Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.
Wild Reeds (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wild Reeds,” directed by André Téchiné impressed me in every way. In under two hours, the film was able to efficiently describe the complexity of four characters in the middle of adolescence. While all of them attend the same boarding school, they cannot be any more different. François Forestier (Gaël Morel) realizes that he’s gay due to his attraction to Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau), a working-class French-Italian whose brother died in a war. François’ worst enemy is himself: he doesn’t know what to do with his recent realization so he constantly tries to look for support because not even his closest friend Maïté Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez from “Alias”) can help him out due to her initial attraction to him. Even though François and Serge slept together once, Stéphane is not gay and this bothered François to his core. Things get even more complicated when Henri Mariani (Frédéric Gorny) comes into the picture; being a French-Algerian, his passion toward his support for France’ colonization of Algeria created tension among his teachers, classmates, and even himself. Being an outcast, François sees something in him, the two become friends, yet their relationship does not become predictable. All those elements made the story fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
This is no doubt a coming-of-age film but it’s more organic than American films of the same subgenre. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t watching a movie at all. It felt like a story that could’ve happened back in the 1960’s because of how affected the characters are by the war. Not one of them is not affected by the politics and it was interesting to explore their psychologies. Although I was particularly touched by François’ struggles when it comes to self-acceptance versus self-rejection (that mirror scene was both brilliant and heartbreaking), I was very interested in Maïté’s mother (Michèle Moretti), who happens to be the three boys’ teacher. She felt so guilty about not helping Serge’s brother evade the war, she pretty much went crazy after his death. That one scene when she was at the hospital was so haunting, it gave me serious goosebumps. Just one small scene of less than three minutes was enough to truly paint how tortured she was by her guilt so I was very impressed. Moreover, I was satisfied with how Téchiné divided the time between the four lead characters. When each of them was under the spotlight, we truly get to know why they ended up the way they were because they talk about their past and their current thoughts on the matter. Yet at the same time, it does not result to the usual melodrama where they cry so that the audiences will feel sorry for them. In fact, they do the opposite: they try to be so strong but an outsider can (or should be able to) tell that they’re on the verge of breaking down. I was highly impressed with the acting from the four leads because I felt like they had subtlety and they always had something going on behind their eyes. In a nutshell, these are the type of characters I’d like to be friends with because they do not thrive on superficiality.
“Wild Reeds” is truly one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve seen. The characters have a certain emotional intelligence that one rarely sees in such a subgenre, especially in American coming-of-age pictures. Being released in 1994, it goes to show that a thoughtful coming-of-age movie does not need to feature excesses of alcohol, sex and loud music. It sets up an argument that self-discovery can happen right in our own small towns with people who we care about, the books that we love rereading and the current politics that we hear in the radio. This is the kind of movie that I want to add to my collection because of its many underlying themes that require multiple viewings. In my opinion, both fans of character studies and cinéphiles should not miss this gem.
The Boys from Brazil (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
I heard about this film in several of my Biology classes so I thought I’d check it out. Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengel stars as a Nazi scientist with an evil plan: assassinate ninety-four sixty-five-year-old men in a span of two-and-a-half years. Believe it or not, that is only the first step of his much more menacing endgame. Sir Laurence Olivier is the Nazi hunter who tries to stop Dr. Mengel after hearing about it from a young Nazi seeker played by Steve Guttenberg. Watching Peck and Olivier interact, especially during the final scenes, was a pleasure to watch. They both have such power in the way they deliver their lines yet still have that subtetly that makes the audiences question whether what they see is really the entire picture. The way Franklin J. Schaffner, the director, told the story reminded me of the best spy films I’ve seen. He managed to build the suspense after each scene but at the same time still have minor payoffs to keep the viewer engaged. I thought this film had three standout scenes: when Guttenberg learns the information that the Nazis are planning (it reminded me of “Alias” when Jennifer Garner would drop in a conversation she wasn’t meant to hear), when Olivier learns about the science that goes behind the Nazis endgame (the science is completely believable which made it all the more impressive), and one of the last scene involving the dogs (which I thought was deeply symbolic). Those three scenes alone convinced me that this film should be seen by many. Although there wasn’t as much gun-wielding action scenes as I would’ve liked, the characters are shrewd and the plot was intelligently written with genuine moments of comedy dispersed along the way.
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bradley Cooper has come a long way since I first discovered him in “Alias.” Even though he seems like a pretty boy on the outside, he can effectively play characters that have many sides to them. I also have to give him kudos for not playing the same type of character in his movies. In “The Midnight Meat Train,” directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and based on a short story by Clive Barker, Cooper plays a photographer who one day finds out about a butcher (Vinnie Jones) who kills people on the subway after taking pictures of a woman who was being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Wanting to gather more evidence before he approaches the police, he becomes obsessed with the butcher and his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) becomes worried about his new personality. This film is especially gory and violent which horror fans will undoubtedly love. What’s even better is that it is quite suspenseful especially that one scene when two people decide to break into the killer’s apartment. I just had a feeling that it would go terribly wrong so I had to watch the film through my fingers. What didn’t work for me, though, was the last fifteen minutes. Instead of being a straight-up horror film, it hybridized with the science fiction realm. I understand that this is based on a short story and I shouldn’t hold the movie responsible for following it. I just needed to mention the fact that it did get ridiculous and I even caught myself rolling my eyes because of the ending. It definitely took away some of that realism regarding being attacked by a butcher on a subway in the most gruesome ways. Still, I’m giving this a slight recommendation despite the mediocre rating because it genuinely thrilled and scared me.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought I wasn’t going to like this movie because of all the negative reviews so I went into it with very little expectations. It kind of reminded me of a less gory version of “Hostel” because the idea of anti-Americanism was explored a bit. There are three actors that I’m familiar with: Josh Duhamel (“Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”), Melissa George (“Alias”), and Olivia Wilde (“House”) so I was aware with what they can potentially bring to the table. Luckily, they didn’t let me down. The three of them are the smartest and strongest out of the group but will all, some, or none of them survive? The first half of the picture is a bit comedic but there’s that constant feeling of danger looming around the corner. I don’t know if it’s the music of the use of color but the audiences are instantly put in a situation where we wonder when exactly the horror will kick in. I think I enjoyed this picture that much more because every time I would visit a new place, I would always think of the people that live in that particular area–how they think differently than me, what they think of me, and whether I’m doing something wrong that can potentially offend them. This movie takes advantage of that fear and fuses it with other common fears like heights, drowning, getting lost, and chased by people whose goal is to kill. I was particularly impressed with the cavern scenes underwater because not only is the setting beautiful, but the filmmakers made that beautiful place into a battleground. By the end of the film, that place not only becomes ugly due to the events that happened there, it becomes nothing short of horrifying. I was surprised by the negative reviews because I found this movie to be interesting and exciting. I covered my eyes and winced at some parts… and it felt great! If it’s a Friday night and you’re with a group of friends, this is a good choice to see because it’s both easy to make fun of and it has its thrilling moments.
★ / ★★★★
For some weird reason, ever since I saw David Sutcliffe in “Gilmore Girls,” I knew he’d be a good actor to play a gay character. However, this is not a good movie by any means. The plot is convoluted because of the many manipulative characters and plot twists. I found it hard to feel for Sutcliffe because there wasn’t enough backstory for me to know what really is at stake. His character is the definition of one-dimesional because the only factor that drives his character to do what he does is the mere fact that he’s searching for a boyfriend that left him for no apparent reason. If someone leaves you, you don’t go all the way to Argentina to find out why (and acting like a stalker). You do some soul-searching and hopefully come to a conclusion that the person that left you (if you’re a good person) is not worth it. The main character is just too illogical to be believable. However, I did like that the picture looked like it was filmed in South America. On a different note/problem, I’m all for the fusion of genres but this one tried way too hard to be both comedic and thrilling. I feel that since it couldn’t even master being amusing in the first place, it had no reason to pull the rug under the audiences and suddenly become a thriller. It gave me the feeling that David Moreton, the director, had no idea what he was doing. The only aspect I truly loved about this movie is the casting of Sonia Braga, who played Jennifer Garner’s evil aunt in “Alias.” Every time the camera was on her, I could feel her passion and dedication. It made me wish that the movie was all about her instead of the (boring) gay main character. I should’ve listened to the reviews on Netflix because this really is a horrible picture.