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29
May

Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho


Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Blind teenager Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) longs independence from his parents, classmates, the ennui of the every day. Along with his best and only friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), he laments over the general lack of excitement of being in high school. Things begin to look up, however, when he meets a new student named Gabriel (Fabio Audi), someone who is unlike the other boys in his class.

“The Way He Looks,” written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro, is an LGBTQ picture that radiates honesty and with that quality it is already lightyears from its contemporaries. It neither relies on overt sexuality to be sexy nor a syrupy romance to get us to invest in the lives of the three Brazilian teenagers. Its approach is simple but effective: it shows the characters’ insecurities, how they deal with their problems, and the reconciliation, if any, that occurs when or if they learn to mature a little bit.

There is an organic feel to the look of the film. It benefits from not one scene being shot in a studio. When we are inside Leo’s house, we notice the decorations on the walls, the knickknacks on the side tables, how lived in it all feels. When a scene is set at school, the floors are not shiny, the desks appear as though they have been used for years, certain corridors look like they need a bit of polishing. Because of its realistic look and feel, it establishes a certain tone—that we are looking at real lives being lived in real places.

Leo’s arguments with his parents, too, are executed with realism. Watching them felt like I was being intrusive at times. The disagreements come across as genuine, from the tone and pitch of their voices to how close they get to one another physically. The words chosen and how they are delivered are not glossy or hyper-articulate. It makes these scenes very relatable and there were a couple of times when I could not help but think back to certain instances when I was upset with my parents after a long day of school.

The friendships among the three are sweet. Throughout the course of the picture, we discover how the dynamics of their relationships work. Sometimes they are fragile but surprisingly strong at times. There is a great metaphor introduced in the middle which involves the sun, the moon, and the earth when an eclipse occurs. Furthermore, there is a theme involving fear of losing a strong connection throughout—whether it be of a long-lasting friendship or a potential romance.

I enjoyed that sometimes it isn’t clear what a character wants exactly. We try to figure it out. Is the truth hidden in behavior? How one looks at another? How one acts when he or she is by herself? That confusion is tackled here in a fresh way. It is essential that it is communicated with clarity. After all, it is a part of being young and still trying to figure out one’s identity.

“Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho” ends right where it should and yet I could not help but want to see more of Leo, Gi, and Gabriel’s lives after it wrapped up. The feeling I had as it finished reminded me of a similar sentiment, somewhere along the lines of saying goodbye to a good friend. You know you’re not going to see this friend for a long time and so a part of you is sad. At the same time, that friendship is very secure so fear is not at all a part of having to step away.

28
May

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead


Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (2012)
★ / ★★★★

John Dahl’s “Joy Ride” is a highly enjoyable thriller because it reaches a right balance of humor and terror in addition to Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, and Leelee Sobieski’s charming and winsome performances. We believe immediately that they are young people who just happen to cross paths with a psycho named Rusty Nail.

“Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead,” directed by Louis Morneau, proves to be a lesser breed, devoid of laughs, suspense, horror, and thrill. Its dialogue is, for the most part, flat and lifeless. It is as if the writers, James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin, have failed to ask themselves why it is worth creating a second chapter and what basic elements are required to create a semblance of an entertaining movie.

There is a plot but it is as ordinary as they come: Three people are on their way to Las Vegas. Bobby (Nick Zano) and Melissa (Nicki Aycox) are going to married and their friends have arranged a bachelor and a bachelorette parties. Kayla (Laura Jordan), Melissa’s sister, invited a guy she has met on MySpace, Nik (Kyle Schmid), to join them. After meeting up with Nik, he suggests that they take the backroads. In horror movies, young people and backroads do not mix. Some might argue it is a formula for disaster.

Part of the problem is that the four are boring when together and even more so when apart. Each is given a distinct personality trait—one is the quiet jock, the elder sister is controlling so, predictably, the younger must be the wilder one, and the remaining is Mr. PunkRock.com. Right away we notice how poorly they are written, simply lambs ready to be slaughtered. In a movie that tries to be good, at least some of the characters are given likable traits so that we care about what happens to them later on. Not here.

The approach of making a situation appear scary is all wrong. The first problem is the score. It tells us everything we need to know before the punchline is delivered. It is akin to watching a bad sitcom where a laugh track is used before the joke gets a chance to take off. Second is the characters’ reactions. I did not expect them to be very smart. However, I expected them to act like normal human beings.

For instance, pay attention to the scene where one of the characters starts insulting a diner full of truckers and bikers. Now, ask yourself: If you are in the middle of nowhere and you are surrounded by people who look like they can knock you out with one punch directly to the face, would you hurl insults at them when they themselves are minding their own business and having a meal in peace? I hope the answer is “No,” but, apparently, to the writers, the answer is “Yes.” Therefore I ask them: What kind of universe are they living in?

The film is a waste of time—there is no going around it. If one wishes to see gore, there are good horror-thrillers that deliver blood by the bucketload. Alexandre Aja’s “Haute tension” and “The Hills Have Eyes” are good examples. If one wishes to not see so much gore but would like to be suspended in anticipation of what might happen next, make a U-turn and rediscover the hidden delights of the predecessor. Victor Salva’s “Jeepers Creepers” ain’t so bad either.

25
May

Pitch Perfect 2


Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

On President Obama’s birthday, the Barden Bellas, three-time a cappella champions, were invited to perform at the Lincoln Center. The performance goes swimmingly—at least initially—until Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is shown suspended on a white sheet à la P!nk at the 2010 Grammys. Wearing no underwear, Fat Amy inadvertently flashes the world and the images spread like wildfire. The Barden Bellas’ once excellent reputation is tarnished and the university’s dean is forced to make a drastic decision.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks, “Pitch Perfect 2” matches the novelty and verve of its predecessor at times, but it does drag in parts. As it should be, the film is at the top of its game when characters are performing mashups of mainstream songs both new and old. However, in order to appeal emotionally to the audience, the script tries to explore friendships and relationships which often come across as tired and forced.

There are a few smart choices here. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is now a senior and she is making preparations when it comes to what she wants to do next after graduation. She hopes to become a record producer and so she divides her time between the a cappella group and interning with a music producer with a sharp tongue (Keegan-Michael Key). The scenes that take place in the conference room and the studio are entertaining and amusing. We believe that Beca is ready to start a new chapter, not simply sitting through a series of scenes where the character realizes eventually that she loves being a Barden Bella more than a chance at a real future. Always be on the lookout for cameos.

Less interesting is the love interest between Fat Amy and Bumper Allen (Adam DeVine), a former Treblemaker who used to work for John Mayer. I missed Bumper Allen’s sassiness; they try to make him a nice guy here which makes him almost boring. Although Wilson and DeVine do try to give it their best shot, especially when it comes to the range of facial expressions they possess, I never felt like there was anything at stake. Even if they do not end up together in the end, it still feels all right. Thus, the couple’s scenes are trivial for the most part, about twenty minutes of padding that fails to push the story forward.

Perhaps the best part of the film is when the Barden Bellas participate in an underground rif-off against other a cappella groups. It is creative, funny, and we get a real sense of the styles, strengths, and weaknesses of each group. This is stronger than the finale—the latter satisfying but not particularly impressive. The last performance relies too much on sentimentality than presentation and talent. The main rival of the Barden Bellas in this film, Das Sound Machine (Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), commands such a presence that cuteness and sweetness simply fail to measure up.

“Pitch Perfect 2” offers a good time and is best seen with a group of people. It might have been better if there had been less talking and more singing, but actors like Kendrick and Wilson possess such an effervescent, effortless charm that they could be selling me something that I don’t need yet I’ll still listen to them speak.

24
May

Poltergeist


Poltergeist (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Moving into a new home has its set of stresses, but the Bowens have another challenge: They had not been told that the land the house is standing on used to be a part of a cemetery and there is a possibility that the bodies had not been moved prior to construction. During move-in day, middle-child Griffin (Kyle Catlett) catches youngest child Madison (Kennedi Clements) speaking with someone—or something—from behind a closet. Perhaps it is only one of Madison’s harmless imaginary friends… but perhaps it is something more sinister.

Although “Poltergeist,” written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, offers two, maybe three, genuinely scary scenes, it falls apart almost completely during the final third when visual and special effects move front and center. These effects are too stylized that they begin to look fake—almost like watching a video game—and so the horror element grows weaker as the visual spectacle grows stronger. The most effective supernatural horror stories—those that inspire a real sense of dread, suspense, and chills down our spines—understand that the punchline is about small moments, perhaps when one is home alone or when one is supposed to be safe in her bed.

A memorable scene involves Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), the eldest child, babysitting his little brother and sister while their parents (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt) are out. While texting, her phone screen starts to get staticky and it appears to get worse as she moves around the house. Meanwhile, Griffin is terrorized upstairs by toy clowns he had found—or that found him?—the night before. This part of the movie is effective because we get a genuine feeling that the children are not safe. With the parents around, the adults can always run upstairs or downstairs to offer help. There is a sense of urgency in how Kendra and Griffin’s encounters are edited together. Meanwhile, Madison sits in a corner, afraid of the increasingly powerful entity behind her closet.

There is not enough characterization. Rockwell is one of those actors who can pretty much deliver whatever emotion the script requires. Here, his character is supposed to be so stressed out and so upset about having been laid off for a while that sometimes he reroutes this negative energy into the opposite of what he is supposed to be doing—like going on a spending spree instead of being more careful with money. I wanted to understand his personal struggle as a provider who is not providing, but the screenplay does not go deeply into the root of his emotions, thoughts, and choices. Although the film is not a drama, horror movies have lasting power when we are invested in the characters—characters of whom we can recognize a part of ourselves or someone we may know.

The other solid scene involves a paranormal researcher (Nicholas Braun) attempting to set up equipment inside Madison’s closet. Notice that with each passing second, the frame gets tighter and tighter which runs parallel to the buildup of tension. This is a film not without potential to become engaging. Clearly, the director, who helmed “Monster House,” one of my favorite animated films, knows how to setup and execute scenes that make us feel uncomfortable. Imagine if the screenplay had been more sparing when it comes to the CGI. The filmmakers would then have to be more creative when delivering shocks and scares.

Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” did not need a reboot because it already embodies the horror trifecta: heart, brain, and very unsettling scenes that sometimes come in a form of special and visual effects. Perhaps it just needed a sequel—maybe injecting a bit more menace into the template’s marrow or a proper and convincing background story with respect to those corpses underneath the house.

23
May

R100


R100 (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tired of the ennui of his every day life, Takafumi (Nao Ōmori) joins “Bondage,” an S&M club that offers a unique service: A variety of dominatrixes arrive at any moment and the customer is required to be submissive at all times. The contract lasts for a year and one is not allowed to withdraw from participation once the contracts are signed. Initially, Takafumi finds great pleasure in the encounters. They are exciting, painful, pleasurable. Eventually, however, the man begins to feel the leather-clad women have crossed the line by coming to his work and involving his son in the games.

“R100,” directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, is one of the most delightfully bizarre movies I have had the pleasure to come across in some time. It is a comedy at its core, but we are given a chance to appreciate the depressing life of the lead character and perhaps understand why he decided to risk everything in order to feel alive again. At times it is savagely funny, occasionally disgusting, and consistently interesting. Things do not always make sense, but I could not peel my eyes away from the screen.

Each dominatrix is given a surface personality and “expertise” so all of them are instantly memorable. A standout is named The Queen of Saliva (Naomi Watanabe), long-haired and carrying some extra weight, who commands such a presence, I did not know whether to be scared of or be amused by her, unlike The Gobble Queen (Katagiri Hairi) and The Voice Queen (Mao Daichi) where I knew exactly how to feel toward them. The Queen of Saliva lives up to her name and although the scene offers gross-out humor, it functions on such a high level of energy that I could never predict what was going to happen next. What ultimately transpires thrusts the story in a very strange but still entertaining third act.

The picture might not have been as effective if it isn’t for Ōmori’s performance. We can tell a lot about the character by how the actor walks from one point to another. He takes rather small steps, calm and slow, as if to delay arrival to his destination. His posture is neither straight nor hunched but it does look defeated, unexcited, like the man in control is not really living but solely existing. There is a sadness to this character that I found to be fascinating; strip away the BDSM club that he is involved in and he remains to be worthy of getting to know further.

The film is a film within a film. From time to time, the same group of people—who I assume to be test audiences—step outside of the screening room to discuss—rather, complain—about the elements that are not working in the movie. I found these scenes to be very funny because some of the questions and criticisms I had were expressed. For instance, why does an S&M club need a CEO?

To watch “R100” is to go down a rabbit hole. It will entertain those with an open mind and likely to frustrate those who require a specific track of what a comedy should be. I enjoyed the picture not only because it takes risks but also because many of them work. The material could have been a one-note joke. Instead, we are provided an orchestra full of strange, curious, shocking, amusing turn of events.

22
May

The Atticus Institute


Atticus Institute, The (2015)
★ / ★★★★

There is no going around the fact that “The Atticus Institute,” written and directed by Chris Sparling, is a terrible movie. Consider all faux-documentary horror films you can think of and observe that just about every cliché from the sub-genre is utilized. It is most uninspired and although the picture is only about eighty minutes long, it might as well have been three miserable hours.

A psychology lab that specializes in studying exceptional human abilities, such as psychokinesis, was shut down in 1976 by the U.S. government. There was one subject that captured the attention of the investigators. Her name was Judith (Ryan Kihlstedt) and ever since she slipped on ice and hurt her back, she began exhibiting strange behaviors, like taking on a different voice and starting fire using only her mind.

The picture never gets a chance to become scary. Part of the problem is the sloppy editing. It is too generous in employing cuts when a single take could have done the job. Thus, tension does not get established, let alone escalate, and we are left in our seats watching bizarre goings-on, but we do not feel anything in our gut. It gives us a passive experience rather than involving us into the story’s mysteries and secrets.

Claims that so-called researchers make are downright laughable. The script assumes that the audience is not intelligent. One that stood out to me is a man who claims that a random probability of getting a correct answer by guessing the shape printed behind a card is twenty percent. Thus, when a subject providing a correct answer increases to thirty percept, it is a significant difference. I did not know whether to laugh or feel insulted by this claim. A tip: If you are going to have a figure of authority speak directly to camera and talk about facts, at least provide a semblance of logic instead of spewing out numbers with the hope of confusing the viewer.

The first half is astoundingly bad, but the second half is simply depressing. Once the government takes over the psychologists’ project, the government officials’ treatment of Judith becomes a topic more worthy of exploration than Judith’s possible paranormal affliction. Who cares about supernatural phenomenon when a group of people gets involved in torturing another human being for the sake of getting political advantage? It would have been great if the writer-director had provided a bridge between the two extremes. Alas, the material does not possess the ambition to become more than a forgettable horror film.

There are a lot of flashing lights while room is dark, screaming and yelling, demonic voices, and grainy images when a supposed scary moment is happening. The movie is as flat as tap water; it does not bother to change things up tonally. We do not even learn who the characters are. I would like to personally ask the writer-director what inspired him to make this project because that inspiration, if any, failed to translate on screen.

20
May

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief


Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When I hear of the word “Scientology,” I think of a group of people, most often involving Tom Cruise, who follow a certain set of teachings that has been around for about fifteen years. And so “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” directed by Alex Gibney, is a most informative documentary, one that details what Scientology is about, its founder and current leader, celebrities formerly and currently within the organization, and what happens if one decided to leave. I was ignorant that this group has been around for decades and is only increasing in power.

The film is organized, clear, and purposeful. The first quarter introduces the viewer to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. I found the man fascinating because he was clearly an imaginative person, having written so many science fiction books, and yet he used his writing prowess to create a lie that would have tsunami-like effects on so many people’s lives. Families are broken. Well-beings of others are threatened. Members are spending their lives trying to achieve something that probably means nothing. Imagine how these lives might have turned out differently if one man had not published a book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”

I enjoyed learning about what the group stands for, what they do, and what they hope to achieve. A lot of the information tickled my insides due to the impracticality of the belief system. I am not saying that their belief is wrong or right—hence the term “belief”—but it amazes me that a group, not necessarily only specific to Scientologists, appears to lose their ability to think critically, which lasts over an extended period of time, even when they feel something is not quite right, whether it be morally or ethically.

And yet the picture does not judge. Rather, it is quite sympathetic to the former members who chose to be on camera without their faces being hidden in shadows. Notice how the camera lingers when a person admits to his or her disbelief for having been a part of the organization over a number of years. Clearly, these are people who feel ashamed, used, and angry. They not only lost time and energy they can never get back but also family members who are still members of the church. What is it about being a part of something that prevents us from recognizing reason sooner than we should?

The documentary, based on Lawrence Wright’s book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” does a great job summarizing Scientology’s roots, where it is now, and where it is heading which makes it worth seeing. People have good reason to be concerned because there is growing evidence that Scientology is a scam.

I have always said that a healthy religion is one that practices inclusion—even to those who may not believe in all, most, or any of the religion’s teachings. Scientology, like some other religions out there, practices active exclusion when any sort of dissent is involved. For example, sending members to ex-Scientologists’ private properties and, essentially, being a threat to people’s safety and preventing them to live their lives however they wish to. To me, such actions fall under the category called “terrorism.”

16
May

Mad Max: Fury Road


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Assigned to drive a massive truck to collect gasoline, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has another plan: once there is a good distance between the vehicle and her starting point, she would veer off-track and return to her homeland—along with five wives of cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byryne). A hot pursuit erupts, with ailing Nux (Nicholas Hoult), chained to a prisoner named Max (Tom Hardy), hoping to impress Immortan Joe so he can be welcomed to Valhalla when he dies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, is an orgasmic visual exercise of yellow-orange sand, sweltering heat, vehicle acrobatics, dramatic explosions, and deformed, heavy makeup-wearing citizens of a collapsed world bound by no rules. Even without a deep story, it engages thoroughly because the images are so hyperbolic, there is not one film that is remotely like it in the past decade.

The action scenes are inspired and creative. The picture is composed of one long chase sequence but there is variety in the counters between heroes/heroines and villains. With each geographic change, we get an idea about the group of people who live within that area. Particularly memorable is the biker gang waiting atop a narrow canyon. A deal has been made between the gang and Furiosa. Based on how the scene is shot as our protagonists enter the canyon, we know immediately that something is about to go wrong.

Such is the film’s strength: it is shot with a sense of urgency. Although the narration in the beginning briefly describes the circumstances that led to humanity’s decay, we remain curious about its universe nonetheless because it does not spell out every detail. As the characters trek across dry terrains, we discover the journey with them. For instance, the challenge is not only avoiding or eliminating those who try to kill them. All characters must also be wary of and be prepared for the cruel environment that awaits.

At times the picture attempts to do too much. A romantic connection is introduced eventually which does not work at all. The problem is, we have a basic understanding about only half of the would-be couple. Character depth and development is not one of the film’s strengths and so such a desperate attempt to get us emotionally involved, through a romantic scope, comes across as forced and unnecessary. Sometimes less is more.

The two leads, Hardy and Theron, and two supporting actors, Hoult and Keays-Byrne, are a joy to watch because they are unafraid to exaggerate their emotions, to look unattractive physically, to embody their deranged characters completely. Each one commands a high level of creative energy and so he or she is front and center, there is a magnetism and charisma to the performance. We are inspired to learn more about each one of these characters and yet the material has a way of always keeping us at arm’s length. Perhaps we are not meant to get to know these people for their world is so different than ours, they might as well have been of a different species.

Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visual spectacle but there is room for some improvement as mentioned previously. I see potential as a modern franchise—one that is not about superheroes or chosen ones destined to save a dystopian world, but one that is about a decaying world and the degenerates who are struggling to survive in it.

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