In Fear (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite having met only a week ago, Tom (Iain De Caestecker) phones Lucy (Alice Englert) and awkwardly invites her to attend a music festival in Ireland. He seems to be a nice guy so she accepts and the two go on a road trip that will mostly take an entire day. Although the plan is to meet with friends at the music festival, after taking a restroom break at a pub, Tom smoothly reveals to the girl he likes that he has booked a hotel. Lucy is not entirely opposed to the idea. While on the way to the hotel, however, they end up getting lost and driving in circles for hours. It is obvious that someone has messed with the signs on the road—difficult enough to navigate through due to the many narrow roads and lack of landmarks.
Written and directed by Jeremy Lovering, “In Fear” has a standard but consistently strong first half that is derailed by an increasingly frustrating and unbelievable latter forty-five minutes. What results is a tolerable but underwhelming horror-thriller which should have been more suspenseful and enjoyable if the writer-director had taken the time and effort to focus the events on what it means to want to survive in a situation where there are not a lot of viable options.
The setup sounds cheap and ridiculous—two young people who do not know each other very well, or at all, going on a trip that involves sitting in a cramped space for hours—but I found, to my surprise, that I was into it hook, line, and sinker. The magic is in the casting. De Caestecker is incredibly charming in playing a guy who is a little bit desperate, somewhat of a geek but trying to come off cool or impressive, but he means well and genuinely wants the person he has sights on to have a really good time. Englert is also quite wonderful in playing a girl who wants to be wanted but her approach is not lewdness. Her character is shy but it is easy to tell that she knows who she is so there is a strength to her.
When it comes to movies like this, it is crucial that we understand the motivations. It is an element that separates a horror movie which exists only so that the audience can watch young people get sliced and diced versus a horror picture that cares to tell a small story that happens to have bloodshed in it. Clearly, Lovering’s film embodies the latter. We understand why Tom and Lucy are drawn to one another. We root for them to make it through the night of impossible trials.
The camerawork puts us into the alert and paranoid mindset of the two protagonists. We feel like we are in that car with them. For instance, a synergy is reached between shots of narrow roads as the car glides forward and close-ups of increasingly worried faces. The way the camera lingers an extra beat or two—from the perspective of both the driver and the front passenger—on the barely paved road gives the impression that someone might jump out from the side at any second. When the focus is on a face, especially in profile, our eyes slowly move to the background—the window—in anticipation.
Once the villain, or villains, is revealed, one gets the impression that there is no mystery left in the canister, Thus, the picture is less engaging and it is reduced to a waiting game to see if one character will manage to outsmart the other. The final twenty minutes or so appears to bring up the subject of what drives violence. Is one’s proclivity toward it innate, learned, or is it somewhere in between? The question and answers are never explored. The final shot left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was very disappointing because it fails to strive for something that feels right for the material. Instead, we are handed a standard and cheap way to end a movie that starts off well.
Chuck & Buck (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie (Chris Weitz) receives a letter informing him that his childhood best friend’s mother has passed away. Even though Charlie has not seen Buck (Mike White) for over fifteen years, Charlie, along with his fiancée, Carlyn (Beth Colt), attends the funeral out of respect. However, things turns awkward very quickly when Buck, who seems fixated on acting like a child, gropes Chuck in the restroom sexually when the latter offers an embrace of comfort.
Written by Mike White, it is difficult what to make of “Chuck & Buck” because although humor runs through its veins, it is highly likely that the events that are happening are rooted in a childhood sexual trauma so intense, one of its participants does not know how to make sense of it and therefore unable to make a life for himself. It is easy and convenient to label Buck as weirdo, a walking request for a restraining order. After all, who withdraws all of his money, uproots his life, moves to Los Angeles, and lives in a motel just so he can spy on and stalk someone he believes to be his best friend?
White fits the role like a glove because his natural appearance of vulnerability balances nicely with his character’s occasional off-kilter behavior. And while there are times when I was scared for Chuck and Caryln’s safety, at the same time I could not help but care about Buck. I was concerned for him not because he acts like a child or he is deserving of pity but due to the fact that during a handful of scenes, we have a chance to understand that he means well.
Since his actions are almost always determined by patterns, the wrong person might stumble upon what he is up to, make a cursory judgment, and take action without the necessary background information. Partly, we wait for this character to be sent to jail or left for dead in a ditch.
Eventually, Buck decides to write and put on a play, in a theater directly in front of Chuck’s workplace, with hopes that the images will trigger Chuck’s memory and inspire him to want to be around Buck like when they were eleven years old. Buck hires Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), the theater attendant, to cast and direct his play. Their relationship is arguably the heart of the picture. It is expertly executed because even though Beverly is initially motivated by good pay, a series of small but important scenes allow us to feel her passion for the work as well as the person who put the material on paper.
I appreciated that Buck and Beverly’s interactions are able to reach a fluidity and realism to them as would two strangers who want to get to know each other further for the positive things they can offer to one another. Conversely, the scenes that Buck and Carlyn share could have had more depth. While Caryln is likable, admirable even, because of her patience, there are times when I was bored by her. It seems like the script does not want her to come off as “mean.” But there is a difference between mean and practical. If someone keeps calling your phone every fifteen minutes and when you answer, he just hangs up, wouldn’t you feel compelled to alert the proper authorities?
“Chuck & Buck,” directed by Miguel Arteta, is ultimately about healing. It feels genuine because it is unafraid to shed light on the ugliness that one must to go through to take a step forward toward self-esteem and security. It is an uncomfortable experience at times but sometimes so is the struggle in moving on.
Dear White People (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
The goal of satire is, as it should be, to get a reaction from the audience. The subject of race continues to define America and so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that a movie like this is not made very often, especially from the perspective of young adults. While writer-director Justin Simien is able to invoke a reaction, both good and bad, “Dear White People” is not too sharp a satire that bites deeply into the flesh of what makes its subject such a hot issue. Its focus and momentum is too consistently distilled by possible romantic connections and it comes across like an expected dance.
We learn from the prologue that Winchester University, an Ivy League school, has come under the scrutiny of national media because of an “African-American”-themed Halloween party hosted by white students—blackface and all. Jumping back six months, we meet a sophomore student, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who hosts a radio program that aims to pinpoint white people’s ignorance of black identity and culture via one-liners; a first-year named Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who is having trouble sorting out his housing situation; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the ambitious son of the university’s dean; and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the leader of the house that will eventually host the controversial Halloween party.
At times the film comes across like a two-part pilot of a television show that has the potential to survive early cancellation. It introduces colorful characters with verve, wit, humor, and intelligence. Further, the script allows each performer to make an impact since each character harbors a specific perspective. The problem is that there are too many people worth knowing and the material sometimes attempts to make each one well-rounded and complex.
This is a miscalculation because satire is about extreme characters and there is no need to humanize them as one would, say, in a drama. One might argue the material is less about the characters and more about the audience. After all, the movie itself is serving as as a mirror when it comes to way we treat ourselves, especially as minorities in America, and others who may be “different” to us. What the picture should have done is to consistently expose what is wrong in our current society when the subject of race is brought up without having to create a typical dramatic arc. It would have felt more alive if it had the courage to adopt a more creative template.
I enjoyed Teyonah Parris’ performance as a black person who feels a desperate need to distance herself from her culture. Her character feels ashamed that she comes from the “ghetto” and so she covers it up by embracing all that is typically “white”—rather, what she considers to be white attributes. Her character, Colandrea Conners, preferring to go by “Coco” because she claims it sounds less “ghetto,” is probably the easiest person to dislike, but I wanted to get to know her most. Parris has small but great moments like passing by a black guy in a crowded room but her body language communicates he is not worthy of being around her even for a split-second. It is in those minute moments that I found truth in the film. I wanted to see more of that—no explanation is required because we are all guilty of some form of stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
So why am I giving “Dear White People” a recommendation? I enjoyed about half of what is shown and, more importantly, because it made an effort to be about something. Although it has its missteps and limitations, it is better than most movies that target undergraduates and similar age group, many of which never bother to be about something as long as the audiences laugh a lot and are not forced to think too hard. On that level, I found it refreshing.
Deliver Us from Evil (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Scott Derrickson, “Deliver Us from Evil” begins on a solid footing, appropriately building an increasing sense of dread before giving the audience a full picture of what it is ultimately going to be about. About halfway through, however, it loses its way and it is eventually reduced to yet another horror movie about demonic possessions and we foresee an exorcism about to be performed from a mile away. It becomes less of an engaging experience and more a waiting game where special and visual effects finally take center stage.
Detective Sarchie (Eric Bana) takes a trip to the Bronx Zoo because there is a report of a woman who threw her baby into a ravine. They find her, apparently deranged, and she is arrested. Sarchie recognizes the woman reciting the lyrics to The Doors’ “Break on Through.” The cops figure she is on drugs and it might be better to question her at a later time. The next day, a priest named Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) asks Sarchie if, upon her arrest, the suspect was “unusually strong” the night before.
Intrigue is established in the first half. At the New York Police Department, cops have been complaining of calls from citizens who claim to hear strange noises in their home and see things moving on their own like their houses are possessed. The atmosphere likens that of David Fincher’s “Se7en” in that it is always raining, dark, and there is a sense of foreboding. It is easy to believe that although the story takes place in the real world, it is on the verge of a critical shift, like Pandor’s box is about to be opened.
But then the screenplay by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman is occasionally watered down by Sarchie’s problems at home. His wife (Olivia Munn) is beginning to feel as though he is spending too much time at work and when he is at home, his mind is somewhere else. I found this to be unbearably boring, formulaic, and forced. None of the dialogue between Bana and Munn work to progress the story in the forward direction and neither do we feel that their characters are into each other.
Scenes between Sarchie and his partner, Butler (Joel McHale), while driving around NYC, are better because we can actually glimpse into the dynamic of their relationship. The latter, however, is only occasionally found in the latter half as the priest’s role in the story gains more significance.
In bad horror movies with limited budget, lights turning on and off, hearing strange noises, and the booming of the score when something supposedly exciting happens rarely ever work. Here, the same approach is employed only this picture has more funds. And guess what? It still does not work. What good is using special and visual effects when there is no elegance or ingenuity in the script designed to escalate the tension in a consistent or surprising ways?
“Deliver Us from Evil” is a good movie for a while but it degenerates into a mindless mess where the effort is put into ticking every box in the horror genre instead of exploring new frontiers through a mixing of the crime and horror genres. As the final hour unfolds, I sat in my chair increasingly frustrated but was comforted by the fact that at least it is not another tired found footage horror-thriller.
Red Tails (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
In World War II, the U.S. Army treats Negro pilots as though they do not possess the intelligence nor the reflexes to perform effectively in battle. Although African-American airmen are admitted in the army, members of the 332nd Fighter Group are relegated to jobs like coastal runs with secondhand planes.
In 1944 Italy, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) hopes to prove that his fighter group is fit for battle just like any white American soldiers. But with bigoted officials like Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) in the way, being given a chance to prove everybody wrong seems next to impossible. Under the direction of Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the black pilots itch to join the fray and prove their worth.
While “Red Tails,” based on the screenplay John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, wishes to make a statement involving the marginalization of African-Americans in WWII, its mundane script fails to impress as a movie composed of characters, based on real people, who have interesting stories to tell.
The characters who fly the planes are mostly defined by their surface characteristics. For instance, Captain Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron leader, is the one who likes his alcoholic beverages a little too much which makes his judgments questionable and Lieutenant Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) carries a “Black Jesus” around for protection. Since many of the characters are introduced at one time, such quirks prove helpful, at least initially, to help remember them.
However, once the characters become more familiar to us, their lack of depth proves frustrating and disappointing. These soldiers are supposed to be so patriotic that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect their country and loved ones. I waited for each of their stories to be told or hinted at in some way but their conversations are always about what is in front of them and how bored they are due to a lack of excitement in their assignments. Not one of them talks about missing home.
The closest line of dialogue that provides some sort of insight into their personal lives involves one of the airmen’s admission that whenever he seals himself into his plane to do his job, a part of him feels like he has just locked himself into his grave. It turns out that others can very much relate to him. This scene commands resonance because it suggests that even though the pilots are outwardly brave, they feel vulnerable and afraid, too. Whenever they are up in the air, while they fire at their enemies, they must also keep their fears in check. The picture needs to show more perceptive moments as such in order for the audience to really appreciate the material and be engaged.
The film, however, has very good fight sequences. As the various planes speed through the sky and the camera jumps between inside and outside of the plane, I was excited at what is about to happen. The pilots may have been bored with their job at times but I wasn’t. Even more thrills are delivered during the dogfights between the Americans and the Nazis.
“Red Tails,” based on a book by John B. Holway and directed by Anthony Hemingway, also suffers from dialogue that either comes across too stiff or very earnest but it has moments of entertaining action sequences. If only we learned more about the Tuskegee Airmen as people when they were on the ground.
Burden of Dreams (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is one of the most astonishing movies I have ever seen. “Astonishing” is the perfect word to describe the work because I sat in my chair mouth agape and eyes wide open, very curious as to how the filmmaker, his crew, and the native Indians he hired managed to take a real three hundred ton steamship up a sizable hill with a steep slope in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. I admired the film for its sheer physicality and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” highlights the challenges everyone faced during the filming of Herzog’s masterpiece.
It is interesting to see footages of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, playing Fitzcarraldo and the sidekick, respectively, given that they were the first choice to play the roles. I found them ineffective, sort of goofy, and so the two of them eventually having to drop out turned into a gift in disguise. Klaus Kinski was exactly right for the role, effortlessly evoking an obsessive madness but remaining accessible enough to make us want to see his dream of building an opera house in the jungle to be realized. From the clips of Robards playing Fitzcarraldo, there is little manic intensity that can be felt instantaneously.
The documentary spends ample time showing some of the native Indians’ culture, from the way they live, sorts of food they eat, to the challenges they face against the government because they have no legal claims to their land. We get a chance to see that although the crew and the natives must interact, they have separate camps nonetheless. They do not even share the same food. There is talk of sexual needs while being so isolated out in the wilderness and prostitutes having to be flown in for the sake of preserving the native culture.
It is well-known that Herzog is quite a character. His reputation is best exemplified when he talks about the very same arrows that hit a man in the throat and a woman in the hip. They survived and so Herzog is ecstatic to point out that there is still blood on the arrows. He plans on giving the weapons to his son. Just the same, we are able to appreciate how the director works. Not once is he shown sitting on a chair and enjoying a cup of coffee. He is constantly up and about, trying to perfect every little thing because he knows that no detail is too small. It is then that we know that Fitzcarraldo is a reflection of Herzog’s obsession and ambition.
Herzog’s final product is so audacious and convincing, it was a surprise to me that some of the native Indians are able to speak and understand Spanish from behind-the-scenes. Watching the film, I felt so immersed into its world that accepting the reality actually takes effort. I cannot say that about very many movies and that makes it special.
“Burden of Dreams” cements my respect for Herzog. Say what you will about him: difficult, talented, intelligent, disturbed, megalomaniacal. He might be all of those things but I admire that he is an uncompromising filmmaker—and it shows in his work, taking art on already high level and further pushing the boundary as if there is none.
Animal House (1978)
★★ / ★★★★
Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) wishes to expel all members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity because he is sick of dealing with their seasonal pranks. With the help of Greg (James Daughton), president of the uppity Omega Theta Pi, known as the best and most traditional fraternity in Faber College, the duo concoct a plan to finally delouse the university of the drunken party animals.
Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, “Animal House” is appropriately desultory in storytelling which reflects its protagonists’ overall lack of ambition and direction. This device is partly enjoyable because although each scene is episodic, more than half of the jokes are given enough time to escalate until the punchline is ripe for delivery. However, its lack of flow functions as a double-edged sword in that it is difficult to get to know its charming characters completely.
Bluto (John Belushi) is especially hilarious as a college student who happens to be on the heavy side. He is given very few lines to utter but each time the camera is on him, whether he is front and center or pushed to the side, all of my attention is on him like a moth to a light source. Staring at his oily, flushed, and petulant face, one part of me expected him to say something completely shocking and offensive. Meanwhile, another part of me braced itself for another one of Bluto’s inspired physical gag.
For example, the scene in the cafeteria that leads to a food fight is nicely executed. Although his frat brothers are capable of embracing a range of craziness and downright carelessness, Bluto is most fascinating because he symbolizes the id of the Delta House. Unlike his frat brothers, there is not one scene in which he is depicted second-guessing what he is about to do. Whatever feels good is right and whatever needs to be expressed is unfiltered.
Even Eric (Tim Matheson), also known as Otto, the confident womanizer of the group, has small moments of self-doubt. Otto is also interesting, in a different way than Bluto, but other than his penchant for bedding as many women as possible, he is not given much depth. It is a missed opportunity because I was actually interested in him as a person instead of just another beer-drinking member of the fraternity.
I wished there had been a more focused rivalry between the Omega and Delta Houses because the material is at its best when the two sides seek revenge against one another. There is an inherent fun in watching Delta Tau Chi—the secondhand underdogs, the campus losers—because the Omega Theta Pi members are willing to grab every opportunity to rub everybody’s noses in their poshness.
The film falls apart toward the end. The chaos in the parade feels like one careless gag after another which is most uninspiring. Instead of the attention being on the students, it becomes more about the repetitive stunts. Unlike a handful of its jokes, the messages it wants to convey about subverting the influence of an unfair person, or persons, in power do not arrive at a rewarding punchline, an ironic or satiric twist.
Directed by John Landis, I appreciated the juvenile sense of humor that “Animal House” offers. It would not have been a letdown if the screenplay had managed to maintain its jovial energy throughout and given the story a proper ending that the audience and characters deserve.
★ / ★★★★
Observe the first thirty minutes and it will be as clear as a bright sunny day that “Annabelle” is made only for the sake of making money. It is lacks the inspiration to set up a scene properly so that the eventual scares are effective, the creativity to write a genuinely engaging story, and the courage to separate itself from James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” the picture where Annabelle-the-doll is introduced.
The picture takes place a year before paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were asked to investigate a haunting in a nurse’s apartment. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are expecting their baby to be born some time soon, but things begin to go horribly awry when John gives Mia a doll as a present.
It is as if writer Gary Dauberman and director John R. Leonetti did not understand why “The Conjuring” works as an effective horror film. Most important is that this picture is not patient enough. It is too willing to deliver superficial “jolts” far too often—if one is generous enough to call them that—that it fails to garner enough tension and momentum to really pack a punch when it counts. One of the movie’s inspirations is Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Both films involve a pregnant woman and the occult, but the similarities stop there.
The first half is extremely repetitive. Appliances around the house activating on their own is almost always coupled with quick shots of the sewing machine threatening to puncture a pregnant woman’s finger. What does one have to do with the other? I suspected that the filmmakers knew that appliances turning on by themselves is not scary. Therefore, they felt the need to throw in images of a woman’s fingers being threatened by the needle of sewing machine in between. It is such a cynical approach that I found it offensive. There is a scene involving a popcorn on an oven that is taken directly from Wes Craven’s “Scream.” This movie is so bad, I wished it had been a spoof.
As for the couple, Wallis and Horton share no chemistry whatsoever. So when Mia ends up hurt and John is there to comfort her, it is like watching paint dry. I saw two actors uttering lines of a script but not actually feeling the scene. The only performer I found to be making interesting choices at times is Alfre Woodard as the neighbor. But even her character’s backstory is a cliché.
I was not expecting a slasher film à la Chuky the killer doll. But I did expect—as we should—a certain level of intelligence, cohesion, and an attempt at originality. But you know what else I expected? Because of the title, it is implied that we will get to see the doll many times or maybe even learn about its origins. I did not want to see it walking or running around, but I did want shots that show the doll being creepy by simply sitting there with its permanent smile. We learn close to nothing about the doll that the film might as well have been titled, “Pregnant Woman Running Around Screaming.”
“Annabelle” does not have a single subtle bone in its body. Thus, we become inured to its type of scares that the filmmakers set their work to fail. The movie is only an hour and thirty minutes long but it feels much longer than that. You want to see the doll really scare? Watch the first three to five minutes of “The Conjuring” again and spend the rest of the time you would have spent here actually doing or engaging in something that will enrich your life.