Tag: netflix

Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire (2021)
★ / ★★★★

There is a lot going on in the sci-fi action “Outside the Wire,” but a strong case can be made that not much of value of happens. The reason is because the screenplay by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale fails to hone in on the human element of their story, one that involves Ukraine being a war zone in 2036, artificial intelligence, cyborgs, terrorists, and a drone pilot with minimal field experience sent to the very battlefield he launches missiles toward. To say that this picture is mechanical and formulaic is generous; I go as far to say it vacillates between near utter boredom and a waste of film. Not one element it offers is memorable.

Anthony Mackie co-stars in this waste of an opportunity to make a genuine and objective statement about the United States’ role as “peacekeepers” between warring nations as a machine that takes on the appearance of a human. Leo is an android that feels pain, sadness, empathy, but the work never bothers go out of its way to explore the depth of what the character is truly capable of outside of his agility and super strength. When it is not busy laying out exposition through dead dull dialogue, it inundates us with loud and flat shootouts that run longer than they should. Mackie’s charm can only elevate the picture to a certain level; every time he is front and center, we are reminded how much of his talent is being wasted.

Although the android is feeling, he is not the heart of the picture. Instead, we see through the eyes of Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), the aforementioned drone pilot punished for disobeying direct orders that led to the demise of two Marines. Although there is always life in Idris eyes and he is able to emote when necessary, the script never gives him a chance to deliver upon his potential because Harp is written as a bland protagonist who always strives to do the right thing: one-dimensional, repetitive, and uninteresting. Combine this with the material’s lack of a defined fulcrum in terms of what warfare means as a concept, those who call the shots, and those on the ground, the mixture proves soporific. Who is the movie for?

It is not for those who have a penchant for war films. There is a glossy feel about it but not enough shots of dead and dying soldiers, of civilians suffering, of obliterated homes, of the true repercussions of war. In other words, it does not embody the horror of standout war pictures. It is not for sci-fi fans either. We are provided some neat special effects—robot soldiers, robot dogs—and visual effects, but these are not utilized in a way that creates a thoroughly captivating world. They function more as props, either something to laugh at when human soldiers abuse them or something to fear when activated to kill.

It seems director Mikael Håfström does not have a thorough understanding of how to extract entertainment value from an action film and make it his own. Having said that, I wished he had a hand on the screenplay because he penned and directed “Evil,” an effective examination of the effects and cycle of violence which focuses on teenage boys in a boarding school.

“Outside the Wire” is a miscalculation nearly every step of the way. I was going to write that perhaps it is an all right movie to allow to play in the background while doing chores. But on the second thought, this film is filled with empty noise. Consider how often our eardrums are pummeled with the busy-buzzing of the every day. Why not clean the house or apartment in silence? Enjoy the moment, enjoy the exercise, enjoy putting things in order. Because there is no enjoyment to be had from this hooey. Why was this made?

The Forty-Year-Old Version

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The movie begins with a series of funny situations as we follow Radha (Radha Blank), an NYC-based black playwright who is struggling artistically and financially, from the moment those expressive eyes open till her cracking bones hit the hay. The next day begins and the cycle repeats. But just when we think we are accustomed to the formula, the picture disarms us by revealing nuanced layers about the artist, particularly how sad feels and how lost she has become due to the recent passing of her mother. Here is a story of a woman, three months shy of turning of forty, who is driven—desperate—to fill a void. Writing doesn’t work. Teaching has staled. Perhaps this time it can be filled by becoming a hip-hop artist. Her persona is RadhaMUSPrime.

Blank also writes and directs “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” autobiographical in nature and reeking of Spike Lee ‘80s joie de vivre. It is shot in black and white. Very talky. Humanist to a tee. Its humor is pointed and its love for the working class shines through. Neighbors are interviewed and they look directly at the camera. Then they electrify us with attitude and authenticity.

When these vivacious personalities move out of the frame, like the sassy old lady or the homeless man across the street, we feel there is more to their stories and so we wish to follow them. The same can be said about the multi-ethnic women engaging in rap battle in the Bronx. Or Radha’s students. Or the actors in Radha’s play. It is such a joy that although some characters are provided fewer than ten lines, they pop and we remember them. Here is a film that leaves a strong impression.

We are provided a clear vision of what’s important to Radha. Surface viewers will claim her play belongs on this list while thoughtful viewers might say otherwise. The play, originally about how gentrification has affected black lives in Harlem but has morphed into something else for the sake of appealing (read: being more palatable) to the masses, is but a product of Radha’s artistic expression. Blank commands the camera in such a way as to focus on the character’s detailed facial expressions thereby emphasizing that Radha finds pleasure—no, exhilaration—in the process. The joy of work and working. The value of creating. The reward of living up to one’s potential or promise… outside of receiving a “30 Under 30” award.

The work goes on like this. Those who sign up to be entertained will be entertained; those who wish to peer into a life of a person will recognize the great wealth she has. For instance, observe how Radha’s students regard her. Although it is no secret that their teacher has not produced anything “substantial” in almost ten years, in that classroom she is the apple of their eye. They look up to her because even though she carries a deep sadness, and I think a few of them have picked up on it, she works hard to to evince a positive, welcoming energy. Many amusing exchanges (and confrontations) occur in that classroom, but it is a haven for those students.

Is RadhaMUSPrime any good? You have to see for yourself. To make a mixtape, Radha collaborates with a twenty-six-year-old music producer named D (Oswin Benjamin). The connection is amusing, refreshing, surprising, and revealing. The material could have easily gone down a romantic comedy route but refrains; it is far more sophisticated and understated than that. Confident, smart, and human every step of the way, I very much look forward to what Radha Blank will come up with next. I hope it’s just as beguiling.

Elizabeth Harvest

Elizabeth Harvest (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is said that curiosity killed the cat, but one actually sits through “Elizabeth Harvest,” written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, and one could not be blamed for theorizing that it could be due to coma-inducing boredom. For a story that’s quite labyrinthine with its plotting, not to mention the true identity of its key players, the screenplay lacks genuine intrigue necessary to compel viewers into paying close attention. Should you choose to sign up for this, prepare for a sci-fi thriller that moves at a snail’s pace which offers few rewards, if any.

There is nothing wrong with the five performances. There is a translucent quality to Abbey Lee’s portrayal of the titular character, a woman who dreams of getting married and being whisked away from her problems. There is feline-like feel in the way she looks directly at the camera when required and the manner in which she moves her limbs when she senses danger. Ciarán Hinds plays the husband who is at least thirty years Elizabeth’s senior. Henry is a brilliant scientist, a billionaire, living in an isolated and palatial home. The couple shares no chemistry—which is appropriate—and the two actors try their best to make the two pieces fit.

This terrific disconnect, however, is not mired to perfection by the writer-director. Instead, the film proves reliant upon twists and turns instead of establishing a Kubrick-ian feel to the place, that this lonely estate atop the mountains is pregnant with dark and unimaginable secrets. Also notice how we are never provided a mental map of the residence. A handful of chases occur, but the whole charade comes across as though it had been shot in a studio. Although luxurious items abound, there is a cheap quality about the would-be exciting sequences. When all else fails, the score pummels the eardrums. Surely we deserve better.

There are three more performances. Henry lives with his son, Oliver (Matthew Beard), who is blind, and Claire (Carla Gugino), the housekeeper. Right from the get-go, we look at the body language and eyes of Oliver and Claire—it is without question they know something… strange is taking place. Beard and Gugino play their characters like close fists… until they are not. Somewhat of an interesting angle is who these people actually are, specifically their perspective in regard to the sick goings-on in Henry’s haute couture house of horrors. Had the screenplay functioned on a higher level, a case could be made that Oliver and Claire’s stories—together and only together—is the heart of the film. Them being pawns to whatever charade is going on, but deciding to partake anyway, is what makes the story human and therefore interesting.

The last performance is by Dylan Baker who plays a cop named Logan. He drops in from time to time to check on… curious activities. He wishes to interview the new wife (the script does not provide a sensical reason) but she always seem to be napping in the middle of the afternoon. Until one day, it is Henry who is supposedly asleep. Baker is the most underused of the bunch—a head-scratcher because the actor is capable of racking up tension, for example, with the slightest alteration in posture, a look, or cadence in his voice. But this is unsurprising because the screenplay has a habit of choosing easy thrills over effective, crafty, slow-boil suspense.

I found not one cinematic quality in “Elizabeth Harvest,” a movie with two or three neat ideas that touch upon concepts like love and obsession, identity and freedom, science and ethics. And not once did I feel like I was in the hands of a storyteller who is savagely smart—about the genre, the oft tread themes it tackles, or film as medium in general. There is nothing special in the way this project is put together or presented. I checked the clock a total of three times.

The Outpost

The Outpost (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

A soldier shouts, “We won! We won!” after a B-1 bomber swooped in and eliminated the remaining Taliban that surrounded and overran PRT Kamdesh, an American outpost inconveniently located in a valley that is surrounded by the ominous Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. As this supposedly joyous proclamation is heard, the camera fixates on dead or dying faces of American soldiers while they’re carried away to their next destination. Observant and sensitive moments like this allows “The Outpost,” directed by Rod Lurie, to move beyond the confines of typical war action-drama.

Ricocheting bullets, deafening explosions, mangled bodies, and painful deaths abound. But the picture, based on the Jake Tapper’s non-fiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” is most powerful during its quiet and blink-or-you’ll-miss it moments: a soldier admitting that he no longer has it in him to go back out there and fight—yet no one blinks an eye, a leader who is an expert in finding ways to hide that he may in fact be a coward, an outcast who becomes increasingly alienated by the frat culture in his outpost, phone calls home that reveal the men’s true natures. It is the human details that make the material compelling. Credit to screenwriters Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy for consistently underscoring the fact that just because one dons an army combat uniform does not transform a person into Rambo. These are but men who must do their jobs to the best of their abilities despite impossible circumstances.

Curiously, the work is divided into chapters based on the commander in charge of PRT Kamdesh at the time, from Captain Keating (Orlando Bloom) who has a real knack for connecting with the locals and getting them to cooperate against the Talibans to Lieutenant Bundermann (Taylor John Smith) who must take over temporarily when Captain Broward (Kwame Patterson) is relieved from his command. During each chapter, we learn about the soldiers in the base by what they talk about, how they interact, what they do to pass the time, how they respond to conflicts inside and outside their walls, sometimes how they struggle with their own selves and their natures.

It is so interesting that at times I wished every key character is given internal monologue. I was especially fascinated by Specialist Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) who always finds himself as a target because he is so unlike the other guys. He is quiet, intense, often in self-isolation. When he does express genuine concerns, he is punished for crossing the line. Jones is terrific in the role—perhaps the best of the bunch. Not once do his eyes fail to tell a specific story or emotion. And his body carries the weight of his character’s many thoughts and frustrations. Will Carter break when the Talibans inevitably come down the mountains to try and exterminate them?

Another wonderful decision by the filmmakers is taking the time to emphasize geography. It isn’t enough to show the surrounding mountains that tower the outpost. At one point, we are taken outside the walls and onto higher ground. Because we see what the Talibans see, we get a chance to think how they think, especially how best to effectively attack the outpost given that the Americans not only have more weapons, they have more advanced weapons and varied resources. Thus, the base must be taken down quickly. Given the height advantage, what is the best approach to strike fear and panic, so that the enemy is compelled to rush to failure?


Prospect (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s sci-fi project “Prospect” may not be massive in scope, but it is filled to the brim with imagination. We are thrusted into its futuristic world with no explanation—narration and title cards are nowhere to be found—so we are required to pay close attention and attempt to grasp what’s at stake for the characters before venturing into the unknown. It is capable of being quiet and ruminative one minute, loud and tension-filled the next. From the beginning right to the very end, it presents viewers with possibilities.

Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher play Damon and Cee, father-daughter duo who land on Green Moon with hopes of striking it rich. The plan is to excavate gems referred to as “aurelac” which grow inside subterranean roots. Damon is made aware of a place where large deposits of these roots can be found. The larger the roots, the larger the gem. Thus, the larger the payload. But the moon, covered in trees, is filled with danger, from the toxic air to other humans who wish to swim in riches. Not to mention that time is of the essence. Should Damon and Cee miss the small window of returning to the main ship, they would be stranded on the moon indefinitely. It is an exciting debut, understated but curious nearly every step of the way.

The story’s structure likens that of a standard western: there is a place the characters must get to and obtain something valuable which could change the course of their lives. Naturally, things do not quite go according to plan. Unexpected partnerships form, strange groups are introduced, there is betrayal, natural elements prove unforgiving. We meet Cee as a teenage dreamer. She does not seem all that passionate about her father’s line of work. But the camera moves with purpose. Fixating on her eyes, we realize she’s a sharp observer, certainly a quick-learner. But she is more enthused about writing on her notebook—strange symbols that bear minimal resemblance to the English alphabet.

By the end of the story, Cee remains to be dreamer but her growth is readily apparent. We look forward to discovering what’s next for her but we are met with end credits. We feel in our gut that the story is complete, but we crave to know more. And what of the man named Ezra (Pedro Pascal), a rival prospector that Cee is forced to work with and trust? He, too, undergoes some growth, especially in how he sees the naive girl who is reluctant to kill but capable when absolutely necessary. There’s an interesting dynamic between the two; I enjoyed that how they get to know one another is not reliant on words. Their actions are far more telling. I admired that their relationship does not go down the expected father figure or big brother route.

I was mesmerized by the the Green Moon’s environment. Verdant trees and shrubs go as far as the eye can see. Bizarre pollen or dust fill the air. It is poisonous and so humans are required to wear a suit with a filter. When the suit is ruptured, it is pretty much game over. Better avoid sharp branches. I wished, however, that more living organisms were introduced. They need not be humanoid or sizable. For a moon that appears to be covered with life (it has water), I expected more oddities. But perhaps life on this moon is in its early stages.

I also appreciated its lived-in, lo-fi look and feel. Transport pods, computer dashboards, and controls do not look white and shiny. They look as though they’ve been used for decades. (They certainly sound as if they’re on the verge of decrepitude.) Such artistic decisions create an impression that this future is one that lacks opportunities for the working class. It suggests why Damon and Cee are willing to risk their lives in an alien place with the possibility of being stranded. And, yes, we meet a group that had been living on that moon… and see what they’ve become.


Cam (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The psychological horror “Cam,” written by Isa Mazzei and inspired by her own experiences as a cam-girl, offers a handful of interesting ideas: being a live sex worker on the internet, voyeurism, personal versus private lives, how we measure our value based on social media approval, and how the next sensation is waiting just around the corner. It offers a curious premise, a watchable lead performance, and is suspenseful at times. However, precisely because it offers a wealth of ideas, it is expected that these—at least some of them—will be explored in meaningful or thoughtful ways. On this level, the picture does not deliver. Its throwaway ending is especially disappointing.

Madeline Brewer plays Alice, a woman who makes a living named “Lola” as a cam-girl on FreeGirls.Live. Right from its opening scene we are given a chance to appreciate Alice’s line of work. The chat may be full of men (and women) who are hungry to see Lola take off her clothes, tease, and engage in a range of sexual activities—accompanied by donations—but the picture always cuts to Alice hamming it up for her viewers in her dark and lonely room. I enjoyed how when Lola is on screen, there is an untouchable glamour to her. We understand why she has a number of loyal fans: she engages their fantasy using her eyes. Yet when we look at Alice away from the screen, she feels like ordinary young woman underneath all the heavy makeup. This duality drew me into the film almost immediately, way before the central conflict is revealed.

The premise revolves around Alice’s discovery that a woman who looks exactly like her (also played by Brewer) has taken over her channel. In a single swoop, Alice has lost her fans, money, and reputation. We get the expected harried phone call to the website in question, but after her problem goes unsolved by tech support, the film reaches a plateau. Instead, we shift to Alice’s home life, specifically her mother (Melora Walters) and brother (Devin Druid) discovering the nature of her work. It wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if this subplot actually had a point or offered emotional rewards during the last act. Instead, we never see Alice’s family come to terms with her occupation in a genuine or satisfying way.

Clever and penetrating investigatory sequences should have been front and center from the moment Alice discovers that someone else is pretending to be her. It is paramount that we experience her increasing desperation all the way to the finish line. The family drama hinders this work from becoming great. While we observe Alice perform research and take big steps to reclaim her identity eventually, it comes across as though this is done only because the story must soon be wrapped up. It lacks flow. I wanted to see Alice’s resourcefulness, her creativity, her level of self-reliance when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This story could have been told in one hour. It is not the most efficient thriller.

More specific information about how the double is made and how it works might have elevated the film. The screenplay glosses over this idea as if it is afraid to touch the realm of science-fiction. But the problem is, this detail is precisely what viewers will be most curious about. Who cares if the explanation is bizarre or out of left field as long as genuine effort is made to break down every step to the point where we can buy into the phenomenon? For a movie about an online sex worker, I was repelled a bit by its unwillingness to take risks that matter.

The Bridge Curse

The Bridge Curse (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Sigh. A movie like “The Bridge Curse” is not even worth a few keystrokes. It goes to show that mediocrity in the horror genre can be encountered across continents. Although this film is from Taiwan, it possesses the blandness American terror flicks in which the found footage style is employed without any regard on how to use it effectively to tell a specific story. In the end, we are forced to follow a group of cardboard cutouts who run around screaming due to the slightest strange noise from the bushes and falling at the most inopportune times. Are you bored yet?

But this is no slasher flick. It is a ghost story… involving a woman with long black hair wearing a white gown. Her name is not Samara or Sadako. But it might as well be because they look nearly identical. The supposedly scary figure here is so nondescript that she isn’t even given a name. We learn close to nothing about her background. Only rumors about the circumstances of her death. So why should we be scared of her exactly? Writers Keng-Ming Chang and Po-Hsiang Hao fail to provide the antagonist an intriguing mythos. More effort is put into what happens when a person enters a dark room. Cue the expected jump scares.

The basic plot is this: Four years prior, university students died following a “courage test” gone wrong. According to urban legend, the so-called Female Ghost Bridge is such a hotspot for paranormal activity that the thirteen steps located right alongside the lake becomes fourteen at the stroke of midnight. Should a person find himself or herself turning around for whatever reason while on the fourteenth step, he or she would be cursed. The students who died (J.C. Lin, Chang Ning, Vera Yen, Joe Hsieh)—all ruled suicide via drowning… even though most of the corpses were found nowhere near a body of water—committed exactly what they were warned not to do. A news reporter (Summer Meng) decides to investigate further.

And so we follow two timelines: the students who will not make it through the night and the reporter who suspects details might have been overlooked. The problem with the former is that since we already know the fates of the characters, it is critical that their experiences be so pregnant with tension that at times we forget they’re already doomed. But the exact opposite happens. Because they are written to be dumb, there are constant reminders of their fate. Worse, their deaths are so lacking in energy and creativity that each one simply drags.

The reporter angle is no better. We spend so little time with her that we never get a sense of her personality. Sure, she takes it upon herself to look into the strange “suicides.” Other than to get to the truth or further her career, what is it about this case that attracts her, compels her to dive deeper and deeper? There is no specificity. In Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” for example, the reporter dives into the case because it is her job but that motivation evolves when the curse finds its way to her son’s life. That is a character worth following because she eventually fights for something bigger than herself. In this film, there is none of the beautiful, tragic, or poetic details.

Expository and redundant, “The Bridge Curse” fails to do anything special that allows it to stand out as a supernatural horror. Its approach is to recycle the same old templates from better films that made their marks, including the clichés, with minimal energy. It is content in showing characters being scared without actually scaring the audience. What is the point of it?

Vampires vs. the Bronx

Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gentrification is vampirism appears to be the message in “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” a family-friendly horror-comedy that could have used a handful more scares to become memorable. It proves capable of milking key moments, like when a wooden coffin is opened and a sleeping bloodsucker suddenly wakes, how cameras and mirrors cannot capture their image, when their white faces turn thick and rubbery right before they go for the kill. These elements are not new, but they are executed rather well. But in terms of delivering consistent thrills, it is an area of improvement. When you’ve got nothing new to offer, make sure viewers overlook it.

Miguel (Jaden Michael), Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III), and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) are best friends who discover that vampires are surreptitiously taking over their neighborhood. They are written as affable, level-headed teenagers who grew up in a diverse, working-class community; immediately we see how important The Bronx is to them not through their words but actions. For instance, they notice local businesses being bought and closed down as of late. They make their stand by trying to raise enough funds so that Tony’s bodega (Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez)—a convenience store that welcomed them to hang out inside rather than outside where they might get into trouble with gangs and drug dealers—might avoid meeting the same fate.

The screenplay by Oz Rodriguez (who directs) and Blaise Hemingway is efficient in establishing a sense of place and community. The Bronx is a melting pot of food, cultures, ethnicities, languages. We feel the strength and tightness of this community. But it is not without dangers. Bobby, for instance, is being recruited by a known drug dealer (Jeremie Harris) to join his crew. Curiously, Bobby considers enlisting despite knowing that his father was killed precisely because he was involved in selling drugs. Clearly, the creatures of the night are not the only antagonists here. I enjoyed that at one point, however brief, vampires and drug dealers end up working together. Because, in a way, their endgame is the same: to suck the life of a community, to kill its potential, its future.

But this isn’t to suggest that the material takes a heavy-handed approach. No, not even when it appears that the boys lack father figures at home or that every white person we encounter is suspicious at the very least. For the most part, the mood is light, the pacing breezes by, and there is constant forward momentum. Even when vampire basics are introduced (what they are, the rules they must follow, what slows them down, what kills them), it never feels laborious. There is an effortlessness that’s quite refreshing. There isn’t a whiff of forced dialogue.

There is room for creative scares. For instance, the vampire in charge seems to have unlimited funds and can purchase entire buildings at a drop of a hat. That rule about the bloodsuckers having to be invited in is thrown out the window when they actually own the apartment complex. Although this idea is introduced, it’s disappointing that nothing is actually done to execute it. It’s the perfect setup for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Another idea: Have the cops—or one cop—actually do something. There is a joke or two about them being useless in a neighborhood like The Bronx. Why not add dimension to the joke or perhaps even upend it? Surely these ideas are not too complex or too scary, even for a horror-comedy intended for the whole family.

Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the chases, ciphers to be deciphered, a missing persons case, a murder plot, and political chess maneuverings, Harry Bradbeer’s “Enola Holmes” is astute enough to remain tethered to an emotional core: a child’s feelings of abandonment when her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to leave their home one day without any warning. Although the titular character knows she is loved by her surviving parent, there remains doubt she is wanted. Because the story possesses an emotional crux, it requires minimal effort to be drawn to it. Notice how the adventures that tyro detective Enola Holmes manages to get herself into tend to stem from her need to prove she is good enough—that she is at least equal to her elder brothers, Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) the government official and Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) the acclaimed private detective.

Millie Bobby Brown is an excellent choice to play the vivacious Enola. Possessing a high level of luminosity and charm, she portrays the young detective as plucky, intelligent, resourceful, and quite resolute. When she breaks the forth wall to address the audience—whether it be through a sarcastic look or using a string of words—it feels natural, that this is the exact shenanigan we expect for this character to pull off. Not even the screen can box her in. I enjoyed Brown’s performance so thoroughly, I was left feeling hungry for more Enola Holmes stories. The work’s darker turns toward the latter half—albeit evanescent—hint at what the filmmakers have yet to offer. It’s quite exciting.

“Is the central mystery strong?” is a question I make a habit to ask myself in a movie of this type. The answer is no—but I think it is interesting that it doesn’t have to be. At least not yet. It’s curious but nothing particular compelling. A case can be made that this film’s purpose is to introduce another type of Holmes, one who we are not as accustomed to. Like her famous brother, Enola has the talent for spotting clues, putting them together, and recognizing how they relate to the main question to be solved. But unlike Sherlock, Enola is quicker to employ martial arts when facing danger.

The picture possesses feminist leanings, sure, but I appreciated that when it comes to the character, the material is not so heavy-handed. (A subplot involving a Reform Bill that must be voted on is painfully vague—which I consider to be a misstep because the approach sucks the flavor out of what Enola’s mother is fighting for.) There is a joviality to folks—often men—lowering their defenses precisely because Enola is a young girl (not even a woman) in their eyes. There is a running joke involving our heroine offering to swap—for a price—her traditionally female garments for traditionally male clothing so that she is able to blend in or taken more seriously when necessary. Her gender is used to show a different angle to the overall Holmes brand. It is done is a fun, funny, and fresh way—never to lecture or chastise.

Even the romantic subplot is handled with a fine touch. I am especially tough with movie romances because a lot of them are so fake, they border on caricature. Not here. Brown shares wonderful chemistry with Louis Partridge who plays a young viscount who runs away from home. Enola takes the privileged boy for an idiot at first, but Jack Thorne’s screenplay proves to be a step ahead. Viscount Tewkesbury is revealed to have quite a bit more substance to him. And this neatly ties into the idea of appearances: Enola judges without knowing him, just as the world judges without learning first what she’s all about. In the end, we recognize precisely what they see, like, and love in one another. We actually root for them to remain together should there be a sequel.

The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”

Religion is like medicine. For some, it is taken like vitamins: as maintenance, a way to keep impure thoughts and sins at bay. It is a guide, a way of living, perhaps even serving as inspiration to become a better person. For others, however, it becomes an addiction; like cancer, it takes over the whole being. It kills you from the inside, slowly but surely. You live and die by the rules of the Bible. The addiction becomes so overwhelming, it may seep out of you and take others along for the ride. In “The Devil All the Time,” the subjects are taken for a ride.

The work is based upon the novel by Donald Ray Pollock and we follow almost a dozen characters who have been touched by religion in some way. We watch how belief in God, the importance of prayer, and keeping faith get passed down, like DNA, from one generation to another… and as people move across states from Ohio to West Virginia—then back again. On paper, it is a fascinating story of people simply living their lives and dealing with the cards they’re dealt with. It is survive or perish out there. But as a film, it is dramatically inert. Notice that halfway through the picture it remains so busy in laying out foundations as why we should care for the individuals being paraded on screen that it forgets to answer the question, “So what?”

A boy named Arvin Russell (played by Michael Banks as a nine-year-old in 1957 and Tom Holland as a teenager in 1965) is the fulcrum of this ambitious tale. His father (Bill Skarsgård) is a U.S. Marine veteran who served in World War II. In Japan, Willard witnessed a bloodied marine hanging from a cross as thousands of flies eat him alive. Willard shoots the man dead as an act of mercy. But something inside Willard died along with that marine. We follow him as a single man, a husband (the wife played by Haley Bennett—a real presence) and later as a father who feels as though he is just hanging on by a thread. Skarsgård convincingly carries the man’s mental heaviness in the eyes, his body, his entire being.

There is a memorable sequence in which Willard teaches young Arvin how to stand up for himself (he is bullied in school)—and the ones he loves. Violence sometimes being the answer is a lesson that Arvin chooses to carry with him. I appreciated how in some scenes, whether it be through lighting, framing of a face, or movement of the camera, looking at the increasingly desperate young man is like laying eyes once again on the tormented father.

But the supporting characters are not given the amount of time and depth as they should have if the story were to be complete. We meet the likes of Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough, Jason Clarke) who murder hitchhikers (and take pictures for souvenirs), Preston the tyro preacher (Robert Pattinson) who is a walking hypocrite to a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan) who values his reputation above all. But they remain just that: figures that Arvin the good guy must come across eventually.

But why must he come across them? Does each encounter unveil something new about Arvin? Does it awaken or solve past traumas? Will these experiences shape the man he will become? In addition, as corpses pile up, I found myself feeling apathetic. “Well, there she goes,” I caught myself thinking at some point, instead of feeling specific and powerful emotions due to the fact that a person’s journey has been cut short, the rest of her life un-lived.

Antonio Campos directs the film in an unhurried manner, conscious about providing event and character details that will prove to be crucial later on. He also has a grasp of how poor people live, how it is like to be inside their homes, the clothes they wear, their occupations, the kinds of food they serve. There is without question that the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paulo Campos) cares about telling a human story with all the complexities that come with it. But he is not successful in mining the drama once all the pieces are in place to deliver knockout blows. It fails to show why this specific story is worth telling.

“The Devil All the Time” might have been better off as a two- or three-part miniseries. It certainly would have allowed more time for details about the supporting characters to be fully ironed out. And so when the inevitable crossing of paths occur, we’d have a better appreciation of every single moving part. But at its current state, it is unrealized potential, a disappointment.


1BR (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gated communities are meant to keep people out. In “1BR,” written and directed by David Marmor, they’re designed to keep people in. Executed with a specific vision and a whole lot of patience, the picture does not waste any time in making viewers feel off-balance. From the moment Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) enters the Asilo Del Mar apartment complex for an open house, there is a creepiness to the community that’s bubbling just beneath the surface. Residents are too smiley, too friendly, too accommodating—to the point where it almost feels staged, a charade. Bloom is terrific as a lonely young woman who has run away from a painful past, which involves her mother’s passing from cancer, to try and make it in Los Angeles as a designer despite a lack of support from her father. There is a translucent quality to her face; when Sarah comes up with a specific thought or feels a certain emotion, it is right there for us to absorb. We sympathize with Sarah’s yearning to connect and be accepted. (Her only friend is her cat named Gyles.) Bloom is someone to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, the picture comes alive about a third of the way through—almost thirty minutes in—when it is revealed to us what’s really going on in the heavenly Asilo Del Mar. As our heroine is subjected to brutality and humiliation, we become increasingly angry for her and wish for her to fight back. But how can she when being a pushover is Sarah’s nature? Although the work tackles the dangers of group-think and conformity on a superficial manner, it is consistently entertaining. This is a solid debut film. I look forward to what Marmor will come up with next because I feel he has even more twisted stories up his sleeves.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen

The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)
★ / ★★★★

If I could describe “The Babysitter: Killer Queen” in one word, it would be “interminable.” It is the very definition of a lazy sequel to a well-intentioned but middle-of-the-road horror-comedy which accomplished only one thing: It is made abundantly clear that Samara Weaving and Judah Lewis—babysitter and child, respectively—are stars. Since then, the former has had a breakthrough, but the latter has not. Every second of this follow-up, directed by McG, is a sobering reminder that Weaving and Lewis deserve far stronger material that is equal to their talent. Look closely and notice how it feels as though everyone in the film—veterans and relative newcomers alike—either looks or sounds half-asleep because the screenplay is not only dead, it stinks of putrefaction.

The story picks up two years following Cole’s encounter (Lewis) with a satanic cult. No one believes the boy’s claims due to lack of physical evidence from the crime scene. And so, Cole, now a junior in high school, is put on multiple heavy medications in order to get his “delusions” under control. His parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb—in demeaning roles that require them to divide their individual IQ by 3) do not know what else to do given their son won’t admit that he made “all the cult stuff” up. They wish to send him to a school for troubled teens. Maybe that’ll fix him.

This could have been a powerful jumping off point for the story, an excellent chance to critique 1) how modern American teenagers are overly medicated and 2) how parents, usually from privileged backgrounds, crave easy fixes for their children. Instead, the material busies itself with hyperbolic—at times downright cartoonish—representations of American high school life: bullying from peers, blissfully unaware adults, how teenagers nowadays just want to get away from their parents and party. Are you asleep yet?

It is all supposed to be comic—hip because pop culture references are thrown onto our laps nearly every other scene—but the experience is actually empty because there is a deficiency of honesty to the material. Here we have Lewis who has the gift of being able to modulate minute facial expressions (observe closely during the rare dramatic scenes as Lewis relaxes his face, how he allows us to read precisely what Cole is feeling and thinking at the time) and he is forced into a character who did not grow emotionally or psychologically from his traumatic experiences in the predecessor. Why should we root for him this time? Yes, a new reason is required. It is not enough that his life is in danger. What about it?

I blame writers McG, Dan Lagana, Brad Morris, and Jimmy Warden for not understanding and loving teenagers—and for not wanting to understand and love them. What they understand and love is the money, the budget, the funds to make just another forgettable movie to pad their resumes. If they really did care, even if the end product turned out badly, we would have sensed even a whiff of it. I felt nothing from these filmmakers other than greed and pessimism.

And so we go through the motions of watching Cole and Phoebe (Jenna Ortega), the transfer student and eventual romantic interest, kill new and returning satanic cult members one by one (Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Andrew Bachelor, Hana Mae Lee). It usually ends with someone getting decapitated, run over, or maimed. Cue the painfully fake-looking blood and chunks gushing out of orifices. CGI and the like. Fake explosions. It is all so tiring. How many times must we be subjected to the same formula with the same outcome? How is this entertainment? What does McG want the viewers to take away from all of this? Other than to eradicate our brain cells, what is the point of this movie?

“The Babysitter: Killer Queen” is made by people who do not care if you throw away an hour and forty minutes of your life. They take you for an idiot because they expect you to be entertained by delivering material that belongs not at the bottom of the barrel nor directly underneath said barrel—but several yards deep into the Earth. This sort of passionless, flavorless, by-the-numbers dirge should not make it onto any film. It is an insult to sit through a project that lacks intellectual curiosity, the desire to show audience genuine humanity, the willingness to come from a specific angle and offer comments or critiques about where we are as a society. Film is not just a medium. It must be used—to show where we are (or were) and where we must go.

Effective movies within the horror and comedy genres are pointed—so pointed at times that they have the power to incite conversation. The filmmakers involved here possess no understanding or appreciation of this fact. And so this trash is a result. No one should be surprised.


#Alive (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The title points to the possibility that this undead picture will explore the role of social media following a rapid spread of a virus infection, but screenwriters Cho Il-hyung (who directs) and Matt Naylor set this curious angle aside in favor of typical isolation humdrum that we’ve seen countless of times before in American and international films alike, from the experimental indie to the mainstream variety. What results is a likable but disappointing traipse through the familiar instead of a daring foray into new horizons. There is nothing special to see here.

The opening sequences show promise. We meet a young man, possibly in his early- to mid-twenties, named Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in) who is supposed to be the stereotypical male Zoomer (Generation Z—zombies, get it?)—obsessed with video games, very much in tune with technology and social media, whose alarm goes off at 10 o’clock in the morning. We observe Joon-woo as he learns about his new reality, from news on television to YouTube videos. So far, so good. But in zombie apocalypse films there is a certainty: internet will go down, news will go off air, cell phones will be of little use. This is the point in which the writers ought to have exercised their wildest imagination. They do not rise to the task.

Instead, we go through the usual (but necessary) motions of the character running low on essentials like food and water. (But there is plenty of spirits in the liquor cabinet.) Eventually, our protagonist begins to feel lonely in his high-rise apartment considering that his parents and sister have not returned for days—likely to be dead due to an ominous voicemail. These standard trappings are almost boring—but nearly every moment is elevated by the highly expressive Yoo. There is an air of effortlessness about him; he has a prodigious talent for finding just the right rhythm and conjure entertainment out of ennui, humor, and desperation. In the middle of his one-man performance, which lasts until about the forty-minute mark, I became convinced he should be cast in major Hollywood productions—especially in smart romantic comedies.

A major plot point is his interactions with a neighbor who lives across the building. Her name is Shin-hye (Kim Yoo-bin) and she no typical damsel-in-distress. I enjoyed that Kim portrays Shin-hye with a certain toughness but one that is never off-putting. We get the impression that, in terms of survival, Joon-woo needs Shin-hye more than the other way around. When these characters are apart—with zombies waiting below—there is a slight tonal shift from survival horror to an unlikely romance—curious but it has nothing at all to do with the picture’s thesis regarding the role of social media while self-isolating in the face of a pandemic.

Zombie cosmetics are nothing memorable. I’ve seen better makeup work from the early seasons of Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.” However, there are a few inspired moments. For instance, the undead are able to remember things they knew how to do when they were alive like opening doors. They are sensitive to noises so anything above a certain decibel triggers them to run like hell to the source of the sound. Perhaps the best is a terrifying scene involving a fireman who remembers how to climb. I wish there had been more of these genuine thrills in order to make up for its thematic shortcomings. By all means, distract us by using adrenaline-fueled encounters and creative kills. Many who sign up for zombie movies want to be scared. Social commentary done well is icing on the cake.

“#Alive” is as limp as a zombie that hasn’t had its pound of flesh for weeks. While I found some enjoyment out of it, mainly due to the performance by the lead actor, most of what’s at offer is neither fresh nor inspired. There are countless zombie flicks out there. Here, the filmmakers underachieve on two fronts: a) to make their work stand out and b) inject enough inspiration so that it stands the test of time despite the familiar trappings. Like so many other films, including the ones outside the undead sub-genre, those shaping the picture have failed to ask themselves what makes this story worth telling—and sitting through.

Seventh Son

Seventh Son (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

If one signs up only for the scenery then “Seventh Son,” loosely based upon Joseph Delaney’s novel “The Spook’s Apprentice,” receives a most enthusiastic recommendation. It offers eye-catching vistas of verdant meadows, ominous forests, tranquil lakeside homes, perilous cliffs, a cloister hidden in the mountains, a walled but lively city burned to the ground. But outside the handful of terrific visuals, the story is a bore for the most part. It is correct for the plot to be straightforward: Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the last knight of his kind, is on a mission to end the life of a witch, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), who killed his apprentice of ten years (Kit Harrington). The journey toward the destination, however, is problematic: it is riddled with pesky asides, like a romance between Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), the new apprentice, and Alice (Alicia Vikander), a half-witch whose mother is loyal to Mother Malkin. I found most of the action sequences to be somewhat exciting and well-choreographed. But nearly every time the action dies down and the two lovebirds must exchange words and make physical contact, the movie screeches to a halt. It isn’t that Barnes and Vikander do not share chemistry. A looming apocalypse is simply far bigger than whether or not they’ll end up together. Perhaps a more crucial shortcoming: We never get a chance to appreciate the apprenticeship, what it entails outside wielding weapons and learning concoctions. As a result, the picture is like store-bought soup: if not without flavor, it is missing a memorable personality, spices that make the dish pop or taste special. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight. Directed by Sergei Bodrov.