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.
Swing Kids (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
After wanting to cry so badly for about an hour, the ending was done in such an over-the-top way to the point where I really wanted to laugh. That said, I really liked this picture not because it’s particularly accurate or even about an important group of people that changed the tide of World War II, but because I truly felt the emotions it wanted to convey. It’s about three friends and their love for swing music. As Nazism grew, their friendship is challenged in a meaningful way: one did not compromise his beliefs and remained a civilian opposing Hitler (Frank Whaley), while the other two joined in a training facility for Hitler’s army (Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale). I thought it was interesting how Leonard and Bale were being corrupted for a while; at some point one of them managed to wake up but the other one did not. There’s so much drama involving Leonard’s character but the one I found to be most involving was his relationship with his family. It was painful for me to watch the family implode because they are essentially good people caught in circumstances where they have to make the tough decisions in order to survive. But the one jarring thing that made me almost give up from even giving the movie a good review is for about forty to fifty minutes, no one voiced out that by joining Hitler’s army, despite one’s belief that it’s wrong or one is only using it for the perks, it’s basically supporting something evil. For me, that was the most obvious fact and when no one was saying it out loud, especially by characters who are questioning their identities and what they stand for, it’s a big misstep. Thankfully, at some point someone finally said it and that’s when the core of the picture started to show. If the director, Thomas Carter, has established the core sooner and made room for a more subtle ending, this film would’ve been more powerful. Instead, “Swing Kids” becomes a movie that has a powerful middle but a weak beginning and ending. Still, I’m giving it a three out of four stars because it made me care about what would happen to the characters even though they were one-dimensional in the beginning: kids who oppose Nazism and love swing music. I would also recommend it for the fans of Leonard and Bale who want to see them look really young. It made me wonder how big of a star Leonard would’ve become if he didn’t star in “House, M.D.” because he can outshine Bale in many scenes.
The Band’s Visit
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie put a smile on my face from beginnning to end because the characters find something magical in awkward situations. An Egyptian police force (who is also a band) visits Israel to perform at a ceremony in an Arab arts center but their transportation did not pick them up. They have no choice but to spend the night in a middle of nowhere desert town where they meet kind Israelis (led by the strangely alluring Ronit Elkabetz). The leader of the police force is played with quiet power by Sasson Gabai. From the moment the film started, he is established as a serious person who is deeply conflicted. Later on, we find out why he keeps people at an arm’s length. Through his interactions with Elkabetz, we see chinks in Gabai’s armor; it is touching in just the right amount and it was done in a natural way. Elkabetz impressed me in so many ways because reminded me of Sonia Braga’s acting style: she can be tender and seductive while at the same time standing up for something she believes to be right. Last but not least, Saleh Bakri as the playboy member of the force manages to provide warmth in the picture. Even though he gets distracted too easily by women, he knows how to treat them right. His relationship with Gabai is interesting but it wasn’t fully developed. When the film ended, I felt like the filmmakers were just about to explore that relationship. But that’s what I love about slice of life pictures: not every problem or conflict has to be solved in a span of two hours. Even though this film barely runs for an hour and thirty minutes, it accomplished a lot. One of the best themes of the movie is finding similarities between two very different cultures, whether it comes to music, relationships, and being wounded by the past. The three main characters share a certain loneliness and I could identify with each of them equally. I also find this film commendable because it did not result to being political. It’s about people being themselves and why that should be enough to be able to relate to one another in a meaningful way.
The Promotion (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This indie comedy had the power to be something more but it held back so it didn’t quite have that extra punch. I understand why people think that this is a slow-moving movie because it takes its time developing the two main characters (played by Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) via showing us how they deal with certain situations–basically what makes them a qualified person vs. deserving for the promotion they are applying for. The interesting thing is that they don’t quite compete in front of each other. For the sake of appearances, Scott and Reilly smile and converse with each other but when they’re alone with their thoughts, they start feeling the pressure and they think of ways to sabotage one another, which interestingly enough, often backfires. They then have to clean up the mess they’ve created but half of the time they dig themselves into a deeper hole. I think that rings true to most individuals so I was instantly hooked. Even though these characters are miserable, it’s amusing to us because we feel like if we were them, we could’ve handled the situation better. I think what most moviegoers will have trouble getting is the deadpan, dry comedy of each character and situation. It’s a different kind of comedy and sometimes I don’t get it either. Even though Scott and Reilly find ways to torture each other, they are not bad people. They do the things they do because they simply want to lead a better life for their families. The one quote that sums up the film is “We’re all just out here trying to get some food… Sometimes, we bump into each other.” That’s integral to the story because it’s a connection that we have with the characters. The film begs the question between who is more qualified for the promotion and who really deserves and/or need the promotion. I love that the answer lies in the gray area so it really depends on the justifications of the person who is watching the film. Aside from Scott and Reilly, this picture has a nice supporting role played by Jenna Fischer, not to mention small but really funny appearances by Jason Bateman and Masi Oka. This may seem silly on the outside but the implications it has about the nature of competition, I think, reflects American thinking. Most people will not describe this film as subtle, but it will reward those who try to see below the surface.
Man on Wire (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This is a beautifully crafted documentary–full of thrills and the use of reenactments are amusing–but I think it’s been getting way too much praise. Yes, it’s important to recognize Philippe Petit’s amazing feat in 1974 but I couldn’t help but get tired of the film’s slow and saggy middle portion. I love the beginning because the soundtrack is rousing and it instantly grabbed my interest. It was like being dropped in a first-rate heist movie. I love the ending because it deals with issues like friendship, what it means to accomplish one’s dreams, and the fact that it didn’t result to discussing the 9/11 attacks. (Although it’s related because of the landmark being featured, it would’ve been unfocused because the core of the film is Petit’s infamous wirewalk between the Twin Towers.) I had my reservations prior to watching this documentary because I thought it would just be about wirewalking from one tower to another. As it turns out, it’s so much more than that. It’s about careful planning with friends and strangers who want to see a person reach his goals, transgressing the law to achieve one’s dreams, and to make art that no one can ever take away. Still, I would’ve loved to see more actual footages of the wirewalk, not to mention what Petit’s life is like before and after the event. Since I didn’t fully know his background, Petit seemed selfish to me especially toward the end when someone came up to him and said she’s willing to go with him “wherever his destination” may be. Granted, this is a documentary and no one is perfect but it would’ve been nice if I knew something else about Petit that is not about the wirewalking. I feel that James Marsh, the director, could’ve taken the film’s title to another level instead of just making it so literal. I wouldn’t say this is one of the best documentaries of 2008 but it is one of the most fascinating.
Die Another Day (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Most people consider this installment as one of the worst in the James Bond franchise (along with “Moonraker”) because they claim that it got too ridiculous with its gadgets (such as the invisible car). For me, I quite liked the invisible car but I didn’t appreciate the fact that it had too many mindless action scenes involving technology. What’s so great about the action scenes in the past 007 installments is that they have some sort of believability. This film involves a satellite that can harness the energy from the sun and focus it in a laser beam and destroy anything in its path. In my opinion, it would’ve worked if that aspect had been in the “Austin Powers” franchise because it’s a spoof; it failed here because it’s supposed to be serious but it’s hard to consider it as such. This is Pierce Brosnan’s final appearance as Bond and it’s understandable because I felt like he was becoming too bored with the role. He didn’t have that spicy swagger he originally had in “GoldenEye” that made me want to invest more in his character. Two actors that stood out to me in this picture are Halle Berry as Jinx and Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves. I love watching Halle Berry not only because she’s beautiful on the outside but because of the way she delivered certain comebacks whenever she’d converse with Brosnan. I also loved that her character is someone that can kick butt but feminine enough to have chemistry with the lead character. Stephens is great as the villain because he has this certain arrogance about him that I found interesting (to say the least) but at the same time, I wanted Bond to pound him to a pulp so he’ll be put on his place. Another positive is that Stephen’s character is young and can actually have hand-to-hand (or sword-to-sword) combat with Bond. The best scenes in the movie involve Stephen and Brosnan exchanging verbal daggers and actually piercing each other with sharp objects. As for the rest of the film, I didn’t care about it that much because the story lacks an extra punch that the best Bond films have. If one is a die-hard Bond fan, one has got to see this for the mere that it’s a part of the entire series. It’s a shame because I remember loving this picture when I was about thirteen years old, back when I haven’t seen many movies. Coming back to watch it, it’s lame in its efforts to entertain because it relied too much on special and visual effects without establishing the film’s emotional core first.
The Insider (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film is so intense from the moment it started and the plot only got more complex (not to mention more interesting) from there. This is based on a true story of a man who was interviewed on “60 Minutes” (played by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand) to expose the lies of a tabacco corporation, especifically Brown & Williamson, when they claimed that nicotine is not at all addictive and harmful to one’s well-being. Complexity ensues when the tabacco corporation threatens CBS with a lawsuit; CBS then decides not to show the public the interview because they thought that they would lose, which is truly heartbreaking because Dr. Wigand has sacrificed both his professional and personal life for that one (compelling) interview. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) approaches Dr. Wigand for a story and he shows the audiences what it means to have journalistic integrity. I find it very difficult to summarize the plot of the film because there are many layers to it. The only way to fully understand the picture is to watch it closely because each detail comments on how the media functions, how far corporations are willing to go to protect their money and those unfortunate people that get caught in the giant maelstrom of lies, confusion, and deceit (not to mention death threats and restraining orders). Yes, it’s a wordy film and it will definitely repel those that are not into watching pictures that are all about the technicalities in bureaucracies, but that’s what makes “The Insider” so rewarding: it’s not a common motion picture. There are a lot of highlights in the film but some of my favorites include: Bruce McGill’s anger during Dr. Wigand’s deposition, Pacino’s speech involving a “cat” being “out of the bag,” and Crowe’s scenes when he was alone as he reflects upon his past actions–questioning himself whether or not what everything he’s done is worth it. I felt so much for Crowe’s character because the blood-sucking Brown & Williamson fired him for no reason and then later took everything from him to the point where I felt like Crowe’s character was on the verge of suicide. I highly recommend this film, directed with such visual flair by Michael Mann, because it is able to tackle the idea of character assassination in a very scary but very realistic manner. I will remember this film for a very long time because pretty much everything about it works, especially the intense acting from all the actors involved.