Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.
★★★ / ★★★★
I think people’s claims that this movie was “provocative,” “unnecessary,” and “crude” should pass as compliments because it was what Sacha Baron Cohen (as the lead character) wanted to achieve. Directed by Larry Charles, the picture tells the story of the recently fired Austrian television reporter named Brüno and his aspiration to become the most popular Austrian since Hitler (his own words). In his quest to achieve his dream, he visits celebrities and politicians for interviews ranging from Paula Abdul, Harrison Ford, to Ron Paul. He also had the bravado to visit the Middle East and interview two men from extreme political parties currently at war with each other; not to mention visiting the home of a terrorist and throwing insults like he was asking to get hurt. If those weren’t enough, he also ended up going to a swingers party, to Alabama in the middle of nowhere, and to a group of people who “converted” homosexuals into heterosexuals. And believe it or not, there were still a handful of things that I haven’t mentioned. Not everyone gets satire. This film satirizes the fashion industry, celebrities from behind the cameras as well as those in the focus of the tabloids, to the very same people who choose to become mindless drones of the television, trying to shape their lives into what’s currently “in” or “hip.” I also liked the fact that it made fun of people who claim to know what they’re talking about when they really don’t (that scene with the two blondes was a riot) and it critiques overbearing parents who desperately push their children to superstardom no matter what the cost. If one really looks into it, there’s a certain thought that was put under the farcical (and downright hilarious) façade that it tries to market. In a way, this movie holds up a mirror to the American society and the very same people who react negatively toward the movie without strong, well thought out reasons are the ones who are being made fun of. And the funnier (or more tragic) thing is, they know it’s all true. The second half was more about Brüno’s homosexuality and how people in less liberal (to say the least) people in America reacts to it. Yes, the character is extreme but I doubt the reactions of such people would have varied that much differently if he wasn’t as “flaming.” At the end of the day, ignorance is ignorance and hatred is hatred. I had a really good time watching this film despite its flaws because it has a certain sharpness to it that I couldn’t help but admire. People say “Boycott this!” or “This should be rated NC-17!” All I can say is that they need to watch more movies and smarten up a bit.
West Side Story (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
“West Side Story” is pretty much an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Montagues vs. Capulets, it’s the Sharks vs. the Jets, Puerto Rican immigrants and second generation Americans, respectively. I’m not very interested in musicals but I had to see this one because it’s considered a classic. Although I was pleasantly surprised with how well-made it was, I was also disappointed because it’s not very consistent in its quality. After it delivers one great scene, a pointless and aimless scene comes right after it, which balances out into mediocrity. Although the songs are memorable and some even made it to the modern media consciousness, there were some musicals numbers that tried to do too much. For instance, in one shot the characters are singing in a dimly-lit backdrop; the next frame introduces a glaring use of color in order to symbolize certain emotions when it really didn’t need to do it. Certain techniques like that became distracting and they took me out of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. Natalie Wood as Maria (a Shark) and Richard Beymer as Tony (a Jet) had strong chemistry so I was interested in what was about to happen to their relationship. I wish the film had focused more on them instead of the rival gangs. I think Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the directors, spent too much time on the gangs just hanging about, bickering, and acting stupid. Not to mention those scenes were a bit lame (in this day and age) so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I got what the directors were trying to do: To paint a picture that youth is the time to make mistakes and how teenagers are forced to grow up once they learn to take responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that they should spend about half the movie trying to get that message across. I felt like this movie could’ve been condensed from two hours and thirty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. Still, I’m giving this a recommendation because some parts were very strong such as when the film tried to tackle the issues of immigration, racism, groupthink, and us vs. them. Those social themes made this a musical with a brain even though it may not seem like it at first glance.
West Side Story Tickets and Information
★★ / ★★★★
This film reminded me of a very light version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” because it’s about a sexually abused young man named Dean (Matthew Leitch) who pretends he’s the son of an aristocrat (Diana Quick). In his journey to find acceptance and identity, he meets an American (Peter Youngblood Hills) and his lover (George Asprey) who both happen to be interested in Dean. At first this picture was very frustrating to me because, despite watching rich people drugging themselves in order to feel something and being utterly miserable due to a lack of genuine relationships, Dean still wants to become one of them. Granted, his situation at home is egregious because of his spineless mother and abusive father, but I thought he’d want a vastly different alternative instead of merely having a title. But later on, the film evolved into something quite insightful. A particular character actually commented on the issue of working class idealizing the upper class and wanting to be like them even though they really have no idea what it’s like. That self-awareness let me know that Duncan Roy, the director, has a message that he wants to get across. Aside from class warfare and deceit, this also comments on the complexities of finding one’s sexual identity and how the frustration of not knowing can lead us to a downward spiral. Better yet, the film implies that we can have the control we need to steer our lives in the right direction. We might lose that control once in a while but we can wield it again if we hang on long enough and push through next time. Despite all of those positive qualities, I can’t quite give this a three-star rating because the middle portion is bit too saggy. The movie is only about an hour and fifty minutes but it felt longer than that. Cutting about fifteen to twenty minutes would’ve gone a long way. I liked the energy that the actors put in their characters so I’m not against slightly recommending it.
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.
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.