Tag: netflix

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.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

The King


The King (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to director David Michôd for pushing a more introspective take on a typical historical drama in which a person who does not wish to be king ends up with the throne, the crown, and every problem that comes with it. Based on several plays from William Shakespeare’s “Henriad,” “The King” stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry Prince of Wales (referred to as “Hal” by those closest to him), the wayward son of King Henry IV of England (Ben Mendelsohn) who would rather drink all night, sleep all day, and spend time with muddy commoners than to learn the finer points of how to lead a kingdom. It is an inspired choice of casting because the performer knows precisely how to convey crippling loneliness, as he has shown in Luca Guadagnino’s sublime “Call Me by Your Name,” and Hal is a subject plagued with this emotion from the moment he agrees to take on the responsibilities of a king.

Propelled by a slow but calculated pacing, I admired the writers’ decision (Michôd, Joel Edgerton) to focus solely on who Hal is as person—a young man with a title but without power—for about a third of the picture. (An exploration of who he is as a leader comprises the rest of the film.) It is a risk because political machinations are pushed to the background and we hear of civil unrest and war abroad mostly in passing. It would have been the more generic choice to insert confrontations among old men of power—whether it be war of words or weapons—in between moments of characterization in order to compel the audience into paying attention. Here, overt action is used sparingly; most of the action employed is internal.

Instead, the viewers are flooded with instances of Hal being tested prior to becoming ruler. We learn about his level of patience, what gets him angry, who he considers a friend, what qualities he respects in a person, his fears. We take note of his weaknesses which may come to haunt him later. And so when he becomes king eventually, we have an understanding or appreciation of his core values. We expect how he might react to certain challenges surrounding his crown and country, but he retains the ability to surprise—just like a real person. Chalamet ensures to highlight the flaws of his character, especially during moments of deafening silence, because imperfection is interesting.

The relationship between Hal and Falstaff (Edgerton) is begging for refinement. For far too long Falstaff is shown as a jesting fool who just so happens to possess bouts of wisdom. Later, he is revealed to have a prodigious reputation. It would have been a compelling angle to tell their stories in parallel: the directionless young man who would don the crown and the drunken buffoon who must revert to becoming a warrior-tactician. Particularly during the latter part of the story, when political machinations and war have migrated to the forefront, I felt as though the friendship is somewhat disconnected rather than one that functions as symbiosis. I did not feel the big emotions being conveyed during critical moments.

It is without question the filmmakers are intrigued with political chess. The number of meetings that must be had is somewhat amusing, and these give way for the more colorful personalities to stand out or be introduced. Most memorable is the Dauphin of France who claims to enjoy speaking in English because it is simple and sounds ugly. This rough, vile, hilarious character who deems himself superior to everyone else is played with infectious joy by Robert Pattinson. He demands to be heard, to be seen, to be respected—just like Hal, interestingly enough. But there is a vast difference between the two figures. It is a risk-taking performance because most will regard the Dauphin as a joke. Yet he proves to have a venomous bite.

“The King” shows that a period drama need not be stuffy to be respectable. It is accessible, intelligent, aware of how human nature and psychology works. There are short as well as drawn-out battle scenes—every single one well-choreographed—but these are not the central attractions. Instead, we are invited to learn about a person who must find peace—peace for his kingdom, peace within himself—amidst the chaos he inherited. Ultimately, it is a sad story, I think, because although Hal is a king, an argument can be made that from the second he agreed to carry on the torch, he has chosen to become a prisoner of tradition, of great expectations.

Assimilate


Assimilate (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Take any version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and dilute the creativity, energy, surprises about ten to twenty times and you get close to the crushing blandness of “Assimilate,” a horrible, unconvincing sci-fi horror knockoff by writer-director John Murlowski (Steven Palmer Peterson also serving as co-writer). With a smorgasbord of mainstream and independent movies pushing a similar premise right at the writers’ fingertips, it is astounding that just about every decision is uninspired, predictable, and boring. I felt sorry for the young performers on-screen because they are actually quite watchable. They deserve better. And we do, too.

The story opens with Zach (Joel Courtney) and Randy (Calum Worthy) starting yet another video project that they hope would become a success since their last foray was a complete failure. They live in middle-of-nowhere Multon, Missouri and their goal is to show the residents—should they actually choose to watch the enthusiastic duo’s videos—who they really are. Their approach is to attach small cameras onto their shirt collars and capture raw, unedited moments. But something strange is afoot. People are beginning to claim that their loved ones have been replaced by near-perfect copies somehow. These copies stand out because they fail to show emotions. Zach and Randy decide to investigate.

A critical element that the writers seem to forget is the fact that body invasion movies are not just about regular people running all over town to avoid becoming copies themselves. The sub-genre is a tool by which to exorcise fears or concerns of a specific time period and so the movie becomes an allegory. By taking this familiar premise as is, it doesn’t work because the project is reduced to a regurgitation of what came before… but devoid of meaning or context.

There is, I think, a way to circumvent this—and it is not easy. The screenplay must function on such a high level that every scenario must have a twist on the familiar. This way, we are forced to stand on our toes and constantly evaluate situations opposite of what we expect. There must be suspense, foreplay, irony, perhaps even a savage sense of humor prior to pummeling us with truly horrific imagery. This route can offer entertainment value. But the movie is not at all ambitious. Too many times we are forced to endure the usual motions of a character looking sad after the discovery that his or her family members have fallen victims to the extraterrestrial invaders.

It opens with some promise. It is established early on that Multon is a small town where religion is of dire importance. If this weren’t the case, the pastor (Terry Dale Parks) would not be such a respected figure of authority. It is a shame that the material fails to expand upon the idea that religion can be utilized as a weapon to brainwash a population. (Hence why the copies act like zombies.) Maybe this angle is rendered less sharp in order to appeal to more people? But that does not make sense because “Body Snatchers” films are risks; they are meant to function as social commentary.

Despite its lack of thrills and scares, the young actors share good chemistry. I wanted to know more about Zach and Randy’s failed video projects because Courtney and Worthy exhibit an effortless goodness and a sense of camaraderie when playing off each other. There is also a cute—but predictable and at times syrupy—romantic subplot concerning Zach and a childhood friend named Kayla (Andi Matichak). As the movie crawls toward the tired finale, I wished for the three leads to find work in the future that would actually make use of their talents.

Rattlesnake


Rattlesnake (2019)
★ / ★★★★

With a premise that brings Stephen King stories to mind, it is a disappointment that “Rattlesnake,” written and directed by Zak Hilditch, fails to take off after the first act. Instead, we are subjected to repetitive sequences of a character running about all over a Texan town with one goal in mind but few inspired ideas on how to reach it. Because we find ourselves smarter than the protagonist, following her is a chore and a bore. The picture might have benefited from a major rewrite—not of its premise but of the details that make up the story.

A flat tire on a desert highway forces Katrina (Carmen Ejogo) to pull over and deal with the matter. Her daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt), explores from a few feet away but eventually finds herself bitten by a rattlesnake. Panic-stricken and desperate to save her daughter’s life, Katrina spots a nearby trailer, sprints toward it with Clara in tow, and enters. A woman (Debrianna Mansini)—preternaturally calm—agrees to help. She claims that payment for her service will be discussed at a later time, but for now Katrina must fix the flat tire so when her daughter regains consciousness, she could be taken immediately to the nearest hospital.

While at the hospital, the girl in recovery, the mother gets a visitor. The man in the suit (Bruce Davis) claims that for the soul that was saved, Katrina must offer the same in return: She must murder another person. She has seven hours—until sunset—to pay the debt in full. Should she fail, Clara’s soul would be reclaimed.

The first twenty minutes command a high level of urgency. It buries the audience neck-deep with all sorts of information, questions, and assumptions. Most interesting is the magical element in the picture; it is unsettling that the faces we come to meet—those who are aware of what Katrina must do—are those who have passed on. We see their faces on missing persons ads and on online articles citing violent deaths. On the surface, Ejogo looks convincing as a desperate mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter. It is in her eyes.

Less impressive, however, is how the character is written. Ejogo could deliver the most layered acting, but if the screenplay remains flat, the performer’s effort would amount to nothing. In the attempt to show Katrina as a good person, there are far too many moments that depict her hesitancy and guilt. They drag on and on—to the point by which the momentum of the movie is significantly impaired. In the middle of it, I wondered why the writer-director is so desperate for viewers to like the character, to see her as good. It isn’t necessary. What matters is that we understand the plight of the character, what she must do to save her daughter. I would rather have an interesting protagonist who is willing to partake in questionable things than a likable, boring one. Katrina is example of the latter and there is no excuse for it.

For a race against time story, there is an astonishing lack of urgency. Notice instances of Katrina measuring up her potential victims. She considers older folks, children, women who come across physically weak by comparison to her. This comes across rather… amusing instead of chilling. The reason is because, at this point, we do not know how she thinks. Because she is written to be so safe and so nice, it is difficult to imagine the extent of her dark thoughts—or if she is even capable of having such ideations. And so what we see during these moments is simply behavior. There is no tension, no believability to the whole charade.

“Rattlesnake” bites but it lacks potent venom. Not enough is done with the black magic angle of the story whether it be a constant, forceful, mysterious element never to be explained nor as a possible facet of the plot that must be explored thoroughly. Instead, it is used merely as a tool to propel the plot forward and brought up whenever convenient. I was annoyed by the screenplay’s fondness for easy solutions and so the work is never fascinating, just barely good enough to pass the time. I hold a higher standard than that.

Eli


Eli (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Ciarán Foy’s “Eli” is yet another substandard horror film with little on its mind other than to deliver a big twist during the final fifteen minutes. The journey toward the destination is slow, interminable, and peppered with scares that rarely land on target. For a story that unfolds in an estate in the middle of the country—perfect for a haunted house movie—there is no intrigue, just clichés that pile on top of one another until the viewer is compelled to no longer care.

It begins with a curious medical case about a boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) who began to exhibit signs of an unnamed autoimmune disorder four years prior. When exposed to the environment, red spots appear on his skin aggressively and so he is forced to live in a bubble. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) found a new hope: Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), an immunologist who plans to employ viral gene therapy to repair the boy’s defective genes.

Although a mysterious premise, the science aspect of the picture is almost immediately thrown out the window from the moment the desperate family steps inside the palatial home. It does not help that the immunologist and her nurses are written as villains in the most obvious way possible: stern-faced, cold, impersonal, robotic. It does not provide the audience a chance to decide for themselves whether or not to trust the poker-faced trio. You see, the reason is because every decision must serve the rug to be pulled from right underneath our feet. If the screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing really cared about engaging the audience, it would have been willing to entertain possibilities.

The middle portion drags to the point of futility. Every time day turns into night, you can bet that Eli would have a nightmare, get up from the bed, and explore the creepy facility. Sometimes he encounters ghostly figures that breathe on windowpanes, a few of them whisper clues, and one or two reveal themselves, CGI and all. It is formulaic, exhausting, and not at all scary. There is a lack of patience during the buildup and so the would-be payoffs are not at all impactful. Shotwell is quite convincing at looking terrified, but we do not believe the emotions on his face because there is nothing special about the craft propelling such encounters.

As for the drama between a desperate mother and seemingly cold father, I found it to be recycled fluff. There is a scene early in the picture which shows the family’s financial struggle due to the boy’s rising medical costs. However, this fact—this reality—is never brought up again. I think the movie could have used more searing honesty. It is common knowledge that family members tend to fight among one another when money is tight. People get desperate not knowing how to pay for rent or how to pay for the next meal. Pretty much everybody can relate or empathize with this. However, the movie would rather focus on parents fighting because one has lied, or has kept a secret, or some vanilla reason. Be direct. Deliver raw drama.

Admittedly, the twist is quite smart. I did not see it coming. But a good twist—even a great one—is not worth a recommendation when everything else around it is uninspired, from the unsubtle dialogue, forgettable set decor, down to a resolution that hints at a possible sequel should the movie become a success. It is pessimistic filmmaking.

The Hurricane Heist


The Hurricane Heist (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

There’s something freeing about action films that commit to an idea so completely that they risk being labeled dumb, nonsensical, pointless, or all of the above. “The Hurricane Heist,” directed by Rob Cohen, is one of those movies. It presents a simple premise and everything around it is cheesy popcorn—and might say mindless—entertainment. One must be in the right mood and mindset to appreciate this kind of movie because an argument can be made it is a one-note joke throughout.

The plot revolves around bad guys who wish to steal six hundred million dollars from the U.S. Treasury as a massive hurricane rages on outside. Not only does the natural disaster serve as a distraction, should the government become aware of what they are up to, sending soldiers to the facility would not be an easy task. The “old money” is meant to be shredded anyway so it is only logical, at least to the bandits, that they take and make use of the cash. Naturally, there are already rogue agents inside the facility. All would have gone according to plan if it weren’t for the pesky Special Agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace); the exposition reminds us several times that she always does the right thing. She is smart, cautious, and resourceful. The thieves’ ringleader, Perkins (Ralph Ineson), has a habit of underestimating her, and the allies she acquires along the way, despite his team members dropping off like flies.

You know a movie doesn’t care about how it comes across as long as it knows it is providing entertainment when the actors who are supposed to underline the heart of the picture play their American characters—brothers from American south (Toby Kebbell, Ryan Kwanten)—with variants of Australian and English accents. (The brothers, one who runs a repair business and the other a weatherman, lost their father in 1992 as Category 5 Hurricane Andrew ripped through the south.) While initially distracting and amusing, particularly when the brothers reconnect after from what it seems to be several years of not seeing each other in person, eventually we forget about how they pronounce certain words. The action pieces get so big and so busy that words no longer matter.

And here comes the physics-defying stunts. For example, there is an amazing black, tank-like, Batmobile-looking rig (à la “Batman Begins”) that has these drills underneath that could pierce through the surface of the road. Doing so would tether the vehicle in place. Should it get hit with an amazing amount of force, it would be able to withstand it with minimal wear and tear. Its passengers would feel shaken for a few seconds but suffer no broken bones. Not even bruises, it seems, because they are able to run around with ease and get thrown about (more stunts!) in every imaginable way. It is a wonderful ad to a fictitious vehicle. Truly, they have fun with the idea.

And then there is the hurricane. It makes the movie “Twister” (underrated) look like a documentary. While the monstrous mix of wind, rain, thunderstorms, and occasional livestock does not look particularly first-rate, it is so exaggerated to the point where it looks genuinely threatening. Seeing bad guys getting sucked into its vortex is pretty fun. (The screaming remains audible despite the barrage of sounds.) And then there is science-talk about the eye of the hurricane and its edges. I don’t think it is possible for a cyclone to go around 600 miles per hour in the first place. And yet some buildings remain intact, more or less. Clearly, the movie is meant to be unbelievable. I cannot deny I had a good time.

Triple Frontier


Triple Frontier (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Planning and executing a heist in order to steal over seventy-five million dollars from a drug lord in the middle of the Colombian jungle is only about a third of the fun in “Triple Frontier,” co-written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, an adrenaline-fueled and entertaining action picture saddled with occasional dialogue regarding guilt and morality. The attempt to humanize the characters, all of whom are former Special Forces, is appreciated, but the work is most enjoyable when guns are armed and the men must depart hurriedly before they are outnumbered and flanked by the enemy.

The star-studded cast is made up of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, and Garrett Hedlund. Each one is able to bring something special to the table, not relying simply on their looks or celebrity persona to cruise through the material. The screenwriters ensure to communicate why each member of the heist team is critical to the mission. Particularly important is why Santiago (Isaac) is the leader even though he is not the strongest, or smartest, or even the most technologically savvy. More generic action films tend to reduce team leaders as archetypes. Here, we are given a chance to appreciate specific moments when our central protagonist, for instance, is being pragmatic, weak, emotional, empathetic. He holds himself accountable when things go right and, perhaps more importantly, when things go south.

There is a wonderful rapport among the cast which makes us believe that the soldiers have shared a strong history. When they get together, although there is the expected hugging and patting on the back, we are able to capture recognition in their eyes. This is where Chandor’s direction comes into play. He gives time for the men acclimate to one another after years of separation instead of simply parading one breathless action piece right after another. It shows that we are in the hands of a patient filmmaker, the helmer of high caliber works—“All is Lost” being one of them.

Shoot ‘em up scenes command tension because we care for the soldiers who decide they now want a big piece of the pie after years of hardships yet not having much to show for it. Another reason is that suspense is allowed to build and swell until it can no longer be sustained. An excellent example is the well-planned robbery. There is far too much money to be put in bags but so little time. We can almost hear the clock ticking because every second counts. Every room entered that contains no money feels all the more disappointing. But when finally faced with stacks upon stacks of cash, the characters we think we know change almost instantaneously. It becomes one of those movies where the viewer is compelled to yell instructions at the screen—in a good way.

Another element that separates the work from other action flicks is its use of setting. Instead of relying on action scenes that take place indoors—a house, a building—it takes advantage of the beautiful South American landscapes: jungles, mountains, farms, beaches. In a way, doing so adds a level of thrill because being out in the open space constantly puts our protagonists at a disadvantage. They could be seen from afar and wouldn’t know it until a rain of bullets come flying.

Your Son


Your Son (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

It has the framework of a revenge-thriller: A father (Jose Coronado) receives news that his son (Pol Monen) has been beaten so badly outside a nightclub that he is now in a coma. But instead of going the expected route and exploring familiar themes, “Your Son,” co-written by Alberto Marini and Miguel Ángel Vivas, directed by the latter, turns out to be a character study of a man so used to being in control and respected (he is a surgeon), that when life deals him an impossible hand, certainly a losing hand, he realizes he is a coward. It is a fascinating portrait, one that is worthy of discussion, one that left me shaken but wanting to talk about what I’d just seen.

For about half the picture, it takes its time in feeding us what we come to expect from the familiar template of a grieving parent who becomes obsessed with the idea of getting some sort of retribution for a family member’s honor. We follow Jaime from the moment he gets word that his son is fighting for his life, as he listens to a detective going over video footages that capture the final minutes that lead to the crime, as he returns in an empty home from a sleepless night, and as he finds the first clue that may lead to one of the perpetrators. These scenes are directed with such patience and calculation that I began to think that although am highly invested in the story, there is nothing about it that is fresh.

As it the material gathers power, however, it dares to test the viewer’s patience. Why is it that although Jaime has found one of the suspects, he simply would not—or could not—concoct a plan to isolate the person of interest, nab him, get more information out of him, and finally punish him? After all, isn’t inflicting punishment what he wants? Or is that we what we want to see? The reason is because the film is not interested in the usual points of catharsis. Showing violence when we expect it is to create entertainment out of something that should not be entertaining especially given the film’s recurring themes. Clearly, there is discipline in the screenplay; it trusts us to try and figure out how the pieces actually go together when they do not fit with our initial assumptions.

Coronado’s face is front and center for nearly half of the picture. We see him devolve from a tired but relatively happy man to someone rather unrecognizable in thought and action. There is irony in the fact that despite the son being the one whose face became disfigured, it is the father who undergoes a more horrifying transformation. Like the best performers, Coronado’s eyes are able to communicate at least two emotions at any given moment. The manner in which Jaime looks into the void and then suddenly being forced to focus on a person or a matter at hand is masterclass. His extensive experience shines through every beat which makes watching him quite mesmerizing.

“Tu hijo” is not interested in a tidy or happy ending as long as the journey is complete. More films should follow its example since the approach leaves something for the viewer to think about. The final few minutes is maddening but appropriate—an excellent way of unveiling what the story is really about rather than what we hope for it to be about. The work is helmed with intelligence and class.

The Endless


The Endless (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s sci-fi horror picture “The Endless” offers a spellbinding experience, filled to the brim with wonderful ideas and more than a handful of them are quite well-executed to the point where certain images and situations linger in the mind. It creates subtle ways to ask us what we would do if we were placed in the same challenges as its characters. Clearly shot with a limited budget, I admired that the filmmakers are not afraid to play the ambitious story quite small, thereby amping up the believability of increasingly bizarre situations. Here is a picture that does not rely on sudden left turns to tell a good story. There just so happens to be twists and turns in this head-scratcher.

Brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) receive a videotape from a UFO death cult that they escaped from nearly ten years ago. Aaron, having a spotty memory of what had occurred there, informs his elder sibling that he wishes to visit their former community. From what he remembers, the life they had was good: they had food on the table, people were friendly, and they had all the time in the world to engage their own interests. Recognizing that his baby brother is deeply unhappy with their current lives as cleaners who are constantly short on money, Justin agrees to go with him. Perhaps closure might be good for Aaron. It was agreed that would only spend one night there.

The film is highly watchable because it appears to be aware of horror conventions regarding cults and people who decide to join or infiltrate it. Expecting that we will always be on our toes, great tension is established during the former half by showing that the cult members are, in general, quite normal despite a few people having highly noticeable personality quirks. Nearly everything is so ordinary when it comes to the residents that we wonder if Camp Arcadia really is or was a UFO death cult in the first place. Naturally, what we see is a veneer of something more sinister just brewing underneath… or is it above?

To reveal more is to perform a disservice for those who are even slightly curious about seeing the film. I believe that those who find great pleasure in observing human behavior and looking for their tells will be right at home here. There is a man who always has a grin on his face—it looks so unnatural that one gets the impression the corners of his mouth have been stapled into place. There is another man who power walks and does not say a word. He seems to be on mission or that something requires his full attention. And then there is a woman who cries while everyone else is partying around the campfire. Maybe the place isn’t as happy as it appears. One looks at the night sky and sees two moons. Residents attempt to rationalize it.

The plot of “The Endless” does not point toward a cerebral experience—nor does it need to be one. It provides entertainment without the viewers being required to overanalyze every single plot point, left turn, or metaphor. It simply asks us to invest in the siblings’ strange, sometimes horrifying, journey and their need to reconnect with their past in order to get an appreciation of their present—despite the financial hardships and lack of self-fulfillment. The film works because its core is fundamentally human.

The Lodgers


The Lodgers (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Gothic horror film “The Lodgers” is a massive disappointment because its look and setting is spot-on, but the screenplay is far from imaginative. It tells the story of twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) who find themselves trapped in an estate that their family has owned for two centuries. They must abide three rules: be in their bedrooms before midnight, never allow a stranger to pass through the front door, and never separate. Breaking rules would result in punishment delivered by malevolent beings that live under the floorboards. The picture has the makings of a dark fairy tale we can bite into during a stormy night, but the final product is soporifically generic.

Rachel and Edward’s place of living is beautiful despite the fact that it is in a state of dereliction. The ceilings are high and moldy, creepy paintings are bathed in shadows, uninhabited bedrooms tell a story simply by showing us the colors of bedsheets and ornaments resting on dressers. Even the unkempt grounds are interesting to look at, particularly the lake that Rachel frequents so she can have some peace to read and get lost in worlds other than her own. We realize immediately that there is something wrong with this body of water given that the girl occasionally encounters terrifying visions involving her parents who committed suicide.

Although capably performed by Vega and Millner, Rachel and Edward are not interesting together or apart. Perhaps it is because the screenplay attempts so hard to keep the secret involving their pasts that eventually it becomes glaringly obvious; we see so-called twists coming from a mile away and so tension fails to accumulate in a way that is natural or believable. It might have been more effective had such secrets been revealed early on, possibly via narration prior to the opening credits, so that we could have a chance to focus on circumstances that would allow the pair to be free of the curse instead of simply waiting for the enigma to be revealed. Here is a horror film without much suspense.

A more interesting relationship involves Rachel and Sean (Eugene Simon), a young man sent home from war because he had lost his leg. Rachel yearns for freedom so badly that we wonder whether she genuinely feels romantically interested him or whether he is simply a tool that will help her reach her endgame. Still, what they come to share is severely underdeveloped and so there is no emotional payoff during the climax: all visual effects and underwater sequences that are pretty to look at but they fail to make any sort of sense.

“The Lodgers,” written by David Turpin and directed by Brian O’Malley, offers eye-catching costumes and set decorations, but it lacks what really matters—a reason to engage the viewers emotionally and psychologically. What results is a horror film that attempts to be spooky but ending up rather vague and unsatisfying. In the middle of it, I wondered how it might have been different had the likes of Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuarón, or J.A. Bayona been at the helm. Because these three writer-directors know how to turn horror and fantasy elements into something more substantial than simply relying on big reveals.

The Babysitter


The Babysitter (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Babysitter,” directed by McG and based on the screenplay by Brian Duffield, is particularly difficult for me to review because I acknowledge that it offers a few laughs, the two leading performances are highly watchable, and the premise involving a preteen’s discovery that his babysitter is actually a part of a Satanic cult is so wild, I was excited how the story is going to take shape. But without a shadow of doubt, the film belongs under the category of children-in-danger movies, and it is most unfortunate that it keeps the protagonist under constant torment—so constant that right from the opening scene this boy is already being terrorized at school.

Children-in-peril pictures can work given a sharp, intelligent writing that functions as commentary. For example, it can tackle the subject of young people being so sheltered that modern parenting is essentially training future adults to constantly demand being in a safe space. In my opinion, children-in-peril movies rarely work as a straightforward horror-thriller, or even as a horror-comedy, because there is a tendency toward fetishizing not only the violence or gore but also our expectation that a child must not be harmed or mutilated in any way. In other words, films that generate thrills solely through the guise of the audience not wanting to a child being hurt can be considered as lowest hanging fruit.

And so throughout the film, I constantly had to ask myself what the material is saying behind the superficial entertainment. I found none. I suppose one can claim that the story is about a twelve-year-old, who is pretty much afraid of everything, being forced to to find courage in himself to stand up against bullies. But that is a stretch because the villains in the film, members of the Satanic cult (Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor), are purposefully written as walking stereotypes.

In real life, bullies are more than archetypes and in order for the film to have meaning beyond the images on screen, the writing must command depth and subtlety. Those who dare to compare this film, for example, to Joss Whedon’s writing (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) clearly have little to no understanding about why Whedon’s works possess cultural relevance. They aren’t just post-modern, have quirky premises, or tapping into zeitgeist. They are genuinely saying something beyond what we see and experience on screen. These works care about teenagers and young adults.

It is too bad because I really enjoyed the central performances here. Samara Weaving as Bee the babysitter reminded me at times of Margot Robbie’s ability to go from warmly intrigued to sexually electric, while Judah Lewis as Cole the fearful adolescent brought back flashes of Corey Haim in the underrated 1986 coming-of-age picture “Lucas.” A standout scene in the picture is a dramatic moment when Cole reveals to Bee that he feels such a weirdo at times that, essentially, he feels helpless in his own skin. This is such a moving scene that I wished the movie had been about the bond between the sitter and the preteen, completely throwing out the wacky chases, over-the-top gore, and absurd resolution.

The horror-comedy will certainly entertain some, but those looking for a more substantial story and character development with smart decisions throughout are best advised to stay away. And because of the title, it must be stated outright that “The Babysitter” is not at all a successful throwback to late-‘70s and ’80s slashers. There is no suspense to be had here.

Into the Inferno


Into the Inferno (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

What I love about grandmaster filmmaker Werner Herzog is that each of his work is rich. I don’t mean that a lot of money is put into them. Rather, they are rich in ideas, in the sorts of people we come to meet, in the philosophical questions he asks the audience to consider, in the many corners of the globe we get a chance to see on film but would likely never visit in person. “Into the Inferno,” seemingly about volcanoes upon first glance, is no exception.

Those hoping to learn throughly about volcanoes are likely to be disappointed. In a Herzog picture, it is almost always never really about the subject but the people involved or are impacted in some way by the subject. He is a most humanist filmmaker and this is underlined by small moments that inattentive viewers are likely to miss. Notice how he allows the camera to sit still and rest on faces of various colors, shapes, ages, and culture. He employs minimal cuts, consistently allowing the persons speaking to express whatever they have to say despite stutters, pauses, and awkward silences. Because sometimes the truth is not embedded in what is spoken but in the way an answer is expressed.

Particularly fascinating—and chilling—is the visit to North Korea. There is a collaboration between North Korean scientists and scientists from the University of Cambridge to study Mount Paektu, an active volcano, and so we are given a rare chance to take a look at the enigmatic country and its people. For a while, there is an eerie feeling that the locals are actually open in allowing themselves to be filmed. They look happy, free, full of energy. After a rather impressive and emotionally engaging scene involving North Korean university students atop a mountain, Herzog pulls us back and tells us what it was we had actually seen. He then proceeds to show us a friendly tour of the monuments where people smile and take pictures.

Herzog is unafraid to go on a tangent. My favorite involves a trip to Ethiopia and there Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist whom the director met ten years prior while filming the excellent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” interacts with archeologists and they dig up remains of early humans, bones that had been in the ground for 100,000 years. I was riveted every time they hold up fossilized bone to the camera and impressed that the archeologists know exactly which piece of bone it is simply by looking at it. I was amused that they make digging through sand appear like playtime. I was reminded of that feeling I get when I go to work and none of the pipetting, mixing chemicals, and performing gel electrophoresis feels like actual work. These are people who are in love with what they do and I appreciated that the camera has managed to capture that very essence.

Of course, there are amazing shots inside mouths of volcanoes. We peer into one of three volcanoes in the world in which lava can be seen directly. We hear the heat rising and roaring, the smoke so thick and ominous. We see old footages of erupting volcanoes and the destruction of nearby villages, towns, and cities. We even get a chance to visit some of these places a few years after a volcanic eruption. We see houses almost completely buried in dirt. Herzog notes there are still curtains on the windows.

“Into the Inferno” is a highly captivating documentary, commanding the joys, ironies, horrors, curiosities, and mysteries of the best work of film fiction. It makes the viewer to want to travel the world and visit structures like churches shaped like a chicken, catacombs designed to protect from pyroclastic materials, to interact with isolated villagers and ask questions about how they interpret the afterlife. It is a film that inspires to search outside one’s bubble.