Tag: netflix

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.

Calibre


Calibre (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The British suspense-thriller “Calibre” is the kind of picture that glues viewers onto their seats. The premise involving a hunting gone wrong is quite standard, but it is elevated by writer-director Matt Palmer’s efficient screenplay. Notice that once living bodies hit the ground, every scene inspires the audience to ask, “Then what happens?” Will the two friends and eventual murderers, Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden), make it out of the Scottish village or will they die in the hands of a close-knit community who believes that a debt must be paid in full?

We are provided information about how the friendship works. Vaughn, a father-to-be, is the more soft-spoken of the two former boarding schoolmates. We have a clear picture of his morality. He is supposed to be the “good” half of the duo. Marcus the businessman is single, confident, and enjoys having fun with a line of cocaine or three. He takes risks and draws attention to himself—inadvertently or otherwise. Palmer ensures to keep the camera on Marcus as rural folks measure him up. Marcus enjoys attention and admiration. It is critical that we have an appreciation of how the two men are like together and apart. We are meant to observe how they react the moment they shoot a person dead. We measure how their morals are similar or different to our own.

Surely the dead deserves justice, but it is curious that we find ourselves rooting for Marcus and Vaughn to make it out of the village alive anyway. It is not that we wish for them to get away with murder. But if they did not, then there would be more corpses by the time the weekend rolls around. Yes, it is a survival thriller. However, the writer-director underlines the fact that the duo must survive first in order for the situation to have a possibility of being corrected—at least when it comes to the standard rule of law. At the same time, the writing makes a point that because the community lives way up in the mountains, they have their own laws, rules, and morality.

The picture is shot in a matter-of-fact way. I appreciated its simplicity. The ground is always wet and muddy—the filmmakers do not go out of their way to make the woods, the various business establishments, and the people look beautiful or appealing. They just are so it is easy to believe that this particular isolated village exists out there somewhere.

Foot chases possess a savageness to them. Nervous and guilty people on the run get tired easily. There is minimal score. It is so quiet at times that we can almost hear the characters think. When they stare off into space, it is a statement. As they evaluate situations, notice the fond use of close-ups. Clearly, Lowden and McCann are expressive performers. It is not a surprise that the villages eventually begin to suspect their characters. Yes, they are outsiders. And, yes, they are the only ones hunting that day. But they also tend to wear guilty looks on their faces. They are worthy of suspicion. It is darkly comic how something always comes up which prevents the two from leaving the village. Maybe they are already sentenced to hell.

“Calibre” strums the nerves as if they were guitar strings. It is entertaining because the writer-director appears to have an understanding of the push-and-pull among suspense, action, and thrill. At its best, the material even goes out of its way to touch upon the economic hardships of rural communities, how desperate people are unable to find work so they can put food on the table. I wish this aspect were explored more thoroughly, not only a passing glance. It is no accident that our protagonists come from the city.

Extraction


Extraction (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

First-time director Sam Hargrave helms an action-thriller so kinetic and breathless, clichés and tired tropes are overshadowed by sheer entertainment value. The premise is familiar: A group of mercenaries is hired by an imprisoned drug lord’s right-hand man (Randeep Hooda) to rescue the drug lord’s teenage son (Rudraksh Jaiswal) from a rival crime boss (Priyanshu Painyuli). But there is a catch: the former drug lord’s assets are actually frozen and so it is impossible to pay the mercenaries in full. Former Special Forces Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) finds his team dropping like flies just when the mission is about to be completed. The action doesn’t stop from here—which will impress those looking for adrenaline-fueled shootouts and hand-to-hand combat.

Most impressive sequence involves an extended tracking shot—beginning from the streets of Dhaka and ending under a bridge. Multiple techniques are employed to create an illusion of an unbroken shot and it is convincing enough. As men pummel one another to deliver jaw-breaking violence, it becomes clear that a lot of thought is put into how to make the action both realistic and beautiful. I enjoyed how there is a certain rhythm when the action must change from trading bullets to using fists, vice-versa. It never makes the mistake of communicating that violence is just all for fun. In fact, there are a number of shots that underline how painful it is to be hit by the buttstock of a rifle, to be choked to death, to receive a bullet in the shoulder. It shows, too, that it is not pleasurable to use your own fists to break someone’s face. Although the action entertains on the surface, the seemingly cartoonish violence is not without consequences.

A sense of humor is not absent either. Crowded streets and tenements contain hundreds of extras—look closely and notice how excited they are to be in a movie. There is a joke about running people over. How supposedly powerful drug lords glare intensely, so far away from the action, when things do not go his way. No one is forced to wink or smile at the camera simply to create low-hanging humor. No buddy jokes despite the ex-soldier having to hang out with a teenager for about half the picture. It is one of those films that you feel the filmmakers having a good time in making their movie, so they needn’t try so hard for a sense of goodness to come through. This is a quality I don’t see often in action films. It just wishes to create a good time and there’s nothing with that.

There are moments of deeper meaning which I wished screenwriter Joe Russo delved into a bit more. While in short-lived shelter, Tyler and the boy, Ovi, get a chance to talk to another. Naturally, the teenager is curious about his rescuer. Ovi’s questions revolve around Tyler’s lifestyle—not how exciting or thrilling it is but how lonely and soul-crushing it must be. Despite all the complex action sequences, a conversation between man and boy is actually the center of the film. And rightfully so. When we meet Tyler, he hides a sadness, guilt, possibly even anger. His animalistic rage is revealed at times when he is pushed to a corner by men who wish to kill him. In this critical scene—a silent scene—between Tyler and Ovi, much is revealed about our protagonist—and the beautiful details do not require words. It is without question there is a heart and brain in “Extraction.”

Those who wish to focus on the big picture—and only the big picture—will claim that the film is composed merely of a series of stunts. I just showed above how this assertion is inaccurate. But taking this type of criticism as is, I then ask, “So what?” It doesn’t require special glasses to realize that these stunts are well done. There are stakes to the action unfolding. And we get to see another part of the world that’s not Chicago, or New York City, or Los Angeles, or (insert European city here)—a place that big action blockbusters seldom visit.

Final Destination 3


Final Destination 3 (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

James Wong is back to direct the third entry of the “Final Destination” series, and although it reaches some highs, the picture is let down by an overly simplistic screenplay. It is a shame because “Final Destination 2” is a step in the right direction: It increases the ante by taking the original idea that those who manage to escape what should be certain deaths will in fact die sooner or later and expanding upon the idea in twisty and thrilling ways. There is not one, not two, but three interesting twists. In this second sequel, there is a neat idea: Photographs provide hints at at how the survivors will die after they escape the horrific roller coaster crash. But the ingenuity stops there. The rest of the time is a waiting game, simply going down the list of who will die next. We already know the “how,” so it is a mistake to go on autopilot.

This picture aims for deaths scenes that are more savage and brutal than its predecessors. The signature dark humor remains, especially when someone drops dead, but I noticed I felt quite badly for the characters we never get a chance to know. The scene in the tanning salon with the cliché narcissistic dumb blondes quickly comes to mind. (Although the transition between tanning beds and coffins made me chuckle.) I think it is because nearly every other scene serves to remind the audience that the teens are about to graduate high school and so what should be a hopeful time is marred by Death’s grip.

Like the first two movies, the third installment’s highlight is its opening scene involving a premonition at an amusement park. This time, we follow nice girl Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a self-proclaimed control freak, as she warns her friends—while undergoing a panic attack herself—that something is about to go horribly wrong with the roller coaster they’re on. There is strong attention to detail: the excitement of the riders, the normal (and abnormal) shaking of the tracks, obstructions that will trigger a Domino Effect, the sheer terror on the teens’ faces as shoulder restraints come off suddenly and the threat of being thrown off their seats becomes a very real possibility, faces smashed in, guts thrown all over the place. It is ugly, horrific, and you cannot look away—even though you want to.

But as the work goes on, especially toward the halfway point, a sense of familiarity starts to take hold. The aforementioned photograph plot device is curious, but it is not enough to create a compelling experience. It is like a joke without a punchline. Instead, the screenplay appears stuck wrestling with bad dialogue. For example, just when we are beginning to think that obnoxious jock Kevin (Ryan Merriman) is not the idiot he passes himself to be in public (he exhibits moments of sensitivity in private), the character claims, “I’m not the total idiot you think I am.” Could it be any more on the nose? Are we meant to laugh?

Unlike the second film that doesn’t try so hard to surpass the original, “Final Destination 3” does. The subtle wind that signals that Death is in the vicinity is turned into all-out hurricane, for example. At one point I wondered if the wind machine was malfunctioning. Surely everyone else around the area is able to notice the sudden gust, not just the tormented girl with the premonitions? It goes to show that in horror films, turning down the dial—this time literal—goes a long way. There are nifty deaths here and there, but the work as a whole does not offer an enveloping, unsettling experience.

Final Destination 2


Final Destination 2 (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t try so much to outdo the original in superficial ways. Instead, David R. Ellis’ worthy sequel to “Final Destination” respects its predecessor by taking ideas from the source, expanding upon them, and then—this is key—introducing new wrinkles for us to examine. Most of the time sequels attempt to outdo the original in this way: increasing the body count, amping up the violence, and intensifying the gore. While this installment does exactly these things, I counted three twists (which I will not reveal) that play upon what we already know: Death will be coming after the survivors of a freak accident, this time involving a pileup on the freeway.

Viewers will remember this film for the logs falling off a truck which then triggers a chain reaction of sheer, unadulterated mayhem. It is a wonderfully brutal opening scene, almost the exact opposite of the impressive first scene of the film that came before. In the original, our characters are in an enclosed space and we watch the order in which they die following an explosion. The approach feels rather clinical. This time, however, characters sit in their own vehicles while in motion. The method is entirely different. Editing is more pronounced, more purposeful, more confident. It functions on a higher kinetic energy. Blink for a spit-second longer and one is likely to miss a bone-crunching, skin-melting death. It is a wreck one cannot—should not—look away from. Because in this movie, the order of death still matters.

A.J. Cook is Kimberly, a high school student on a road trip with her friends. She is the seer, capable of experiencing premonitions that could cheat Death’s plans… at least for a while. Cook plays the character with utmost conviction, but I never felt as though there is much fight in her. Thus, it is the correct decision to bring back Ali Larter as Clear, one of the survivors of Flight 180 in the former picture. Larter chooses not to play her character as the mousey type this time around. And so we believe Clear has endured hardships that took place after the first movie. It is an interesting decision by screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress to divide likability and strength between two characters. In horror films, especially splatterfests, one main character, usually female, possesses these two attributes. I appreciated the difference.

Here is a movie in which the violence paralyzes you. Twice or thrice I caught my jaw drop following a spine-chilling death scene, whether it is someone bring crushed by glass or a person bring sliced clean by barbed wires. I think it is because these death scenes almost always possess a dramatic parabola: the set-up, the false alarm, the climax, the resolution, the irony. Although we do not get to know any character in a meaningful way, the grim sense of humor is so sharp, the material is constantly pushed forward. In modern horror movies, it is uncommon for me to feel like I’m constantly trying to catch up to the screenplay.

“Final Destination 2” offers a good time. The script may be a weak point, but the sheep to be slaughtered are not meant to be articulate. It is all about the craft from behind the camera, the complex but clear choreography in showing the cause and effect of actions (or inaction) of doomed characters, and the breathless pace of a horror picture with numerous surprising ideas. It doesn’t always have to be about the blood. So it holds up upon repeated viewings.

Dark Light


Dark Light (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that offers plenty of strange noises in a farmhouse in the middle of the night and investigations in the dark using only a flashlight, Padraig Reynolds’ “Dark Light” commands no tension, suspense, or horror. It is strange and highly disappointing because the work is written and directed by the same filmmaker who helmed the little-seen gem “Rites of Spring,” a hybrid between crime thriller and horror, so confident in what it is and what it wishes to accomplish. This picture, however, is an obvious giant step backward, serving the audience a minefield of boredom and clichés on top of characters more uninteresting than tap water.

The plot is standard but not without potential to genuinely entertain. Annie (Jessica Madsen) and her daughter, Emily (Opal Littleton), recently move into Annie’s childhood home following a divorce (Ed Brody), a death in the family, and a mental breakdown. To Annie, the relocation from the city is a chance to start anew with her young child. But it seems that the mother’s once happy home is no longer. Doors open on their own. There is scratching and scraping noises in the walls. There are lights that turn on and off out in the cornfield. Emily begins to suffer memory problems. The mystery is laid thick and heavy, but not one of its elements manages to bleed into other territories—surprise, terror, a sense of impending doom—other than mild curiosity.

I became convinced that even the writer-director is aware of this. For a while, the story unfolds in flashbacks and flash forwards in order create a semblance of urgency. Instead, what we get is distraction and, eventually, annoyance because high-priority questions go unanswered for so long to the point where we no longer care. And when questions do get answers or solutions, notice it is almost always action-driven and noisy rather than thought-driven and silent. A more equal mixture might have been more appropriate given the story’s setting. Clearly, this is a sci-fi horror hybrid that wishes to impress ostentatiously when playing it simple is more effective.

Further, observe closely when Annie inspects areas she suspects an intruder to be hiding in. She is written to move like a soldier rather than as a mother who is afraid for her and her child’s safety. (She has no military background whatsoever.) The intent, I suppose, is to create a heroine who is worth rooting for. But it seems Reynolds did not get the memo that it makes for a far more interesting watch to create a protagonist who is tough on the inside rather than outside—and then allowing that inner strength to shine through. It certainly would have challenged Madsen more—who seems game at whatever the script wishes to throw at her.

“Dark Light” lacks a more elegant, light-handed screenplay. Because it fails to introduce enough wrinkles to an already familiar template, the result is boring, uninspired, and forgettable. Even the relationship between former spouses rings false. Feel the impersonality of their conversations surrounding their child. You get a sense that the actors have got their lines pat but not the emotions and the history of having lived and loved together once. This relationship is robotic and so is the movie. It’s a waste of time.

Code 8


Code 8 (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

At one point in the film, a young girl asks her father if she was going to be given away because she has started to exhibit superpowers. It is, after all, the pattern she sees on television: Those with supernatural abilities are feared and so the non-Powered do what they can in order to maintain their superiority. This is the universe of “Code 8,” based on the story and directed by Jeff Chan, written for the screen by Chris Pare, an ambitious sci-fi action-drama that takes risks. It is willing to put the humanity of its characters on the forefront and the flashy special and visual effects serving as support. What results is a work that may not be A-level adrenaline-fueled non-stop action, but it is nonetheless good entertainment for those who crave a different approach in telling a familiar story.

In a fictional city that brings to mind diverse Los Angeles, Connor (Robbie Amell) decides to take a job with a group of thieves (Stephen Amell, Laysla De Oliveira, Vlad Alexis) who serves under a drug lord (Greg Bryk) in order to get quick surgery money for his dying mother (Kari Matchett). Connor is considered an Electric due to his abilities and so he proves to be most critical in high-stake heists. Notice how we spend nearly equal time with Connor and his mother as well as Connor and his newfound team. And before we see the first job executed, we are provided crystal clear reasons, overt and subtle, how the protagonist is driven to financial desperation. And so despite the fact that he is working for the bad guys, and in some ways he, too, is a bad guy, we root for him and the no-good bunch to get away with their plans. We have an appreciation of Connor’s personal and professional lives, so we cannot help but to feel invested.

There is a certain irony to some of the abilities we come across. For instance, it is fresh that a character with super strength turns out to be a mute—loud in action but silent with words. Under the hands of a writer with lower level imagination, the material could have been just another action flick with characters who happen to have superpowers. Instead, I felt as though Pare is a big fan of the “X-Men” comics. Right from opening credits, for example, there is already commentary regarding left- and right-wing attitudes toward illegal immigrants. Within ten seconds, the work is able to communicate that it is going to be an Us versus Them tale.

It is the correct decision to keep special and visual effects at a minimum—as impressive as they are. I enjoyed that the police employ magnificent drones and how robots are utilized as tools for the frontline. Although created by technical wizardry, we have feel the weight and power of these machines. When robots jump from the drone and land on the street, they wield a fearsome presence. And so when a Powered decides to run, it is a survival response that makes complete sense. How can you go up against something seemingly indestructible and utterly unfeeling? The action scenes are calculated, used sparingly but effectively.

Relationships among the many colorful characters are not explored enough. Connor and Garrett, the leader of the thieves, are provided a sort of student-teacher connection, but the idea is thrown away just as quickly. It is expected that the student surpasses the teacher eventually, especially in a story of this kind, but we are not given that potentially important arc that leads to catharsis. Another potentially interesting angle is Connor’s bond with an unexpected Healer. The latter serves as a reminder of the former’s humanity, but their connection is quite lukewarm. These two examples do not take off in terms of meaningful character development—which drags down an otherwise terrific movie.

Some may claim that ideas overtaking action in sci-fi action picture is a handicap. I disagree; I would rather have ideas shine brightly than to have to sit through another loud, endless parade of noise with no nourishment for the mind. “Code 8” takes familiar superhero tropes and shakes them a bit. In parts it reminded me of Tim Kring’s wonderful first season of the TV series “Heroes.” I believed its universe and by the end I wanted to know more about the broken characters who lived.

Girl on the Third Floor


Girl on the Third Floor (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a haunted house movie that brings nothing new to table, but it does a decent enough job to warrant a mild recommendation. The first half of the picture is quite intriguing because the material appears to be interested in exploring and commenting on what it be means to be traditionally masculine in our modern times. It goes out of its way to establish atmosphere, introduce history, and has the required patience in order to achieve some effective jolts (and winces due to gross-out moments involving eye-catching practical special effects). And yet I found myself detached from it; I felt like I had seen it all before.

We observe Don, a soon-to-be father with a criminal past, renovating the suburban house that he and his pregnant wife just purchased. The camera makes the point of observing the subject’s body: how he is built, the details of his tattoos, how he carries himself with confidence and toughness. He looks like a man one wouldn’t want to mess with in a bar. Don is played by professional wrestler and mixed martial artist CM Punk (born Phillip Jack Brooks), and he does a solid job in ensuring that we do not grow bored of his physicality—a necessary element because it is not enough for the screenplay to simply say Don was a crook who got away with his crimes. We must experience that charm and magnetism firsthand because these might explain why he got away with what he did. Brooks fits the role like a glove.

Everyone in the neighborhood is aware that the house used to be a whorehouse. And so when Don interacts with neighbors, they exude a certain knowing. This bit is curious, but it is a shame that the writing avoids delving into the house’s sordid history. We are shown an extended look into the past toward the end that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s very own haunted house picture “The Shining,” but we are never drenched with rich details. Shocks, you see, are expected and common in this sub-genre. But what makes movies standout within this category is specificity, the lore, the world-building. It is a mistake to rely on the usual tropes of eerie figures appearing on mirrors, dogs staring into the darkness, and bizarre noises coming from the other room. While these are expected in a story like this, they do not elevate the material to the next level. In other words, what makes this story, this movie, special?

Taking a look at these elements, they are executed with some energy. There are instances when I thought, “Wow, that’s a well-trained dog. It even has the right expressions for this scene.” Less effective are moments in which ghosts or apparitions are invisible to the naked eye but can be glanced on mirrors. I wondered if people these days still find this trope to be scary. Here, the approach is utilized at least three times. It was already boring in the first attempt. The sound effects, on the other hand, are superior. Marbles hitting the floor and rolling about is never good news. Also enjoyable are the subtle sounds employed, for example, when strange viscous liquids come out of electrical sockets and such. It could have been silent entirely. But adding sound is smart because it creates an impression that the house is alive, breathing, in pain.

It is apparent that “Girl on the Third Floor,” written and directed by Travis Stevens, is given a lot of thought on how to creep out or scare the audience. I think it can be enjoyed by those who go into it with an open mind. Having said that, however, those who are well-versed in the genre are likely able to recognize not necessarily its shortcomings but its potential to become an even more potent experience. Thus, I can’t help but to feel excited for the writer-director’s next project. As far as directorial debut goes, it’s not bad at all.

NiNoKuni


NiNoKuni (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a story that involves jumping between two worlds in which the lives of their respective inhabitants are linked somehow, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Ni No Kuni,” inspired by a highly charming and emotionally moving video game series of the same name, is impoverished of imagination and wonder. Instead of focusing on world-building; creating convincing character development; and laying out its universe’s complex rules and giving the audience a chance to understand them, notice how the picture is so eager to jump into action out of fear, perhaps, that curiosity would not be enough to garner interest. What results is a movie without soul and magic, just a series of empty disagreements among friends and noises of would-be epic battles. In the middle of it, I wished there was a spell to redo the film because its current state is an embarrassment.

Best friends Yu (voiced by Kento Yamazaki) and Haru (Mackenyu) find themselves transported to a strange world in the middle of their desperate attempt to take their dying friend, Kotona (Mei Nagano), who has been stabbed, to the hospital. In this world filled with humanoid beasts and magical beings, Yu is not paralyzed from the waist down and Haru’s athleticism does not make him feel special. In fact, it seems that in this alternate world, Yu is the special one since he appears to have the gift of magic. It is a workable beginning to a possible rivalry of young men whose friendship is defined by a particular power dynamic. This coming-of-age angle, however, is not explored in meaningful ways because the screenplay by Akihiro Hino leans too heavily on tired fantasy tropes like saving a princess from a curse and the hero falling in love with her, vice-versa. It is boring and does not leave much room for compelling drama.

While watchable on its own, the style of animation fails to match the story being told. The first game in the series, “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch,” offers animated sequences produced by Studio Ghibli. They are stunning; they compel us to look at the images and examine them. They may be eye-catching and cute at first glance, but as a whole they are designed to immerse the player first and foremost. In this film, the animation comes across as flat and stiff; it does not stand out among other Japanese animated films that fall under the same genre. But this shortcoming can be overlooked if the content of the story were actually captivating. It is so predictable that from the moment we lay eyes on certain characters, we know he or she would end up becoming a villain, for example. There is no curiosity or mystique about it.

Since the screenplay fails to take the time to lay out the important rules, those who have not played the games are likely to become very confused. For instance, during the first scene we are greeted with a possibly senile old man yelling, “Gateway!” at the hospital rooftops. Those who experience the games would know that this is a spell that summons… well, a gateway, between the “real” world and the other world.

But, for some reason, in the film Yu and Haru are randomly able to move between worlds without ever uttering the spell. Instead, they must to endanger their lives in either world—like plunging a van into a river while they’re inside—and soon they would find themselves waking up in the next world. Why is the old man required to cast a spell while the young men are not? This is only one example of the material’s brazen lack of consistency. How can we get involved in the story when are left scratching our heads every other scene?

“NiNoKuni” comes across as a rushed project designed to keep the brand relevant. The soul of this brand is an epic sense of adventure; its heart the lessons it imparts on how one might lead a healthier, happier life despite outside elements that could embitter or numb a person over time. We get no sense of humanity here, and so there is no doubt the film is a failure.

Sweetheart


Sweetheart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A creature-feature with enough expected elements to scratch the itch of those invested in the sub-genre, “Sweetheart” tells the story of a young woman named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who finds herself washed ashore on a small deserted island. Not only must she contend with hunger and exposure, it seems there is a monster living in a hole just off the island. It tends to come out only during the night. Co-writers J.D. Dillard (who also directs), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer possess an understanding of the genre. They keep it short and sweet with just the right amount of tension, violence, and gore. It’s a good flick to watch during a rainy day.

Clemons does plenty with what she is provided. It is a role not reliant on words or dialogue and so she is required to communicate thoroughly using her eyes and body language. Right when we meet Jenn as she regains consciousness on the beach, Clemons plays the character with a level of alertness, intelligence, and grit. Because she portrays Jenn with a high level of urgency from the get-go, even though we already have an idea regarding the initial elements she must come up against, we become interested in how the character might fare on this island. I enjoyed moments of humor, particularly when our heroine is learning how to open coconuts, how to fish, to trap larger prey. Desperation can be played for suspense and thrills. But it can also be played for humor.

The monster living in the ocean is terrifying precisely because not much of it is shown. We learn a number of things about the creature (Andrew Crawford), like how it sounds, how it prefers to hunt, how it moves on land versus water, how sensitive it is to sound and smell, what it prefers to eat, if any. It is a formidable enemy not just because of its incredible speed, strength, and body size; Dillard drenches the monster in mystery. It is the correct decision not to explain the creature’s origins or whether it has a special weakness. The only thing we know for certain is that it must die in order for Jenn to live or possibly even escape the island.

The picture’s weakness involves additional human characters introduced about two-thirds of the way through (Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence). I will not reveal who they are, but I found them to be of great annoyance. I was particularly surprised by how generic Cohen portrays his character since he is a character actor. I felt no inspiration from him this time around. Clemons completely overpowers her co-stars nearly every second they share the screen. And when Clemons is not in the frame, I caught myself wondering where Jenn is and what she is doing.

However, the Cohen and Lawrence cardboard cutouts introduce an idea: that Jenn is a person with whom others find difficult to believe. Is it because she has a history of lying and getting caught? A simple case of being a poor storyteller? Is there something in her life back home that contributes to a potential attention-seeking behavior? The screenplay fails to delve into this curious topic—which I think is a big mistake. But putting these planks of wood into the mix long enough to broach the subject allows the creature to function as a metaphor for the story.

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Terrifier


Terrifier (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The high on gore, low on scares slasher flick “Terrifier” may appeal to those who are simply in it for the gratuitous violence, but those looking for a solid story with (even marginally) interesting characters are advised to stay away. It is apparent that writer-director Damien Leone aims to deliver a work that pays homage to 1980s horror pictures. On the surface, an argument can be made that it succeeds. There is a high body count. The plot is straightforward. Even the ending hints a possible sequel. But it is lacking in ways that really count.

The story unfolds during Halloween, but it does not seem to serve much purpose. Sure, it gives the excuse for potential victims, often female, to wear sexy costumes. They scream, trip, and slither their way through confined spaces. They get stabbed, gutted, suffocated, and the like. Standard stuff. I grew tired of it by the third victim. It, too, provides the villain a way to blend into the environment. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wears a black and white clown outfit with a death white mask to complete the ensemble. He carries around a trash bag. He sports a creepy smile. He does not say a word. He does not even scream even when a massive nail is impaled on his foot. There is a cartoonish quality behind the goings-on. But take away the holiday aspect and these killings could have occurred on any given night.

I was not amused by any of it and yet I was not able to look away. I was marginally curious whether either of the two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), on their way home from a Halloween party, would make it through the night. These two are archetypes: the sensible brunette and the dumb blonde. The only difference between these girls and their ‘80s counterparts is that they have a cell phone. Odds are the blonde will not make it halfway through the film. She fails to recognize a threat nearly every single time. Surely, the writer-director will attempt to modernize the tried-and-true formula… right?

And therein lies the problem: A case can be made that taking either route of the blonde or the brunette surviving is a cliché. In the post- post-modern era of slashing and stabbing, nothing feels fresh any longer. When Tara phones her sister, Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi), about twenty minutes into the picture, alarms going off in our heads suggest she is likely to be the final girl. She is the studious type. The girl who stays in during Halloween to prepare for a midterm the next day. We are constantly ahead of its maneuverings and it makes for a passive experience.

What makes Art the Clown terrifying? Is it because he relishes taunting his victims? Is it because he shows no sign of remorse as he mutilates his prey? Is it solely due to the clown mask and costume? He is provided no background information. The thing about the better ‘80s slasher flicks (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Friday the 13th”) is that the antagonist is provided at least a semblance of substance. Although unsettling at times, Art the Clown is neither an effective nor a memorable villain. He is not terrifying. It would have been more appropriate to name the movie “Mutilator.” This clown will not be remembered twenty years from now. Not even five years from now.

The final ten to fifteen minutes shows the screenplay at its weakest. There are plenty of opportunities to slay the killer, but they are not taken. Characters appear to step out of danger just in time and then the very next shot is them dead or dying. The most minute common sense is thrown out the window altogether. Particularly idiotic is when the final girl finally makes it outside and yet… she runs back into the building of horrors where she can once again get trapped by the assailant. At the very least she should be screaming to the top of her lungs while outside so the neighbors could hear and call for help.