Tag: netflix

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.

The Last Blockbuster

The Last Blockbuster (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although Taylor Morden’s “The Last Blockbuster” does not reveal anything earth-shattering about the former largest video rental empire in the world, boasting 9000 locations with one location opening every 17 hours in its heyday, it shows just enough to tickle the nostalgia bone. It wastes no time placing viewers inside a Blockbuster with its blue carpet, yellow walls and distinct scent, it establishes a warm and friendly tone, the pacing is brisk and assured, figureheads interviewed are full of personality, and it answers important questions, like how the company came about, how the majority of mom-and-pop rental stores were forced to close and, perhaps more intriguingly, how some these small, local businesses actually became part of the chain. It even provides a thorough answer on whether Netflix truly was directly responsible for Blockbuster going out of business. The answer might surprise you.

The documentary is on top form when it gets personal. We meet Sandi Harding, the general manager of the remaining Blockbuster on the planet located in Bend, Oregon, and within seconds we feel her passion for the job. She need not speak and tell us how much she enjoys working in Blockbuster or how it is a family business and so it means a lot more to her than a job. All the picture has to do is to show this woman—who is funny, energetic, always sporting a smile in her eyes—stacking movies on shelves, cleaning glass containers, being happy to answer questions (questions that I’m sure she had answered a thousand times on radio, television, newspapers, and other media), or going on a trip to a nearby Target to buy new movies so customers can have the latest to rent at the store.

When the camera is on Harding, it feels like spending time with a cool aunt. (We even meet her Blockbuster family at home and at an annual barbecue.) By the time this film was made, she has been with the company for fifteen years—and it shows. And it’s funny because, in my eyes, she manages to outshine commentators like Kevin Smith, Paul Scheer, Jamie Kennedy, and others. These artists may have something interesting or funny to say once in a while, but there is not a single moment in which Harding comes across forced or inauthentic.

Having Harding on film is critical not just because she’s the manager. She is the conduit between the filmmaking world and people like you and me; she makes the work that much more relatable without having to result to one-liners, quirks, or exaggerations like a few of the interviewees. While I doubt that the final Blockbuster standing still has ten years left, I wish that Harding gets to do what she loves until the day she decides to retire.

The film also has a knack for indirectly asking what Blockbuster means to the viewer. I came late to the party. It was around 2003 when I signed up to become a Blockbuster member. It was summertime and, in order to compete with Netflix (which I was also a member—mail back a DVD, get another the very next day… those were the days!—no streaming services just yet), Blockbuster offered unlimited rental—two or three movies at a time—for a fixed rate.

I lived about half a mile from the rental store and so imagine how many movies I watched just that one summer. I must have seen about 5 movies per day; I became such a regular that employees in every shift knew me by name until 2006 when I cancelled my membership because I had to leave home for university. Between 2003 and 2006 was the time when I fell in love with the movies. I can say with utmost confidence that had it not been for Blockbuster, you wouldn’t be reading these words today.

Yes Day

Yes Day (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

Notice that if you were to remove Jennifer Garner from this film, it would not be worth seeing. Her joyous performance is so infectious, so full of lightness, giddiness, and vitality, you cannot help to smile even though the picture’s roughest patches. Watch her closely during the busiest moments: despite a handful of people on screen, quirky or crazy things happening left and right, and even when the editing is choppy on top of a blaring soundtrack, her creative choices allow her to rise above it all. Her extensive experience shines through.

This can be observed so clearly when the Torres family, in the middle of their Yes Day, visits a Korean ice cream shop. Garner’s character, Allison, is dressed head to toe like a futuristic pop star on acid. (The youngest of the Torres clan gave her a “makeover” that morning.) Lesser performers would have relied on the character’s appearance to make us laugh. But not Garner.

Because she is so into her character as a mother who wish to prove to her three children (Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner, Everly Carganilla), believing she is too strict and uptight, that she still has it in her to be in the moment with reckless abandon, Garner channels the younger version of her character who we met during the picture’s terrific opening montage. When she goes down on that enormous ice cream, look at the way she tilts her head. Those eyes sparkle. There is a snap in every movement. She need not say a word to tell us she’s youthful. She brings forth active but subtle comedy as opposed to something that is obvious or passive. Her performance reminded me of Kathleen Turner in Francis Ford Coppola’s time travel film “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

This may sound like effusive praises given that the work is supposed to be a breezy, harmless family film. But I say it isn’t. The best family films, after all, are those that offer something truly special, characteristics beyond just another poop or fart joke, yet another idiot character falling down the stairs or off a ladder while putting on—or taking off—Christmas lights. While I don’t think that Miguel Arteta’s “Yes Day” is special by any means, it is important that we acknowledge good work. In this case, Garner is the jewel that keeps this otherwise ordinary family flick shining.

Yes Day is a day when parents are not allowed to refuse what their children want to do—with a few exceptions such as criminal activities or asking for something in the future (like getting a pet). It is a silly premise, to be sure, but at the same time so much can be done with it. And because there are possibilities, the comedy can be malleable. Strong comedies are never one-note.

For a good while, the movie is riotously entertaining. Credit to the screenplay by Justin Malen, who adapted the project from a children’s book by Amy Korouse Rosenthal (author) and Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator), for having the insight to give the audience a roadmap, in the form of a list, of what the Torres kids wish to do that special day. Because we possess the knowledge that the kids have five events planned for Mom and Dad (Édgar Ramírez), we are given a rough idea about the level of insanity for each succeeding event. (The fifth item on the list is surrounded by stars. You just know something serious will go down.)

It is without question that the film is at its best when it goes all in with its comedy. It doesn’t matter how silly, or dumb, or mainstream a scenario comes across. It is a wish-fulfillment story in the first place. But when it injects superficial drama, like the eldest daughter craving independence from her mother, the pacing is derailed to the point where it becomes unrecoverable. The fun tone turns rather dour and for no realistic reason. This film should have been cotton candy from beginning to end. And I am convinced that a seasoned filmmaker like Arteta knows it, too. But compromises had to be made for the sake of marketability.

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 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.

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 Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Wandering Earth” is China’s first full-blown space disaster flick extravaganza, but it is nothing special because it fails to offer a memorable element outside of visuals. It is a shame because the premise, based on Liu Cixin’s novella of the same name, is unique: Due to the expanding sun, humanity has decided to band together and create the most astounding technology to move Earth out of our solar system and toward another that is 4.2 lightyears away, a feat that is expected take around 10,000 generations to achieve. The template is ambitious, but the execution is as generic as it comes.

Right from the opening sequence, a whiff of melodrama can be detected. A father, Peipang (Wu Jing), must leave his four-year-old son, Qi (played by Qu Chuxaio as an adult), under the care of his father-in-law (Ng Man-tat) to work on a space station that would eventually help navigate the planet on its journey out of the current solar system toward a new one. Cue the longing looks, warm lighting, and syrupy score just in case viewers fail to appreciate the precious time about to be lost between father and son. Before we know it, the text reads, “17 Years Later.”

But perhaps there is plenty to be discovered about this duo after the time jump. That isn’t the case. This relationship is never given a chance to evolve in fruitful or meaningful ways. Qi is shown as angry toward his father for leaving and cries when his father’s life is eventually threatened. How are we supposed to care when their connection is never given the depth necessary so that we understand, with equal complexity and intensity, a. the turmoil raging within the son’s heart for having been abandoned and b. the astronaut’s sense of duty for mankind’s survival? They share not one genuine conversation. In fact, the dialogue is rooted upon two extremes: light humor early on in the picture and exclamation points when chaos ensues. Where is the humanity?

What results is a bore, beautiful to look at due to the stunning special and visual effects, particularly when Jupiter begins to absorb the Earth’s atmosphere which causes sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. Cue planes falling out of the sky and various skyscrapers on the dead, frozen landscape collapsing, causing all sorts of trouble for the inhabitants on the surface. The CGI overreaches at times, which makes some of the action come across as rather cartoonish, but the destruction is exaggerated enough that calamities lean toward eye-popping as opposed to laughable. I also enjoyed the overwhelming sound effects, especially when the cracking of glacial surface crescendos into full-blown collapse of all structures within the radius of about a mile.

Still, for a story set hundreds, if not thousands, of years into the future, the population lacks diversity—even if it does take place mostly in China. Although a different sub-genre, a space western picture as opposed to a space disaster movie, Jo Sung-hee’s “Space Sweepers” does it right: there is a collection of cultures within any specified location. In this film, I found it hard to believe that for a planet in which various cultures supposedly learned to work together and install engines over several continents (which, practically speaking, should all be uniform)—engines that could create a thrust so powerful, an entire planet could be moved, there remains to be a lack of amalgamation when it comes to ethnicities and languages. In other words, the picture fails to evince a convincing international feeling. In this way, it feels like a movie made in the 1990s, not in 3990s, or even 2055. I wager this movie’s age can be felt by 2030.

Regardless, I remain convinced that if the screenplay, in which seven writers are credited, had offered memorable characters who are written smart with uniquely fierce personalities combined with something genuine at stake outside of mankind’s possible extinction, the picture would have been terrific entertainment. But alas, we are provided a safe outing—expensive but dull.


Moxie (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a wonderful story waiting to be told and explored in “Moxie,” based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, but it is ultimately bogged down by a most generic storytelling parabola which makes the work vanilla and safe rather than a riotous, rebellious step forward. Its goal is to empower girls and women through feminism by means of underscoring some of the more insidious but normalized rules, traditions, and events in a typical suburban high school.

While most of us can agree with its two-fold message—that a. in this day and age females (especially females of color) remain on an unequal footing when compared to men (i.e.: the way they are expected to act or behave in public spaces, at home, or in the bedroom; when it comes to jobs, level of education, student loans taken out, and wages; down to what is considered to be “acceptable” clothing at school or workplace) and so b. we must adopt active changes (in our thinking, in the way we phrase a point, in action) in order to fill in the gaps—it cannot be denied that the film loses steam about halfway through. A movie like this must be focused, angry, and propelled by fresh ideas all the way to the finish line.

It is astounding to me that screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer deem it necessary to surround our protagonist, a shy but otherwise average and likable high school student Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), with superficial drama when what she hopes to accomplish—to upend the sexist and toxic patriarchy in her school by starting an underground zine—is not only compelling, it requires time and layered subplots in order to reach its maximum potential.

Instead, we are bombarded with busy-ness: trouble with her best friend (Lauren Tsai) when Vivian expands her social circle, trouble with a boy she likes (Nico Hiraga) when drama at school bleeds into drama at home, trouble with Mom (Amy Poehler—who directs) when she brings a nice man (Clark Gregg) over for dinner. These are decorations, unnecessary padding.

Allow me to defog: This is a story about a girl who feels so bland, who feels she has attained nothing of importance by her sixteenth year, that when faced with an essay question for college applications, she has no idea what to write. Her fears—that she is inadequate, boring, without substance—pushed her to do something inspirational and aspirational. (That in itself tells us what type of person she is—why she is a protagonist worth following.) But that’s not all. There is a line dialogue toward the end of the film—easily missed but I choose not to reveal—that drives home her crushing feelings of not being regarded as critical or important.

And so I ask the writers: When our heroine has all these inner turmoil, why make her journey so conventional and predictable? I think the answer lies in packaging the picture in a way that is commercial or mainstream. It does not possess the confidence necessary to tell the story straight—to tell it as honest or as unique as it can be—because doing so might risk digestibility. This is most ironic because if you’re going to make a film about feminism—and a feminist film, too—fear of alienation should not be in the equation. Otherwise, it comes across as false. As is readily apparent here. The film is feminist on the outside but without edge on in the inside.

It is a shame because I liked a few of the performances. At times Robinson reminded me of Kaitlyn Dever’s energy; there is a sadness to those eyes that when the comedic plot pivots to the more dramatic beats, we remain with her because there is a story constantly being told through those windows. This is a necessary trait because Robinson is the anchor. I also enjoyed watching Hiraga as the romantic interest. He may not look like a typical Romeo, but he brings forth major nice guy ska energy that is so high school, so real, so convincing. You can’t help but smile every time he’s on screen. I wished the writers remained true to the potential of what they had in the first place; they managed to turn the treasure in their hands into coal.

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” scares its viewers by showing a bunch of trees, a pile of rocks, a river, a black screen, and a whole lot of suggestion. It is an excellent example of a horror film showing nothing overtly scary and yet it possesses the ability to terrify because all the necessary pieces are set in place. It relies on the idea that what we can come up with in our heads can be far more frightening than an actor wearing a mask, costume, or makeup. The brilliance of this found footage film, believed by many to be real upon its release, is that it functions as a mirror of what we find to be scary.

Three film students—Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams)—venture into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary about the so-called Blair Witch who supposedly bewitched a man to kidnap and murder seven children in the 1940s. That man’s home is rumored to be located somewhere deep in the forest, but no one really knows where it is exactly because over the years residents have learned to stay away from the area. The expository sequences of this project is handled beautifully. The most ordinary-looking locals are interviewed, and they project a most convincing realism. Notice the way they sound. It is amazing that although they are non-actors, it does not feel as though they have memorized a single line. In addition, they do not seem to be aware of the camera which works because they do not feel the need to act as someone else other than themselves.

Some of them believe the stories surrounding the fabled Blair Witch. And a few of them do not. Because we are provided a spectrum of opinions, the implication is that it is up to us to decide what to believe based on what Heather, Josh, and Mike will experience in the woods. And because somewhere in the back of our heads we hold onto this idea, we are inspired to pay very close attention. For a good while “nothing much happens,” so we lean a little bit closer to the screen. Perhaps we are simply missing some of the finer details. And when something finally does happen, it is like a fire alarm; we are jolted into paying attention, mouth agape, eyes as big as saucers. But since the thing to be feared is never front and center, we struggle and attempt to make sense of what is really happening. The cycle continues.

This movie should be required viewing for all aspiring horror filmmakers. Remove the Blair Witch angle completely and this becomes a story of young people being lost in the woods. What is more terrifying than the idea of walking around in circles and experiencing a slow death? The trio have limited food and water. But they have plenty of frustration and anger. The map doesn’t seem to be useful. The compass points that they’re going south and yet they appear to be walking around in circles. What if you can never go home, that you know you’re going to die but won’t get a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones? This is not a one-dimensional horror film.

Most disturbing about “The Blair Witch Project” is not the burial grounds, stick figures hanging off trees, or even the sounds of children’s voices in the dead of night. It is the mental anguish that Heather, Josh, and Mike undergo. They yell and scream at each other, even get into physical altercations at times. But we never lose track of the fact that they don’t actually hate one another. They’re just so helpless and afraid. Rats in a maze. At one point we are inspired to ask, “What might I do in that situation?” while taking into account that it probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps a person’s fate is sealed once one decides to step into the deep, dark woods.

I Care a Lot

I Care a Lot (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Marla Grayson is a taker. We learn right from the get-go that her goal is to be filthy rich and if that means having to take advantage of the most vulnerable, she is happy to oblige. Because in her mind, if she doesn’t grab the opportunity, someone else will. Marla makes a living as a court-appointed guardian for the elderly, preferably wealthy with plenty of assets that can be sold, who can no longer take care of themselves.

But sometimes her targets are perfectly healthy in the body and mind, and so an arrangement can be made with a crooked doctor (Alicia Witt) to write a note for the court claiming otherwise. Such is the case with Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), unmarried and without children, who made a fortune in the finance sector for forty years. Marla has no idea about the amount of trouble she is about to walk into since the fortune to be made is far too alluring. Writer-director J Blakeson has riotous fun with his tale of greed.

“I Care a Lot” is a dark comedy, filled to the brim with unlikable characters who deserve what’s coming to them. There will be death threats, shooting, kidnapping, assault, and, yes, death. Blakeson is a step ahead in that he recognizes what viewers will be rooting for (morality, goodness, doing what’s right) and so he constructs a story with just enough rewards to make us happy and feel good but for the most part staying true to his vision: to present a portrait of America that unveils the delusion that is meritocracy—a concept ingrained in every child, especially children who come from a working class background. In reality, the United States is a country where the immoral thrives because they play—or prey—upon the rules that are rigged against those gullible enough to buy into the happy-go-lucky idea that if you just work hard enough, that if you do good and do what’s right for others, everything else will fall into place.

The picture is terrific entertainment because it is rooted upon reality while at the same time telling a story in a way that is specific, clear, informative, and quite shocking at times. We see through the eyes of Marla, played by the versatile Rosamund Pike, a villainess with not only a defined goal, she is sharp, funny, highly intelligent, dangerous, and truly despicable. Marla is a figure that we’d like to believe we are not (but some of us actually are exactly like her) and Pike plays the character like just another person trying to achieve the so-called American Dream… by making it a nightmare for others, especially the elderly and their desperate families. Surely someone like Marla would—or should—get her comeuppance… right? Blakeson has fun with this expectation.

The picture is at its best when providing the details of Marla’s occupation. Through her job, and her willingness to excel, the work becomes a twisted character study. Being crooked legal guardian requires an inviting smile, patience, cunning, an awareness of when to strike best in order to reap the most rewards. Marla is a self-described lioness and this can be observed when she looks at a defenseless old lady or gentleman. To her, they are tickets to her next meal, next grand vacation overseas, the next luxurious brand that she will wear or drive. Throughout the course of the picture, we will learn not only how much she values money but also her penchant for control, power, and status. Because when you have so much money, the money itself doesn’t matter as much; the thirst becomes about something else. The hole must be filled with something.

But this is not a story in which the characters recognize the error of their ways. Most of them are beyond help, beyond redemption. We can point at what is wrong with the characters and it is demanded that catharsis come in the form of punishment. But what does that say about us, especially when we consider ourselves to be the good guys? This is why “I Care a Lot” works as social commentary: it is pointed in all directions. By the end, the lessons are not black and white. They are shades of gray and we are inspired to consider where we fall into the moral spectrum. Or not. It can simply be digested as a clever tale, too.

No Escape Room

No Escape Room (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror movie that attempts to capitalize on the idea of escape rooms but fails to offer an original contribution of its own. It could have been about something. Consider, for instance, that the story opens with Michael (Mark Ghanimé) and Karen (Jeni Ross), a father-daughter on their way home because the ranch they wanted to visit turned out to be closed.

We notice immediately that this relationship is strained, possibly a result of divorce. It is apparent that the teenage daughter’s disappointment—and anger—is not just because of the parent’s failed attempt at bonding or her raging hormones. The issue lies far deeper, perhaps feelings of abandonment, but the screenplay by Jesse Mittelstadt is adamant in functioning on a most superficial level. To exorcise an emotion, thought, or trauma—conscious or subconscious—is precisely what the horror genre is for. Yet the writer appears to have neither understanding nor appreciation of this. What results is a movie that is flavorless, substandard, certainly without soul.

Lack of substance aside, a horror movie can get a pass for being riotously entertaining. “No Escape Room” also fails on this department. Michael and Karen end up in a house with three other players: the couple, birthday girl Melanie (Kathryn Davis) and the cowardly Tyler (Hamza Haq), and a man named Andrew (Dennis Andres) who jokes as being the spy during the game’s sixty-minute duration. Simply by looking at the participants, even if one hadn’t seen a single movie surrounding escape rooms, it is no challenge to predict the death order correctly. There is no entertainment to be had because there is minimal element of surprise right down to the archetypes. (And you don’t have to listen closely to detect the deadness in the dialogue.)

I enjoyed a few of the rooms. The overall theme is a throwback to the past. There are wonderful props like grandfather clocks, tribal masks, vintage phones, creepy paintings, surgical documents, and ominous film projectors. The five participants are tasked to find the five people who failed to make it out during the previous round and escape with them. But it is said there is a killer inventor on the loose so vigilance is of utmost importance. Every room has a specific personality, particularly in the lower regions of the house—where dead bodies are not just dead bodies. Or so it seems. Not only did the father-daughter, the couple, and the odd man out sign a waiver, they consumed tea that might have been drugged.

And so the movie jumps—needlessly—into the realm of is-it-real or is-it-not-real scenario. It is executed so haphazardly, the minimal interest it is able to milk out dissipates less than halfway through its eighty-minute running time. By this point, the idea of finding the key to get access to the next room is thrown out the window. The picture is then reduced to cardboard cutouts running around the house, screaming and questioning reality. It is boring, lazy, and devoid of creativity.

Director Alex Merkin employs the camera as is instead of a device for storytelling. At some point, two characters end up in the house of horror’s ventilation duct system. The dull script requires the actors to express fear and paranoia… but because the director fails to do anything with the camera, like experimenting with filters, mode of shooting, or angles, there is not a whiff of claustrophobia created—let alone panic or terror. There is, however, comedy due to the sheer ineptness of what’s presented on screen. There are few here that should have never made it into the final product.

A Sun

A Sun (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A-Hao (Hsu Greg), the elder of the two brothers, is considered to be the good one, the handsome one, the one who is kind, considerate, and compassionate. He aspires to attend medical school. His brother, A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho), has earned the reputation of being the bad seed, the one who has an angry streak, consistently in or causing trouble. A recent incident involving the cutting off another man’s hand using a machete has led A-Ho to being sentenced in juvenile detention for up to three years.

When their father, Wen (Chen Yi-wen), a driving instructor, is asked by his students whether he has any children, he claims he only has one, referring to the good son. It is readily apparent he is deeply embarrassed of his troublemaker son even before the aforementioned violent episode. By the end of this story, we will learn not only why but also whether the subjects, deep down, are capable of true change. If so, to what extent and the unthinkable sacrifices that must be made in order to preserve what is left of the family—or one’s idea of family.

Some movies require longer than two hours and thirty minutes to tell their stories so that by the end viewers are left with a feeling of completion—and exhaustion. Chung Mong-hong’s “A Sun” is one of these films, expertly employing its extended running time to drown us in the Chen family drama in which easy answers are rare and difficult decisions tend to take a toll on the soul. It is melodramatic at times, yes, but its power cannot be denied when anguish, especially the quiet but demolishing kind, is written all over every character’s being at any given moment.

The four central performances, particularly by Ko Samantha who plays the mother Qin—calm, patient and a master at compartmentalization—are equally strong. Choose any scene and notice how there is not one instance in which a performer chooses to wear only one emotion. Often there is an ocean of difference between what is written on their face and what their eyes are desperate to communicate. This creates intrigue.

This epic story is massaged in a way where we eventually follow every member of the Chen family without being made aware of the distinct chapters. Take A-Hao’s story, for instance. We follow him in school, we observe how he relates to girls, we listen to his stories, and we appreciate his introspective nature. In between these small but informative moments are reminders of the challenges that the Chens, as a unit, are going through, like how they try to adapt to life after A-Ho’s incarceration—somebody whom, that we can imagine they, at least on the surface, didn’t really care for or place much value in when he was a free man. In actuality, he is a crucial part of who they are. Otherwise, his absence would not have caused such a rift in the household. It is fascinating that A-Ho’s imprisonment is treated almost like a death.

What I found ironic—and beautiful—is that A-Ho is able to grow—first in his head while in confinement and then later in action once he is released. The Chen family is required to adapt once again. Most movies, especially in the west, tend to cut a character’s journey in half which results in the evolution coming across disingenuous, tacked on. This is where the extra hour or so comes into play. It is patient. It exercises restraint. Like a hawk, the camera observes whether A-Ho will become just another hopeless case, a statistic. His father watches, too, even though Wen finds it to be unbearable being around his disappointment of a son. We ask ourselves: How can a father who has spent so many years with his back to his “other” son turn around and face him? But it is not that simple. It is one thing to face, it is another to accept.

“A Sun” is not interested in making the viewers feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It offers moments of catharsis that are earned. Instead, it places emphasis on creating an accurate portrait of a working class Taiwanese family who must play the cards they are dealt with. Sometimes the cards are, well, shitty. (There is a humorous scene involving a tank full of excrement.) The writer-director has a true understanding of families: that each one is defined by how it handles hardship and adapts to the aftermath. Through the individual members’ actions, we are able to measure and appreciate the family’s strength as a whole.


Monsoon (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kit left his birth country at the age of six; I left mine at the age of eleven. He did not return for thirty years; I did not return for twenty-one. There is something about “Monsoon,” written and directed by Hong Khaou, that excels at locating the pulse of split identity without relying on melodrama. In fact, it is so relaxed with its storytelling that viewers can claim that “nothing much happens” and they would be right. At least when judging only from the outside. This is a film that requires those looking in to be participants: to absorb and consider the circumstances on screen while thinking back on one’s personal history when one felt to be living at the margins.

As the British-Vietnamese Kit surveys Saigon, the city he once called his home, I, a Filipino-American, thought about my return to Olongapo, Philippines exactly a year ago. At nearly every given moment, I knew precisely how Kit felt because everything had changed so much that it is like walking around a different planet. Gone are places of comfort, of laughter, of peace. In their place are buildings, or markets, or just another trash heap. Consistent is the noise of revving vehicles, incessant honking, the busy-buzzing chattering on the streets. The picture benefits greatly from having been shot on location.

What is the story about? On the surface, it appears to be about Kit retuning to Vietnam to find an appropriate place—a meaningful place—where he and his brother, scheduled to arrive a week upon Kit’s arrival, can scatter their parents’ ashes. Their family escaped the country after the Vietnam War. Kit recalls that one day he is living in Vietnam and the next he is on a boat belonging to no country. He felt he had been stripped away from his homeland and lost something along the way. So, upon closer inspection, the story is about a man looking for that something he had lost. But the more interesting question is: What if he doesn’t find it?

And so we follow Kit visiting familiar places. Although there is an occasional murmur of happiness upon visual recognition, notice how that joy is evanescent. It made me think of when I had a chance to lay eyes on my childhood home—I was elated for a second… and then I could no longer look at it. Perhaps it was due to the stark difference between what was embedded in my memory and the reality that faced me. The gap between the two is so substantial that you can’t help but to feel a certain sadness, emptiness even, for not having been there to experience its evolution. Kit finds no solace in the places he knew and so the next step is to come to terms with the fact that the past had moved on without him just as he moved on from his past, his heritage, in order to thrive somewhere else. The parallels between his experience and mine astounded me. Not even a third of the way through, I felt I understood the protagonist with utmost clarity.

But that is not all there is to Kit. Kit is a gay man who can pass as a straight man, which further emphasizes his life of living in the margins, but he chooses not to. There is a beauty about the way this character is written because although he is undergoing a time of deep reflection in regard to his cultural identity, Kit is a person who is free because he has embraced an important part of who he is. At the same time, we can recognize that his self-acceptance took a lot of effort and through many years. Henry Golding plays Kit with terrific but understated energy. His interpretation of Kit is that the character is wounded but strong, lonely sometimes but full of deep thoughts and feelings. I hope that Golding continues to choose challenging roles like this. It suits him.

Every person that Kit encounters has an interesting story. There is Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American, who immigrated to Vietnam to start his own clothing business. Lewis is gay and he reciprocates Kit’s attraction. But they’re more than that; we feel that they can actually be friends outside of the occasional hookup. Speaking of friends, Lee (David Tran) is Kit’s childhood friend who speaks English very well. We suspect that he still feels a strong connection to Kit, but it is unclear whether Kit feels the same. And then there is Linh (Molly Marris), a tour guide for art exhibits. We learn a bit about her home life and what her family expects of her. What I found fascinating is that although this character comes across like a strange addition at first, she is actually relevant to the overall theme of one feeling like an outsider. Kit recognizes fragments of himself in Lewis, Lee, and Linh. And that is why their interactions command intrigue.

“Monsoon” is for the mature audience. The storm is not on the outside but on the inside. So those who choose to dive in are required to watch with an introspective eye and mind. And to understand the protagonist completely, we must appreciate that he is a man of silence; a thinker whose mode of communication is the eyes and the occasional smile. The writer-director’s decision to muffle the emotions is the correct choice because it inspires those who really wish to know or understand to lean in that much closer. I was touched by this film in ways I did not at all expect. Its patience reminded me of Kogonada’s zen film “Columbus.”

Red Dot

Red Dot (2021)
★★ / ★★★★

Pieces fall into place so neatly. We are introduced to a young couple, David (Anastasios Soulis), a recently minted engineer, and Nadja (Nanna Blondell), an aspiring doctor. We meet them at the former’s graduation when the relationship is fresh, fun, and exciting; they cannot get enough of one another. Suddenly, we are met with a title card stating that a year-and-half had passed. The relationship has strained—marriage is not what they imagined it to be. For a while, the movie appears to be a romantic drama. We learn about a little bit about David and Nadja’s home life and why they feel the need to get away and rekindle what they have. We spend only a short time in their apartment and we cannot help but to feel suffocated, too. However, “Red Dot” is not a drama. It is a survival thriller set in the cold and bitter wilderness with an ace up its sleeve.

The film is written by Alain Darborg (who directs) and Per Dickson, a duo of expert manipulators. By providing an expository sequence so ordinary, we are lulled to sway along a certain rhythm and by the time the rising action comes around, we are nailed into a specific wavelength. Consider the drive up the mountains when David and Nadja stop at a gas station and encounter two hunters. We are not provided much regarding the strangers: they have rifles, they look provincial, and they drive a truck with a reindeer’s head in the back. One of the hunter’s sense of humor is rather… uncultured, somewhat offensive, as if David and Nadja needed to be reminded that they’re an interracial couple.

The writers urge us to make assumptions. And because we have seen numerous movies in which protagonists from the city cross paths with rough characters who live in the middle of nowhere, we think we know where the movie is heading. In many ways, we will be right on target: the couple will admire the beauty of their surroundings, they will have fun for a while, and they will be reminded of the reasons why they choose to be together. Just when their emotional reunion reaches a climax, they will find themselves in a terrifying situation.

While admiring the northern lights, they notice a red dot moving about their tent. Someone is watching them. Although their tent sits on a clearing, it is the dead of night. Surely it must be some sort of sick prank. Or that’s what they want to believe. These two are not blameless. Deep down, they know they should not have escalated the situation with the hunters.

And so it goes on like this for a while. It feels as though the material is simply going through a checklist of what we expect to experience in a survival thriller. But I say the approach wears out its welcome eventually. There are not enough creativity and fresh choices placed in between the signposts which allow the work to stand out among its contemporaries. Instead, it is too reliant upon a third-act twist to get viewers, who may have long checked out, to be invested again. The best thrillers are consistently curious all the way through despite familiar elements. This one appears to have put all its eggs in one basket. And the gamble doesn’t quite pay off.

Darborg and Dickson wish so badly to blindside their viewers that they overlook the importance of pacing. Notice how the movie lumbers about when David and Nadja attempt to survive the cold on top of their nasty injuries and increasing exhaustion. This should be the picture at its most thrilling and unpredictable. By the time the shocking plot development rolls around, it comes across rather anticlimactic. It is a missed opportunity because this particular angle is used only to shock, never explored in thoughtful or meaningful ways. Not to mention that the morality it imparts is most generic.