The Vow (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
A truck smashed into a couple’s car while on their way home from a romantic night out. Leo (Channing Tatum) suffered a few injuries, but Paige (Rachel McAdams) had severe brain hemorrhaging so the doctors thought it would be wise to keep her in a coma until her brain had a bit of time to recover. When Paige woke up, she had no memory of Leo, including getting married to him and moving to the city to pursue her career as an artist. She remembered being in law school, being engaged to a man named Jeremy (Scott Speedman), and living a completely different lifestyle prior to the accident. Inspired by a true story, “The Vow,” based on the screenplay by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, offered several good scenes because it was able to capitalize on the chemistry between Tatum and McAdams, but certain plot mechanisms were so obviously designed to make us feel sorry for the couple and angry toward everyone else. Take Rita (Jessica Lange) and Bill (Sam Neill), Paige’s parents, as an example. We were given background information that Paige hadn’t spoken or seen them in years for reasons yet unknown to us. When the parents arrived at the hospital, it was difficult to get to know their characters, as if the material wasn’t at all willing to give them a chance. They were so serious, tight-lipped, and stern. Every time they opened their mouths, it was about chastising Leo for not calling and letting them know that their daughter had been involved in a terrible accident and attempting to get their daughter to live away from her husband. Because that scene–and others of its type–was so manipulative, it was difficult not to consider more realistic reactions. While the parents would still probably be angry with Leo for not being informed, wouldn’t they also have felt some sort of relief knowing that Paige was still alive? Since the parents were pigeonholed as villains for the majority of the time, the script lost the necessary complexities in the human drama: the disapproving parents seizing a new chance to lead a new life with their wayward daughter at the cost of Leo and Paige’s marriage and Paige’s personal struggle to put together the pieces of a life she had great trouble remembering. If the relationships had been messier, like life, it could have been much more compelling. However, the film was not without moments of truth. This may sound kinky but I found the scene where Leo passed gas in the car and Paige, to my horror, actually pulled up her window so she could bask in the stink. While most people would consider such a thing as downright disgusting, I found it romantic because it felt real. It may not have been subtle but it was an effective symbol of complete acceptance. If your partner is willing to sit with you during the good, the bad, and the unsavory vapors, I say your partner is a keeper. And why shouldn’t there be more unpleasant scenes like that portrayed in serious romantic dramas? I’d rather watch a well-placed fart scene than a series of monotonous seriousness where I find myself sitting passively, desperately waiting to be surprised. “The Vow,” directed by Michael Sucsy, was at times too constrained by what people come to expect from a romantic drama, punctuated by bright moments when it seemed free to do whatever felt right for the material. Because of the push and pull, the film was uneven but it was far from a mess.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
Dark City (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) woke up in a bathtub with barely any memory of where or who he was. The phone rang and a psychiatrist named Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland) told him that a group of men called The Strangers were on their way to John’s hotel room to kill him. Another group that was after John was the police led by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) because they believed John was a serial killer. Bumstead’s first lead was John’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). The picture’s greatest asset was its ideas that continued to challenge the audiences. The fantastic visual and special effects became secondary but they enhanced the experience of watching the city’s many mysteries unfold. We couldn’t help but question why every time it was midnight, time seemed to stop except for The Strangers and some select individuals. What were The Strangers up to? Specifically, what did they want from humans? Why were they living underground? How come we and the characters never see the light of day? I had my hypotheses because of one scene involving Dr. Schreber and a mouse attempting to find its way out of a maze. Crossing out my guesses one by one was half the fun. Like Bumstead, we were forced to pay attention to the small details and the implications in the dialogue. I loved that the film chose not to spoon-feed its viewers critical information. Its magic then comes from us as active participants. We become detectives and try to make sense of whatever was happening. “Dark City” had major negatives that I believe prevented the film from becoming a masterpiece as most people consider it to be. I had problems with the first half’s pacing. I think the picture spent too much time putting John in situations where he was confused and disoriented. I didn’t think it needed to hammer the fact that he had amnesia because the first scene did an excellent job setting up John’s psychological state. Furthermore, when the movie tried to be philosophical, it did not always work for me. For example, John told one of The Strangers that what they wanted could be found in the heart and not in the brain. Technically, everything we are and everything we can be is embedded in our brain. While the two undoubtedly need each other, the brain governs the heart. This can be observed when we tell ourselves to calm down when we’re angry and we find that our heart rates tend to decrease. In a way, when the film tried to be philosophical, I found it borderline cheesiness. Nevertheless, “Dark City,” directed by Alex Proyas, is a strong science fiction film. It was appropriately titled because it was literally dark, it had many mysteries worth exploring, and it had just about the right amount of menace to keep those with short attention spans engaged. I admired its ambition and film noir undertones.
★★ / ★★★★
Half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert) and Vincent (Michael Harris) met for the first time. Everyone in the film, including the two, thought they looked alike. However, the audience knew better because they were obviously nothing alike in terms of physicality: Clay was an African-American who looked like a linebacker and Vincent was a Caucasian who looked frail but with a mind full of devious intentions. Vincent wanted to get away with murder so he tried to fake his death by using Clay’s body in a car explosion. However, Clay lived without any memory of who he was. It was up to Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) to reconstruct Clay’s face and Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono) to reconstruct Clay’s memories. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “Suture” had a fascinating, almost Hitchcock-ian premise but it ultimately failed to deliver because Clay’s journey to eventually realizing what happened to him lacked tension. Instead of keeping his relationship with Dr. Descartes strictly professional, they got involved in a romantic relationship. In a way, that romance was a distraction instead of really exploring interesting questions involving living a life that was not meant to be. As a person of science, I also had questions about Dr. Shinoda’s techniques in the attempt to recover Clay’s memory. I’m not quite sure if the film was aiming for accuracy but I believe Freudian methods are far from the most effective ways in treating amnesia (at least from what I’ve been taught). The movie only regained its footing near end when Vincent finally decided to finish off what he had started. It was a nailbiting scene because the characters moved ever so slowly and so quietly to the point where the audiences were keen on potential mistakes that could cost a character his life. I loved that the movie was gorgeously shot in black and white but at the same time it was disappointing because the filmmakers did not play with shadows. It would have been a perfect because the characters, especially Vincent, had something to hide and he was often in the dark in terms of what he was thinking and his true motivations. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if Vincent had become a more sympathetic figure over time instead of remaining to be a one-dimensional cold-blooded killer. The same goes for Clay: it would have been much more fun to watch the film if his desperation had led him to make decisions that we did not necessarily agree with. In the end, I wanted to see the malleability, fluidity and complexity of identity. Instead of taking a step beyond the switching identity storyline, it stayed within the conventions and it failed to leave a lasting memory.