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A Case of You

Case of You, A (2013)
★ / ★★★★

After an encounter with a former girlfriend, Sam (Justin Long), is made too aware that he is alone and, worse, lonely. Though he makes a living being a writer, he is not happy with being told what to write. Inspiration comes in a form of Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood), a barista that Sam meets every morning but never really had the chance to converse with in a meaningful way. When she gets fired for being consistently late for work, a former co-worker (Peter Dinklage) suggests that Sam look her up on Facebook. Sam finds Birdie online but instead of contacting her right away, he devises a plan: he will learn to like what she likes and so when they do meet eventually, there is instant connection.

“A Case of You” is a compilation of missed opportunities. The premise has the potential to speak to a lot of people but the screenplay by Justin Long, Christian Long, and Keir O’Donnell is content with riding the wheel’s whim instead of reinventing it. As a result, the picture is very much a shallow experience with a clear pattern divided in stages.

The first stage involves Sam obsessively checking Birdie’s online profile. I suppose we are supposed to be amused when the lead character reluctantly joins dance classes, music lessons, and other physically demanding activities. Once in a while he updates or consults his roommate, Eliot (O’Donnell), for advice. Rinse and repeat. There is a running joke involving Eliot’s masturbation ritual. Meanwhile, each succeeding scene becomes less entertaining. It gets to the point where Sam is just pathetic and creepy—those beady eyes absorbing every status update written by the girl of his dreams. The movie is not even halfway over.

The second stage comprises of Sam and Birdie finally meeting in person. There are supposedly romantic moments, hinted by the songs playing in the background as they go on various dates, but more discerning viewers ought not be tricked. After all, one of them is being tricked into thinking that a possible relationship is coming into fruition at some point. Since the root of what they have uses lies as nourishment, how is that romantic? I felt uneasy and I wanted someone to tell Birdie that the guy she is out with may look innocent and sweet but in reality, he reeks of desperation.

I like Long as an actor and he can be very funny given the right material but no amount of quirk can save his character because the writing has relied too much and too long on Sam being a stalker. Somehow either we are supposed to derive amusement out of what he goes through to get the girl or think that he is sweet for trying so hard to be impressive. The screenplay’s focus is on what he does instead of what he feels. One is universal and the other is not.

Directed by Kat Coiro, “A Case of You,” neither funny nor insightful about modern relationships, dares to be sentimental toward the end as if the emotions up to that point were earned. While the last scene is well-acted by the lead performers, it feels like the wrong ending considering the circumstances from a logical point of view. There is also a small twist during the last five minutes. It is supposed to be comforting on the surface but when one really thinks about it, it is but a final, pathetic attempt to come across as clever.


V/H/S: Viral

V/H/S: Viral (2014)
★ / ★★★★

There are bad movies and then there are the despicable ones, deserving of every excoriation because it feels like the filmmakers don’t even try to put out good work. “V/H/S: Viral” belongs in the latter category; I hated pretty much every segment it offers.

The “best” of the found-footage shorts is “Parallel Monsters” directed by Nacho Vigalondo. It tells the story of a man who creates a portal to another dimension. He is welcomed by his double who also made a portal from the other side. It stands above the other segments because there is intrigue: We wonder what lies on the other side. Although the material falls apart somewhat in the final two to three minutes, a good chunk of it is curious and it offers some humor. It is rarely one note.

Arguably the worst is Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s “Bonestorm.” Skateboarders go to Tijuana to shoot some stunts while causing some ruckus along the way. While filming, one of the boys is injured and blood drips on a pentagram. The segment might as well have been a video game. Eventually, the boys end up fighting some men wearing cloaks—presumably devil worshippers. The violence is cartoonish, silly, and dumb but never fun. None of the skateboarders are remotely likable. I did like the shot, however, when one of the camera was swallowed by a demon and we get a chance to see inside of its throat.

“Dante the Great,” directed by Gregg Bishop, reminds me a pilot episode of a television show that might have appeared on The WB when I was a teenager. It is so dramatic, almost soap opera-like, and some of the stunts and visual effects reminded me of “Charmed” sans a level of self-awareness that made the show enjoyable to watch. The segment involves an aspiring magician who finds a cloak that requires human sacrifice in order to give its wearer some power. I sat in my chair, wondering how the segment made it into the collection because there is nothing scary, creepy, or thrilling about it.

The unifying storyline is “Vicious Circles” directed by Marcel Sarmiento. There is a high speed chase around the neighborhood and Kevin, despite his girlfriend’s disapproval, hopes to record some awesome, preferably violent, images so his footage will go viral. Then Kevin starts to notice something strange: the chase, for some reason, is going on circles. The unifier should always be told with simplicity and clarity. Because it lacks these qualities, once the segment is chopped up and interweaved between the other segments, we end up feeling confused and wondering what message the writers hope for us to take away from it. We are not given one reason to care for Kevin, his beautiful girlfriend, and their relationship.

“V/H/S: Viral” offers a dearth of suspense, great thrills, or creative horror. The filmmakers of each segment, with the exception of those responsible for “Parallel Monsters,” should pay the audience to sit through their films because looking at those images felt like work.


Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Science is a profession for manic-depressives because there’s occasional highs where we make a discovery and then 90% or 95% of the time there’s frustrating difficulties and nothing happens. What drives one is one’s ongoing curiosity and the optimism that if you push hard enough and you look under enough stones, you’re going to turn up some really interesting things. —Dr. Robert A. Weinberg

All of us have been touched with cancer—whether it be through a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor who lives a few houses down our own. Some of us may have gone through it directly. “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a highly compelling and informative six-hour documentary that should be seen by everyone. It begins with the early history of what we now refer to as cancer—dating back to ancient Egypt—and ends with highlighting the breakthroughs that researchers and physicians have made in the quest of finding a cure, or cures, against a most ingenious disease.

One of the film’s most positive qualities, directed by Barak Goodman, is the precise and clear manner in which it presents information. This is no easy feat considering that the material jumps back and forth between past and present, the latter telling stories of patients who have been diagnosed with specific cancers, children and adults across all races, creed, and economic status. The present focuses on the human aspect of the disease while the past takes on the science, the critical discoveries, about more than a handful turning out to be accidental, that have been made to get us to where we are now.

The documentary is divided into three two-hour sections: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” and “Finding the Achilles Heel.” Each commands a specific tone, mood, and subject. For instance, the first section focuses primarily on liquid tumors like leukemia while the succeeding section turns its attention to solid tumors such as breast cancer. The third is about coming to terms with mortality and immorality of the high cost that comes with cancer care. In terms of emotional heft, I felt very touched by Dr. Lori Wilson’s story, a physician diagnosed by not one but two different breast cancers, one in each breast. Her story is found in the middle section, the grim irony of her situation synergistic to that of the section’s playful and ironic title.

Animations, diagrams, and images of actual cells under a microscope are often utilized at a perfect time. Instead of using obscure scientific jargon, it shows a picture. For instance, when a Western blot is presented on screen, there are arrows or there is a finger that points to where a person should look to recognize the difference between the protein expression of cancer versus normal cells. Aside the sheer quality and power of the material, I enjoyed it from the perspective of a student-scientist-in-training. I was reminded that just about over a year prior to seeing this film, I had no idea how to properly read a protein immunoblot. Thus, it is critical that what the film is showing or talking about can easily be consumed by the masses.

Notice I did not go into scientific details. This is on purpose because it is my aim to embody the essence of the film in this review. Needless to say, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” deserves to be seen and to be discussed. It might even encourage lifestyle changes because it has been established that some cancers are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. I would even go as far to say that I think it is powerful enough to inspire high school or college students who may be interested in the subject of cancer to pursue a career in science and/or medicine, to shed more light in this behemoth, history-making undertaking.


The Theory of Everything

Theory of Everything, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ph.D. student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is given news that he has two years to live. After a thorough examination, doctors conclude that he has a motor neuron disease which will inevitably result to gradual muscle decay, wasting away, and his ability to control voluntary movement will be lost entirely. We all know that Dr. Hawking will surpass the given life expectancy and so one of the challenges of the film, adapted to the screen by Anthony McCarten from Jane Hawking’s memoir, is to construct an arc that feels complete, from the moment Hawking received the terrible news until the publication of his book, “A Brief History of Time.”

Throughout the course of the picture, I admired Redmayne’s very human performance. He is able to turn a renowned astrophysicist into just another person afflicted by a disease that has no cure and yet provide colorful, complex layers, especially during the final third in which the subject is no longer able to speak. I imagined how difficult it must have been to play the character convincingly because every limb and facial expression must be on point—even if the camera is capturing images only from the chest up.

To be consistent in his portrayal take after take must have required a lot of effort, research, and determination. The way he is able to contort his face and fingers appears highly uncomfortable but nonetheless convincing. To top it off, not once does Redmayne forget to communicate with his eyes. They are always strong and alive even when the character’s body is weak and frail.

I was surprised and disappointed that the picture is not really about the science behind Hawking’s theories. There are some science, simplistic enough to be understood by laymen but still interesting enough for those who would like to know more. The movie is more about the relationship between Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones) and the love they shared. Although their partnership comes across as too glossy at times, there are enough moments of honesty that are painful, like Jane having to push herself to be with Stephen in their later years even if it no longer felt right. The push-and-pull between Jane wanting to stay and leave is great drama because it is essentially a question of doing the right thing. But for whom?

Although the score is a bit overbearing at times, the picture is beautifully photographed. The first half is bathed in a bright yellow glow, signifying optimism, youth, a surplus of energy and inspiration to tackle what the world has to offer head-on. The second half, on the other hand, is considerably less saturated, as if to reflect the subject’s physical decay. The characters move a little slower, their faces more saggy, a bit grey. A certain level of acceptance is in the air.

“The Theory of Everything” is able to hone in on what is important to Stephen and Jane, together and respectively, and that is why it works. I felt a bit of dread when I began to realize that the romance would comprise about half of the running time. Instead, it surprised me because I grew to invest in Jane and Stephen as a couple, that romance is not just reflected in maintaining a marriage but in the compatibility of souls.


The Hidden

Hidden, The (1987)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) robs a bank which leads to a car chase with the police. After killing some innocent people and leaving many wounded, DeVries is sent to the hospital due to life-threatening injuries. Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) is convinced that the case is closed now that the perpetrator is captured but it proves to be just the beginning when an FBI agent, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), shows up at the station. Gallagher has been looking for DeVries and that although he learns that his suspect is in the hospital, he still considers DeVries extremely dangerous. And he’s right.

Although “The Hidden,” written by Jim Kouf and directed by Jack Sholder, proves that it has the capacity to create great special and visual effects, it is actually more interested in telling a story even if its strands are eventually stretched too thin. The formula is simple: Beck and Gallagher join forces to hunt down a person of interest, a chase scene with a shoot-out occurs, the person of interest gets away, the FBI agent mutes his disappointment while his partner begins to grow suspect, and the cycle continues. It isn’t particularly exciting except the person that they wish to capture is not at all human but an extraterrestrial. It uses a human body as its host and when the body is either too weak or damaged, it evacuates and crawls into the closest organism that can sustain its needs.

The alien looks slimy and gross, but equally interesting to observe is MacLachlan as the quiet, almost eerie, FBI agent. There is a creepy calm that rests on his face as violence and murder unfold before him. Is it because he’s seen and experienced many bizarre happenings during his specialized career? Has he been hunting this life form for too long that he’s no longer surprised by its pattern of behavior? Unfortunately, I found the character quite easy to figure out. Because the picture lacks enough layers to keep us occupied, it is possible for the eventual revelations to be accurately predicted halfway through.

I enjoyed the partnership between Beck and Gallagher because they are never allowed to feel close to one another. Despite the extraterrestrial angle, this collaboration is anchored in reality. One of the best scenes is when Beck invites over his temporary partner for dinner. In a way, it subverts the audience’s expectations because we expect them to like each other more after conversing and sharing a good meal. By the end of the night, the screenplay makes a point that their relationship has not gone through some sort of change. After all, they’ve known each other for only a couple of hours. The point is we want them to warm up to each other and we look forward to the moment if or when they finally do.

Despite its in-your-face violence run amok, “The Hidden” can be appreciated for the small things. For instance, the scene involving the alien, while inside a host, wishing to get its hands on a Ferrari Mondial has an undercurrent of humor. The alien works as a metaphor because when we really want to have something in our possession, even if we know we shouldn’t buy it, most of us give in to that gnawing need—as if something had taken over our bodies for some time.


Central do Brasil

Central do Brasil (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is a former schoolteacher who writes letters for illiterate people, for a small fee, at the main train station in Rio de Janeiro. Two customers who make an impression are Ana (Soia Lira) and her son, Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira), wishing to send a letter to Jesus, a drunkard of a husband who has never met his son. A few minutes after their second meeting, Ana is involved in a traffic accident and passes away. This leaves Josué without a guardian and is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. Despite her resistance, Dora decides to help the boy eventually by escorting him across the country to look for his father.

There are a dime a dozen movies about a child and an adult, often strangers to one another, forming an unexpected symbiosis but very few are on the level of “Central do Brasil,” directed by Walter Salles, because the film touches upon and explores several journeys specific to the characters, their inner monologues, and the land they inhabit. On the surface, it is about two people on a road with the hopes of meeting a goal but just below its sclera is the importance of making memories and why looking back should be welcomed instead of disdained or feared.

The screw that locks each element in place is Dora. Although she is capable of good deeds, she is a complete person in that she has her share of shortcomings. Just when she leads us to believe that she cares only for the child’s well-being, she takes us through corridors that are unimaginable, choices that most of us, given that we are placed in her shoes, would likely not even consider. Her actions communicate plenty, from her determination to make money out of a situation to her attitude about promises and taking responsibility.

de Oliveira is the perfect counterpoint because he is an unstoppable force to Dora the immovable object. He infuses Josué with so much spunk, I stopped and wondered where all of his anger, sadness, and enthusiasm came from. I was so curious about de Oliveira that I felt compelled to do a little research. It turns out that the director met de Oliveira as a shoeshiner in an airport. The boy asked the filmmaker for money to buy a sandwich and promised to return the change when Salles returned from his trip.

It makes sense: Although the de Oliveira has had no experience in front of the camera, his performance is completely believable and heart-wrenching because he has experienced how it is like to not have the money to buy something as simple as a sandwich. It is admirable how he is able to summon the necessary emotions to construct a defined arc for his character.

There is plenty of drama and humor between Dora and Josué’s adventures, but the picture should also be remembered for its images. One of the most memorable is a shot that occurs early on. A train pulls over at the station but before it has come to a complete stop for the doors to open, some passengers have already climbed through the windows and grabbed seats that are available. Contrast that claustrophobic image to shots of the open spaces where not one person can be seen for miles. It feels freeing but at the same time there is an element of increasing loneliness the longer our eyes linger on the South American land.


It Follows

It Follows (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

After sleeping with Hugh (Jake Weary), Jay (Maika Monroe) is informed that he had passed something onto her—a sort of curse—and she must remember a few things if she wants to live. First, a way to get rid of it is to have sex with another person. Second, the entity that will come to kill her is able take on the form of a person she knows or a complete stranger—dead or alive. Third, she must never be in a room with only one way to get in—because it means there is only one way to get out. If the person she slept with died for whatever reason, this thing would come back for her and so she must always look over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is one of the more stylish independent horror picture I have seen in years. It is not particularly scary but it is undeniably creepy. It is considered to be a bona fide scary movie not because it offers plenty of jump scares but because the protagonist is constantly experiencing an impending sense of doom. I enjoyed that I was not always sure whether she would ever make it through the end because she is so ordinary.

One of the correct decisions the writer-director makes is not having to explain the source of his entity or its background. It just is; we are given a certain reality and we observe how a group of friends deals with it. There are no flashbacks. No dream sequences. There is only forward momentum. Because this entity can be anybody, we are engaged. We notice the extras in the background. Is the “person” alone? Is “he” or “she” walking slowly toward Jay? Is the suspected entity able to speak? Can anybody else see it other than our main character?

The picture has a unique universe in that the characters dress as if they were living in the ‘70s or ‘80s but their style of speaking and some technology point to modern times. It is without a doubt a visually-driven work. There is always something to look at, something to appreciate. In many standard horror flicks, it is mainly about the blood, guts, nudity, and booming score. Here, it is silent when it counts. There is minimal gore.

Mitchell is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick. For instance, intense close-ups are employed at times and almost always coupled with a shrill score—as if nails are being hammered directly into our skulls. There is drop of John Carpenter in this work, too. Notice the careful control of the camera as it scans the suburban milieu.

Those who have seen plenty of horror movies are able to tell right away that this project is from no ordinary director who simply wants to make a cheap horror picture with the hopes of reaching the number one spot in the box office. There is thought put into the decisions and so when Jay and the entity come within a hundred feet of one another, we hold our breath a little longer.

“It Follows” does not have a strong ending. While I understood what it was going for, mainly to communicate that this thing—whatever it is—cannot easily be defeated, something about it does not feel right. When the screen faded to black, I did not feel exhilaration—as I would have after sitting through something truly great. For a split-second I thought, “That can’t be how this story ends.” Indeed, it is the way it is. As a whole, however, patient viewers will find it highly watchable and it does impress in parts.


Furious 7

Furious 7 (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Actions films have a reputation of being more brawny than brainy and “Furious 7,” directed by James Wan, embraces this expectation. There is nothing wrong with this approach because brawny can be equally entertaining—under a right mindset—if the picture is executed and put together in a smart way. This film embodies such characteristics which makes it a standout not only within the franchise but also compared against ninety percent of mainstream action movies where there is glass shattering, bruise-inducing, vehicle-totaling galore.

Toretto (Vin Diesel) wants Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of the former big bad Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), now comatose, for the slaying of Han (Sung Kang). But getting Deckard is no simple feat due to his extensive military training which forces Toretto to team up with a man who works for the government, Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). If Toretto were able to successfully acquire a powerful computer program called the God’s Eye and get it in the hands of the government, Toretto could use it to track Deckard—be the hunter instead of the hunted—instead of the other way around. But first Toretto and his motley crew must rescue the hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) responsible for making the program from the hands of a known international terrorist (Djimon Hounsou).

The previous paragraph is a mouthful but the plot is clean and straightforward. In a nutshell, it is a revenge picture with luxurious cars and various excesses. It is composed of three major action scenes which take place in the Caucasus Mountains, Abu Dhabi, and the streets of Los Angeles. The director ensures that each one is drawn-out but strong and highly entertaining. There is variation in tone, pacing, and feel with each of these sequences and so not once do we feel like we are watching a YouTube clip of a car crash on repeat for over two hours.

The locations are as much of an attraction as the cars themselves. The chase that unfolds in the Caucasus Mountains commands thrills because of the windy roads, rocks on the left, and cliffs on the right. Couple these natural dangers with overpowering speeds of vehicles, a rain of bullets and other ammunitions, and a stunt involving a character being trapped in a vehicle as it slides down the road and onto the edge of a cliff, tearing your eyes away from the screen is near impossible. There is so much going on and yet we are drawn in because the editing of the action allows us to appreciate the images, the sounds, and the emotions that make up these series of scenes.

Most outstanding is what happens when Toretto and his team (Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris) attend a billionaire’s party in one of the Abu Dhabi towers. This time, the action transpires in an enclosed space. Thus, it is exciting in a different way. The characters must be (or try to be) a bit more sleuth. This time, they must acquire an item instead of a person. The mano a mano is between two women, instead of two men. Even the clothes our protagonists wear are not the sort of attires they sport typically. Director Wan and writer Chris Morgan are astute enough to employ vastly contrasting elements in order to refresh our attention instead of giving us more of the same and numbing the brain.

A shortcoming is the cheesy dialogue during the expository scenes. I groaned on the inside because of how bad the exchanges were; kind of like sitting through a soap opera that you just cannot believe has been on air for years. This limitation can be easily forgiven, however, not because it is an action film—which many are likely to cite as the picture’s defense—but because everything else is so heightened, does one really care about a couple of bad lines? I don’t—some people may—but it is worth pointing out.

“Furious 7” has a sense of humor about itself, like being around a friend who is unafraid to make fun of himself or be poked fun of for the sake of everyone having a good time. Some may reduce the film as “car porn.” But if car porn is this good, consider me addicted and in need of serious help.


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