Live and Let Die (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
This isn’t my favorite James Bond film even though it has a nice balance of action and humor. At times I felt like it was too light to the point where it’s impossible to take the more serious scenes… well, seriously. Rooger Moore is a mediocre 007 because he lacks a certain edge that Sean Connery has. Moore is a bit too goofy with his one-liners and I wanted him to be more dangerous. One of my major problems is that the film somewhat relied on the belief of tarot cards coming true. That lack of realism really bothered me and I wish the writers eliminated it from the story. It’s a shame because the premise started off well: three agents were killed from different sides of the globe and Bond has to find a connection on why it happened. While the beginning is brilliant, the execution and the conclusion are less than impressive. Come to think of it, I don’t think they answered all of my questions regarding the premise. It simply answered the “why” aspect in one of the scenes and completely forgot about it for the rest of the picture. Somehow, Bond manages to meet a girl who can see the future and become crocodile food. Although the latter scene is very impressive (it’s arguably the best scene of the film), it hardly makes up for the rest of the film’s inconsistencies. Bond is supposed to be the center of the story but there were many scenes where he could not be found. If I were to estimate the net time Moore was not on film, it would be around twenty minutes. When introducing a new actor playing Bond, the smart move is to put him in front of the camera 95% of the time (or more) so the audiences will get a chance to get to know him more. By the end of this film, I felt like Moore was secondary to the big picture.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is not as funny as everyone made it to be. I thought it spent too much of its time showing people shooting guns and not enough time telling Hollywood jokes. For a two-hour film, I thought it would reach some sort of balance. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, he has some really funny sketches such as the fake trailers prior to the main feature, Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor, Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie mogul, and not to mention the Oscar scene. Other than those few elements, I simply chuckled through the rest (if they were at least somewhat funny). Jack Black and Ben Stiller weren’t as funny as they could have been. Compared to Downey Jr. and Cruise, Black and Stiller were trying too hard to get noticed; instead of enhancing the experience, it became distracting. But I appreciated the cameos from Tyra Banks, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone. They made me pay attention when nothing was going on on screen. What made this movie slightly above average at times was its self-awareness. It’s unabashed when it comes to making references to war pictures like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I love the scene where Downey Jr. recalled the films and actors that focus on mental retardation: Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” If they would have appeared, it would have been that much better. But what really did not work for me was the jungle scenes. When people are shooting guns and running away from the artillery, it becomes chaotic. Those “action” scenes feel like fillers when the jokes are not in the foreground. This is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t see the comedy behind the violence. Perhaps if this had been a dark comedy film, it would’ve worked… but it wasn’t so it didn’t. The story becomes slow and it feels like the actors are not reaching their full potential because they are left to just run around screaming. If this movie would have been tilted toward the show business instead of the actual war scenes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it that much more.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is no doubt in my mind that this film contained some of the best performances of the year. If Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep do not get nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, respectively, an injustice would’ve been done. I love how this film’s thesis was established during the first scene: how doubt can be as powerful as certainty. I have three stand-out scenes that I thought were exemplary: the feathers and their symbolism, Streep’s heartbreaking talk with Viola Davis, and Streep’s final confrontation with Hoffman. Out of those three scenes, I’d say the one with Davis is the most powerful because of all the implications. Issues such as the home, color of one’s skin, and one’s “nature”/embracing God’s gift are all mixed to justify a mother’s decision for her son’s safety as the son is put between a rock and a hard place. Even though Davis was only on screen for about fifteen minutes, she gave this film a certain force that is impossible to ignore. I will be immensely happy if she gets an Oscar nomination as well. As for the always great Amy Adams, she’s able to go toe-to-toe between Hoffman and Streep without sacrificing her charm. I think that takes a lot of effort and subtlety, especially when the other two are constantly on the verge of breakdown. One of the reasons why I admire this picture is its ability to conceal the truth. Most of the time, we do not know whether the priest molested an altar boy. By the end, most people have an idea (including the friend I saw it with), but I was still very doubtful. After all, Hoffman is up against a character who will do absolutely anything–even as far as to embrace a total lie (which is something that is totally against her faith)–just to prove that she is right. Sometimes, it’s wiser to turn the other way than to spend more time in the battlefield and experience more destruction. And let’s not forget a character’s shocking reaction right by the film’s ending (which most likely means more than one thing). The title of this film is “Doubt” and not “Certainty” which, in my opinion, ties in with the movie’s central thesis. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (including the play), this film is resonant because it has many implications and can generate strong discussions.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie contains a powerful story supported by powerful performances. Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. are great as younger and older Dito, respectively. LaBeouf proved to me that he can carry dramatic pictures as well as action pictures. I really felt for him as a teenager who wants to spread his wings and fly–to actually become someone he can be proud of–but cannot do so because his family and friends tie him down whether they are aware of it or not. Downey Jr. is electric when he conveys his character’s frustration and anger toward his parents (Chazz Palminteri and Dianne West). As a teenager, Dito’s father never really paid attention to him. In many scenes, Palminteri seems to want to get to know about his son’s friend (Channing Tatum) more than his own. And it’s really heartbreaking because LaBeouf couldn’t tell if his father truly loves him. Melonie Diaz as young Laurie and Rosario Dawson as the older Laurie are wonderful as well. It’s interesting because Diaz always reminded me of Dawson, so I found it funny that they actually played the same person. Diaz and Dawson have this uncanny ability of making me smile whenever they’re on screen. They’re so good at embracing their characters and the audiences get to really feel for their plight. Although there are many elements that this movie tried to tackle (some argue that it’s unfocused), I thought it was effective because all the confusion and unanswered questions reflect the craziness of the characters’ lives. But the scenes that really got to me were the parts during LaBeouf and his Scottish friend, Martin Compston, would talk to each other. LaBeouf’s character never really got to be himself around his other friends because it is implied that sensitivity is a weakness. With Compston, they are able to talk about each other’s needs, wants, and dreams. One can definitely translate their relationship in a romantic angle but ultimately I thought it was friendship at its finest. It was so touching whenever they’d talk about running away to California with their band. Although it’s hopeful, it’s also really sad because I could sense the desperation of the characters–to get out of where they currently live. Directed by Dito Montiel (yes, it’s based on real life), this film surpassed my expectations. I thought it the picture would be just about tough neighborhoods but it’s really about wanting to become someone… more.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.
Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Prior to watching the documentary, I expected to see strange creatures and jaw-dropping landscapes of Antarctica. What I didn’t expect was fascinating human stories of those who live, work, and research that unknown continent. This film really opened my eyes; this may sound stupid but when I think of Antarctica, I think of penguins and endless desert of ice. I don’t think about people actually living there for years–not just living there for the sake of work but actually living there because they feel like they belong there. Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man,” “Rescue Dawn”), the director, features different kinds of people who have some kind of amazing stories tell. Their stories are so out there, so unbelievable to the point where I thought, “Wow. I hope when I’m old and wrinkled I’ll have my own interesting a story to tell younger generations.” The researchers also reminded me why I chose to pursue a Biology degree. They are so passionate with what they do, I feel like they’re having fun instead of working. They treat their big accomplishments (such as discovering new species of organisms) like little victories and they’re off to do more research the next day. One day, I want to be like them–doing what I love so it doesn’t feel like work. I liked how Herzog would sound sarcastic when he would ask the researchers stupid-sounding questions, but in truth, he really wants to know the answer. Comedic moments like that made this documentary less somber, which I thought was a good decision. As for the images that the film had to offer, I’ve never seen ice look so magical and poetic. There was this one scene involving a penguin that chose to walk toward a mountain thousands of kilometers away. It would mean certain death to that penguin because it’s walking away from its flock and food source. Suddenly, the way Herzog asks why the penguin walked in that direction made me tear up. It made me think about life and how mysterious and beautiful it is. The underwater scenes blew me away. There are so many weird-looking creatures–I’m really creeped out by them but at the same time I wanted to touch them. I highly recommend this film because it’s kind of like a tour of Antarctica. Not only do the audiences get to hear seals communicate with each other, go through survival training during intense ice storms, and see hypnotic landscapes, they also get a chance to think philosophically: how it’s a priviledge for humans to live on this Earth and how one day we will become extinct and nature will regain its place.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed this film quite a bit but I think most people tend to oversell it. Yes, it’s uplifting because it’s about a boy who lived in poverty and is eventually given the chance to win twenty million rupees. Dev Patel (“Skins”) did a pretty good job as the main character but his acting is not ground-breaking. He shows potential to become more nuanced as an actor and that’s always a good thing. And I have to admit that the last twenty to thirty minutes are very exciting and involving because everything is at stake. However, I’ve seen it all before. I expected more from Danny Boyle because he does make great movies such as “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” and “Millions.” This film, however, doesn’t leave the platform of “just good” because the middle is too messy; it ran thirty minutes too long. When I look at the big picture, the film would’ve been stronger if the middle had been condensed because it would’ve had more focus. This picture aims to please the crowd and it will definitely hook the fans of (another overrated film) called “City of God.” Both feature impoverished individuals trying to attain a chance to lead a better life. I’m glad that foreign films are being recognized, but I wish casual American moviegoers wouldn’t jump at every foreign film where they see some sort of hardship. It really shows how unaware they are about the state of the rest of the world. Anyway, I’m recommending this film despite the familiarity of it all because it has an interesting premise and a good soundtrack. It’s not as great as everyone says it is but it does entertain and makes one ponder about his destiny.
2 Days in Paris (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right off the bat, I knew the two main characters (Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg) are headed for a breakdown. And it’s not because they are complete opposites but because I felt certain lack of respect between the two of them. That lack of respect isn’t always apparent but when it shows its head, I felt hurt for the character being insulted even if the character decides to just laugh off a certain snide remark. Even though this film is more comedic more than anything else, the most interesting aspect of it is how Delpy and Goldberg eventually realize that they’re not meant for each other despite how much they try to look the other way. Adding how an American feels out of place in the French culture is brilliant because it’s true–not just when it comes to Americans but any person experiencing culture-shock. In a way, it’s essential to the story because that’s how Goldberg is finally driven to the edge. I must commend Delpy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset”) for writing, directing, and starring in this picture. She has a certain talent when it comes to telling an interesting story about relationships. I love the way how she sometimes let the narration take over when the characters are yelling at each other in order to replace chaos with comments and thoughts that are meaningful. She’s so earnest and eager to make the audiences evaluate their own lives and I appreciate that. This movie reminded me of “Paris, je t’aime,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and “Before Sunset” because of all the places the characters visited. And I love it even more when they would outright say a specific reference because it shows that the film is not taking itself too seriously. Overall, I really adored this movie because there’s a lot of talking, the characters are interesting, has a sharp writing, and was actually filmed in Paris.
Gran Torino (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I honestly thought this movie was going to end up a dud because the previews looked really preachy. But after about fifteen minutes into the film, I really cared for Clint Eastwood’s character even though he’s racist and a very secretive person. I knew he would open up a bit after meeting his Hmong neighbors but I wanted to see his struggles before becoming a better person. Eastwood’s character made me laugh even though he uses every racist Asian term because we are made to understand what he’s been through and how conflicted he is by people who do not look like him. The way he interacted with the Hmongs during a party was done in a bona fide manner, such as when the older women kept putting food on his plate. As part of the Asian community, that rings true whenever there’s a special occasion, especially when others think that you’re too skinny. The film was at its best whenever Eastwood’s character would interact with Ahney Her and Bee Vang; we come to realize that he treats them like a daughter and son, respectively, more than his blood relatives, and they treat him more like a father or a grandfather more than anyone else. There was a point in the film when Eastwood admitted that he finds more similarities with his ethnic neighbors than with his own flesh and blood. I think a lot of people feel that way especially when they don’t feel like they are appreciated despite their flaws. In a way, Eastwood’s character reminded me of my late grandfather. Even though my grandfather was not strict, he resembled Eastwood’s mannerisms such as his intimidating growl and the way he walked. As much as I loved the comedic moments, the dramatic elements are also very involving. The scenes which feature the Hmong gangs and the things they are capable of are both scary and heartbreaking. (I’m amazed by some people on IMDB who claim that Asian gangs don’t exist. Yes, they do exist.) I thought the ending was perfectly handled because it shows how much Eastwood’s character has grown and what he is willing to do for the kids who taught him how to feel more alive and connected. In the end, we realize what the Gran Torino is supposed to symbolize. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” is rumored to be his last film. If it is, I think his fans will (or should be) proud of this film. If it isn’t, then I’m excited for what he will come up with in the future.
The Wrestler (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this film came out of nowhere because I never heard of it before the awards season. Since many critics gave it enthusiastic recommendations, I thought I’d check it out. I’ve never been that much of a big fan of Darren Aronofsky because his films start out really good but as they go on, they lose that powerful momentum that initially piqued my interest. “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” are perfect examples. That said, I think “The Wrestler” is one of his most consistent and touching films. Mickey Rourke is devastating as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and he deserves to be nominated for an Oscar. I’ve never seen him so broken down, trying his hardest not to scream out of frustration even though pretty much everything in his life is going wrong. Throughout the film, we get to understand that he feels more at home in the ring than out in the real world because he is accepted and respected in there. Moreover, he prefers the ring over the real world because physical pain is more bearable than emotional and psychological pain. I admired the way he kept his cool when people are annoying or insulting him; even though he can just as easily result to violence, he refrains and that’s what makes me want to root for him. It was painful for me to watch his interactions with the daughter he neglected (Evan Rachel Wood). There was a scene when they were sitting down and Rourke decides to pour his heart out to his daughter. That was one of the most poignant scenes I’ve seen in any movies that came out of 2008 because it felt so genuine. What I found distracting, though, was Rourke’s relationship with Marisa Tomei. At first it was sweet then it got ugly; ten minutes later it’s sweet again and then it’s the total opposite. It was somewhat effective the first two times but it quickly got repetitive and it was a waste of screen time. I felt like Aronofsky wanted to increase the drama when the picture already has enough. Still, I recommend this film to everyone because it has something to say about faded glory and one’s relationship with people who matter most when one has lost everything.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by the enigmatic David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac”), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a sight to behold, but it is too long for its own good. While the first and last hours are absolute perfection, I couldn’t help but feel tired during its saggy middle. There were so many repetitive elements that Fincher could’ve left out because they do not contribute to the overall big picture. I consider this film as one of Brad Pitt’s most complete performances. Throughout most of the picture, we see him with wrinkly skin and broken down posture; however, we feel for his character so much because even though he is born in extraordinary circumstances, he leads a pretty ordinary life. Pitt reminds everyone that he is more than just an actor who is mostly known for his pretty face. Prior to watching this film, I thought this would be another “Big Fish” which highlights oddities and fantasies but I was glad to be proven wrong. Although the characters we meet during Pitt’s journey are colorful, they are not out of the ordinary–they are people who are not unlike anyone we can meet off the streets, but they have fascinating stories to tell because of their beliefs and drive. My favorite character who Pitt meets is played by Tilda Swinton. She craves to do something with her life, but she feels trapped because of a specific failure she experienced in her past. That fear to continue only to possibly fail again is universal so I couldn’t help but get affected. Cate Blanchett is always amazing in every movie I see her star in so it was no surprise that she delivered. I couldn’t take my eyes off her during her ballet sequences. I could feel the pain in her eyes whenever the topic of getting old is discussed; her insecurities are heightened whenever she sees her lover get younger every time they meet. Like the fear of failure, the fear of getting older is universal as well. Although those two actresses did a great job, I think Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin’s mother, should be recognized as well. She played her character with such sincerity, I felt warm whenever she’d express her enthusiasm. Even though this film is about many universal ideas, my favorite issue it tackled was the idea of returning home. There was a quote that made me think because, being a college student that goes to school about seven hours away, it is true in my case: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.” I didn’t love this picture, but I really liked it because it has so much to say about life. In a nutshell, despite its depressing tone, it made feel so thankful and so happy to be alive.
Smiley Face (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie is a smogasboard of cameos ranging from the most familiar names and faces–Adam Brody, John Krasinski, John Cho–to those whose faces are familiar but their names give us a hard time recalling–Jayma Mays, Marion Ross, Rick Hoffman. But this movie would’ve been a complete mess without Anna Faris. She once again proved to me–twice to this year along with “The House Bunny”–that she can elevate an average movie into a pretty good one. For me, Faris is like Steve Carell: both can stand in one place and not do anything but they never fail to make me laugh out loud. I was shocked when I found out that Gregg Araki directed this stoner comedy. It’s the complete opposite of the moody, serious, and masterful “Mysterious Skin.” What I like about this film is that it’s so random and pointless to the point where it got me thinking. I know it may sound weird but I thought this picture had something to say about the way we live our lives; how random it is, how things don’t quite go the way we expect them to be. When such disappointments happen, we may feel angry or sad or both, but by the end of the day, we should just be thankful that we’re alive–that we are able to feel these emotions and (possibly) learn from our experiences. Araki really shows his talent during some silent but exquisite scenes, especially that one scene when Faris was sitting on the beach, facing the wind and the sand as the sun sets. I’m really glad that a friend recommended this to me (he’s a big Anna Faris fan) because I decided not to add this movie to my Netflix upon its release since the premise sounded lame. Yes, it’s stupid and can go in a million different directions, but I learned to embrace its positives. It’s funny, the performances are pretty good (especially Faris), and strangely thoughtful.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.
Hallam Foe (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the get-go, the film establishes that the protagonist (Jamie Bell) is a strange but very sad character because he doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s death. He acts out by spying on people, breaking into people’s homes and going through their things, all the while jotting down what he has seen, felt, and done after such actions. He also happens to believe that his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary, killed his mother. That first part of the film was compelling because Bell was able to make the audience feel for him even though the things he does are creepy and borderline criminal. I found it difficult to blame the protagonist because not only is he really young and not aware of the consequences of his actions, I could tell that he really did love his mother… or maybe he loved her too much to the point of utter dependence. Taking that important parent figure from his life at such a young age damaged him emotionally and psychologically so I found his flaws to be reasonable if not relatable. The second part of the picture when Bell moved to the city and met a look-alike of his mother (Sophia Myles) was a bit less compelling because there were so many distractions that slowed the plot down (the scenes during his job which was supposed to serve as an escape, his nightly adventures in the streets, et cetera) .The only thing about the second act that I found to work in all levels was his sexual attraction to his look-alike mother (and how he stalked her at first). It says a lot about his desperation and the lack of closure regarding his mother’s death. The last act when Bell returns home was jawdropping and heartbreaking at the same time. By the end of the film, I felt like the main character grew so much despite still being a bit flawed and fragile. The story doesn’t tie everything up regarding the characters’ lives but offers hope that there’s a light at the end of the interminable tunnel of bleakness and confusion. This film provides an interesting character study and I only recommend it to those that are interested in how a character evolves over time.