★★★ / ★★★★
I think a lot of people are unfairly harsh on this movie because of the fact that it stars Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Satuffenberg, one of the men that tries to assassinate Adolf Hitler. For some reason, people find it difficult to find a divide between an actor’s personal life and repertoire (like with Lindsay Lohan). We all know how it’s going to end so being predictable is not a valid reason on why one should not see this movie. (Assuming that the person knows the basics about World War II.) I’m here to say that this is a solid thriller because Bryan Singer, the director of other good films like “The Usual Suspects,” “Apt Pupil” and “X2: X-Men United,” was able to successfully build suspense up until the last twenty minutes. I enjoyed watching what Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Tom Cruise have to put on the table. Although the film is fast-paced, it gets really exciting whether these top-tier actors speak to each other as we find out where their loyalties lie. They made me believe that what they were trying to do was important and I eventually found myself hoping that things would turn out differently than it did in reality. I was impressed with the soundtrack because it supported the suspense instead of becoming the driving force. In most less successful thrillers, the latter is the case so it was a nice surprise to not find that here. I was also blown away by the visuals. Everything looks so grand: the architectures, the weaponries, the automobiles, down to the characters’ wardrobes. It was easy to tell that a lot of effort was put into this film. I wish the last twenty minutes could’ve been stronger. I felt like the suspense was sucked out of the film so I found myself not caring. I think those last few scenes were crucial because the filmmakers were supposed to convince the audience that those who tried to kill Hitler were honorable men and women. Instead, the message was lost and we saw one scene of pandemonium on top of one another. It’s a pretty strong movie as a whole; it just needed to deliver all the way through and, unfortunately, the film failed to do that.
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this indie drama about an Orthodox Jew (Zoe Lister Jones) and a Muslim originally from Pakistan (Francis Benhamou) who build a friendship out of commonalities despite their religious backgrounds. Even though the crux of this film is about arranged marriages and arguments whether it works or not, it’s not afraid to tackle some issues between Jewish and Muslim people. Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer, the directors, were efficient with each scene by astutely using contrasting scenes and ideas: man vs. woman, work place vs. home, self vs. family, traditionality vs. modernity… Yet at the same time, Crespo and Schaefer sometimes fused two opposing ideas in order to draw insightful but valid conclusions. I also liked the fact that even though the setting was in Brooklyn, New York, and there’s a lot of diversity on both the background and the foreground, there are still characters so soaked in bigotry but they don’t even know it. What’s more interesting is that though they feel like they’re helping the situation, as a third party, one could feel like they’re making the situation worse as each word is expressed. The writing must also be admired because I felt like the conversations are the kind that I would overhear from friends, random strangers, or even family members (racism, narrow-mindedness at the dinner table and all). Although, personally, I wouldn’t want to be placed in an arranged marriage, as a person of color, I’m open-minded when it comes to cultures who do follow certain traditions. What this movie could’ve improved on was the last three scenes. I thought everything was presented so quickly to the point where it diminished the momentum it had. Still, this is a strong movie for fans of indie dramas and for people who want to learn more about other cultures.
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
This teen flick could’ve been satirical and I would’ve liked it a lot more. Lindsay Lohan stars as a girl who recently moves to New Jersey and craves to be the center of attention. Along the way, she meets Alison Pill, a goody-two-shoes who, through her interactions with Lohan’s character (and running around New York for a night), was able to find the confidence within herself to be different. I didn’t like the fact that this movie took the safe route way too many times. I know it’s supposed to be a teen flick but superior teen movies have a certain edge. Take “Mean Girls,” for instance. That film has the bravada to know when to push toward certain situations where the characters can truly learn something about themselves. In here, though Lohan’s character claims that she learned a handful of things by the end of the film, I didn’t believe it for one second. I still thought she was a selfish girl who tells lies on top of one another in order to feel important. There was one scene that I thought was really good: When Pill’s character finally confronted the teenage drama queen for being a brat who would rather live in a fantasy world than in reality. I like Lohan despite her personal life because she can really act. However, for me, Pill stole the show here because she has that certain sparkle in her eyes that makes me want to get to know her character more. I thought Eli Marienthal’s character was very underdeveloped considering he’s the “reality” romantic interest of Lohan. Without him, the movie would’ve been the same. Carol Kane, as the director of the play, was annoying at best. She played character with such stupidity, I don’t even know where to begin. I did see some potential in this film and I chuckled here and there. However, it’s too all over the place and soft in its core. You should see “Mean Girls” or “Heathers” instead.
Angels & Demons (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code” for several reasons. First is Ron Howard’s direction: In its prequel (even though, chronologically, “Angels & Demons” happened before “The Da Vinci Code” so it depends on how one looks at it), I felt that Howard was all over the place and missed some crucial information from Dan Brown’s novel. That is why the ending was not as powerful as it should have been. To me, the facinating locales were at the foreground instead of the story. It was so concerned with being so fast-paced that it almost sacrificed its emotions and the details that made the book such a page-turner. In here, the director has more focus and confidence when it comes to tackling certain scenes and some of them are downright impressive (whether it’s about thrills or visual effects). I also liked Tom Hanks a lot more here than I did in “The Da Vinci Code.” Aside from the absence of his ridiculous hair that distracted millions of audiences from the first film, I felt like Hanks is more comfortable as Robert Langdon–he has that certain intellectual swagger but he doesn’t take it too seriously. I have to admit that there were times when I forgot about Hanks playing a role; I was so interested in what was happening, trying to recall if the events that transpired in the novel were being accurately portrayed in the picture. I also liked the lack of chemistry between Hanks and Ayelet Zurer. As strange as that may sound, films have the tendency to attach a romantic angle to “spice things up” when they really do not need to. In fact, most of the time such romatic interests weigh the picture down so I was glad there was none of that nonsense in “Angels & Demons.” It’s really focused in Langdon’s quest to solve the mysteries that were unfolding in the Vatican. Lastly, I have to mention Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. I’m not religious in any sense but the way he delivered some of his speeches were so powerful, I couldn’t help but have my eyes (as well as my ears) glued to the screen. He has a certain subtlety that is both charming and dangerous. Overall, “Angels & Demons” is a pretty entertaining summer blockbuster flick that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. It’s interesting to me how religious groups respond to these type of films. If they are so secure about their faith, films like this should not matter in any way. Its goal is to simply entertain and I think it achieved just that.
Prom Night (1980)
★ / ★★★★
I decided to see this classic (but horrendous) slasher flick because I was curious about how different it was compared to the 2008 version. Although both are pretty bad, I can stand this one a bit more because I could sympathize with Jamie Lee Curtis’ character. Even though she’s not in it as much as I wanted her to (considering she’s the supposed star of the film), she made the best of her scenes, especially that dated dancing sequence during the prom. After six years of a little girl’s death, a masked serial killer decides to kill one by one those who are responsible. It’s a simple premise that could’ve been effective. Unfortunately, the stalker scenes lacked suspense, the kills weren’t creative and all of the characters are one-dimensional. That’s a common trap in the slasher film subgenre: the teenagers often are defined by their stereotypes: the nerdy one, the one who loses her virginity during prom, the nice girl, the jealous ex-girlfriend, the list goes on. Paul Lynch, the director, should’ve taken those stereotypes and turned them inside out. That way, it wouldn’t be as predictable. I also had a problem with its pacing. After its introduction, the camera merely follows the characters around prior to the prom. Nothing interesting happens: there’s no insightful dialogue, no genuinely funny or embarrassing moments, fashion disasters–things that do happen in real life. I also must point out the empty schoolgrounds and streets. When a particular character was walking around in the morning or in the middle of the afternoon, one would expect to see people walking their dogs, jogging, or even driving in their cars. In here, those things were noticeably absent so it got distracting. I do not recommend this picture to general audiences because it does get a bit slow. However, this is a must-see for horror film buffs because it does make references to better slasher movies like “Psycho” and “Halloween.”
★★ / ★★★★
This picture started out beautifully but as it went on, it got too wrapped up in its own soap opera. I’m not sure whether the original material was the problem (it was based on “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth) or if it was Isabel Coixet’s style of direction, but what I do know is that it should have been a more effective character study. Ben Kingsley, a cultural critic, falls for Penélope Cruz, one of his students. Kingsley’s character is very obsessive, insecure about his aging body and has a lot of fears about not being accepted by certain people. Cruz’ character is beautiful but she’s also very smart and she sees something in Kingsley’s character that not a lot people do. So, in a way, they’re a fit for each other despite the thirty-year age difference. I also liked Patricia Clarkson’s character and her “purely” sexual relationship with Kingsley. I say “purely” because even though the two desperately want to believe that what they have is merely sex, I could tell by their actions and silent moments that there’s something more about that relationship. Clarkson provided a much needed break between Cruz and Kingsley’s sometimes suffocating (but stirring) conversations. What didn’t work for me was Kingsley’s relationship with his best friend (Dennis Hopper). Not only was Hopper’s character underdeveloped, the tone changed whenever he was on screen so I was constantly taken out of that solemn atmosphere that the film tried to consistently attain. When I look at the bigger picture, I feel like I’ve seen it all before: the strained relationships, the regret and anger that comes with self-doubt, and the man falling in love with a much younger woman. I did like the conversations because they had real emotions and intelligence. However, I can’t recommend this movie because it didn’t quite reach the level and staying power that the first few scenes had promised to achieve.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.
West Side Story (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
“West Side Story” is pretty much an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Montagues vs. Capulets, it’s the Sharks vs. the Jets, Puerto Rican immigrants and second generation Americans, respectively. I’m not very interested in musicals but I had to see this one because it’s considered a classic. Although I was pleasantly surprised with how well-made it was, I was also disappointed because it’s not very consistent in its quality. After it delivers one great scene, a pointless and aimless scene comes right after it, which balances out into mediocrity. Although the songs are memorable and some even made it to the modern media consciousness, there were some musicals numbers that tried to do too much. For instance, in one shot the characters are singing in a dimly-lit backdrop; the next frame introduces a glaring use of color in order to symbolize certain emotions when it really didn’t need to do it. Certain techniques like that became distracting and they took me out of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. Natalie Wood as Maria (a Shark) and Richard Beymer as Tony (a Jet) had strong chemistry so I was interested in what was about to happen to their relationship. I wish the film had focused more on them instead of the rival gangs. I think Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the directors, spent too much time on the gangs just hanging about, bickering, and acting stupid. Not to mention those scenes were a bit lame (in this day and age) so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I got what the directors were trying to do: To paint a picture that youth is the time to make mistakes and how teenagers are forced to grow up once they learn to take responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that they should spend about half the movie trying to get that message across. I felt like this movie could’ve been condensed from two hours and thirty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. Still, I’m giving this a recommendation because some parts were very strong such as when the film tried to tackle the issues of immigration, racism, groupthink, and us vs. them. Those social themes made this a musical with a brain even though it may not seem like it at first glance.
West Side Story Tickets and Information
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Like “Millennium Actress” that was also directed by Satoshi Kon, “Tokyo Godfathers” feels like ordinary story on the outside but has something extraordinary within. It’s about three homeless people–Gin (Toru Emori), a father who lost his family, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a maternally-obsessed transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young runaway too ashamed to return home–who find a baby in a dumpster during Christmas Eve. After deciding that they’ll return the baby to its parents, they learn so much about themselves and each other. I liked the fact that this film does not shy away from using coincidences to get an emotional reaction from the audiences. To me, it didn’t feel distracting because that’s how life is sometimes: a series of coincidences that reminds and defines who we are and how much we’ve changed from the past. I also liked the common theme of funny things coming out of a sad situation and sad things coming out of funny situation. Again, that realism so endearing to me because most animated films I see are labyrinths of fantasy. It’s refreshing to see a potential real life story being told in a different medium. For a nintey-minute movie, the picture was efficient enough to feature each character’s backstory so we truly get to understand their motivations and how they’ve become homeless; it’s nice to see that, to some of them, homelessness is merely a byproduct of escaping some sort of shameful things they’ve done in the past. And like real people, these characters sometimes lie to each other and then later on we get to discover the truth from their actions. This is a very strong film because it straddles many different genres yet feel complete and very human. As for those who are knowledgeable to some sort of a Christian background, there’s something extra special for them because the three homeless individuals could mean something more.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Upon reading other people’s reviews, I got the feeling that Poppy (Sally Hawkins) was this person who was happy all the time and wasn’t at all affected by other people’s negative emotions. After actually watching the film, I believe she’s not like that at all. In fact, she cares so much about other people–her family, her friends, even complete strangers–to the point where she tries to make them happy when she senses that they’re having a bad day or they have something heavy in their minds. Her default emotion is happiness, which is unlike many people whose default is neutral, and that makes her really interesting and entertaining to watch. Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) did a great job introducing an extremely charming and likable character right from the opening credits. What’s even more impressive is that he was able to tell an ordinary story surrounding a 30-year-old single elementary school teacher with great focus in the emotional aspects of different circumstances. By the end of the film, I truly got to know Poppy when she’s with her friends (Alexis Zegerman was hilarious as Hawkins’ sarcastic roommate), when she’s at work with her children, when she’s with her co-workers, when she’s with complete strangers, and when she’s by herself with her thoughts. Although the whole learning-to-drive aspect with Eddie Marsan as the angry driving instructor didn’t work for me because there were a lot of intense emotional outbursts, I did laugh a lot because I could relate to those scenes regarding my experiences behind the wheel for the first time. Instead of that, I wish the story had more time to focus more on the romance between Hawkins and Samuel Roukin. Since Poppy and her group of friends have been talking about where they are in their lives, including Poppy’s thoughts about whether she’s really happy with how her life has turned out, I thought that a genuine connection with someone of the opposite sex was an issue that needed more exploration. Still, this picture is very, very good and I was surprised that Hawkins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While watching the film, she made me feel really happy and it’s not easy to carry a comedy movie with such consistency all the way through. If you’re in the mood for a bit of sunshine, “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
It’s definitely refreshing to see Anne Hathaway play a sarcastic and narcissistic character because I’m so used to seeing her as sugary and sweet like in “The Princess Diaries,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Ella Enchanted.” Although she’s had her share of darker characters such as in “Havoc,” it’s in this film that she truly shines and showcases her potential as a serious actress capable of carrying roles that have a certain resonance. Although the backdrop of the film is Rosemarie Dewitt’s wedding (as Rachel), the film is really about Hathaway’s inner demons as she tries to recover from addiction to drugs (and negative self-talk regarding herself, the world and the future). I must give kudos to the director (Jonathan Demme) and the writer (Jenny Lumet) for their sublime way of telling the story and how certain characters would crash onto one another. Although the arguments between DeWitt and Hathaway are truly scathing, I still felt an undeniable love between them because of the things they’ve been through. Some of those things are explored in the picture in insightful and meaningful ways so the audiences truly get to appreciate the main characters. I loved Bill Irwin as the father who mediates between the two daughters. Even though he strives to play the middleman, after certain fights, it’s noticeable that it pains him to see his daughters fight. My main problem with the film is that it lost some of its momentum especially toward the last twenty minutes. The movie started off so strongly because we really get to experience Hathaway’s frustration, sarcasm and rage but I felt like those attributes were missing in the end. Yes, I get that Hathaway’s character wanted her sister to have a nice wedding so she tries to hold her smart remarks but I still wanted more. However, I believe this is a strong film because I felt like I was really there with the characters; from the rehearsals to the actual wedding, it made me miss my own family and relatives when we would gather and everyone would act crazy. In a way, I could relate to Hathaway’s character because I consider myself the black sheep in the family (minus the drugs). I also enjoyed the multicultural cast and the fact that the issue of race was not brought up. The main critique I’ve heard from audiences prior to watching this movie is the somewhat shaky camera. I thought it was utilized in a good way in here because it added to the sense of realism. Not everything has to be perfect especially in a film with a very flawed lead character who wants some sort of closure in order to be able to move on with her life.
No Regret (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hee-il Leesong, the first openly gay director in South Korea who leads a gay-themed film, is someone to watch out for. “No Regret” is about a recently-turned-eighteen orphan (Young-hoon Lee) who leaves the orphanage and heads to Seoul to find a job. Unable to balance school and several low-paying jobs, he decides to work as a male prostitute with the hope of earning enough money to go back to school. The main character meets a rich upcoming businessman (Han Lee) several times including the strip club where he works. Eventually, after a plethora of inner and outer conflicts between the two, they finally fall for each other. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. What I love about this picture is that it didn’t glamorize male prostitution. It managed to paint a picture that people who are involved in such underground jobs are miserable and messed up yet still have human longings that are almost never achieved. They keep telling themselves, “If I earn enough money, I’ll get out of this place and lead a better life” but insecurities of not being good enough for “normal” society soon take over and they get stuck from moving on. Young-hoon Lee impressed me because he can brood really well. When he cried (and he did several times), I felt the sting of his depression and desperation. The moment when I could identify with him the most was when he expressed his insecurities to his lover; mainly that he’s poor and not well-educated. To me, that explains why he initially did not want to get in a relationship with Han Lee’s character. The lead character’s lover is rich, educated and has several options with his life. When they finally get into a relationship, that jealousy never really goes away and it sucks them into a negative spiral. I also thought that the lead character feels guilty for taking away his lover’s opportunities just to be with him. That negative spiral is then aided by Han Lee’s family because they want him to marry a girl despite finding out that their son is a homosexual. The complexity of the situations and morals of these characters are well-integrated in the script so I enjoyed watching the story unfold. However, my biggest problem is the film’s last twenty minutes. The events that transpired were so out of character, I thought the whole sequence was a dream (or a nightmare?). Though the ending did make me laugh in some sick, twisted way (one either loves it or hates it, I suppose), I feel like it could’ve ended better. I felt like the moral implications that pervaded the rest of the film were thrown out the window and, I must admit, I felt a little cheated. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a recommendation because the acting, script, and story are commendable. I’m looking forward to Hee-il Leesong’s next film because he proved to me that he is very capable of telling stories that are both rewarding and unpredictable.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
★★★ / ★★★★
Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini paints a deeply disturbing film about Nazis who kidnapped eighteen teenagers from their homes and subjected them in all kinds of physical, sexual and mental embarrassment (“torture” is the more accurate word to be perfectly honest). Out of those eight Nazis four were men (Paolo Bonacelli as The Duke, Giorgio Cataldi as The Bishop, Umbero Paolo Quintavalle as The Magistrate and Aldo Valletti as The President) and four were women (Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Sonia Saviange and Hélène Surgère). I have a penchant for films that defy the norm; though this film definitely fits in that category, I must admit that even this one was too much for me. It’s one thing when the audiences are forced to hear stories about the prostitutes’ personal experiences with men who have strange perversions but it’s another when we’re forced to see teenagers consume feces and get their tongues cut off. There were many scenes in the movie when I had to cover my eyes or look away because it all looked so realistic. At the same time, despite my disgust and horror, the film has messages such as the danger of capitalism, the objectification of male and female bodies and taking reality in a whole new level. There’s also bits about homophobia, mashochism, and insidious tools of oppression such as religion, titles and groupthink. When I really think about it, even though this picture was released in 1975, it’s still very relevant today. I also liked the common theme of something beautiful and inviting on the outside but only meanness, ugliness and evil can be found inside, such as the structurally beautiful palace where all kinds of evil are committed within its confines. I thought its messages culminated in the end when all kinds of atrocities were happening: While we get to see horrific images of violence sans the screaming and begging for remorse, I felt a sort of sadness and even a pinch of anger. When reviewers say that this film has nothing to offer, I argue that they haven’t really thought about the picture. While it may be challenging to look past the violence, it’s undeniable that “Salò” has insight that less daring movies will otherwise not achieve. I give this a recommendation but I must warn that this is not for a typical movie-going audience or for the faint of heart.
★★ / ★★★★
I really got my hopes up after watching this animated flick’s trailer for the first time but after actually seeing the movie, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Igor (John Cusack) wants to be more than a deformed lowly assistant so he figures that he can get the recognition he deserves by creating an evil monster for the Evil Science Fair. Instead, Igor ends up creating a harmless monster who was eventually brainwashed to be an aspiring actress (voiced by the lovely Molly Shannon). The conflict comes in when Dr. Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard) decides to steal Igor’s invention and pass it as his own in order to be the king of Malaria. One of the many problems that this film has is its many references to “Frankenstein.” Since the filmmakers’ audiences are children, I don’t think they will be able to fully appreciate the references because most of them probably haven’t read the novel or seen any “Frankenstein” films. Sure, the obvious slapstick and winking at the camera are present but those elements won’t satisfy astute adults who want to experience something more rewarding like in “WALL-E” and “Ratatouille.” Another problem I had with the film is the way the story unfolded. I think it spent too much of its time preaching the importance of choosing good over evil (especially toward the end). Actions speak louder than words and the filmmakers could’ve been more efficient by showing the audiences why choosing good is better than evil instead of making big, somewhat meaningless (and cliché) speeches. My favorite part of the film was its most sensitive: when the monster decides to give Igor, Brain (Sean Hayes) and Scamper (Steve Buscemi) gifts. Scenes like that made me not dislike this animated movie as much. Another negative is that sometimes Brain and Scamper outshined Igor. Those two are way too hyper and loud which made them more interesting than the lead character. I did like the syle of animation because it reminded me of “Corpse Bride” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” However, it goes to show that without strong writing, colorful animation can only entertain so much.