Tag: movies

Little Woods

Little Woods (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods” is a tale of two sisters living in fictional Little Woods, North Dakota who must continue with life after their mother dies. It is told with empathy and humanity without touching an ounce of sentimentality despite the crippling destitution all around. It is the kind of movie that invites us to look closely at how people live, from the size of their homes, the clutter, the food they eat, down to the items inside their cabinets. There is drama on the surface, but it requires looking just underneath the plot to become invested in it.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James play Ollie and Deb, estranged sisters who reconnect when life pushes them toward a new phase. With Ollie, she has ten days left of probation after having gotten caught smuggling and selling drugs between the United States and Canada. She wishes to move out of town and start anew, but there is so much temptation to go back to what she does so well. Meanwhile, Deb has just found out she’s pregnant. Already raising a young son, there’s just no chance she can continue to provide from waitressing.

Ian (James Badge Dale), her on-and-off lover, is deadbeat who promises a lot but delivers little. Deb wants an abortion, but even that costs money. Thompson and Lily are believable as sisters who may not be of blood but their history glues them together in such a way that they might as well be. There is not one scene or moment that does not come across genuine. And so, for instance, when Ollie decides to go back to selling painkillers, we have a thorough appreciation of her and her sister’s circumstances. In its essence, it is a survival tale.

It is interesting that although the plot involves selling and transporting drugs, there is not one cop that suspects and follows Ollie. This is a smart choice by the writer-director because doing so would have shifted the tone toward a thriller category. This is not meant to imply the picture is without suspenseful moments. On the contrary, there are plenty of it. For instance, Ollie must deal with suspicious individuals—many of them drug addicts—and she is required to check-in with her probation officer (Lance Reddick) who is really proud of her for coming so far.

In the latter situation, the fear is not so much about getting caught and being sent to jail. It is about not disappointing the one person who is tough on Ollie because he genuinely cares for how her life will turn out. Carter cares, I think, not just because it is his job but because he sees potential in Ollie to do good and to lead a stable life—a simple one—that’s rewarding in its own way. He sees the brightness at the end of her tunnel more clearly than she does. So, he tries to pull her toward it in a no-nonsense fashion.

Having said that, I appreciated that Ollie’s relationship with her probation officer is not explored. Thompson and Reddick are so communicative without having to rely on words. I felt a certain trust between the writer-director and the actors, and also trust between the thoughtful material and the receptive audience. It is not necessary to have to spell out everything for the sake of clarity. Because, as we all know, in life, certain things go beyond description or explanation.

“Little Woods” is not about action but about observation. We spend a couple of days in Ollie and Deb’s shoes and appreciate their loneliness and desperation to be free. Although the story is quite bleak, there are enough hopeful moments that hint at the possibly that the siblings would turn out all right eventually even though it is challenge to imagine it from moment to moment. Despite the plot lacking big, sweeping events, it offers many layers and dimension.


Gridlocked (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

High body count action-thriller “Gridlocked” delivers the expected from the genre, but it falls flat nearly every time it tries to pull off a surprise. The premise is cheeky: narcissistic and troubled movie star (Cody Hackman) who assaulted a paparazzo is assigned by the court to shadow a cop (Dominic Purcell) as good faith that he means to change his ways. In reality, it is a PR strategy to keep the actor out of jail so he can continue making his next blockbuster. The serious cop and flashy clown pair is nothing new, but screenwriters Rob Robol and Allan Ungar (who directs) go for the laughs and commit to them even though a good number of jokes are made-for-TV fluff. At first, the cop is not keen on babysitting but the more the duo spend time with one another—well, you know how it goes. The centerpiece is the action: a mysterious shadow group (Stephen Lang) breaks into a police training facility for… something not worth waiting for; the picture takes more than half of its nearly two-hour running time to reveal the motivation of its standard slithering villain. Action sequences are occasionally well-choreographed and exciting. Although there is no convincing danger, I found myself wishing to know what would happen next. Comic touches which set the initial tone are relegated behind loud and busy shootouts eventually. And when they do return to the foreground in the action-heavy latter half, they feel out of place. There is an undeniable lack of discipline in tone.

Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Taking inspiration from real-life events of police shooting unarmed African-Americans across the country, Melina Matsoukas’ debut picture “Queen & Slim” simmers with anger, but that is not what makes the work interesting. Instead of unleashing its fury, it allows the audience to witness and digest the injustices of racial profiling and murder. It is a powerful movie, certainly a sad one, that does not need to shout in order to highlight the importance of what it has to impart.

Unnamed man (henceforth “Slim” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith as “Queen”) go on a blind date after meeting on Tinder. On their way home, they are stopped by a police officer who claims that Slim has failed to execute a turn signal and exhibited some erratic driving. While this is true, it is clear that the cop wishes to bust the black man for something, anything. Without a warrant, the racist cop rummages through the trunk. The situation quickly escalates which leads to Queen being shot in the leg. Out of self-defense, Slim grabs the gun from the officer and shoots him dead. The couple decide to flee Cleveland, Ohio.

The six-night manhunt for Queen & Slim is executed with specific vision. It is not interested in glorifying violence by showing elaborate chases, gunfights, and the like. It is, however, curious about getting to know the couple as complex people who come from vastly different backgrounds. For instance, extended dialogue is presented to us like flirtatious poetry as Queen, initially dismissive of Slim, learns to respect the young man she assumed to be just another brother who wished to get in her pants; Slim, meanwhile, begins to recognize a possible future with Queen. The movie is successful both as a crime drama and romance. The screenplay by Lena Waithe juggles both at the same time, never dropping one for the other at any moment.

The central couple is multidimensional, and so are the supporting characters—however brief we spend time with them. A few standouts include Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) who lives with prostitutes with surprising heart and insight about loneliness, a gas station attendant who does not blink once when a gun is pointed at his face, a teenager named Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who idolizes the outlaws, and the caucasian couple (Chloë Sevigny, Flea) who are aware of the bounty for Slim & Queen but decides to help them anyway. Each interaction is different because every single person encountered has a specific personality and perspective regarding what occurred in Ohio. Everybody has an understanding and appreciation of what has been going on between cops and black people across the country.

Comparisons to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” makes sense to an extent, but “Queen & Slim” is more modern and it possesses an identity of its own. There is something alluring in how Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are able to harness their chemistry, beginning from a place of awkwardness and distrust then eventually ending somewhere among loyalty, respect, and devotion. Their physical journey can be criticized for having one too many lucky breaks, but I believed their emotional journey completely. While I would have preferred a less blatant ending (which I do not think fits the overall tone of the film), I could find some justification why it was necessary.

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Anyone familiar with Cinderella’s story will know the precise trajectory of Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit,” a musical drama that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In its attempt to embody a quiet independent drama as well as a commercial piece of work, especially since the majority of the songs are pop hits (renditions of songs like Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Ellie Goulding’s “Bright Lights” are nothing special), its identity is lost in the process. I realize what it is trying to be, but what it is about is unclear. The reason is due to its lack of perspective: Does it wish to make a general statement about talent competitions? The many colorful personalities of contestants that one might encounter in a high-stakes contest? The cutthroat nature of the music industry? It’s all up in the air, and it’s shouldn’t be.

Elle Fanning transcends an otherwise generic picture. Whether her character, Violet, is dancing, singing, engaging in conversation with someone who doesn’t understand—and doesn’t care to understand—her passion for singing, or communicating a deep loneliness in the dark by herself, Fanning sells every single beat with every fiber of her being. It is so commendable, and it is further proof why the performer is certain to have a career decades from now. And so when the writer-director makes bizarre stylistic choices, it is incredibly frustrating. For instance, when we are in the early stages of getting to know Violet and her voice, her performance is shot like a music video: quick cuts, energetic dancers, energetic lights, overproduced music—empty.

Why not simply allow us to hear, listen to, and process the rawness of Violet’s voice? The best approach is simplicity; an act of trusting the audience of evaluating the subject’s possible star power. Because the filmmaker fails time and again early on to establish convincing reasons why Violet should and will become a superstar eventually, the character’s later performances are not as impactful; it feels as though we are watching a product rather than a real young woman with deep feelings who came from a humble background, a small village off the coast of England. In other words, Minghella neglects to give the audience strong reasons why the subject is special and therefore why her story is worth telling.

There is an intriguing but undercooked relationship right in the middle of the film which is shared by Violet and Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk who lives in his car. Vlad used to be an opera singer and he considers Violet to be the potential he himself lost when he was at the top of his game. There is real tension in the relationship—not a combative one but a curiosity in whether the gentleman past his prime would be able to keep Violet on the right track so she is able to meet her goal of getting a record contract and get her family’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) financial situation sorted. There are sweet and effortless moments of the two of them simply talking and finding commonalities even they are so different—in looks, in personality, their definitions of success. A highlight of the film involves Vlad supporting Violet during the early rounds of Teen Spirit, an “American Idol”-esque singing competition that may lead to superstardom.

In the end, “Teen Spirit” is just another auto-tuned piece of work—glossy on the surface but it lacks heft, substance, juice. In reality, it is not enough to simply “follow one’s dreams,” as they say. There is no emphasis placed on hard work, making the right connections, sacrifices, or taking risks. We see Violet dancing, singing, meeting people, and pretending to be sick so she can skip work and go to an audition—but these remain superficial level drama.

It presents the “what” of Violet’s challenges as a green talent who knows next to nothing about showbiz but not the “how.” It doesn’t give itself a real chance to break out of the usual clichés and expectations using sharp and well-observed specificity. I felt a level of self-consciousness here. Perhaps it is because the film is Minghella’s directorial debut.

A Kid Like Jake

A Kid Like Jake (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

With a title like “A Kid Like Jake,” it is reasonable to assume that the movie will be about parents who must come to terms with their child’s nature. Specifically, it is brought to Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg’s (Jim Parsons) attention that perhaps their four-year-old son (Leo James Davis) is showing signs of being “gender-expansive.” Jake prefers to play with dolls and princess dress-ups than he does sports or superheroes. In actuality, however, the child’s sexuality or gender is not what this film is truly about. It is about parents who must deal with their own fears or concerns regarding 1) having to raise a child in a society that doesn’t really understand—or care to understand—what gender identity means, 2) their feelings of inadequacy—what they did or didn’t do, if they could have done things differently as to prevent “confusing” Jake about his gender and 3) the boy not having a spot in private school that could foster his potential. The movie is well-acted, its heart is in the right place, and it does reach a few compelling moments when characters clash while the camera is right there mere inches away from their expressive faces. We feel the unsaid words behind their eyes. But the movie lacks subtlety, even common sense at times. For instance, the couple’s state of conflict is rooted upon how they perceive their child and yet there is not one convincing moment in which a case is made that a boy preferring traditionally feminine toys or a girl preferring traditionally masculine toys does not have to mean anything at all. Maybe, just maybe, parents nowadays, especially those who come from privileged backgrounds, tend to overanalyze. When basic facts are ignored in what is supposed to be intelligent and thoughtful drama, it is a house of cards. Based on the play and adapted to the screen by Daniel Pearl. Directed by Silas Howard.


Bodied (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The subversive satirical comedy “Bodied” tells the story of a white and privileged UC Berkeley graduate student whose thesis involves the usage of the word “nigga” within the context of battle rap. It is energetic, propulsive, clever, and takes no prisoners. Screenwriter Alex Larsen and director Joseph Kahn are teeming with ideas—about race, gender and sexual identity, trigger warnings, fame, campus politics, political correctness—they pack them all in here—at times at the expense of creating major imbalance in storytelling. But this is the kind of risk daring filmmakers are willing to take when they are so confident that the material works. And it does. Here is a movie that hooks you all the way to the finish line.

The earnest graduate student and eventual battle rapper is named Adam. He is our protagonist but he is far from the hero of this story. Adam is smart, articulate, and adaptable—not dissimilar to a mad scientist but whose expertise is history, literature, and poetry (“humanities”—there is irony here) as opposed to science and mathematics. The character is played with terrific and alarming intensity by Calum Worthy, capable of exuding a mix of goodness and wildfire obsession to hide the fact that his character, deep down, is a scumbag. Worse, he thinks he’s a good person. There is no redemption arc to be had here—appropriate because the film’s approach to the subjects it touches upon is unapologetic. Like standout satires, this one holds a mirror on our society, points at what’s wrong, and demands that we take responsibility.

Yet the picture offers no solutions—the correct decision since it is not enjoyable to sit through a lecture in a comedy. Instead, the majority of the movie is composed of highly amusing—often laugh out loud—battle raps among personalities so colorful (Jackie Long, Jonathan Park, Shoniqua Shandai, Walter Perez), we get to know them not just in how they relate outside of the match but also how they are like when within the headspace of competition, when faced with an opponent whose goal is to humiliate and break them down. And in the age of insta-share culture, everyone not only learns of your humiliation within seconds, you get to live it over and over outside of the match. So there is plenty at stake.

At its best, the picture reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of how the camera is utilized to get in someone’s face and capture minute moments of, for example, a competitor’s defenses being broken down. Blink and you’ll miss specific jabs that really hurt even the most seemingly insurmountable Goliath. Although produced by Eminem (along with Paul Rosenberg, Adi Shankar, Jil Hardin), this is no “8 Mile.” It is another level because nothing is off the table. Insults range from physical and mental disability; homophobia; transphobia; being white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Jewish; even vegans are not safe. Every rap battle is exciting because the attitude is risk-taking—risking of offending a certain group even though there are truths—a lot of truths—in what is being communicated and lampooned.

There are moments in “Bodied” when I caught myself thinking, “They did not just cross that line,” “Did they really go there?,” “…How far will they take this?” Clearly, the work is meant to induce shock, horror, and aggressive laughter that hurts. It possesses an understanding that a satire is rendered ineffective when it takes the middle of the road. And so perceptive filmmakers play upon the extremes. Do not miss this gem; it deserves a cult following.


Monstrum (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

In an action-horror movie like “Monstrum,” it is all too easy to make the mistake of relying on parading a giant hairy beast and the carnage that inevitably follows, but director Huh Jong-ho, who co-wrote the screenplay with Heo-dam, understands what makes horror movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” so effective: It is not enough to show the boogeyman and what it can do. In order to build suspense, there must be a convincing enough backstory that the viewers can latch onto. And so when chaos runs rampant, we care and do not get lost in pandemonium. And, boy, does this movie excel in showing havoc.

The story is set in 16th century Korea during King Jungjong’s fragile reign (Park Hee-soon). Not only are citizens destitute and hungry, they are living in constant fear due to rumors that a monster is living in the woods—rumors that Prime Minister Woon (Lee Kyeong-yeong) started because he wishes to take the throne for himself. He hopes that the rumor, combined with the growing unrest, will be enough to usurp the king. But the monster is far from imaginary. There are two types of corpses coming out of the woods: those in pieces and those with boils. Only one of these groups has been in direct contact with the monster. But what of the other?

Here is a movie that clearly wants to be an entertaining action flick. There is silly humor like adult men falling over one another (Kim Myung-min, Kim In-kwon), there is a cute sort of romance between a country girl (Lee Hyeri) and a young warrior (Choi Woo-sik), there is mystery in terms of what really goes on out there in the woods, and there is suspense when we are given answers… because answers are not always black and white. I preferred its darker side, but I appreciated its attempt to entertain everybody. Despite the title, the monster itself is not the most evil creature on screen (a case can be made it isn’t evil at all) but rather the power-hungry folks who scheme, exploit, betray, ending lives for nothing. The creature simply wishes to survive; it just happens to be higher up on the food chain.

Although the creature is made using CGI rather than practical effects, the technique works because it is kept hidden for so long. Once it is revealed, it is appropriately intimidating: its size, the noises it makes, how it eats people whole. Notice we rarely get a glimpse of its eyes. Regardless of its gargantuan stature, it moves swiftly. It is alert, a top hunter. The writers are correct to give the monster a limitation: a poor eyesight. And so it must adapt accordingly. And so do the characters. Surprisingly, even this supposedly terrible being is given a backstory—so efficient is this one flashback that we come to empathize with it.

I could easily rip apart a movie like “Monstrum,” but it offers such a good time that its weaknesses—schizophrenic tone, character relationships not given enough time to blossom (a few not believable at all), occasional lack common sense—end up buried under sheer entertainment value. It knows what it wants to be and proud of it. I wish more action creature-features, especially those from the west, would learn to be as willing to take risks and trust that some will land given the assumption that viewers are smart and receptive to pure escapism.