is commendable, the work fails to take off in interesting and unexpected directions. If you simply wish to see a person’s skull get smashed into pieces by a hammer, go see this. Or perhaps watching someone get stabbed fifty times is more your cup of tea. It is brutal, yes, but let me tell you that the picture is just violent: it is without substance, intrigue, or sense of mythos. On offer is an empty, boring experience. Skip to the final paragraph for an alternative.

Perhaps the film’s most crucial mistake is that it fails to be about anything. Just because things are being paraded on screen does not mean that images are of value. There must be connective tissues that tie these images together. Themes behind such connective tissues must be ironed out. Especially in the horror genre, the work must inspire us to contemplate that maybe what it is actually about is not necessarily what we see but what it makes us feel about ourselves or what it forces us to consider about our environment, our society.

Consider, for instance, that the story here takes place during Christmas. Traditionally, Christmas is a time when family members get together and catch up, for better or worse. Thus, exploring the subject of alienation is a layup. I would even go as far to say that it is obvious and expected.

The home invaders being possessed by a spirit, demon, or whatever supernatural entity (the screenplay failed to clarity this) could have functioned as commentary about being forced to get together and socialize, to compare notes and lives. The holidays is supposed to be a joyous time… but at the same time some people feel the need to wear a mask in order to come across as more successful or impressive. Others pretend to be happy even though they are far from it. No one wants to look bad or to feel small. And so that observation should have been channeled into anger on film.

But viewers fail to feel that—or any genuine emotion—because the work puts more effort into making blood and guts look realistic or cool and making light emanating from characters’ eyes and mouths look creepy. The technical details mean nothing if what should be concrete ideas remain amorphous throughout the picture’s running time. The movie is barely ninety minutes but it feels closer to two hours—and that’s being generous.

I would say watch Michael Haneke’s 1997 “Funny Games” again (or for the first time)—it is a terrific example of how you make a home invasion movie that is about something. It is violent, realistic and raw, but it demands that viewers not be passive about their experience. “Hosts” does the opposite: it ends up lulling viewers to sleep because it goes under the assumption that those watching are there only to see violence and effects. In actuality, horror fans sign up for an experience. There is a difference, and this turkey seems unaware of it.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★

Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.

In most movies that revolve around an informant, viewers end up empathizing with him or her one way or another. This isn’t the case in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The story opens with William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) choosing to be a rat for the FBI—under the superintendence of Special Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons)—after he is caught stealing a car and pretending to be an FBI agent. And by the end of the story, Bill is not only a rat but a traitor who served a critical role in the killing of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago.

Hampton is so slick with words that he is capable of uniting not only black Chicago gangs but also multiethnic militia groups who are tired of being treated as second-class Americans. As a collective, The Rainbow Coalition demands progressivism from a government that excels in maintaining not only status quo but oppression of the poor, the marginalized, and people of color. It is no wonder Hampton is regarded as a national threat.

Right from the opening minutes the work proves propulsive. Themes regarding appearances tending to deceive, that real power is held by folks hiding in the shadows, and that one of the government’s greatest weapons is persuading people who belong within a community to turn against their own. This is done in subtle and often entertaining ways. Particularly efficient is when Bill sits in an interrogation room, face dripping with blood, as Special Agent Mitchell reminds the powerless black criminal in front of him that he has no sensical choice but to become a slave for the US government; it is a scene in which a black man sells his soul to a white devil.

I choose powerful words—pointed words that carry heavy judgment—but make no mistake that picture never paints circumstances in black and white. Even Mitchell is shown to be human, that although he is an FBI agent and that the organization he works for is filled with racists, he is also a man with his own beliefs about race and racial tension in 1960s America.

He is also a father. There is a revealing and terrifying scene between Mitchell and Special Agent Carlyle (Robert Longstreet), the latter asking what the former will do if his daughter ever brought a black man home. King languishes in tight, uncomfortable headshots. We can hear a pin drop as the cornered Mitchell is forced to provide a response. There is the answer in Mitchell’s head, somewhere along the lines of, “Why would it matter if she did?”, and then there is the “correct” answer, the one that his colleague needs to hear.

The Hampton character is given even greater complexity. He is a wonderful orator; he can survey a room full of people, find its pulse, and adapt his words into messages that will resonate. I found it so fascinating that the key issues that the man fought for are issues that progressives are fighting for today: closing the gap in regard to food insecurity—particularly in children, free healthcare for all, free education. You see, those in power remain in power when people are hungry, sick, and uneducated. This role is a strong addition to Kaluuya’s increasingly impressive resume. He creates personas: a public figure, a leader, and a man. Each persona is worth close inspection. And there are times when the identities bleed into one another.

It is most disappointing that the pacing slows to a crawl during the latter third. It is the point where Bill must make a decision on whether or not to betray the man with whom he had grown to have great respect for. Since the material spends the majority of its time with Hampton as well as the Black Panthers as a group but only fleeting moments between Bill and Mitchell, we do not have a deep and thorough understanding of the informant. The title reveals which course of action he will take and so tension must come from somewhere else. But because he is not layered enough—and I think he is meant to be—the battle within himself is not compelling; it simply feels drawn out and repetitive. At one point I thought, “Just get on with it already.”

Regardless of this shortcoming, “Judas and the Black Messiah” delivers a story worth our time, attention, and consideration. It is without question that the film is about race. But it is also about the working class attempting to rise up and the establishment feeling threatened so it feels the need to squash the bugs. Surely it is so annoying when commoners want equality. Why can’t they just be thankful for the crumbs they are given? The story told here happened in the 1960s. But make no mistake that the story continues to this day. That’s the power of the establishment.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

In most post-apocalyptic movies where the human population is pushed to the verge of extinction, I tend to believe that I not only could live in such a world, I would thrive in it. I relish the idea of walking down streets that are dead silent, driving down the freeway at 120 miles per hour, raiding supermarkets, having all the time in the world to read books, and taking on target practice as a hobby. There is no worry about work, money, family problems, friend dramas, American politics, and attending social gatherings in which you are forced to make small talk.

But not in Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend,” a sci-fi action-thriller loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel which centers around a military scientist who chooses to stay in New York City because a. it is the ground zero of the worldwide pandemic that killed 90% of the human population and b. he hopes, given enough time and effort, to find a cure. Most of the remaining 10% who had natural immunity to the genetically engineered measles virus, originally hailed to be a panacea for the emperor of all maladies called cancer before the virus inevitably mutated, became food for the rabid, vampire-like monsters.

The first half of the film is terrific entertainment. We follow Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his German Shepard companion named Sam go on about their day-to-day activities: hunt for deer meat, look for uninfected survivors, visit video stores for a bit of chit-chat with mannequins, a trip to the lab to determine which drugs are effective at killing the virus but not the host, and the like. Although we are in Manhattan, the rules of the new world are demonstrated to us through this microcosm. Critically important: Allow ample time to head indoors before the sun goes down.

For a while, we are are not shown what goes on outside during the night. We hear, however, a cacophony of sounds: wailing, screeching, roaring. Combined, they are deafening, terrifying. It gives the impression that the world no longer belongs to humans but to a new apex predator without regard for rules or morality. Lawrence ensures to focus on Smith’s expressive eyes, particularly when those windows show a mixture of dread and sadness, of anger and determination. Smith fits the role wonderfully; he exudes so much charm that although he must act with nothing by his side other than a well-trained canine, it always feels like there are two people on screen communicating: he with us and us with him as we empathize with his increasingly crippling isolation. At times he himself is unsure whether he has gone crazy.

The less impressive but still tolerable second half begins when Dr. Neville comes across a woman (Alice Braga) and a boy (Charlie Tahan), on their way to Vermont because it is rumored that there is a colony there composed of humans immune to the Krippin Virus. Neither is interesting enough. We feel as though they are introduced to the story simply to push the plot forward. Even though their stay is short-lived, the screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman could have found ways to show, with cunning and efficiency, why these two are worthy sharing the screen with the fascinating Dr. Neville. I am convinced they could have found creative approaches given the power and imagination of the first hour so.

Still, there is plenty to appreciate here. A few standout scenes: Sam running into an abandoned building containing a hive of Darkseekers, Dr. Neville coming across a mannequin that should not have been where it was, and all of the flashback sequences when panic takes over Manhattan following the president’s address that the mutated measles virus has gone airborne. This is a memorable science-gone-wrong picture. I wished it closed just as strongly as it began.

The Climb

The Climb (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Climb” is a story of two losers—Kyle and Mike (Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino)—who have been best friends since childhood. We meet them biking together and it is immediately noticeable that one is more likable than the other divorced from the fact that Mike has just informed his friend, who is engaged to be married, that he had slept with the the bride-to-be on multiple occasions, going as far back as three years. You know when you meet a person and you get a distinct vibe? Mike evokes an aura of selfishness; Kyle serves as a doormat.

Marvin and Covino wrote the screenplay (Covino directs) and I found it impressive that within a span of five minutes, they motivate viewers to cast heavy judgment on the characters. Big budget mainstream comedies tend to have a difficult time doing this—or they are unwilling to do so in the first place for the sake of a silly thing called likability. The approach is almost always vague and therefore safe; the comedy likely to be situation-based rather than a harsh critique of a person, ingrained behavior, personality trait, or lifestyle. This one goes out of its way to be specific and so the humor is sharp, unexpected, and occasionally brave. I wondered how much of the script is autobiographical because the dialogue, particularly when two people confront one another, sounds real. We readily see pain, shame, anger, and embarrassment on their faces.

There is a naturalism about it that reminded me of mumblecore pictures of the early 2000s. Much of the humor is rooted in its subjects’ shortcomings, for instance. Kyle is a lovable teddy bear, but there are times—I would say too many times—when he lacks spine, especially when the occasion calls for it. We meet his family and the women prove to have strong personalities. So how did he turn out to be such a pushover? But that’s the thing: the movie offers a handful of contradictions in terms of character. And because it does, it inspires us to pay attention that much more, to squint at the well-hidden threads, ask questions, and make educated guesses. Why do these two feel the need to have each other in their lives when it is clear as day that their relationship can be toxic?

Kyle and Mike’s tumultuous story unfolds over several years. It is divided into seven chapters, but there is no title card that denotes how much time has passed since the punchline of the previous one. Eventually, we are conditioned to note much they’ve changed or, perhaps more importantly, not changed. At times the difference between one chapter and another in terms character is an update from Version 2.0 to Version 2.0.2. This is an interesting approach for a comedy, and it works here for the most part. But it comes with notable shortcomings.

I wanted to get to know the duo as complete people—together and apart. But because their story is divided into chapters, we see only glimpses of what makes them happy, sad, jealous, or angry. Although I noted above that they undergo minimal change in terms of big picture, it is important that those changes be explored in meaningful and fruitful ways. While I enjoyed that the film is always on the move, it needed to slow down during the more dramatic moments and wring out every bit of its subjects’ unhappiness, of them feeling lost, of their desperation to forgive or be forgiven. In the end, I felt I understood Kyle and Mike only on a chapter-by-chapter basis, not as people whose story, or stories, will go on past the end credits.

Regardless, “The Climb” is worth seeing because it is not afraid to be intimate. There is no score that urges us how to feel. We must look into people’s eyes, we must observe the distance between their bodies, and we must note how they twitch, or squirm, or hold their breath when they’re about to lose control. This is a movie that values simplicity, yes, but it also values our ability to read people and empathize. I called Kyle and Mike “losers.” But you may not consider them to be. The wonderful thing about this film is that both of us can be correct.

The Block Island Sound

The Block Island Sound (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-directors Kevin and Matthew McManus could have had a real gem on their hands because their story offers a curious premise: nine to ten tons of fish have washed ashore which suggests that there might be something in the deep that drove them inland. But a monster lurking in the ocean does not appear to explain why birds have begun falling from the sky. Nor does it account for why a man named Tom (Neville Archambault), the father of our protagonists, fails to have full control of his body after returning home from a fishing trip. Even the dog next door detects that something is terribly wrong with its neighbor.

“The Block Island Sound” is an excellent example of a work that fails to take off. It goes to show that you can have the best story on paper, but if you fail to harness the power of what makes that particular story compelling on film, then you might as well not tell it. In the middle of this dud, I wondered what percentage of viewers would walk away by the hour mark. Although interesting initially because of the bizarre events transpiring across the island, the film is not entertaining: no investigation is done so answers to the mystery are revealed on a constant basis, there is not one effective jolt to be had, there is occasional humor but making fun of conspiracy theorists is low hanging fruit (Jim Cummings), and there is a lack of thrilling or shocking revelations about the island or the people involved. Like the rotting fish on the coast, the film is dead.

We meet Harry (Chris Sheffield) who lives with Tom, his aging father. His sister, Audry (Michaela McManus), tells her co-worker and potential romantic interest (Ryan O’Flanagan), that his baby brother is short-tempered, a recluse, the type who doesn’t mesh well with others. But we observe Harry and he is none of these things. Already there is a disconnect. Never mind that we are told, rather than shown, how our central protagonist is like. But we are fed a lie, especially so early on. This is only one example. There are other exchanges that should have been excised from the picture completely, either for this reason or that the dialogue leads nowhere, certainly nowhere interesting. Perhaps the goal is simply to extend the duration of movie’s running time.

The film comes across as though it is never going to end. Consider, for instance, that Audry is supposed to be a marine biologist. She’s the responsible sibling, the one who supposedly possesses real initiative, gusto. And yet we never even see her pick up fish that had been washed ashore, dissect it, and place tissue samples under a microscope. A scientist doing nothing when bombarded by questions regarding nature is no scientist. How are we supposed to relate to this character when we are not convinced about her in the first place?

That aside, here is the more important point: A mystery comes to life when there is a relentless investigation, a constant drilling not only to get answers but to get to the truth. Sharp mysteries know there is a difference and yet this movie doesn’t even start an investigation. Why?

And so what results is movie that never stops beginning. I suppose we are given some human drama about Harry being regarded as a screw-up by his sisters, cops, and random townspeople. Although Sheffield seems up for the challenge, and he does create a sensitive portrayal, Harry is not written in a way that demands that we pay attention to a boy stuck in a man’s body. There is a recurring theme regarding out-of-body experiences, but the metaphor does not work if a character, at the very least, fails to undergo an arc. A performer can only emote so much. The screenplay must support the performance. The screenplay would have benefited from a serious overhaul.

Sword of God

Sword of God (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that does not go out of its way so that viewers will care about its characters in a traditional fashion. It requires only that we observe with a perspicuous eye as two men end up on an island of pagans—one a warrior-priest whose life is defined by Christianity (Krzysztof Pieczynski) while the other a younger man of faith whose moral, ethical, and religious flexibility has allowed him thus far to scrape through most harrowing situations (Karol Bernacki). The former, Willibrord, hopes to convert the locals to Christianity—no matter what the cost. The latter, whose name is not revealed, has other plans. Beauty and horror become one in Bartosz Konopka’s consistently risk-taking experiment. I recommend it most to viewers with a palate for peculiarity; those who tune in for a casual watch will either be baffled or bored. But that’s art: polarity.

Some might claim that the picture is too bleak or grim. But I say that’s colonialism. What I admired about this project is its willingness to embrace the extreme while polishing it just enough so we can admire it in some way. Consider the images shown when we are introduced to the island’s inhabitants early in the picture. We meet them in cave while in the middle of a ritual as they grab mud, shape them, and wear them like masks. Then, as if possessed by animalistic spirits, they plug holes into the mud that’s plastered on their faces using their fingers and eventually peeling the mud off. There are chanting, hollering, and dancing yet there is not a single subtitle that appears to make it clear to us about what is or might be happening. I think the bizarre ritual is equivalent to people going to church and praying—it is only odd to us because we are not familiar with the natives’ culture.

At the same time, I could be completely off in my assessment. But I find that beautiful because possibilities can inspire discussion or debate. The movie goes on like this with great confidence. Something as simple as withholding subtitles from the audience goes a long way in a movie like this. For example, such a choice is a reminder that we are outsiders looking in, that by being on that island, we are not welcome, possibly for good reasons. Notice, too, how within the first minutes, we made to see through the eyes of Willibrord. And when Willibrord lies unconscious on the beach, we take on the perspective of No Name.

What makes this story a horror film is not because of the so-called uncivilized. Yes, they are covered in grime and mud. They do not have traditional homes, or wear ordinary clothing, or offer food that looks delectable. Nearly everything is communal. The film does not show it, but we can surmise that there may not be such a thing as traditional marriage or monogamy. Everyone is constantly touching each other, and I was fascinated by it. Anyone who has an appreciation for culture will recognize that what the locals have is a tight community.

The horror then comes in the form of outsiders who wish to destroy the lives of people simply minding their own business. But to these men, specifically the warrior-priest, the locals must be corrected—that the right way to live, and the only right way to live, is to live as a devout Christian. That intolerance—that lack of desire to learn about and embrace The Other… then being open to teach and be embraced in return—is real-life horror.

And it is happening right this moment. “Sword of God” holds a mirror on what is wrong about our supposedly modern society, as if to make statement that religion’s barbarism has been modified just enough so it comes across as though forcibly converting a community is not an act of rape.

East Side Sushi

East Side Sushi (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

You know… Behind every great restaurant here, there are great Latinos, in the back, in the kitchen, hidden. Prepping the food and making you all look good.

Anthony Lucero’s independent drama “East Side Sushi” makes a strong companion piece with David Gelb’s terrific documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” not simply because both pictures showcase the traditional Japanese dish but because of the manner by which they underscore the importance of work that must be done in order to deliver not just food to be consumed but a personal experience once sushi makes physical contact with the tongue. It is a movie that follows a rags to almost riches story arc, but it is filled with beautiful observations about Mexican and Japanese cultures, the melting pot that is Oakland, California, struggles women face in a male-dominated occupation, being a single mother, as well as having aspirations beyond motherhood, beyond being the main provider for one’s family.

Right from the get-go, you can tell the film has deep love for the working class. We follow Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) waking up at three thirty in the morning to get everything ready so that by early morning her father’s fruit cart is open for business. In a nearly wordless montage, we have an appreciation of her home, her family’s habits, and their determination to scrape by. “Did we win the lottery yet?” Juana jokes when still drowsy Apa (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) sits down for breakfast. We note their clothes; the car they drive; how they carry themselves in public, around a customer, or when their boss is nearby; we are given a genuine understanding that the routine that they have worked so hard to establish can collapse at any given moment. This is a portrait of America that we don’t see enough in mainstream films unless the movie is a so-called Oscar-bait.

I ask: Why is that?

The centerpiece of the story is when Juana is hired as a sous chef at a traditional Japanese restaurant. Then we begin to learn about her as a person outside the confines of her Mexican culture: she is a quick-learner, smart, passionate, so spirited that she throws herself in every aspect of the job. Viewers who sign up for overt drama might get their patience tested during the first half because most sequences involve careful observation. But those who go into the picture with an open mind will find a certain joyousness about it even though the story, in its core, is a drama.

We learn, for instance, how sushi chefs pick out the freshest fish from delivery folks, which knife is best to use when skinning a cucumber, the best rice to use for sushi, down to which angle rice must be mixed (and what to mix it with) so that every grain gets seasoning. The movie is at times insane with specifics—and that’s what I loved about it. It assumes that those watching are curious, intelligent, and open to learning about subjects that may not sound all that interesting at first glance. This movie is similar to a documentary in that there is a sense of exploration outside of the expected way of storytelling. Sometimes the drama is found in preparing a type of sushi just right—not just how it tastes but also how it looks.

On occasion, drama is rooted in traditionalism. At home, Juana must deal with her father who would rather have her work at a taqueria than a sushi restaurant because then she could bring home Mexican food after work. Who would want to eat raw fish? At work, Juana must deal with the owner (Roji Oyama) who refuses to have a woman as a sushi chef—whose work station is located not in the kitchen but amongst the patrons—in order to maintain a “feeling of authenticity” at the restaurant. One way or another, these subjects involve race, culture, gender, and challenging long-established ideas or way of life. I enjoyed that although these are topics worth serious rumination, the screenplay also offers carefully observed humor.

“East Side Sushi” is a most wonderful surprise. To me, the most engaging films are those that possess a sense of freedom. I find movies that have this quality tend to be highly confident in going at their own pace and so we are taken for a ride rather than us wanting to push the story forward and get it through the finish line so that we could go back to our day. I could go another hour or two with what Lucero created here.

The Crazies

The Crazies (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

The sort of zombie flick “The Crazies,” a remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, offers enough horrifying moments and the occasional solid jolts to deliver a good time. Fans of the viral outbreak sub-genre will know precisely what to expect: a small town becomes the epicenter of an unknown disease and a special group attempts to escape both the infected and soldiers whose mission is to exterminate civilians—regardless of the status of their health. But the picture is in good hands because director Breck Eisner understands the importance of building tension and suspense before delivering the inevitable violent and gory “Gotcha!” moments.

It offers a different take on the undead; instead of lumbering lunkheads attempting to take a big bite on their victims, the infected here takes a more unsettling route. Once housing the virus, a person slowly loses control of himself or herself. A typical symptom involves being easily agitated or angered. There are a few who become catatonic. Loved ones describe the infected as “not themselves.” It mirrors some signs of dementia’s early stages. The next level is violence. In the opening scene, we observe a man walking into a baseball field with a shotgun in hand, apparently intending to create a massacre. Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant) and Deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) manage to stop the man just time.

Many of the scares are effective because the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright proves knowledgeable of what terrifies most people: cramped spaces, being burned alive, an intruder in one’s home, the threat of being hurt or killed by someone who you thought cared about you. This makes the morgue, farmhouse, and car wash scenes stand out. By tapping on common and familiar fears, the writers give their material a fighting chance against what we expect to happen: clamoring for a weapon, begging for help or for the assailant to stop, last-minute saves. Couple this with a plot that constantly moves forward, what results is a watchable horror film.

The look of the zombies is not particularity inspired. I believe the director as well as editor Billy Fox are aware of this shortcoming. Notice how we are only provided quick glimpses of the infected—especially those in the more advanced stages of the sickness. I’ve seen better cosmetics and practical effects in B-movies from the ‘80s. I felt the filmmakers could have used this limitation to their advantage, like employing harsher lighting and shadows. Even more of a challenge: using interesting and awkward camera angles to hide—or highlight—what they have to work with. Since so many elements in the film are expected—although done relatively well—taking on more extreme approaches might given the work more personality.

I felt “The Crazies” wishes to respect and improve upon the original—so much so that it takes itself very seriously. (Notice how humor is present but quite restrained.) But this comes with a cost. It creates an impression that those in charge are uncertain when it comes to taking on big risks for sake of attaining big rewards. They tend to go with a safe bet—which is fine because the final product is entertaining enough. But one cannot help but feel as though it could have been a different beast entirely had the strategy for storytelling been as wild and intelligent as the type of zombies showcased therein.

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Your whole life society tells you, like, “Oh, be a man, and you are strong, and you are tough, and margaritas are gay,” you know, like. You know. You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.

The documentary opens with a long tracking shot of childhood friends skateboarding and zigzagging their way through the empty streets of Rockford, Illinois. It is beautifully shot, capturing a sense of freedom and reckless abandon, and it feels as though we are skateboarding right alongside them. But this stunning sequence is not indicative of what the picture dares to dive into: race and class in modern America; poor cities like Rockford being left behind or forgotten; the effects of child abuse and domestic violence; what it means to be a friend, a son and a father; skateboarding serving not only as an escape but also a means of gaining control; the evanescence of childhood. Director Bing Liu juggles these topics with seeming ease, and I was riveted.

One of three core subjects is the director himself. The film unfolds throughout the course of several years and so we watch him grow alongside his friends, Keire and Zack. They love to skate, laugh, hang out and be silly. Their joyfulness is infectious… until the difficult questions are broached and the unblinking camera captures how the interviewee responds. One way or another, the trio have been touched by abuse. To reveal specifics, I think, would do the picture a disservice and so I will refrain. But I must say that the director has a knack for ironing out themes. He does so with such patience and elegance that even though his picture’s scope is small, it feels monumental.

The work inspires us to observe with a keen eye and read between the lines. For example, there are several occasions in which we get a chance to look inside the boys’ houses. We pick up on the mess almost immediately: clothes that have piled up, plates with some food on them scattered about, alcohol bottles on the floor. But we must ask ourselves why this might be so. It could be that the house is simply small. Or that a room is too cramped even for just one person. But we can look even closer. Where are the parents or the adult figures in their lives? Are they at work? Hiding from the camera? Living somewhere else?

I walked away from the movie feeling as though I had seen a three-hour epic. There is neither title card nor subtitle that states how much time has passed. It isn’t necessary because there is something to digest nearly every second. (We do, however, watch a baby grow in front of our very eyes.) Particularly tense is when conflict arises—between Zack and his girlfriend, for instance—and we are shoved into that moment. They yell and scream at each other. Sometimes that’s all there is. But there is a time when Nina shows us the gash on her eyebrow (which she hides under her hair) and mentions the bruises on her body. Bing contemplates asking Zack about his violent episode. Then we hold our breath just a little because Zack’s temperament, especially when he feels cornered, is well-established by then. And so is his penchant for drinking. Out of the three, Zack is the one who comes across as the most stuck.

And there is Keire whose laugh and overall sunny attitude do not change over the years. We watch him get his first job as a dishwasher, lightyears away from the angry kid who broke another kid’s skateboard after a row at the park. There is a sadness to Keire that Bing connects with on a deep level. This is apparent when the camera fixates on Keire’s face, how his emotions work their way up to his eyes as he tells personal stories in regard to his relationship with his deceased father. His father was strict and he wanted his son to be a good person. And he wanted Keire to be proud of being black. When Keire recalls a memory, we paint a clear portrait in our minds. Maybe he, too, is like Bing: a natural storyteller. Why is it that we appreciate our parents more when they’re no longer around?

“Minding the Gap” digs deep and so the journey is worthwhile. It is the kind of movie that teenagers and adults can appreciate because of its honesty. I hope we get an update on Bing, Keire, and Zack’s lives ten or twenty years from now. I want to believe they’ll be all right.

Your Name Engraved Herein

Your Name Engraved Herein (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Different about the LGBTQIA+ romance “Your Name Engraved Herein” is its disinterest in showing how its protagonists fall for one another—they meet, they share a meaningful look, and then they just… are. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world—and that’s because it is. This is fascinating from a storytelling standpoint, especially given its sub-genre, because it avoids some of the more common trappings that lead to deadly clichés and tired sentimentality. As a result, the screenplay by Yu-Ning Chu, Jie Zhan, and Alcatel Wu frees itself to explore other curious aspects of the story like the iron grip of Christianity in late ‘80s Taiwan following the end of martial law.

Just because politics has undergone a shift on an official capacity does not mean that the people who have been conditioned to live a certain way could—or would—follow just as easily. This thesis is beautifully delved into through the scope of the “very close friendship” between A-Han (Edward Chen Hao-Sen) and Po-Te (Jing-Hua Tseng), the latter a transfer student whose nickname is “Birdy.” He quickly garners the reputation of being “crazy” due to his constant disregard for the rules and of those in power. Or perhaps his name is fitting precisely because he is free. Birdy is not afraid to be labeled as queer, to stand up for those who are down, to fight for what he knows to be right. Or it seems to be that way at first. The details are more complicated.

The camera watches closely, and it makes point that every act of rebellion is what attracts A-Han to Birdy. Perhaps A-Han, who has lived a life conformity (how he cuts his hair, how he carries himself in public, the “friends” whom he chooses to associate with, down the the subject he decided to major in), wishes to be more like the new guy. There is one thing A-Han cannot control or change: his homosexuality. On the one level, this is a story of a great love—the kind of love a person experiences and never forgets. And on the other level, this is a story of a young man who wishes so badly to be free but the times, the institutions in charge, and the belief of hate instilled in the Taiwanese society prevent him from taking flight.

Its themes of longing, yearning, and loneliness are beautifully laid out. It does not need to show someone being so sad or crying. Just look at how one character is always chasing another. At times a gesture is reciprocated, other times it isn’t. Observe how it is able to communicate so much by showing a pair reading each other’s minds while in a public space yet at the same time they are lodged in a little corner. There is intimacy in how they touch, play, or smile; they are at peace. By relying on images and the mood it evokes through pacing, music, and colors, it is as if the picture is whispering to us that it knows how we feel when we have fallen hard for someone.

And that makes all the difference between a romance driven by plot and a romance that just… is, a romance that can go whichever unexpected or unconventional direction and viewers would be happy to follow because it has something real to say about life and living. Congratulations to Director Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu for helming a film that is true to the topics and themes it brings up rather than simply satisfying the audience on a traditional sense. The time jump from 1988 to 2020 is risky but brilliant. There is a maturity in the way it tackles loss, acceptance, and renewal.