★★★ / ★★★★
When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
Source Code (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier assigned in Afghanistan, woke up in a stranger’s body in a Chicago commuter train in front of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he never met but who seemed to know him. Later, he found out that he was a part of a military experimental technology, led by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and his assignment was to find the identity of the man or woman who triggered the bomb on the doomed train earlier that day. Everyone on the train was already dead and it included the body Colter inhabited. Each time he failed, his day started all over again as if he was imprisoned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” was relatively small in scope but its ambitions were grand. It had a plethora of exciting ideas about what it meant to be in a specific reality: Is the reality what was outside our bodies or was it within? Metaphysics aside, Gyllenhaal was very convincing as a conflicted soldier who didn’t sign up for the mission he was given. Initially, I found it bothersome that he was reluctant in performing his mission. He let his emotions get in way too often instead of focusing to come up with ways to narrow down his suspects. Inevitably, he failed multiple times and we found ourselves back in square one. Eventually, I realized that his defiance of authority was the point. His neglect in following orders allowed us to see his humanity and what was really important to him Ultimately, he went through with the mission not because he was simply told to do it but because he cared about the many more lives that might be in danger due to the high possibility that the bomber will strike again. There was a difference between a mindless drone and a good soldier. Moreover, I was surprised that the film relied heavily on romance. Even though the scenes of Colter and Christina were pretty much the same, as the picture went on, there was a clear change in the protagonist and it was more than enough for us to be convinced that the feelings they had for each other was real. It was also interesting to see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter’s guide between the real and computerized world, weigh the pros and cons of the program she was given the chance to control. There was no doubt that the program was genius, even revolutionary, but that brilliance required serious ethical and moral sacrifices. Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, “Source Code” had creative ideas but it never felt insular. Combined with Jones’ confident direction and given that we’re willing to take a leap of faith with regards to the advanced technology, it almost felt grounded in reality.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I loved this film the first time I saw it when I was about seventeen because it taught me that it was okay to take so-called friends out of your life when all they did to you was slow you down as you strived to reach for your potential. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer and Kevin McKidd star as four friends (three of which were initially heroine junkies) as they fill their empty lives with drugs, sex and violence. They also hang out with a violent older man played by Robert Carlyle who detested drug addicts but, funny enough, kept drinking alcohol to the point where he constantly got in trouble with the law. One of the many things I loved about this film was, unlike the overrated “Requiem for a Dream,” it was not preachy in terms of overcoming addiction to hard drugs. Instead being obvious about its lessons, it simply showed us the circumstances of the characters’ lives and, more importantly, the choices they made that ultimately landed them in either bliss or misery, temporary as they may be. I also liked the fact that it managed to touch upon the issue of the importance of parenting and that parenting doesn’t end when the child turns eighteen. So as hardcore as the lifestyles that were featured in this picture, there undoubtedly was heart underneath it all and it was constantly at the forefront. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that the four characters were never really on the same stage of addiction: when one was clean, another one was not, while the other straddled the line between being a slave to the drug and being a master of his life. The film also commented on the dynamics of their friendships. Even though they spent a lot of time with each other because they were getting high, they did not talk about the important things to one another. Each of them felt scared and alone as if they were rats trapped in a maze–constantly living in survival mode and trial-and-error. As serious as the film’s core was, I thought the movie was very witty and very funny. Danny Boyle, the director, made sure that the memorable lines were not just cool in itself but also meaningful and infused with double meanings. Boyle also impressed me with certain shots because the images epitomized the definition of cool and careless disregard. “Trainspotting” will always be one of those films that will stay with me because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. For me, its core was not about how drugs are bad for you. It was about the deeper meanings of friendships and having a strong internal locus of control to lead your life the way you want to. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, “Trainspotting” is an ambitious and imaginative film that is not afraid to tell the hard truths.
Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bruce La Bruce’s movie about a zombie named Otto (Jey Crisfar) was not something I expected. I thought it would be hybrid of horror and drama because I was aware that Otto was an unhappy undead who couldn’t tap into the memories he collected back when he was alive. I liked the style of this picture: some were in black and white, some were in color, other aspects were told in a linear manner, while some were in split-screen. All those different techniques worked for me because it kept me interested and sometimes the craft matched the lead character’s mood. The second thing I liked about this movie was that it was a movie within a movie. Otto was hired to play a zombie by an eccentric director (Katharina Klewinghaus) who wanted to comment on consumerism, intolerance (especially toward non-heterosexuals), and modernity. Even though there were times when I thought certain ideas were not explored enough, I did appreciate that I tried to achieve something. The third factor that I admired about this film was the main character. When he started to remember the memories he had with his ex-boyfriend, I questioned whether he was really dead. I thought him being a “zombie” was just a front because he would rather shut down instead of dealing with the pain of abandonment and hopelessness. I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for depression and a brilliant one at that. As the film went on, I felt as though he was becoming more alive as he realized that people did miss him and he was not insignificant. But what didn’t work for me was that the director’s ideas were so all over the place to the point where sometimes the messages contradicted each other. I also didn’t get what the connection was between sex and nudity to social contracts and the social problems. If that part had been clearer, especially since the idea took about half of the film to explain, I think this would’ve been a much stronger project. Ambitious ideas are great but one should support those ideas in a clear manner for evaluation and understanding. “Otto; or, Up With Dead People” is definitely not a commercial film because it actively challenges the conventions of storytelling. Most people would see this as pointless and meandering but I thought there was enough brain to warrant a slight recommendation. Its ability to take the zombie flicks upside down, such as the undeads’ ability to speak, think and restrain themselves from eating people, was fun to watch.
A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Intended to be a trilogy, “Mongol,” directed by Sergei Bodrov, painted a beautiful but often complex picture about a man’s (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) journey on how his experiences from when he was a child shaped his ideals and eventually came to a decision to force such ideas to all Mongolian people. I don’t know much about the history prior to Genghis Khan’s ascension to power so I’m not the right person to ask about whether or not it’s historically accurate. Instead, I’ll review this film from a tabula rasa perspective. After reading some of the critics’ reviews, I finally decided to watch the movie and had high expectations. While I did expect scenes that consisted of ferocious bloodbath, I got exactly that and more. I was surprised by the amount of heart that this film had to offer. I liked the fact that it showed more of Genghis Khan’s failures than his victories. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he kept getting up and wanting to fight again so it was not difficult at all to root for him. There’s something truly inspiring from watching a person’s inner drive accumulate in spite of extremely difficult situations and be able to pull through. What didn’t work for me, however, were the mythical scenes. I found it frustrating whenever the picture would cut the scenes whenever Genghis Khan’s life was in danger. It would then jump to another scene when he would be perfectly okay and somehow evaded the situation. I get that faith was an important aspect of Genghis Khan’s life (and the fact that this film was being told in a first person point-of-view, which, as we all know, is not always objective) but I felt that there were too many of those scenes and it took me away from the situations. Regardless, there are still a lot to see here such as the stunning background imageries and well-defined (as well as graphic) battle scenes. If one is into historical epics that humanize a warrior’s journey to power instead of glamorizing it while at the same time dealing with issues such as the fragility of alliances, this is definitely the film to see. It goes to show that an epic film doesn’t need to come out of Hollywood as long as it is ambitious, while at the same time still able to deliver the elements that ultimately convince the audiences why they should care for the lead character.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson team up once again in “O Lucky Man!” a sequel to the exemplary “If…” McDowell plays Mike Travis, an ambitious and enthusiastic coffee salesman whose main goal is to attain financial success. I thought it was very interesting how he seems like a force to be reckoned with in the beginning of the film, but as it goes on and meets quirky, greedy and insightful characters, he seems so insignificant in comparison. Although its premise is a commentary on the evils of capitalism, the dry and dark humor are consistent. Although I didn’t understand some of the jokes because I don’t know much about business and economics, the ones I understand are clever and have a staying power that’s still relevant today; especially now that competition is at its peak and the American economy is not doing so well. This film’s strength lies in its surrealism: some of the actors play multiple characters (Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe…) and the events that unfold are extremely out of the ordinary and a bit random (such as the medical facility that use human subjects). I also enjoyed listening to Alan Price’s songs because they reflect what Mike Travis is going through yet at the same time comments on where he should be going. However, I felt like the film digressed too much. Despite Mike Travis’ adventures all over England, I feel as though he didn’t make any genuine human connection that could potentially warrant his change-of-heart during the film’s third act. Yes, he did have inspirations from poets and philosophers but I feel like those aren’t enough to change a person, especially a person who’s obsessed with climbing the economic ladder despite everything that’s put on his way to distract him from that goal. The most interesting character, other than Travis, was Patrcia (played by Helen Mirren) and I wanted to know more about her. In the end, I feel a certain disconnect from this picture–which is strange because, when it comes to films that run for about three hours, I usually feel a certain inclination for the project. “O Lucky Man!” is an unfortunate exception despite its intelligence and brilliant acting from McDowell.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, out of the “Three Colors” trilogy (“Blue,” “White” and “Red”–colors of the French flag that mean liberty, equality and fraternity, respectively), I believe this one is the strongest. Right from the very start, the thesis regarding strange connections between people who want some sort of communication, meaningful or not, with another person is established. I was blown away by Irène Jacob’s performance as a model who one day runs over a dog that belongs to a retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Although at first the two seem to have nothing in common, the more time they spend together, the more they realize that they probably belong to each other despite their significant age difference. Jacob was the star here and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was even more mesmerized by her whenever her photos are being taken by a photographer or whenever she was walking on the runway. There was an air of sadness (with a little bit of strength underneath it all) about her that I really wanted to explore. I also was at awe when it comes to Kieslowski’s use of color. The color red was all over this film yet each one signifies a different feeling or symbolism. Combined with its excellent use of pacing, I felt like I was in a dream where everyone and everything has a purpose. Lastly, I have to mention the final scene when all the three leads (and some side characters) from the whole trilogy appeared. It gave me serious goosebumps because I got to know each of those characters prior to this installment. It was weird seeing them again after thinking that their stories were over when the credits rolled in their respective installment. That scene and the few scenes before it are able to say something meaningful about destiny to the point where I looked at each of the characters from “Red” in a completely different light. Kieslowski’s craft just blew me away and I have absolutely nothing negative about this picture. What a perfect way to end an ambitious project.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.