★★★ / ★★★★
I had a difficult time digesting this film because even though there are elements I liked about it (such as the quiet chaos that happens in suburbia that of which focuses on an Arab-American main character), I thought the sexual scenes are graphic, especially when Summer Bishil plays a thirteen-year-old girl. Yes, it’s honest in its portrayal of sexual predators, blooming sexualities, and wanting to escape a home full emotional suppression but it just felt wrong to me. But at the same, I feel like it’s necessary to make, show, and watch films like these because they function like a mirror to our deluded society. Most people like to believe this idea of middle schoolers retaining their innocence, but in reality, kids do have sex at a young age nowadays (The thirteen-year-old father comes to mind.). Films like “Towelhead” reminds us what we choose to ignore and (maybe) eventually forget. I also liked this film’s portrayal of Bishil’s sexuality. I know a lot of people will assume that her character is a bisexual or lesbian, but argue that she is not. In my opinion, she is aroused by looking at the magazines of naked women because it’s what she is not: a person who is free to do whatever she wants and looking like a model (despite being heavily Photoshopped). Moreover, since that magazine is the first thing that awoken her sexual curiosity, it’s only natural that she keeps going back to it. Subtle messages like that forces me to give this film a recommendation because it’s trying to get its audiences to dig under the surface. Other good performances include Peter Macdissi as Bishil’s strict father, Toni Collette as the kind-hearted pregnant neighbor, and Matt Letscher as Collette’s wordly husband. I really enjoyed Collette and Letscher’s characters because I found a certain light in them that I otherwise couldn’t find in the other characters (with the exception of Bishil). Most of the time, I love films that push the envelop but I found it hard to love this one; I admire it but I don’t quite love it because it made me feel sick and disgusted. That said, I think it’s a powerful film because it’s able to get a negative intuitive reaction from me–a trait that I haven’t encountered in a long time.
The Deep End (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I love most about this film is its audacity to be atypical. Tilda Swinton is absolutely terrific as the mother who is constantly tested to see how far she will go to protect her son (Jonathan Tucker) and his secrets. Throughout the picture, I felt like I was watching a poker game as I peer over her shoulder, both of us knowing that she has a bad hand, but she keeps calling her opponents’ bets because she invested too much in the round, desperately hoping that the others are simply bluffing. The bleak atmosphere elevated the constantly increasing drama to the point where it almost works as a thriller. I tried not to look Swinton in the eye too much because once I do, I feel like I’m in as much trouble as she is. Her Oscar win from “Michael Clayton” was a long time coming. Another great performance comes from Goran Visnjic who plays one of the men that blackmails Swinton. I thought I knew which direction his character was going to take so that specific twist was a nice surprise. As for Jonathan Tucker, I’ve seen him in movies like “Pulse,” “Hostage” and the 2003 version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but it was “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Ruins” that made me want to know more about his capabilities. Even though he’s not in as many scenes I as I would have liked here (considering he’s a crucial part of the story), he was spot-on in each of them. Overall, I was invested in each character because the situations they are put in can happen to just about anybody. There’s a certain sense of realism and that’s what makes it so engaging. This is the kind of movie that not everybody can appreciate because it’s far from the norm. Instead of focusing on what was said, the film focuses on the characters’ silent moments and decisions, thereby creating a plethora of implications. Suffice to say, I think this film is exemplary in every way.
The International (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film, astutely directed by Tom Tykwer, reminded me so much of “The Interpreter” because it’s realistic when it comes to the complexities of international crime and relations. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts star as an Interpol agent and assistant district attorney, respectively; as the two leads get closer to the truth, their morals are questioned, they gamble their lives and the lives of those they love. Their main goal is to bring down the source of international corruption led by the IBBC. To say that that particular task is incredibly difficult is putting it lightly because bringing down the IBBC means dealing with economists, politians, bankers and terrorists. What I admired about this film is its patience: it’s not afraid to let its characters talk about the technical inner workings of banks to the point where the audiences get utterly lost. Although most people will get frustrated with it because they claim to not know what is going on, I enjoyed it because that’s what makes it real. That issue of not knowing made it that much more suspenseful. Speaking of suspense, the writer, Eric Singer, knows how to effectively build tension. Just when you think everything is going to go wrong, nothing does; when you think everything is going to go right, something goes incredibly wrong. Right from the beginning, the film established its craft and intelligence; I felt like I was watching the best episodes of “Alias.” Right away, it was able to show what some people are willing to do in order to accomplish their endgame. This is one of the first adult movies of 2009 and definitely not for everyone. There are not a lot of action scenes but when those action scenes appear, they are intense and heart-pounding. If one is looking for a typical action film, this is not the one to see. However, if one is looking for an intelligent script, moral and business ambiguities, this gets a high recommendation from me.
Transporter 3 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is arguably the darkest installment out of the first three, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. In fact, I think it’s the worst because it’s lacking a particular element that made the first two so much fun to watch. Jason Statham is great as usual as the transporter of goods, but this time around the object that he’s supposed to deliver happens to be a person (not that that’s anything new). She is played by Natalya Rudakova, which I thought ruined the entire film. She’s as useless as a screen door on a submarine because her character is not particularly strong or smart. She’s not very sensible either because she chooses to take drugs and drink vodka despite her dire predicament. I kept waiting for her character to get shot in the head (hence for the film to get better) but it never happened. Without her annoying voice and distracting freckles, I think I would’ve liked the movie more. As for the elements I did like, the action is still kinetic and it delivered a cartoonish sense of humor. I also liked Robert Knepper as the villain; I think he’s exemplary in roles that require a certain griminess like his character on “Prison Break.” Olivier Megaton, the director, didn’t spend enough time to set up the bad guys’ endgame so I ultimately didn’t care for the story. He also spent too much time exploring Statham and Rudakova’s lack of chemistry, as if he’s trying to force the film’s audiences to like her. I can’t stop complaining about her because she doesn’t have any redeeming quality. (And the fact that she forced Statham to strip doesn’t count despite a glorious sight.) I love the “Transporter” series because it’s pure escapist fun, but I would say skip this one to spare yourself from rolling your eyes and pulling your hair out.
Transporter 2 (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
This is the case in which the sequel is better than the original. Even though its predecessor had more story, this one is more focused because all it wanted to do was entertain by showing its audiences one action sequence after another. Jason Statham is back as the mercenary Frank Martin but this time around, instead of transporting drugs or women, his job is to take a kid named Jack (played with spunkiness by Hunter Clary) back from school every day. Since he is a son of an important politician (Matthew Modine), he is targeted by Alessandro Gassman whose intentions are revealed later in the film. One of the things I liked about the picture is that it started off with a kidnapping but it eventually became something more sinister. I didn’t see it coming so I thought that was well done. I also liked the references to the first film (this time with paint instead of oil) and how it provided a scene similar to the ridiculousness of the first (the stunts using a fire hose). But the best scenes include model-turned-actress Kate Nauta and her duels with Statham. I wish they had more hand-to-hand combat; I didn’t like that Louis Leterrier, the director, avoided something that could be great. Yes, violence against women is a horrible thing in normal circumstances but if one assassin faces another assassin gender should not be an issue. Ultimately, I thought this film was extremely fast-paced. It didn’t feel like I watched a ninety-minute movie. Even though it might have been a little too cartoonish, I think it worked because its intention was not to tell an insightful story but an entertaining one. It more than succeeds on that level.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though this animated film is targeted toward children, what I love about it is that it’s not afraid to show menace in order to engage its older audiences. Written and directed by Henry Selick, “Coraline” reminded me of a blend among “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Orphanage” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Not only does it have many implications about growing up and dealing with the realities of life, it also has something to say about alternate realities and the power of imagination. I thought Dakota Fanning as Coraline is an excellent choice because Fanning has that certain edge that’s both friendly yet sarcastic at just the right moments. Teri Hatcher as Coraline’s mother and Other Mother is a good choice as well. Having seen Hatcher in “Desperate Housewives,” I thought she was more comedic more than anything so wasn’t sure that she was going to deliver. However, she proved me wrong. The stop-animation is absolutely stunning. Right from the first scene, you can easily tell that the filmmakers did the best they could to produce a work of art that deserves to be remembered for a very long time. I’m willing to bet that this film will be regarded as a classic, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in about a decade or two. Sure, it’s scarier than the films previously mentioned but that’s what makes it different from other children’s movies. This animated flick is not afraid to use certain adult language, show certain exaggerated body parts, and a story that can potentially drive children to their parents’ bedroom on the night after watching it. Even I got scared during the last thirty minutes because there are a lot at stake for Coraline. I believed that she truly was in danger and could get hurt by the malicious Other Mother. Some stand-out scenes include Coraline’s discovery of Wybie Lovat’s mouth being sewn open to produce a smile, the atmospheric second mission involving a theatre and dog-bat hybrids, and the last five minutes which involves a metallic hand and a reference to “The Ring.” All of the eye-popping (sometimes literally) adventures aside, this is a story about a person not being taken seriously and how that frustration gets the best of us. That frustration then drives us to turn toward the seemingly better alternative only to realize later on that we’ve had it so good all along.
Cold Mountain (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film, directed by Anthony Minghella, would’ve been a masterpiece if it hadn’t been so uneven. One of the things that bothered me most was the lack of a real relationship between Nicole Kidman and Jude Law’s characters prior to Law leaving to participate in the Civil War. I felt like they just met, instantly fell in love, and the audiences are supposed to buy it so easily. I get that faith is one of the driving forces of the film but, with its running time of about two-and-a-half hours, it could’ve left room to establish a concrete relationship between the two leads. Renée Zellweger deserved her Oscar as Ruby Thewes because she had a great comedic timing, energy, and she came at the right time when the film started to become too depressing. Even though her acting is (arguably) over-the-top, I thought it was necessary because her character is supposed to contrast of that of Kidman’s. Kidman and Zellweger’s little adventures in the farm made me smile. As for Law’s adventures that are bigger in scope, it was nice to see some familiar actors playing very colorful characters: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Cillian Murphy, Jena Malone… I didn’t like this film as much the first time I saw it. But upon giving it a second chance, I realized that Mingella provides a plethora of beautiful images that reflect how a character is feeling and thinking. Not to mention the soundtrack manages to elavate those images and feelings on an entirely new level. He also has a talent of telling a story that spans for a long period of time. In fact, one of my favorite scenes was when Kidman and Law were finally reunited; that scene was smart enough to linger a bit because it gives the audiences a chance to look back on how different the two characters were from when the film started. With a little more improvement on its pacing, this romance epic would’ve been more memorable. Charles Frazier, the book’s author from which the film is based upon, should be proud of this picture because it got pretty much everything right.
Hard Candy (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw this back in 2005, I wasn’t yet familiar with Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Even though I did notice Wilson’s convincing acting, it was Page who stole every scene. Her character is smart (but not as smart as she believes herself to be), cunning, and twisted in every way imaginable. After watching “Hard Candy” for the first time, I made a promise to myself that I would watch out for her because she not only has the talent for acting but also the subtlety that most young actors don’t have or not yet learned. When “Juno” came out, I instantly recognized her and I knew what she could bring to the table (and she didn’t disappoint). This film is not for everyone because of its subject matter: a seemingly innocent girl decides to hook up with a thirysomething man online; in a span of fifteen to twenty minutes she reveals her true intentions and the film asks its audiences to feel for the potential pedophile/ephebophile. I found this film to be both daring and interesting because most films about molestation focuses on a male taking advantage of a female. It’s about time the tables are turned. Even though the picture is edgy and tries to push the envelope, I never thought it was gratuitous–it may have been disturbing but it was never gratuitous. Technical aspects such as the use of warm and cool colors should also be noticed and appreciated. This also works as a cautionary tale for people who find romantic interests online. You never really know who’s behind the screen and what they really want so it’s smart to always be cautious no matter how friendly they may sound. David Slade, the director, helmed this as the kind of film that will keep someone guessing up until the very end.
Desperate Hours (1990)
★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of film that proves that a talented cast means nothing if the execution of the story is weak and uninvolving. Mickey Rourke, Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, and David Morse’s characters are one-dimensional and annoying. The only character that I was remotely interested in was played by Lindsay Crouse. She was smart and I was at ease whenever she had a plan on how to attack a certain problem. Another big problem I had with this picture is its inconsistency. In the first fifteen minutes, it was established that Rouke’s character is smart and deadly, almost assassin-like in his movement and has an uncanny ability to find another person’s weaknesses. But in the last fifteen minutes, all of those qualities were thrown out the window; he almost was as stupid as his henchmen. Since Crouse is the strongest in this, I was actually more interested on what was going on outside of the house, where the hostage wasn’t happening, than inside. It’s not supposed to work that way because the dramatic core is the family’s interactions with the criminals. Instead, nothing much happens inside the house other than threats being thrown at one another and long moments of merely standing around. If Michael Cimino, the director, paced this film better and reshot a couple of scenes, it may have had the chance to redeem itself. Instead, we get an extremely slow-moving picture that isn’t even thrilling in the least. If one is interested in a much better hostage movie, I recommend “Panic Room” starring Jodie Foster instead. At least that one has an interesting premise and hostages that one can root for all the way to the final scene.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of the most important and best told movies ever made and I do not say that lightly. Every scene is memorable and presented in such a sensitive way, but it’s never judgmental because it lets the images speak for themselves. There’s a scene in this film involving Ralph Fiennes’ character (Amon Goeth) about removing or changing a certain part of history; this movie is a perfect example why that character cannot be any more wrong. Liam Neeson is tremendous as Oskar Schindler because he is able to effectively show Schindler’s evolution as a businessman-turned-humanitarian. Fiennes is also amazing in this even though his character is a monster. Both actors share a certain complexity that is extremely difficult to come by nowadays. As for Ben Kingsley, at first I didn’t recognize him but after trying to figure out what his character was all about, I realized that he really looked familiar and recognized him after about five minutes of contemplation. If that isn’t a mark of a great actor, I don’t know what is. Many consider that this as Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece (among many) and I cannot agree more. Even though it spans for about three hours and fifteen minutes, I didn’t feel like I was watching it for that long. In fact, I felt like I was watching a documentary because of how real everything looked and felt; I felt like was really there. Spielberg’s decision to show this movie in black and white is nothing short of perfection. It allowed me to notice Spielberg’s techniques, such as presenting two completely different factors when something is apart but when those two are put together, they seem to complement or go with each other. Aside from the use of black and white, other examples include Schindler and Geoth’s personalities and ideals; one train heading toward a safe haven while the other heads toward hell; fusion of two, or sometimes even three, different scenes–one showing pain and misery while the other one showing happiness and celebration. The craft alone is enough for me to give this film a four-star review, but it managed to go beyond that. The one scene that really made me want to cry was near the end when Schindler regretted not selling his car or his valuable pin in order to save more lives in front of more than a thousand Jewish people he saved. It really got to me because he lost everything he had yet he was still sorry he couldn’t have done more. I remember watching this film back in high school but I didn’t understand and did not appreciate it as much. In my opinion, this is the kind of movie that should be required to show in schools when the students are learning about World War II. Spielberg has given the world a gift–a reminder of one of the darkest times in history and why we should prevent it from happening again. “Schindler’s List” is one of the reasons why movies are made.
★★★ / ★★★★
Some people say that the portrayal of the US Naval Academy was unrealistic, but I really wasn’t looking for realism when I decided to see this film. I went to see it to gauge James Franco’s acting ability in his lesser-known or less critically-acclaimed movies. I love stories about underestimated people who dream of big things but are born in poor families. This is a perfect example of that and, aside from some of its overdramatic scenes (especially before a boxing match), pretty much everything worked. I thought it was interesting how the filmmakers related life to a boxing match–how a strong person gets hit countless times and sometimes falls but is never defeated unless he decides to not stand back up. And throughout this picture, that’s the overall tone: a challenge is presented to Franco’s character, how he learns to deal with those challenges and build a reputation between his peers and higher officers. It’s also about learning to ask for help and when it’s the right time to help others even if they don’t want any help. I thought Donnie Wahlberg is brilliant as a higher officer who believes in Franco even though he doesn’t have that many scenes. In a way, he seemed like a father figure who provides support but is also there to provide some tough love. Jordana Brewster as Franco’s love interest is surprisingly effective because the two of them actually have chemistry. She managed to balance sensitivity and toughness well. As for Tyrese Gibson, at first I thought he was going to be an archetypal baddie but over time, we learn that he had to be tough because of the things he experienced in the past; even though he ultimately cares, it’s difficult for him to portray what he’s really feeling–a trait that a lot of people have. I think a lot of critics were harsh on this film because it does have elements from other (better) movies about a person who overcomes challenges in the Academy/military. For me, it’s more important to treat a movie as its own instead of comparing it to similar movies that came before (especially if it’s not a sequel or a part of a series).
Saw III (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
This is slightly better than “Saw II” but nowhere as great as the original. In my opinion, in order for a sequel to be successful, it should be able to stand on its own. There’s a difference between making connections with its predecessors and relying on its predecessors to make a functional story. “Saw III” is the latter example, which is unfortunate because the traps are interesting and the deaths are gruesome (as what a “Saw” fan would expect). Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is creepy and cryptic as usual, but this time we get to truly see the dynamics between him and his partner Amanda (played by Shawnee Smith). However, what didn’t work for me was Angus Macfadyen’s character because his character is one-dimensional–a father who is grieving over the death of his only son. Whenever he is given the chance to “forgive”/save a life, he moves ever so slowly every single time. One time would be understandable, but if lives are at stake there should be a feeling of urgency despite one’s anger toward the person that he or she is supposed to save. In a nutshell, I found it difficult to identify with his plight. Another thing that started to bug me throughout watching the “Saw” franchise is Jigsaw’s philosophy of “teaching” his victims lessons by putting them through torture. If those victims happen to fail the challenges, Jigsaw doesn’t consider himself a murderer even though he’s the one who kidnapped those people and put their bodies in terrifying killing machines. In my opinion, he is the agent of harm because he leaves people worse off than they otherwise wouldn’t have experienced if it weren’t for Jigsaw’s actions despite the positive effects such actions might entail (if the victims were to survive). If one has taken a philosophy class, this idea is pretty basic and it really makes a dent on the film’s premise. Still, I thought this was one of the more coherent sequels of the franchise and I was quite entertained so I’m not going to persuade people to not see this movie.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy and it’s dispersed throughout this movie, but Steve Coogan’s enthusiastic performance as a drama teacher who wants to inspire his students prevented me from becoming completely bored by it. The presence of familiar faces such as Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler made it that much better because their sometimes subtle performances contrast to the all-too-obvious elements of the picture. Not to mention that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” song is not only satirical and catchy but just plain hilarious if one is not too sensitive when it comes to making fun of religion (Christianity in this case). I think I would’ve liked this film more if the slapstick that plagued the beginning were completely removed. Not only were they not funny, they also slowed the story down. Instead, the filmmakers should’ve dealt with race relations in the classroom; they tried to move in that direction but I got the feeling that the writers were afraid that the movie would get too serious. What is a comedy without a little bit of dramatic gravity? Despite my coming from a high school with a diverse group of ethnicities, self-segregation is not uncommon; it would’ve been nice if that was explored because I could relate to it and I think it’s still an important issue. I also liked the fact that the story of “Hamlet” was not just randomly chosen to make a play. Coogan’s character can relate to it, in his own strange way, so we get that sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily recommend this movie to just about anyone because it is targeted toward people with a specific sense of humor. If one is a fan of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which I hated with a passion), he or she might enjoy “Hamlet 2.” For me, this film is offensive (in a good way), satirical, and had heart but it could’ve been more insightful and moving if they had toned down the slapstick.
Burn After Reading (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s something profound in this picture but Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, failed to eliminate the distracting elements that dragged this movie down. What I love about “Burn After Reading” is its clear thesis: characters mistaking other characters’ identities and intentions, resulting in one big mess on top of another. It’s really too bad because this film is full of talented actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and J.K. Simmons. McDormand really steps up to the plate whenever she’s asked to play an extremely quirky character. The last time I’ve seen her this good was in “Fargo.” Another stand-out is Pitt, as McDormand’s co-worker and partner in crime. Both of them gave this film a much-needed life and humor. I wanted to see more of them as the movie progressed but we get scene after scene of Clooney messing around Swinton–physically and psychologically. To be honest, it made me look back on “Michael Clayton,” when the two of them are at their prime. In this movie, they are pretty one-dimensional; when the occupation of one of them was revealed near the end, it felt all too forced, as if the Coen brothers were trying to milk the irony. Malkovich is another character that could’ve been explored more (I love his random over-the-top outbursts) but he’s only portrayed as an angry guy who was fired from his job and lost everything. I love dark comedies because there’s a certain smugness to them that other people won’t understand no matter how many times they see the film, but this one felt way too into itself. But, really, in the overall scope of things, this isn’t necessarily a bad follow-up of “No Country for Old Men.” The style is there; it’s just that it could’ve been edgier and more involving.