All posts by mostlyindies

Three Strikes: The Djinn, Malignant, and Aterrorizados (Terrified)

I hate writing about movies I disliked and my opinions seem to be the only ones that stand apart from the rest. It makes me feel as though perhaps I’m the only one who failed to glean the argument and the movie, which I deem to be bad, or shall I say, flawed, is a product whose essence simply escaped me.

Such is the case with these three horror movies that come with enormous praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Given the pandemic, I saw each and every one of them back to back during the weekend as I write this. As I do in movies, I went in reading no reviews, seeing no video commentary, no Chris Stuckmann or spookyastronauts on Youtube. I simply wanted to get my own gist of these films, see what the buzz was about, and if in fact, they were worth the hype.

Careful what you wish for and always perform a banishing, just in case.

First in stop, The Djinn. This movie came out earlier in the year in virtual cinema (I don’t think it was technically released into theaters but I may be incorrect as cinemas were still in early 2021 playing to limited crowds). The Djinn, directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell and starring young Ezra Dewey as Dylan, tells the story of a deaf-mute boy who one night finds a book hidden in the deeper depths of his father’s new house. The book seems to be a book of shadows, and anyone awake in the occult will know what those are supposed to be. In horror movie territory, you should always beware of books of shadows. Always, without the slightest doubt. Any one of these will always elicit a portal into a dark world full of horrifying creatures eager to do unspeakable things to an unwitting person conducting a conjure, and the last thing anyone wants to do is open Pandora’s box and unleash holy hell unto the sleeping world, eh?

Now, I’m not saying that if you conjure a being into this world you might not get a surprise, but that’s a bit much information, and this is a movie review, NYCcritic. Focus. Open your occult blog someplace else. Dylan, wanting to I guess play with magick, conjures up a djinn. He does the spell in a rather, semi-accurate sort of way, the kind of manner the witch inside of me went, eh, well, works if you don’t give a fuck but I wouldn’t do that. Nothing happens. Except, something happens — Dylan just doesn’t know it yet.

You see, Dylan in the movie unleashes a little more than a horror — he sets free an evil spirit, a djinn. For those of you curious about what a djinn is, here is a link to where you can read more about it. Now. I know that a djinn is a neutral supernatural entity that can be employed for good as well as evil. The movie, however, decides to go with the latter, and from there on, we see Dylan battling this shadowy creature that has let’s say, vaguely sinister intentions set on Dylan, his father, and I guess the entire movie if that were the case,

I’m torn with this one. Is it good or is it bad? I don’t want to trash anything because again, to each their own cinema, but to me, The Djinn is okay in terms of overall ambiance — spooky, but not memorable — and minimal in its construction which works to its advantage. On the other end, the movie simply never questions its characters, motives, and simply establishes a setup so basic it may have almost been phoned in. I’m not saying this approach is incorrect; what do I know about being behind the camera. However, I get it — movie makers want to impress, especially in their first outing. The horror genre is where almost everyone from David Lynch to Robert Eggers got started. It’s the easiest way to impress. It’s where a director establishes style and mood and guarantees a footing in the film world. What I didn’t quite get was the simplistic view of this story. Perhaps in another, less demanding time, perhaps in the world of Jacques Tourneur, something like this would have been taken at face value. It is entirely possible to conjure up a being that has less than noble interests with you, It’s just that the movie never questions anything that happens; it sets an event that in turn sets events in motion that eventually unspool the entire thing, and to be, while it seems okay… it just doesn’t resonate.

Perhaps the movie escaped me. I had a similar experience while watching The Endless, an indie horror movie that was much-lauded upon its 2018 run. I just did not see anything new or different, or even campy and self-aware; all I saw was a rehash of every direct-to-HBO-or-Showtime horror movie from the 80s that I managed to see back then. The Djinn has the ambiance it needs, some jaw-dropping effects, solid performances from its small cast, and some truly good effects… it just lacks a special bang to it. I could be wrong.

When I heard about Malignant I was interested because I’m a James Wan fan and I’ve seen his Saw and Insidious franchises (at least, the ones he penned and directed before the sequels became sillier). Sinister creeped me the hell out of my skin for a good while, and I don’t say that often. Since I wasn’t yet going to movies but streaming at home for pandemic reasons, I figured I would see it in the comfort of my home with the lights off for added horror movie ambiance.

Once the movie started, I somehow thought, “Well — this is different,” referring to the bombastic music score and its overtly Gothic feel. Once I saw the movie’s prologue in which doctors are trying to perform some form of control on a wild subject, I kept getting flashbacks to House on Haunted Hill from 1999 with its massive psych-ward and seemingly insane doctor. I went, “Okay, a lot to unpack here with whatever the heck is going on behind that translucent curtain but I’m sold.”

Then the movie leaps forward to the present. The aptly named and very pregnant Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis, no relation to the doll) — because why wouldn’t she, it’s a relatable name — returns home after being sick on the job. Her husband Derek (Jake Abel) is abusive, and we witness this by seeing Derek lash out at her with so much rage that he bashes her head against a wall. Out of nowhere, a shadowy figure like a Deux ex Machina intervenes and by doing so, it saves Madison from becoming a statistic of domestic violence. However, she loses her child, and Derek winds up very much dead.

It’s not long after Madison returns home that strange things start happening not to her, but around her. She seems to be “seeing” murders that are occurring all over town and every murder is somehow connected to her. It turns out that Madison was adopted at birth. This leads to a whole slew of discoveries about Madison’s past is in relation to the unseen killer that is connected to her. The movie drops a massive plot twist somewhere past the half way time, and then it sort of becomes a free-for-all, a generic battle of good versus evil that in turn becomes rather silly and just too predictable.

In concept, Malignant works, although the exploration of a darker half seems to be the mood lately in horror movies. I keep hearing how good it was, and how people simply loved it. I seem to be a band apart. It’s not that I disliked it; it’s that I felt that while the movie on one end looks gorgeous — it has pristine lighting and superficial mood for ages — it throws so many disparate elements that it took me right out of its story. When you can see the man behind a curtain a mile away and early into the movie you know you have a problem. Malignant is as loud and in your face as a police siren cranked up to deafening decibels. It never rests, leaving you totally exhausted and with an hour still left on the clock. Also, it’s just not that scary: had Wallis played Madison with a little restraint I would have accepted it more. As it stands, she plays Madison with exclamation points from start to finish.

Such is the tone for Wan’s movie. I’ll probably; be in the minority and it doesn’t matter, anyway, the movie is set to make its budget cost and then some and I can predict there will be some sequel to its story.

Lastly, there is the Argentinian movie Terrified (Aterrados) which has been floating around Amazon Video for almost four years now since its 2017 release overseas [it never had a US premiere]. Terrified tells the story of people in a neighborhood possessed by something truly horrifying and the investigation that follows. I’m, again, perfectly okay with the concept. A haunted neighborhood? Sign me in. The problem lies when the director tries to lay his stamp on what you are seeing and tries so hard to scare the living daylights out of you that he throws all but the kitchen sink to see what sticks and what doesn’t.

I won’t lie; the first scene of Terrified was rather intense (even when you could see the patchwork special effects that helped it happen). Another sequence involving the return of a boy that goes missing is a real steal. It’s also a long sequence, filled with unease and nervous silence and people wondering how the heck and this (whatever is taking place) be even happening.

It’s when the movie goes into its investigative part that the story falls apart at the seams and just does not recover. Featuring three of the worst players I have ever seen — one of them with a mangled American accent — they attempt to resolve the dilemma of the hauntings by setting up shop within the three homes. It’s no secret what comes next, but the manner that director Demian Regna executes them seems too loose to even call scary.

Terrified somehow has made it to the list of movies too scary to watch as proven by science. I’m going to have to ask science to reconsider its findings. That’s all I really have to say about this.

Trying to survive in silence: A Quiet Place 2

It just occurred to me that in all the years that I’ve been writing my barely-read, in-the-shadows reviews for movies ranging from the oldest to the latest that I never wrote an official one for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place from 2018. So, because its sequel is far superior to the other, which cements Krasinski as a keen director of Hitchcockian suspense, I’ll also include the first one in this short little piece that predictably, no one will most likely read and will float in cyberspace forever or until the site goes down.

When we start A Quiet Place 2, we meet the family at the center of its streamlined, minimal plot. Still trying to reach some form of safe harbor, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and deaf-mute daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) arrive at a fenced-off area in s steel foundry. Unaware that it is a minefield of booby traps, Evelyn accidentally sets one off. As they run towards for shelter from the extremely sound-sensitive aliens that now roam the Earth, Marcus accidentally steps over a bear trap in one of the movie’s more shocking, gruesome scenes.

When the Abbotts reach safety, they run into an old friend, Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Emmett, a lone-wolf survivor who maks it clear their presence will attract more danger, tells the Abbotts they cannot stay. In the meantime, Marcus has been listening to snippets of “Beyond the Sea” playing over and over. Regan realizes that the song’s continuous playback is code to a safe haven. Not wanting to wait around, Regan takes off on her own to find the source of this transmission and use her cochlear implant as a weapon against the nasty aliens that have upended the entire planet.

More often that not, sequels to movies tend to meander in the middle, not quite concluding as much as advancing the plot to the finale that will surely arrive with all the bells and whistles to satisfy its audience. A Quiet Place 2 is the rare sequel/second part that is a massive improvement over the excellent first. While the first movie painted a warped picture of domestic life after a doomsday scenario, A Quiet Place 2 expands on that by giving us a front-row seat to Day Zero when the aliens first arrive. The scene is as gripping as it gets and establishes the tone of the movie. Grounding the story with an action sequence that is a tour-de-force of visual narration, the Abbott family, and Emmett, witness their sunny day go to hell in moments that seem to be too fast to digest, and quite on the spot transform from befuddled spectators to unrelenting survivors.

If the scene might falter just a bit, is in the self-awareness of moving in silence the characters exhibit, but I was okay with that, the same way I was okay with the obvious plot device of the upturned nail on the creaky barn stairs of A Quiet Place. No story has to be perfect to make sense. Even Hitchcock was aware of that and gave next to no explanation on why Annie simply vanishes after the attack scene on the children at the Bodega Bay school in The Birds. He simply wrote her out in a memorable scene and let the other actors (Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, and Veronica Cartwright) do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of Hitchcock, and I know this is my third mention of him, Krasinski has, with his sequel, created a nerve-wracking movie of sheer tension. There was plenty of this in the first movie, particularly when Evelyn makes the painful acquaintance of the aforementioned nail and then delivers her baby as her husband Lee (Krasinski) rushes to the barn to save her from a creature she has unwittingly attracted.

Krasinski outdoes himself when he splits the family unit up. [And who didn’t see this one coming?] Regan, who emerges as the badass of the movie, leaves the safety of her surroundings against the warnings of Emmett to search for the source of the radio transmission. Evelyn departs to a nearby town to get supplies for her family and leaves Marcus, and her baby, behind in the safety of the foundry. How Krasinski goes by unspooling these separate plot threads into one cohesive entity is what suspense should be like. It reminded me of the type of movies Brian De Palma used to do, in which the action transpired in more than one location. While Krasinski never employs long panning or tracking shots like De Palma, he delivers nail-biting thrills that go right over the edge without taking the movie off of its rails.

A Quiet Place 2 is available on Paramount + and most online streaming services,

A comedy that observes rather than delivers laughs: Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness

About Endlessness is a difficult movie. Even with its short running time of 68 minutes, it will make you feel as though you sat through an eternity, waiting for a sign, or perhaps Godot himself. Roy Andersson is one of those few art directors that could care less, it seems, to win over a vast audience, and have the luck to work on their own terms, present their finished product, and walk away from it without drawing any attention to himself. To me, that is quite a feat considering how the system works (and has worked since making movies became part of an industry). Andersson’s story presents a man and a woman, suspended in an embrace, seemingly surveying the world below them. We won’t get to know this couple, and perhaps it does not matter. what matters is the world below, and soon enough, and a tableau of vignettes appear, one after the other, some droll, some dryly funny, some touching. All of them come preceded with a woman’s voice-over as she blandly recites: “I saw a man who wanted to surprise his wife with a nice dinner,” or “I saw a woman incapable of feeling shame.”

To anyone expecting some explicit denouement, some comedic coda, look elsewhere. Andersson’s movie avoids those cliches and embraces starkness as if it were the driving force of his entire vision. Not all of it will come into a tidy whole, but that is the point — life, according to Andersson, is wonky, messy, barely even suggested. His characters simply exist in their most basic nature, or their most salient characteristic, whatever it is that defines them. If a man, late in the movie, is seen only in the aftermath of a horrific crime as he hugs the body of a woman he just murdered, then that is how he will be remembered.

The closest he comes to a story involves a priest with a massive guilt complex (and a faltering faith) who wants to die for reasons unknown (although a session with a therapist may point towards a reason why). He becomes unsuccessful in his quest for death, but at least, he finds an unresolved solace in knowing that if anything, there is life. That seems to be the implicit message in Andersson’s film (which has been announced to be his final). Life, off-kilter, sometimes even nihilistic, will continue, while the lovers — love itself, will remain untouched and elusive, knowing and seeing it all unfold below like an all-seeing-eye without malicious intent.

In The Earth is a trippy pandemic eco-horror from Ben Wheatley

If the 2020 pandemic has anything to teach us it’s that humans will do anything to survive, and many will regress to savagery both out in the cold or in a domestic setting. Basically, either way, we’re fucked, and that is all there is to it. When you think of it, that’s a pretty grim picture to paint, but when you look at how we’ve been treating ourselves and our relationship to the planet ever since the Industrial Revolution, it’s only predictable that something greater, or maybe even something from deep within our own home would have lashed back and taught us a nasty lesson.

Ben Wheatley, no stranger to horrific visions (Kill List, A Field in England), devises a setup that already places his characters in a rather bad position. You see, the Earth has been through an unknown plague of sorts. Society has broken down, and scientists are searching for a cure and hope for humanity. In the interim, the disappearance of a scientist who went out into the woods to search for her own cure, which has to do with mycorrhizal emanations and their role in finding this elusive cure. [The movie goes into elaborate explanations of how this works, and it only gets more complicated as the movie goes deeper, but that’s not the focal point.]

Enter Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who alongside Alma (Ellorchia Torchia, last seen in Midsommar), a park ranger, set out to find the scientist who is somewhere in the woods. However, their search — and the woods themselves — starts to take an ominous turn rather quickly. An empty tent that seems to have houses a family shows up, as does a sense of being followed. The pair gets viciously attacked in the thick of the night by unseen vandals who take off with all that they have, including their shoes. The following day, Martin and Alma continue, but Martin injures his foot when he steps on an unseen piece of sharp wood. Into the already fire scene comes Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a scraggly-haired loner who comes with much-needed help… and a little extra.

It’s that extra that sets the tone of the movie and drives it deeper into its heart of darkness. Soon enough, we’re seeing the sleeping cast being photographed without their consent, and a dinner that follows devolves into a sustained balancing act involving a sharp object and Martin’s injured foot that rivals the hobbling scene in Misery. Even then, Wheatley is not done and has more weirdness to show. I couldn’t but help find a hint of Apocalypse Now in the events that follow when the twosome miraculously and literally by the skin of their teeth reach the nebulous scientist, and this may be where the movie either loses you or wins you over.

For me, the insanity of its final thirty minutes or so we’re pretty intense, but a tad confusing. So much of what transpires hinges on whether you ascribe to ancient legends and the concept that nature may be more sentient than we give it credit for. Wheatley, however, makes the entire movie come together into one delirious climactic sequence, and while I walked out knowing precious little, the fact that its own brand of dread came with the madness that lurks deep inside was enough for me.

In the Earth is available on Prime.

Tackling loss in two very different ways: PIG and REMINISCENCE

The topic of loss — and in essence, the loss of a loved one — is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there you can count on a movie or two that tells the story of a character, or set of characters, dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of a time gone by. Most recently, Chloe Zhao presented her magnificent Nomadland and single-handedly gave Frances McDormand a role so meaty, so juicy, that when the movie was over, and all you saw was her POV of the road ahead, you cried and cheered and kept wanting more.

Recently a movie called Pig came out, starring Nicholas Cage. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this movie because the poster made it seem as though it was yet another horror or revenge movie (and he has been known for doing both, and making something of a career resurgence with it in movies like Mandy or Color Out of Space). Pig, however, is… a bit different, and it left me quite speechless.

Not since the days of Leaving Las Vegas, which gave Cage his first (and so far, his only Oscar), have I seen Cage give such an understated performance in a film. Remember, Cage has a slight (okay, let’s call a spade a spade) tendency to bellow out his lines and telegraph emotions so far out into the bleachers you would grasp a clear picture of how sad or angry he is in the depths of space. When Pig starts, and throughout the entire run of the movie, Cage physically and emotionally embodies suffering in silence. So mute is the character he plays that we actually hope to hear him talk just a little bit more.

Playing Robin Feld, a former legend of a chef whose loss of his wife years ago left him completely stunted, Cage emerges from what seems to be a shack deep in the Oregonian forest to go about his business. Accompanying Feld is his beloved pet pig, Feld has a partnership with a twenty-something businessman named Amir (Alex Wolff) to whom he sells truffles, which go on to get sold to high-end concept restaurants. One day, unknown assailants attack Feld and steal his pig, leaving him destitute. Feld reaches out to Amir to help him find his pig… and here is the crux of the movie, which unfolds in some rather unexpected ways.

Look at that adorable face!

First-time director Michael Sarnoski fools the audience to think we are about to watch a movie about a man not only getting his prized pig back but also leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. His movie gives Cage ample opportunity to go through a progressive reveal of his personality which has remained stunted since the loss of his wife. There are no major reveals here, but the wife’s presence, like that of the pig of the title, hovers heavily throughout the entire story which takes us on a journey into darkness and pain, unlike any other movie I have seen and eventually gives us a fine portrait of a man wanting to recover his last connection to something, even when that connection is an animal. The movie also gives you a little bit of ambiguity between Amir and his powerful father (Adam Arkin). It remains implicit that the father seems to be thwarting Amir’s own entry into the business, but the movie never quite spells it out for us — rather, it lets us decide what exactly is the crux of their dysfunction, and if it may stem from the loss/absence of Amir’s mother.

Side story and all, this is, ultimately, Feld’s story, which binds them all, and Cage demonstrates why he is, despite his weird output of shabby movies, one of our best actors. Take the slightly chuckle-inducing title and you have a shattering drama of near-silent proportions, beautifully shot, atmospherically perfect, and one that ends in a cathartic moment of mourning while Springsteen sadly sings “I’m on Fire.”

Reminiscence should have been a comedy or a cheeky homage. Not this.

Less successful is Lisa Joy’s debut movie Reminiscence. Considering her output with Westworld (and that the HBO series also carries some key actors over to this movie), I was flummoxed to see her not just fail, but fall flat on her face in delivering a compelling mystery that links a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) together in a downward spiral of love lust and betrayal.

Jackman is Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind (okaaay…) who operates a machine, not unlike the ones in Westworld alongside his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton, criminally underused here). With this machine, Bannister seems to be operating an underground memory market that delivers clients’ memories to them for a fee. In the world of science fiction, this seems to be fair enough, but memories can be tricky, and sometimes downright impossible to decipher.

Joy’s already lofty script doesn’t care to answer those questions. Instead, she barrels full steam ahead and introduces Ferguson as Mae, a femme fatale so obvious she may as well be telegraphing it with the force of a banshee in the night. Mae is a lounge singer with an agenda. [Here’s a question. Why do femme fatales always have to have the requisite role of “lounge singer” and need to appear as a variant of Jessica Rabbit with the Veronica Lake hair? Are we still in the 40s?] Bannister, upon seeing Mae sing, doesn’t just melt, he goes full Tex Avery, all giant eyes and a river of hearts escaping his chest as a 16-ton anvil flattens him to a tortilla.

Really, Bannister?

Here is the problem. When Mae appears, she brings not a single gasp with her. Where the camera would normally highlight a woman’s entrance and her movements, Mae never registers a single thing. She’s just a regular, pretty woman. Vapid, with a vaguely foreign accent for kicks, but does that make a memorable femme? Nope. Think of Bergman in Casablanca, Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Anne Revere in Detour, Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. These are women who have you stand up and take notice of their presence alone. In Westworld, Tessa Thompson plays both Charlotte Hale and a lethal version of Dolores Abernathy. She exudes equal parts smoldering (but cold) sensuality and steel menace in both roles. Thompson, instead of Ferguson, would have been ideal — and she would have saved an unsalvagable movie. She has the silky voice that hides iron; she has the allure, and she can definitely carry her own self so that whoever watches her, will remember her. On the other hand, Ferguson, as Mae collapses even before she enters the scene, or as I prefer to say, before the scene portentously introduces her.

Ferguson, through no fault of her own, since she is merely a player, hurts the movie far more than she should. Hers should have been a small but crucial part. Laura, she is not, and it shows. What Bannister sees in her is a mystery all its own that deserves its own documentary or movie. It’s almost an insult to a performer like Jackman to reduce him to a slobbering mess of tears who can’t control himself. Even Fred MacMurray, never a great actor but intoxicated with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, had some self-respect and went down nobly.

For Joy to then hinge the entire plot — which involves a heap of other things, such that cringe-worthy voice-over narration, the world of the criminal underbelly, and a land baron who’s placed a waterlogged Miami in a divide from the have and have nots — on a badly named woman who seems to be in every single plot development is ridiculous. Lofty, yes, perhaps ambitious, but a disaster, nevertheless.

Take away all the science-fiction gobbledygook and you have a basic noir. Why Joy needed to add so many extra layers that do not work is beyond me. In concept, this seems to work, but then, for kicks, let’s just go with the concept of memory. Do you remember things in chronological order? Even people with excellent memories have slips, which make them unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Joy seems to have brought Westworld sensibilities into a story that should have been more human. Her androids in Westworld have complicated memories because they’ve been implanted to program that way, in chronological order, with cleverly placed gaps to delete whatever was “problematic” and could deviate them from their storylines.

People don’t behave that way. Even the cheapest sci-fi story knows that. Memories are shape-shifting things, fit to mold themselves to whatever we prefer them to be. They are hardly the elaborately choreographed dance routines that Joy presents here, and while the concept is interesting it saps the main story from all its energy. And Reminiscence, in trying to keep the concept of memory alive, does the worst a movie could do, which is to repeat scenes we’ve already seen, over and over. Meanwhile, we are left with about three-quarters of the story left, and no care or interest whatsoever in what comes next, who does what, or how it even ends.

In all fairness to Joy, I know she did not set out to make a terrible pastiche of every noir movie known to man. No director ever does. Perhaps separating herself from the show would help? While bringing in Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan feels like a good choice she mirrors their stories (and fates) to their android counterparts from the show. Another thing that isn’t helping might be the Nolan association — too much of that seems to be distracting rather than enriching. But what do I know; I didn’t create this movie, I’m sure there was significant studio interference as there always is, and this is the end result. All you can do if you love movies, and love noir, is go and watch a good one. Even an okay one. Just not this one.

Dream Horse – A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one

Leave it to the UK to produce some of the best feel-good movies that you’ll ever want to see. It never fails: it doesn’t matter the topic or the cast of characters. Whenever a movie made in the UK comes out dressed in the topics of the underdog who scores, or the little village who could, or the little man who makes it, it’s bound to be a crowd-pleaser that will also wring a shameless tear from your eye.

Dream Horse comes from the original 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. Reader, if you haven’t seen that little doc you owe it to yourself to see it. It is a wonderful, oftentimes gripping story that focuses not only on the woman who raised the foal who became Dream Alliance but the snobbery that is a part of the world of horse breeders and racing in itself.

Dream Horse follows the path of its predecessor pretty closely, which would have been the only way to film this movie. We meet Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, disappearing in her role), a woman who works as a check-out girl at the equivalent of a Walmart or Shop-Rite. Her life has become as grey and dejected as the small Welsh town where she lives with her husband Brian (Owen Teale). Brian barely acknowledges Jan, not out of a lack of love — the movie establishes pretty early on that he does love her — but because at his age, life seems to have beat the spirit out of him.

Jan isn’t having that. A woman who lives by her dreams, she takes on horse breeding on a lark after encountering a businessman (Damian Lewis) discussing horse races. Having next to no money, but wanting to try this experiment out, she enlists those closest to her to create a money club to fund the purchase and rearing of a racehorse. Incredibly, she succeeds and soon purchases a mare whom she then has a mate with an American prize winner. The mare dies while giving birth, but leaves a tiny foal behind. That foal becomes Dream Alliance, which then falls under the care of breeder Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). But is Dream Alliance racehorse material?

I have to say it, but a) if you saw Dark Horse you will already know what happens in its movie version, and b) even if you didn’t, these movies arrive with their very own template at hand. Even when the actual events seem to have come out of a feel-good movie of the year, Dream Horse takes the entire premise and knocks it out of the park with breathtaking shots of horses running at full speed countered with the facial expressions of Collette and the rest of the cast. It’s not a surprise, then, that despite the incredible predictability of the entire story, you can and will find yourself swept away by the sheer purity of its people, and the horse itself. And that says something.

Dream Horse is jolly and earthy where it needs to be and emotional when it needs to be. Collette, surrounded by a cast that includes Derek Jarman veteran player Karl Johnson as the town drunk and Siân Philips as the town matron, makes it all come alive.

Spotlight on Classic Cinema: Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels

Laughter has been proven to be the perfect antidote to misery and its cousins. From the start of movies as a form of entertainment, directors and film crews sought to make the public laugh (while cashing in on their finished product) by presenting situations that while tragic and sometimes downright absurd, often had the audience in stitches, and often ended with the guy getting the girl. During the Depression, which also happened during the advent of sound, comedies went from being purely slapstick to dialog-intensive, which in short, created the screwball comedy. The genre basically flourished during the 30s with the start of It Happened One Night (which went on to receive the top five Oscars, a feat only a scant few movies have done since). By 1941, however, the US was about to enter the War, and the entire genre, which was at its peak, was also starting to seem a bit passe. While cinema had been an escapist’s haven, it was getting harder to identify with the ultra-rich and their silly problems. Dramas were becoming more sophisticated, especially following the giant that was Gone With the Wind. Film-noir was about to take the cinematic world by storm with its pessimistic view of mankind and its underbelly. In essence, the screwball, was unbeknownst to itself, on its way out.

The same way Alfred Hitchcock has been unequivocally recognized as the Master of Suspense, one can say the same for Preston Sturges as the master of the screwball. A look at his filmography showcases a total of 12 movies he directed and almost twice as much that he wrote. During the years 1939 – 1944 alone he directed a total of five movies — all of them confirmed essentials and screwball comedies. There is distinct energy that separates Sturges’ movies from the rest. The dialog, which he himself wrote, aside from being somewhat slower-paced than, say, the dialog in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday (which moves at lightning speed and also overlaps, sometimes rendering a conversation unintelligible), is also pretty modern compared to the period. You can also get criticism of the America of the time in which its protagonist becomes a mirror to the movie-going audience and not an unattainable hero. Sure, sometimes the hero (or heroine; Sturges never had a weak female in his movies) has to act a little (okay, maybe ruthlessly) deceptive, but it’s for a goal at hand, and no one really gets hurt. Interestingly so, Sturges definitely does not, like many of his counterparts, side with the ultra-rich, but those who struggle. Cue The Palm Beach Story in which Claudette Colbert plays quite a con-woman out to get rich who encounters a group of rich douchebags on the way. What these men do in the movie counts as pretty reprehensible, which only magnifies the bubble in which the privileged live. You almost want an outsider to their group to come and give them a taste of their own medicine.

Case in point, the movie I will talk about: Sullivan’s Travels. We meet John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a movie director who gets fed up with the system of rampant commercialism. [A sly wink to the establishment if I ever saw one.] He decides to walk cross-country dressed like a bum to experience life on his own terms. Meanwhile, his crew follows, only to make sure that he makes it out alive at the other end. During his walk, he comes across a very different country. Here is where Sullivan’s Travels makes a bold, unheard-of detour and skirts close to the topics of The Grapes of Wrath. Sturges doesn’t shy away from it, either. He brings abject poverty right to the front of the movie in having Sullivan and the unnamed girl he meets (Veronica Lake) smack into an America that serves only to pay for a theater ticket — not to be seen or heard from. Situations continue to go from bad to worse. While trying to repay the homeless he’s met he gets mugged, and this only gets worse and worse until at one point Sullivan is declared dead. The film’s most striking sequence, however, arrives like a punch to the face: in the middle of a church that occasionally doles out movies for an audience of forgotten people, Sturges makes us look directly at their haggard, worn, tired faces. A Mickey Mouse reel starts; the audience — Sullivan among them — roars with laughter. It is a heartbreaking scene, but the one that is at the core of what Sullivan’s Travels is trying to say.

Laughing to escape misery. Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

That’s a stark contrast with, let’s say, The Philadelphia Story. By the end of Sullivan’s Travels, you feel as though you know these people. Both Lake’s and McCrea’s characters, while grounded in privilege, still look like you or me. The two of them work on opposite sides of the movie industry, and both have become jaded by it. The movie seems to hinge on the promise/plot point that Sullivan won’t reveal his true name to the girl, but as the story evolves, she becomes his non-romantic companion if at all to see other places. By the end, when the movie returns to its comedic roots, both have ended their journey much wiser even though we figure they will still live on in privilege. Such a thing never happens in The Philadelphia Story. A movie made solely as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn to prove herself in Hollywood against all odds, Story has become a bit of an antiquated comedy of manners in which everyone pretends to be someone else and no one is truly sympathetic, We get only a snippet of side plot for supporting — and the much more interesting — characters of Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Macaulay Connor (James Stewart). Of course, these twosome exist only in strict support of the lead couple, which is a shame. I always found that theirs was a story that needed to be told. By the end, when all is well again and Tracy Lord has remarried, we don’t really think about what we saw other than “we’ve just seen what problems for the upper crust must look like. Bubble, indeed.

Sullivan’s Travels is now 80 years old. However, it has managed to influence a number of directors. Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, which also draws heavily from Fellini’s 8 1/2, also features a director unable to continue with his projects and whose audience asks that he return to “the funnier ones”. Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks is a parody of Sullivan’s Travels which did not do well at the box office when it came out (but deserves another shot on rentals). Most recently, the Coen brothers seem to have taken a cue from Sturges. Sullivan’s Travels often mentions the title “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, which became a movie with George Clooney, and their 2016 movie Hail, Caesar! (also starring Clooney) also has its roots in the Sturges classic.

Two Examples of Smart Science Fiction: The House at the End of Time and Stowaway

I’m not exactly sure why Alejandro Hidalgo’s 2013 movie The House at the End of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos) is considered a horror movie. While the surface presentation has all the makings of a woman in peril from an unseen threat, which is the bread and butter of all things horror, this is a very intelligent movie about time, our relation to it, and the act of repetition that condemns generations to never leave the START position.

To begin with, the movie starts in media res. A woman (Ruddy Rodriguez of Venezuelan soap fame and established film actress) lies on the floor. She’s either witnessed or been involved in a terrible supernatural struggle that has knocked her cold for a moment — a crucial one. In the interim, she realizes that her son is missing and something terrible is about to happen. Upon arriving at the lowest part of the house she discovers the body of her husband (Gonzalo Cubero), and her son, standing nearby. Before she can make a move to grab him, Leopoldo vanishes, seemingly pulled from behind by an unknown force.

The woman returns to her home years later. We learn she was, by Venezuelan law, found guilty of killing not only her husband but her entire family. After serving time, the courts have granted her to live out the rest of her years in house arrest where she will have guards at the ready outside her home (as if house arrest weren’t bad enough already!). Not soon after she arrives, the supernatural elements return to torment her, and we wonder, will she repeat the actions of the past, or is there a much larger force at play that involves whatever lives within the walls of her house?

Much of the story hinges on what happens in the present, which inevitably catches up not with the future but with the opening sequence. The story incurs into elements of time as an elastic concept: what has or will happen may have already been a part of a chain of events, which may be a part of a bigger wheel altogether. In this respect, The House at the End of Time veers closer to science-fiction than horror. How it splices events that may be occurring at the same time, while also maintaining a sense of high domestic drama involving the dissolution of the family is a marvel to watch. That the movie never tries to go too deep into its mythos is key to its success. It presents a backstory, which is almost a necessary evil in most horror movies nowadays — especially those that involve dark places — but that in itself never overwhelms the logic of this illogical movie that plays its story over and over again like a Moebius strip. Anchored by a sharp performance by Ruddy Gonzalez and a cast of mainly unknowns on this side of the [Caribbean] Sea, The House at the End of Time is a great example of doing much with less. In doing so, it can deliver a gripping story that of maternal love that defies space and time. On Amazon Prime.

Meanwhile, on Netflix, is a little science fiction movie called Stowaway, and believe me, I almost didn’t see this movie based on its title alone. Doesn’t the title give you an idea of a space mission that (shocker!) either carries or brings an unwanted organism on board, one with an insatiable appetite? I know! So the look of surprise when I come to realize early on that this is far, far different from that type of sci-fi horror movie. In fact, Stowaway is about survival, but of an entirely different nature altogether. Stowaway centers on a group of astronauts en route on a two-year mission to Mars. Soon after launching, the head of the mission, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) discovers a man unconscious inside the ship. The man turns out to be Michael (Shamier Anderson), a tech who passed out right before take-off and was thus unable to get off the ship in time.

In another science fiction movie, his appearance would be relegated to almost a non-event unless the character was an antagonist (as in the case of the rebooted version of Lost in Space, also on Netflix). Director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrisson have concocted a much different scenario here. You see, it turns out that the ship can only house three people, not four. This being a two-year mission now complicates matters. While the small crew, which consists of biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and sensitive Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) try to make Michael fit in, it becomes increasingly clear that Michael is more of a hindrance and could seriously jeopardize their entire mission to the point that nobody could survive in the end.

I love it when movies go the route of the humanistic side of the conflict as opposed to the by-the-numbers one vs. them plot which has been done so many times it practically arrives precooked and prepackaged for immediate consumption and instant forgetting. Stowaway delivers four fully fleshed-out characters who are caught in an unfortunate situation that is fay beyond their control. It never feels forced and focuses the attention to see how the foursome reacts not to one another but also to the constant peril that they face. There is a sense of slight sadness throughout the entire movie, one that gets magnified the deeper we get into the story. The entire tone of somberness, in fact, helps Stowaway achieve a feeling of tragic transcendence that becomes almost palpable in its final sequences. This is a solid second effort from the same director who in 2019 brought the survival movie the Arctic with Mads Mikkelsen, Highly recommended.

One Month of Movies, but stepping back from the act of writing about them

The occupation of being a film critic, ego or no ego, is to be a [subjective] communicator who can reflect an idea, an interpretation if you will, of what it means to have seen a film, or an entire television series (in the days of binge-watching, so common now). I’ve been banging at the laptop for a good 15 or so years now, starting via IMDB.com as a simple user with a keyboard and continuing on my own site of the same name as this one (which, as I wrote in my first post from February, did not transfer successfully to this current version). Film critique is a practice that I thoroughly enjoy. After having watched a movie, or finished a limited series, I’ve got all these ideas swirling around in my head as of the information that I’ve been presented with, and now, the task of putting it all together into something called “my interpretation”. Sometimes I’ve turned out stuff that made me feel truly accomplished. Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, I wrote an extremely long essay on Luca Guadagnino’s short movie The Staggering Girl. That 40-minute movie affected me in more ways than anything I’d ever seen, to the point that I make it a point to see it whenever I feel a sense of grounding myself, and thus, finding whatever it was that I lost to the ravages of time and being an adult in the middle of corporate hell.

At the same time, I’ve submitted less than stellar writings. As a matter of fact, I’ve put out quickie reviews just to meet my own personal quota and make sure that whoever was reading me would see a new post every other day whether the movie was good or not, whether I even cared about the movie or not. I realized that this was not where I wanted to be. I don’t want to be just another reviewer who sees everything that gets released week after week; it’s just not me. Considering where I live plus the accessibility to an almost limitless online streaming content I’m almost navigating against the current, barely able to catch my breath as I start another two hours with a new movie, and so on and so forth. [Trust me when I say I can easily watch a good two movies per weekday, and as much as six to eight during a weekend.] Perhaps, by cutting back a bit, I may be missing on that brilliant new work that [insert name here] turned out, and for that, I can accept it. I will never be able to see every last thing that cinemas turn out; I now realize that I simply don’t want to. I want to be able to for once, simply enjoy the art of viewing, and leave it at that, and if I feel like it, express my thoughts, rather than feel compelled — obligated — to perform an analysis and tack on a completely subjective rating.

Speaking of ratings, I think it’s also time to retire that. What I consider good or bad is entirely my own view, my own appreciation of “what works and doesn’t work” in a cinematic experience. And who’s to say that I may, on a day I felt rather irritated, transferred my aggravation into a perfectly innocent vehicle? Many critics have stated that after the fourth or even fifth movie during an all-day festival felt exhausted and borderline ornery and gave the last one a less than favorable review simply because they were tired and their eyes hurt. That’s not fair for the finished product nor the director and his team who set out to simply entertain, and also make money. While there is no shortage of bad art out there, no one sets out to make bad art. I don’t have to emit a juicy negative opinion filled with snark and thinly veiled anger only to make my viewers chuckle. That was an institution that critics from 100 years ago established only to place themselves before the movie (or play), and thus, entertain by schadenfreude and mockery. There is too much of that already and I don’t feel as though I want to be a part of that. I don’t claim to have the last word. If I did, I’d be a snob, and I know way too many who are mainstays at art-house cinemas who produce cringe-worthy viewpoints when all I saw was a simple romance with a slight social statement (to name an example).

During the month of July, I saw no less than 12 movies ranging from new releases to restored classics, and a few short series. I may try to get to all of these, and if I do, fine, and if I don’t, that’s fine, too. I just don’t want to only be writing day after day after day as if it were an occupation. Unless I feel a connection to the project or its director, I probably won’t devote time to write about it. That simply means that I may be cutting back a bit and taking a point, midyear, to take off from watching and reviewing films, at least the lull before the New York Film Festival. So that is it, before I turn this into a tl;dr post, I just felt that I needed to address this into cyberspace, purge it from my system, and carry on with what truly interests me instead of churning out 10 reviews a week about 15 new and upcoming releases. I want that my personal views mean something, not simply parrot a elitist’s consensus about a film or series of films.

So, there it is. Now, to move on, whatever August may bring. Happy watching!

Lambs to the Slaughter: Viktor Kossakovskiy’s Gunda

This review contains mild spoilers.

Animals in cinema fall under three categories. First, we have the merely decorative ones — the cute pets that have sometimes grace the screen, sometimes with a tiny part to play. Then we have the more symbolic, or even heroic, in which an animal — usually a dog, or a horse — becomes an emblem for a larger scope if you go for greatness, or the stuffed birds in Psycho which portent not to a greater danger just about to happen, but segue into another film titled The Birds. We could also include, as a third category, the anthropomorphic creatures that since the dawn of animation — drawn and now, computerized — have told their own stories, which dimly reflect the human experience.

What Gunda offers is something completely different, Zoning in ever so slowly to the barn where she lives, we don’t get to see her proper until we are about five or so minutes of an extremely slow zoom-in. Lying on the ground, she seems to be in some pain. We soon realize why. She’s currently in the end phases of giving birth to a dozen little piglets who are already squirming about trying to find her milk-engorged teats to begin feeding. Meanwhile, she lies on the ground, accepting, not really moving, barely making any noise at all. If anything, the only noises come from the piglets themselves, and while at first, they seem to be akin to the cries of newborn babies, later on, they will morph into the cries of hunger, play, and something completely unthinkable.

Gunda remains close to its protagonist, the camera practically right next to her and her piglets as they all move as one body throughout the confines of the barn and then venture out into the farm. Along the way, the omnipresent camera, while tracking her movements, also tracks that of a trio of chickens recently let out of a coop, and focuses on one who is missing a leg. Then the camera tracks Gunda who has approached what seems to be a cow farm. One majestic shot gives these animals a sense of grandiosity only afforded to scenes of horses during a stampede. To see a group of cows emerge and tear through the fields into the woods, sometimes skipping, as their bells clang, is truly an epic experience.

But then, Kossalovskiy’s camera does what little movies do: focus on not just the animal in question but on their faces. While it is possible that some people may wonder what is the purpose for this, it gave me a sense of identification if you will. Watching an animal who seems to be alert, watching me, as it continues to move about, is a bit unsettling, particularly when you realize later where Gunda is headed, and how complicit you are in its own thread.

It slowly becomes apparent that because Gunda transpires within the confines of a farm that these animals, as cute as they are, are completely under the control of their unseen humans. This becomes clear when Gunda herself while venturing a bit too far from her home, comes across an electric fence, We don’t see it; she doesn’t, either, and her squeal of surprise and pain is piercing.

The reality of these animals couldn’t be more present when focusing on the piglets, a thing which Kossalovskiy’s camera does, and often. At first, the suspense hinges on their mother’s enormous body. The babies are so small, so fragile, that one slight movement from her could mean the difference between life and death. Every time the camera, after cavorting with the chickens and cows, returns to Gunda and her babies, they seem to have grown. First, it looks like a week, then months. Suddenly, they have what seem to be personalities all their own. A scene in which two piglets taste the rain with their mouths is something out of magic. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while.

Of course, something indescribably awful cracks the serenity of the entire montage, and then I feel the rug being pulled from under my feet. All this time, a false sense of security has been planted within the meandering narrative. The camera, which has stayed so close to both Gunda but especially her little piglets, continues to do just that, now only delivering a growing sense of shock that is more effective from what we never see but hear. Those squeals from the moment of the piglets’ birth now come with terror, while Gunda can only run — yes, run — after the large tractor that has come. It is a gut-wrenching scene and stands right up there with the scene in Bambi.

This is a deceptive documentary. It arrives enfolded in the black and white beauty of pastoral images, slowly draws you into what seems to be the life of a pig, only to disclose the ugly magician at the center. You will not see anything else like it. I don’t think it will change the world, but at least, it has changed me.