The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I haven’t seen the 1951 version by the time I wrote this review so I’m not going to compare the 2008 version to that one. That said, it’s interesting to me how Keanu Reeves can be so good at playing robotic characters (like Neo in “The Matrix” franchise) but so bad at playing real people that are supposed to be emotionally crippled or conflicted (as Alex Wyler in “The Lake House” and Detective Tom Ludlow in “Street Kings”). I thought he was effective here as Klaatu, a humanoid whose role is to determine whether the human species need to be obliterated in order to save the Earth. He was creepy, convincingly powerful, and had a definite sense of purpose. He claims that if the Earth dies, everything else will perish along with it but if all humans die, the Earth and everything that it nurtures will go on living. I thought that was a decent reasoning so I went along with it. What’s unforgivable, however, is its lack of human emotional core. That’s when Jennifer Connely and her step-son (Jaden Smith) come in. Their backstory isn’t enough to convince me why Reeves should spare the human race. In the end, I wanted to see an apocalypse because humans are portrayed as violent people (the United States army) and incapable of standing up to authority, such as when Kathy Bates (as the president’s Secretary of Defense) followed what the president wanted her to do despite her best instincts. There are only four things I liked about the movie which saved it from utter failure: the somewhat brilliant visual effects, Gort as Klaatu’s automaton companion, the idea of humans’ nature regarding a precipice and change, and John Cleese as the Nobel prize-winning professor who we meet in the middle of the picture. The rest is junk, which is a shame because the movie is started off very well. The director, Scott Derrickson, could’ve made a superior film that is more character-driven and less visually impressive. After all, the story is about humanity and why we should be saved from extinction. Since the director lost that core (or maybe he didn’t find it in the first place), the final product is a mess. This picture can be an enjoyable Netflix rental on an uneventful Friday night but do not go rushing into the cinema to see it.
★★★ / ★★★★
Angelina Jolie should at least be nominated for an Oscar because she held this film together. I couldn’t take my eyes off her to the point where I noticed every spasm on her face every time there’s a revelation or when she feels cornered by pretty much every authority figure she encounters. Clint Eastwood did another great job with taking his audience to a specific moment in time and make us believe that that universe is both beautiful and tragic. However, I don’t think this is his best film due to the problems in its pacing. Toward the last twenty minutes, there were scenes that could’ve been endings but ultimately weren’t. Even though the additional scenes added some sort of closure with the characters and its audiences, a masterful work would’ve felt natural instead of forced. Aside from Jolie, other great performances include John Malkovich as the reverend who fights against the corrupt ways of the LAPD and Jeffrey Donovan who refuses to listen to Jolie’s claims that the child who the LAPD returned to her was not her son. Amy Ryan also did a great job as Jolie’s friend in the psychiatric unit. Even though she did not have many scenes, she’s memorable because she did the best she could with everything she was given. As for the story, it’s very engaging especially when Jolie gathers evidence that the child who was returned to her was not her real son. I have to admit that I did get teary-eyed during various moments in the picture because I really did feel Jolie’s plight; it felt like the odds are against her but somehow she still summons the strength to fight back. I also admired the film’s theme of attempting to find the evasive truth–how the truth cannot be fully achieved because “truth” sometimes relies on the perspective of other people. The question of when the right time fight and the right time to let go is also explored in an insightful manner which could’ve been a disaster in less experienced hands. With a little bit more focus on the story and a better pacing, this could’ve turned out to be a masterpiece. That said, I’m giving this an enthusiastic recommendation because of the strong performances and touching story based on what really happened to Christine Collins and her son back in 1928.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I almost gave this a two stars out of four because there were moments where I thought it diverged too much from the adventure and focused a little bit too much on lame/unnecessary character development. With a family-friendly summer blockbuster film, one expects breath-taking action sequences right after another instead of a forced attempt of sentimentality. Still, I decided to give this film three stars because there were some truly memorable scenes such as the mine ride, the cave of crystals, the T-Rex, and the geyser. Brendan Fraser, like in “The Mummy” films, is really likeable as a scientist whose lab is about to be shut down; Josh Hutcherson continues his role as a kid who’s a little bit sarcastic but often keeps something up his sleeves; Anita Briem is also a neat addition because she provided energy when the story tends to slow down a bit. I did not see this in 3-D even though the entire picture is designed to be seen in such a format so I can’t comment on how much or if it’s better than on a flat screen. Still, there’s plenty of visual eye candy and adrenaline for those who just want to sit back and not think too much. But I must admit that I really like the science in the film: how Fraser’s character used kinematics to determine how high they are from the ground as they free fall, the application of Geology when it comes to recognizing certain rocks and their properties, the concept of bioluminescence (the production and emission of light when chemical energy is converted to light energy), and more. It made the movie that much more fun for me because I’ve taken classes that deal with those concepts. (I am a certified nerd/geek/dork.) This is the kind of movie that a babysitter can let kids watch because it’s pretty harmless, there’s a plethora of bright colors, and pretty funny one-liners. It could’ve been a lot better but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Billy the Kid (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of critics really liked this documentary but a lot of casual moviegoers did not. I think it’s always a challenge watching a slice-of-life picture because most people will think about the movie’s purpose (even though there might not be one) to the point where they get distracted from the film altogether. For me, when I watch slice-of-life movies, I almost always relate them to my life; I learn to accept the inconsistencies of the story, the rough edges of direction, and the all too ordinary images. In a way, I treat it less like a movie and more like a diary, per se. And like a diary, this movie made me sad, laugh-out-loud and everything inbetween. There were times when the protagonist would say really awkward things to the point where I noticed myself squirming in my seat… And then I just start laughing because I was amazed by how engaged I am into this 15-year-old’s motivations and ways of thinking. What’s even better is that he’s funny but he doesn’t know that he’s being funny. I heard from a few sources that Billy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after the film was shot, which made sense because he’s a very smart kid (I love his references to films), but he’s very awkward socially. In a way, Billy reminded me of Heather Kuzmich of “America’s Next Top Model” Cycle 9. As for the documentary’s deeper moments, I was interested hearing about Billy’s family, specifically how his biological father treated his family back then, how some people get alarmed when Billy would check out books about serial killers, and the work he had to go through to potentially have his first girlfriend. Billy has a defined set of principles that makes him relatable and interesting. But I have to be honest: When I was in high school, Billy was the kind of person I avoided (I feel so mean now that I look back on it!) and thus not be friends with because I felt like they don’t know when to stop talking and respect other people’s space. So, in a way, this movie got to me; maybe I should’ve been more understanding because some people are so eager to make friends to the point where they seem like they’re trying too hard or they’re being fake. I got really sad when they showed Billy’s silent moments. Even though he has a great mom who supports him 100% and some friends he can talk to, I feel like he’s still alone. I can relate with that (and I think so do most people) and that’s why I found this movie to be truly genuine.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.
Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” I can’t really make comparisons with that classic children’s film because I haven’t yet seen it while writing this review. However, from what I read from people’s blogs who have seen both, they claim that it captured the original’s main themes. All of the actors were impressive in their own way. Juliette Binoche is still electric even though she’s a bit more broken down here than in her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but didn’t like the fact that she pays more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche’s son, is sublime as a lonely boy but doesn’t make us feel too sorry for him. He shows that he’s strong in some ways, whether it comes to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song plays the nanny who I think made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting is so nonchalant but there’s something about her that’s caring and welcoming. I wanted to be her friend by the end of the movie. Several other plot elements include Binoche’s conflict with her tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and, of course, the mesmerizing observation of the red balloon, which symbolizes youth, friendship, and loss. The classical piano music that accompanies some of the scenes and the use of bright colors made the picture that much more poetic. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life. Watching this homage is like eating and savoring my favorite kind of cake–pretty much everything about it worked and I have nothing negative to say about it, which is very rare.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie genuinely scared me. It is comparable to “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” because of the zombie-like creatures that are fast and extremely menacing; “Cloverfield” comes to mind because the entire picture is seen through a hand-held camera. Despite the content of the film, without Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Dexter”), this movie probably would’ve failed. Providing a character that’s real, good-natured, and one of the boys (established during the amusing first fifteen minutes), we ultimately care about her when the creatures roam about the apartment complex. She really amazed me during the last few scenes because not only can she scream and look good doing it, I wanted to reach out into the screen and help her escape. Another stand-out is Jay Hernandez (“Hostel,” “Planet Terror,” “Lakeview Terrace”) as a firefighter who is both strong and approachable. I wish he and Carpenter had more scenes together because when they interact, the movie feels more alive. As for the scares, a lot of them are memorable: whether something is moving in the background, strange noises coming from a dark room, or bodies falling from above–all of it worked because the characters are trapped in one place. Danger is always around the corner and it doesn’t let go until the credits appeared. I thought the use of lighting is excellent. Most of the time, it makes me want to look closer because the “thing” that we’re supposed to be looking at is shrouded in darkness. Therein lies the trap because once you look closer, something pops out–your heart starts beating and your eyes try to look for an escape. This is one of the better horror films to come out recently and I’m glad to have seen it in the cinema with a friend and enthusiastic horror fans.