Tag: netflix

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.


Furie (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Furie” attempts to generate superficial entertainment by throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. It wishes to tell a story surrounding a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter from organ traffickers while combining elements of martial arts, gangster picture, and family drama into the mix. It is an interesting experiment—colorful but isn’t always effective. The core is the bond between Hai (Veronica Neo), the mother, and Mai (Mai Cat Vi), the child, but notice how their interactions are almost always reductive and saccharine—the charade is borderline soap opera. I never believed that the ten-year-old was raised by a woman who hailed from a rough background in Saigon who then moved to a remote village to escape her sordid past. Mai is too sweet, innocent, and weak—embarrassed that her mother collects debt in order to provide for their two-person family. I felt as though the child is present only because the plot demands for someone important to be taken from our heroine which would then trigger action sequences. The choreography of martial arts scenes get the job done but when compared to the greats, it is nothing special. I felt the stunts liken that of a dance—there is a lightness to them—rather than a painful means to extract the necessary information in order for Hai to get that much closer to rescue Mai. Even the material’s approach in tackling the concept of extracting organs from children lacks viciousness. I sensed that perhaps the screenplay by Kay Nguyen is not interested in bathing in the underworld so long as the work is within five feet from it, just enough to detect its stench. This is a lazy approach; details define a story. A lack of daring prevents this film from becoming memorable entertainment. Directed by Le Van Kiet.

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The stupidity and lack of attention to detail in “We Summon the Darkness” are on full display in one scene. If you have eyes, it is impossible to overlook. In the kitchen, members of a religious cult attempt to smoke out their victims who are hiding in the pantry where light can be seen from under the door. Inside the pantry, we see a young man with a deep cut on his arm bleeding to death while leaning against the door in order to prevent cultists from getting in. A pool of blood collects where he sits. Back to the kitchen: no blood—not even a hint of it—is seeping through from the other side. Not a figure or a shadow can be seen desperately moving about. Eventually the frightened hunted use rags to seal the crevice. Still, light from under the door flows uninterrupted. It is clear that this sequence needed to be reshot and yet director Marc Meyers submitted a work so substandard, it is actually insulting. I’ve seen student films with significantly less budget that are executed and put together better than this scene.

You know when a movie tries so hard to hide its twist that it becomes glaringly obvious what that is mere ten minutes into the picture? Such is the case here. If you have an IQ above 50, it will come to no surprise that Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth) have a strong connection to the recent killings being covered on the news. Screenwriter Alan Trezza puts all his chips on this so-called left turn that the exposition ends up dragging on for nearly half the picture. It is brazen. But it is also interminable. These young women have nothing interesting to do or say—nor do their prey: three friends, formerly in a band together, attending a heavy metal concert (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, Austin Swift). Set in 1988, exchanges lean on naming heavy metal bands. If I wanted a list, I’d go on Wikipedia.

And so slashing and killings begin. With the exception of one kill involving fire, the rest is standard violence and gore. Even during its darkly comic moments, I never cracked a single smile or smirk. I did, however, catch my eyes rolling twice or thrice. I asked, “Why are these characters making the worst decisions?” and “Why do they trip so often?” about five times. Each. Its faux edge can be recognized by even the most near-sighted. There is nothing surprising or creative in terms of chases and (finally) going for the jugular. Naturally, a gun must be employed and—surprise, surprise—characters claw and scratch at one another as it is thrown across the room. At this point, there is about thirty minutes yet to be endured.

The material wishes to comment upon religious zealotry. Here, the villains—followers of God—are convinced they must kill and make it look as though satanic cults are responsible. By instilling fear, amplified by the media, the unconverted will feel the need to follow God. (The story takes place in rural Indiana.) On paper, it may sound appealing, but I didn’t find this satiric angle to be fresh in terms of execution. I think it is because the filmmakers fail to balance horror, thriller, and dark comedy so that the elements work in synergy. This is a classic example of how hard it really is to make an effective satire. Sure, there is a message—an obvious one but it’s there. But does it provide insight? The answer is no. Yes, there is a difference.

Performances are all right. Of note, however, are Daddario, who takes on a role that’s different for her, and Johnson, who possesses an interesting face and a gentleness that makes you want to get to know what his character is all about. I liked that Daddario’s Alexis is so over-the-top while Johnson’s Mark is more relaxed. Yet both are equal in energy. I felt as though their take on their characters are just right for the material. But the rest of the work is a miscalculation, a drivel, a death march to the finish line.

Project Power

Project Power (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Project Power” is “X-Men”-lite without the interesting mythology and biting social commentary. Written by Mattson Tomlin, it appears to be content in just being an action flick with some sci-fi leanings and a few corny jokes peppered along the way. While there is nothing with such an approach, there is a nagging problem: The elements it does offer seem to function at only half potential. What results is a watchable but entirely unmemorable project that by the end imaginative viewers are forced to consider possibilities had more creative, ambitious, and experienced filmmakers were at the helm. The premise is so fun, it can ignite a film franchise or television series.

The secret project involves a pill that grants superhuman powers for five minutes. In mere six weeks, this drug has completely overtaken New Orleans—so much so that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have had much trouble taking down criminals who have access to it. The catch: the person who consumes the pill has no idea what type of power he or she will exhibit. And because the drug is unstable, some who take it will explode. This role of chance is a masterstroke and it is a shame the screenplay fails to capitalize on it.

At least the three central protagonists have personality. While Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn up the charm to expected levels—the former having been the original test subject of the project who is now on a mission to rescue his daughter (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from the villainous Dr. Gardner and the latter an NOPD cop who chooses to consume the drug in order to even out the playing field when dealing with beefed up baddies—it is Dominique Fishback who shines as Robin, a drug dealer who aspires to become a rap artist. I enjoyed moments when the picture simply sits back and allows Robin to spit out killer rhymes. It’s clear that Robin has the talent for it and so we wonder how her future might be like should she take the opportunity to leave drug dealing behind, graduate high school, and focus at who and what’s important in her life.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the picture is its aversion to human drama. For instance, Robin’s mother suffers from diabetes and so money is always an issue because they have no health insurance. But what about the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of a family dealing with this chronic illness? Another example: We never get to see Frank (Gordon-Levitt) interact with his fellow cops in the force. We get one exchange between Frank and his captain (Courtney B. Vance), but the setup and twist are entirely expected. Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is reduced to having flashbacks of his daughter being taken from him. Clearly, more attention is put into how to make special and visual effects look cool.

Having said that, I enjoyed the CGI for the most part. The more ostentatious ones, like when a man’s entire body is ablaze and everything he touches is reduced to cinders, are certainly eye-catching, but those that impressed me most are a bit more restrained. A standout includes Frank facing off with a man with elastic limbs and they are required to battle it out in a tight space. Due to the enemy’s bizarre (and amusing) ability in addition to having such a limited room to move around, we are that much more drawn into the action. I wished, however, that the leader of the project, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who works for private defense contractor Teleois, had been given more things to do outside of looking menacing and giving orders. Therein is a classic case of henchmen outshining their superior.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” delivers C+ entertainment when it is apparent the template is capable of delivering at higher levels. One angle worth exploring: Teleois targets residents of New Orleans, in which the black population is close to 60% according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, as test subjects for the Power drug before it goes national. There are overwhelming evidence throughout history that people of color were more often used as guinea pigs since black and brown lives were considered to be more dispensable than whites lives (Tuskegee experiments, Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Project 4.1, among others). So why not acknowledge and shape a universe based upon this fact (or other well-documented, real-life issues or events) so the story commands real punch behind it? Why not strive for more?


Drive (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The carefully calibrated “Drive,” based on James Sallis’ novel, is not dissimilar to pulse-pounding thrillers like the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.,” Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia,” and the Wachowskis’ “Bound.” These four films not only start off slowly, their premises promise rather standard fares. About halfway through, however, their curious stories start to take shape and their true forms are revealed. The protagonists are people who have their backs against the wall. They must survive or perish. What makes these stories compelling is not the template but the manner in which they are told. A case can be made that “Drive” is a mood piece above all.

This approach is almost necessary considering that our protagonist is mostly silent. He has three part-time jobs: a mechanic, a Hollywood stuntman, and a getaway driver. He is given no name. (I will refer to him as The Driver henceforth.) He values his solitude. He minds his own business. Strictly professional. Cold. Impersonal. When asked questions, answers can be found in his eyes or his body language. On the occasion he does speak, he gets to the point. Less than ten words with real intention behind each one. I cannot image anyone else playing The Driver other than Ryan Gosling. He will be remembered for this role.

An expected plot device: The Driver is shown to be capable of caring for others. Specifically, he grows attached to his neighbors: a waitress (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). His relationship with Irene and Benicio is handled with genuine humanity and a real sense of style. For example, typical lines of dialogue, which is a potential minefield of clichés, are muted. Instead, a synth-heavy soundtrack is placed over the action—robotic and repetitive on the surface but listen closely: lyrics are filled with sadness and longing. They find a connection precisely because of their loneliness. Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. It is expected, too, that he will be released just when The Driver and Irene begin to consider taking what they have a bit further. Clearly, tension is not always reliant upon car chases.

Car chases demand that we hold our breaths. It is not interested in good guys and bad guys shooting guns at each other. No, emphasis is placed on stealth as The Driver attempts to get his clients (often thieves) to safety within five minutes after leaving the scene of the crime. Notice that in these scenes, we are locked in the car with our protagonist. No score, no soundtrack. We hear breathing, gasps, tires rubbing against the pavement. It gets so silent and so still at times, we feel our chests pounding from anticipation. Eyes wide open. The work offers a first-rate experience. It requires skill, great timing, a real eye for action and reaction.

By the end of the movie, more than half a dozen people are dead and there is blood money. I’m not interested in introducing the players, but know this: they are played by terrific character actors like Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. They know how to command a scene simply by standing in one spot and giving a look. There is wonderful chemistry among all the performers. I felt as though everyone had signed up for the film because they believed in it, that they actually wanted to be there and do the best job possible. It shows.

“Drive” is an ensemble piece. The chess pieces are moved into place in a way that is logical, exciting, and thrilling. Viewers might remember it for the violence—they are brutal, in-your-face, and real bloody. However, notice that these scenes often have a point. They are never gratuitous or glamorized; it shows, for instance, that a hammer to the hand is especially painful, that kicking one’s face in is ugly and gross, that one car crashing against one another is loud and disturbing. In this story, violence is a means of survival.

The Old Guard

The Old Guard (2020)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that involves immortal mercenaries, it is incredibly frustrating that “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novels and screenplay by Greg Rucka, only takes off during the final act. The majority of the picture is a dirge: philosophical musings galore about what it means to live forever, having to endure seeing loved ones get old and die, the lack of purpose outside of their identity as a unit, questioning when their lives would end—if ever. When the action dies down, the work is a potent sleeping pill; why isn’t it any more fun?

The answer lies in a screenplay that never stops beginning. We meet the original four mercenaries: Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). We observe them perform a job, particularly at how effective they are in what they do. For them, to shoot a man dead is like exhaling—it is second nature. But before we get to know each individual, a new immortal emerges. She is named Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. Marine who “died” after getting her throat slit during a mission. The movie then becomes a montage of showing the ropes. Cue the Andy the leader bonding with the new recruit. Of course there must be a hand-to-hand combat between them. In a plane, no less. Just to show who’s boss. Guess who wins?

For the most part, I couldn’t help but feel bored during the first half because it feels too much like an origin story. Potentially interesting characters are at play but they are saddled with repetitive dialogue which lacks both dimension and conviction. Notice how the lines uttered tend to describe thoughts and feelings instead of simply showing us. A work being an action film does not justify a reductive approach. As a result, the film fails to become a thoroughly enveloping experience, a project that feels special, different, or unique every step of the way.

If these aren’t enough to test the patience, the picture is also saddled with flashbacks. While the content of the flashbacks is curious at times—far more intriguing than the five mercenaries sitting around waiting to be captured by men who work for a pharmaceutical company, led by the archetypically evil scientist Merrick (Harry Melling) whose goal is to make billions and prolong human lives… in that order—these are mere asides. Images of centuries past are so eye-catching, at one point I wished that the story, for instance, focused on Andy, her partner Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), and their adventures together. Rescuing women who have been accused of being witches in Salem is far more interesting than mopey immortals in modern times.

Like the dialogue, action scenes are painfully standard. The highly stylized choreography did nothing for me because I felt like I had seen them all before–quick cuts, long takes, sounds of bones being crushed. It works in the “John Wick” sequels because its universe, plot, and main character function on a high level. Here, the energy feels flat. It doesn’t inspire the viewers to want to lean closer to the screen and absorb all that’s happening.

“The Old Guard” is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it might as well have been directed by an A.I. that had been fed with the most wan and generic action movies. I felt no purpose in this, no passion, no deep thought or even a modicum of originality. It’s just junk food—not even the tasty kind but one that’s flavorless, leaving a chalky taste in the mouth. It promises a sequel, but the foundation is off to such a rocky start that not one element manages to gain a strong footing. Its frothy decorations are not entertainment but an insult to the intelligence.

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The kind of movies I look for are the ones that inspire my being to pause somewhere amidst the curious happenings and force me to think, “Spielberg made this,” “Tarantino made this,” or “Herzog made this.” In the middle of this purposeful, angry, at times moving and educational picture, I couldn’t help but think, “Spike Lee was the only person who could have made this” because the work possesses so much flavor and personality, the experience leaps out of the screen to slap us and shake us; it is alive, humorous, tragic, ironic, and timely.

It goes beyond politics. There are jabs against Donald Trump, his presidency, and his racist remarks (and actions) against African-Americans and other minorities, but the screenplay by Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Neo, and Kevin Willmott is correct to treat it as a symptom of the malignant tumor that has been wreaking havoc within the veins of US of A since its inception. The plot revolves around four Vietnam war veterans who return to the country that, for better or worse, have shaped who they are. They wish to retrieve a case full of gold. But this being a Spike Lee Joint, this shiny thing is metaphor: of ghosts, of corrupted souls, of what has been stolen or denied by a country that used, abused, and sold slaves so it could become what it is—a world leader, a superpower, a bully, a mess… yet somehow still regarded as an ideal by most nations. It is a story, too, about contradiction and hypocrisy.

But foremost: it is a story about forgiveness. It doesn’t seem at that way even already an hour into the picture. I admired that about it. Spanning about a hundred and fifty minutes, it takes its time to allow the pieces to fall into place. It invites us to look beyond the action and consider our world. It implores us to really look at it, to ask ourselves if we’re proud of it, if we feel comfortable for children to live and thrive in it. So many mainstream movies these days, many of which are forgettable, settle for shallow entertainment. Nothing at all to say about the world around us, our history, where we’re heading. As it has always been with Lee: To be political, to voice out injustice, to act as a megaphone is entertainment. He doesn’t want us to turn off our brains; he wants us to turn it on, to push it, to challenge the system of oppression.

We meet Eddie the businessman who exudes success (Norm Lewis), Otis who left someone important in Vietnam (Clarke Peters), Melvin the conscience and pragmatist (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Paul the wild card (Delroy Lindo). We hang out with these men as they laugh, drink, and reminisce. The writer-director shows them looking at the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese looking at them. The camera pinpoints skin color, physical stature, hair, voice, how a person carries himself or herself within a defined space. It is an observant picture, certainly daring and willing to ignite fierce discussion. There is not one shot that comes across as a waste.

But how can there be forgiveness, healing, when so much injustice and anger remain? The film does not provide answers, but it presents a microcosm in the form of Paul mourning over a dear friend—someone he looks up to, one whom he considers to be a brother—whose name was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Notice the technique used during its flashbacks: Norman is shown as an ideal. A case can be made that we never truly get to know him as he was, only in the mind of Paul—the man whose body got to go home to America but whose soul remained in Vietnam alongside the corpse of his friend. Paul is such a shell, he finds he is incapable of loving his own son (Jonathan Majors). David looks at his father and he seems lost. They are tethered only by genetics. It is a sad sight to see and feel. Wonderfully performed by Lindo, Paul is one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in recent memory.

Does the movie provide catharsis? Yes and no. There is catharsis on screen which involves shootouts, deaths (black, white, American, Vietnamese, French), and tying up loose ends by showing signed checks, hugging, solidarity, and people shouting “Black Lives Matter!” Perhaps I don’t feel there is true catharsis because I am a person of color in America. That when I go to the Midwest, for example, I am not seen as an American but The Other. A second-class citizen. But sometimes it is enough that a film takes a shovel, dig deep, and further expose what has long been dormant. Or at the very least serving as reminder of what we have yet to work on.

Plagues of Breslau

Plagues of Breslau (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Patryk Vega’s “Plagues of Breslau” begins with a curious premise involving a cow hide being found in a market and inside it is a man who has died only two hours prior, but despite the handful of grim occurrences throughout, it is not a captivating thriller. It is as clear as day that the picture is highly influenced by Jonathan Demme’s modern classic “The Silence of the Lambs” and David Fincher’s savagely entertaining “Se7en.” However, it does not possess a screenplay that is character-driven nor one that is deeply interested in complex morality. What results is a parade of reveals surrounding fresh corpses with words seared on their bodies: “degenerate,” “corrupt,” “oppressor,” and the like. What should be gruesome grows stale.

Lead investigator of the serial killings in Wrocław is Helena whom we meet in her car, crying and holding a pistol in her hand. She is played by Malgorzata Kozuchowska with silent intensity and with a voice so calm, even soft at times, we wonder if she is moved at all by the murders. Or perhaps she is numbed by the fact that although her fiancé had been killed by a drunk driver, the driver went unpunished. Does she harbor anger for the system she works for? Clearly, she remains in mourning. Is she fit to be on the job at this time, especially when facing a very clever unsub?

Kozuchowska makes some fresh choices on how to portray Helena despite the screenplay’s lack of willingness to engage with the character in such a way that by the end we see a whole person rather than a tough persona of a woman who has been in the police force for years. The work does not answer the question of why this particular heroine is worth following other than she is simply on screen sporting a quirky haircut (a third of her head is shaved). The shallow characterization makes, for example, flashbacks toward the end feel rather cheap, tacked on. Although they fill in certain pieces of the puzzle, these revelations come across forced.

It is a shame because the picture offers a few attention-grabbing set pieces. A great example involves a racehorse galloping down the street as terrorized pedestrians jump out of its way. Because the action functions on such a level, matched by skilled editing and energetic framing, we miss so much information at a given time that when a twist occurs, we feel it is deserved because all the answers have been presented to us. It plays fair. If only the rest of the movie functioned on a consistently breathless but detailed level.

Notice when the action dies down, there is minimal detective work. Helena and Iwona (Daria Widawska), a specialist profiler from Warsaw, visit places and interrogate citizens, but there is a dearth of hands-on, dirty police work; it feels sanitized, a fantasy version of what actual police work is like. We merely anticipate what the killer will do before 6PM strikes. Because it is revealed early on that the unsub appears to be inspired by an 18th century figure who felt he needed to purge human fallacies (degeneracy, pillaging, corruption, slandering, oppression, treachery) in order to bring justice and peace to his city. And so for one week, beginning on Monday, one person who is guilty of one of the fallacies will be publicly executed. (Sunday is considered to be a holiday so a total of 6 people are expected to die.)

“Plagues of Breslau” plays a hand so conventional, I thought about similar television shows that work on a much higher level about half a dozen times. While it can be entertaining on the surface level, there is nothing but air once you bite into it. Certain elements—like women being disrespected in a traditionally masculine work force or what is expected from the female gender despite so-called progressivism in our modern times—are there to make a really angry film with something of value to say. But for some reason, the writer-director fails to focus on what it is he wishes to communicate by using serial killings as a template.

The Half of It

The Half of It (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ellie Chu’s (Leah Lewis) claim that the story she’s about to show us not being a love story is wrong. Because in the beginning of her story, Ellie’s definition of love is narrow. She can use words to describe what love is based on books, movies, television, and other people’s accounts, but not based on her own experiences. “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu, is a love story, not between the football player, Paul (Daniel Diemer), and the pretty girl who loves art and literature, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), nor is it a love story between Ellie and Aster. It is a love story of surprising friendship between Ellie and Paul. By the end of the movie we know deep in our gut that this unlikely duo would go on to have a lasting and meaningful relationship. I’d love to know where they are in their lives twenty years from now.

The plot is set up like a typical screwball comedy. It is well-known to her classmates that Ellie runs a business writing essays—“It’s an A or you don’t pay.” Paul, self-proclaimed to be not so good with words, comes up with what he thinks to be a great idea: Hire Ellie to write—not an essay—but an anonymous love letter addressed to Aster, the very same girl Ellie has a crush on, so that Paul, once he reveals he is “actually” the anonymous writer, can have a chance of taking Aster on a date. Although convinced at first it is a bad idea, Ellie decides to take on the job—for $50 dollars instead of the usual $20. Utility bills are overdue. All of these contortions and gymnastics regarding false hopes, yearnings, and mistaken identities are handled with clarity, energy, and a real joy for the material.

It is most enjoyable to watch Ellie and Paul’s scheming partnership evolve into a friendship. There is a very funny scene that perfectly encapsulates how different they are compared to one another outside of physicality (he’s tall, she’s short), hobbies and interests (he’s an athlete, she’s a brainiac; he’s a cook, she’s a musician), and cultural identities (he’s caucasian, she’s Chinese). It involves an Indian movie where a sad-looking woman is sitting on a train and her lover outside chases after her once the train starts moving.

Ellie focuses on how ridiculous it looks and the impracticality of doing such a thing in real life. She’s not down for grand and fantastic gestures. Meanwhile, Paul’s attention is on the feeling that the scene evokes and what the gesture means for the characters in the movie. He thinks there is not a poetic bone in his body, but his innate sweetness reeks of it. This is just one clever example from at least a dozen instances of the duo’s contrasting personalities and worldview. They clash but in a quiet way. At times their exchanges are dripping with sarcasm (mostly from Ellie). The friendship is often handled with humor, tenderness, and good ear for dialogue.

The picture is not without disappointing clichés that I wished had been removed completely. For example, there is a speech in front of a crowd designed to cause major drama which I not only did not buy at all, I felt the decision to put this scene in the movie betrayed the more humble elements that came before. Another annoying addition involves some of the classmates bullying Ellie due to her ethnic identity. Why include it in the picture when the bullying is not shown to be especially hurtful or pernicious? At times it looked silly, light, or fun. Do not get me started on those dumb standing ovations. These do not belong in this otherwise terrific film.

“The Half of It” is an LGBTQIA+ picture in which sexuality is deemed not to be the most important thing. By doing so, it makes the case that sexuality is identity, but it is not necessarily a defining feature—at least in this story and from Ellie’s point of view. It has more in its mind than simply getting the boy or the girl or coming out of the closet. It is about specific young people who wish for freedom above all—the freedom to create, the freedom to stand up, the freedom to leave the only place she’s ever known, the freedom to love and be.