★★★ / ★★★★
To prepare for going horseback riding with her father in New Mexico, Lisa (Anna Paquin) went to shop for a cowboy hat in downtown Manhattan. To her disappointment, though, the hat proved very difficult to find. That is, until she turned around and saw a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one. Out of desperation, although the doors of the bus had closed and the driver had stepped on the gas, she ran alongside it and attempted to ask where he bought his cowboy hat. Distracted from the girl on his right, the bus driver ran a red light and a woman (Allison Janney) stepped onto the crosswalk. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, “Margaret” could easily be misconstrued as a simple story of a girl facing a moral dilemma since its emotions, or at least a semblance of emotions, were the centerpiece. The picture was most powerful when the writer-director allowed his scenes to play out and gave us time to absorb droplets of emotions even if some of them were not particularly significant. For instance, when Lisa held the dying woman who got ran over by the bus, it was equally devastating and horrific. Their verbal exchange, as fleeting as it was, remained the most engaging despite the blood and severed body parts. By allowing the camera to focus very closely faces with minimal interruption, a dramatic gravity was established for us to immerse ourselves in the situation. Given this technique coupled with its extended running time, the little emotions that had gone uncut accumulated and, in a way, gave the material another dimension in terms of the real motivations of the characters as opposed to what we’d like to see the characters get motivated by. Furthermore, the aftermath of the tragedy focused on Lisa’s guilt. She knowingly gave the police false information in order to save the bus driver’s job. In exchange, however, her secret affected her in ways she would never have imagined. The screenplay did a wonderful job in communicating to us that although Lisa was not a bad person, her youth, naïveté, and proclivity for hyperbole did not excuse her from taking responsibility. Lisa was aware of this and that self-awareness was what made her a sympathetic character even though at times we disagreed with her opinions and actions. There was a subplot which involved Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a stage actress, meant to highlight the growing disconnect between mother and daughter. It also opened up a possible explanation as to why Lisa ended up making the decisions she did. Although not one-dimensional, their relationship could have been so much more enthralling if there had been less verbal sparring. I actually was more moved during scenes where they just looked at each other, very tired and defeated because it somehow occurred to them that exchanging words led to more strife. We’ve all been in a situation where we nor our opponent was willing to surrender an inch for the sake of pride. The writing understood how to handle its acerbic characters and how their personalities shaped their realities. “Margaret” felt long but, to its credit, it wasn’t without purpose. I admired that the third half deconstructed what we knew and felt toward the characters instead of relying on a typical falling action where winkles were simply ironed out. It gave the impression that although you’ve known someone for a really long time, sometimes you don’t really know them. The scary thing is, people think that having an idea of how they are is tantamount to knowing who they really are. For Lisa, the accident she witnessed was a rude awakening that there really is a difference between how a person perceives herself versus how she acts around other people.
The Romantics (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Seven friends gathered at a beach house for a celebration. Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel) were about to get married. But Laura (Katie Holmes), Lila’s bridesmaid and good friend, was still in love with Tom. Tom also had lingering feelings for Laura but he was reluctant to sacrifice a life of stability. The remaining four friends (Malin Akerman, Jeremy Strong, Adam Brody, Rebecca Lawrence) knew that there was an awkward tension among Lila, Tom, and Laura but no one dared to bring up the most obvious questions. They would rather drown themselves in alcohol and numb themselves with drugs. “The Romantics,” directed and based on a novel by Galt Niederhoffer, somewhat managed to capture the confusion of almost thirtysomethings: how each of them defined happiness, the sacrifices necessary so they wouldn’t be alone down the road, and the so-called friendships they desperately clung onto. They were a very unlikable bunch because they were all about their self-interests. Rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, we all know people like them. We might even be one of them. My main concern and disappointment with the film was its execution in terms of its attempt to explore the characters. The group of friends was far from being romantics. The night before Lila and Tom’s wedding, we learned that they earned the label in college because the seven of them slept with each other to the point were it was “almost incestuous.” While the speeches over dinner the night before the big wedding was fun to listen to because it revealed the truth about how the five friends viewed the upcoming marriage, the events that came after, such as Tom going missing and Laura feeling the need to look for him, felt convenient and predictable. Genuinely getting to know the other friends, which was key because they were important people in Lila and Tom’s lives, was thrown out the window. Instead, we saw them getting naked, cheating on each other, and doing drugs. It wasn’t even done in a darkly comic, sexy, or fun way. We were just there to watch as detached audiences and I was left wondering why the writer-director felt the need to show us such scenes. Was she attempting to highlight the emptiness in these characters’ lives? If so, I didn’t feel a defined point of view, a driving force, or a specific lens designed to convince me that the filmmaker had control over her material. The best scene was the collision between Lila, the immovable object, and Laura, the unstoppable force, near the end. I considered Lila an immovable object because even though she perfectly knew her husband didn’t love her as much as he should, she still foolishly wanted to get married. Laura was an unstoppable force because she was too driven by her emotions and she was willing to fight for what she felt even if it meant throwing friendship in the fire. I wish more scenes as powerful as Lila and Lauren’s confrontation. The rest were just padding for an accident that never occurred.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
A girl named Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin) looked pensively out the window aboard a flying ship. She was being held by a spy for the government (Mark Hamill) and men from the military. They wanted something from her although at first it wasn’t clear what. Pirates, led by an old but very energetic lady named Dola (Cloris Leachman), attacked the ship. Out of panic, Sheeta climbed outside the window, slipped, and was in free fall toward the Earth. “Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta,” also known as “Castle in the Sky,” was a thrilling animated film which balanced adventure and heart with ease. It offered breathtaking images from grand ships maneuvering themselves in and out of danger to the small details of the mining town where Pazu (James Van Der Beek), Sheeta’s greatest ally, lived and dreamed of fantastic journeys. The chase scenes were exciting to watch not just because guns and explosions were involved but due to the fact that there were times when the laws of Physics were completely ignored (especially in the mine cart tracks) and I was completely caught by surprise. Just when we thought we had idea where one’s loyalty belonged, enemies found a commonality which allowed them to work together and maybe even learn from each other. In a way, the action sequences were just as interesting as the characters who all shared a common goal: reaching the evasive floating castle called Laputa. The spy wanted the knowledge and the technology buried deep within, the military and the pirates wanted the treasures, Pazu wanted to find closure regarding his father’s death, and Sheeta simply wanted to protect it. There were also some messages concerning the environment and perhaps a budding romance between Pazu and Sheeta but I liked the fact that such topics were purposely underplayed. It was nice to see other angles from the core story so it didn’t at all feel one-dimensional. However, I do have the admit that I felt as though the picture ran for about thirty minutes too long. I think the film spent too much time focusing on the characters aboard the mysterious castle. I began to feel restless. Personally, I would have enjoyed it more if the characters did not spend too much time there (or if none of them reached it). By doing so, it remains as a symbol or a metaphor for things that were important to the characters. To me, it really wasn’t about reaching the castle but the measures the characters would go to get there. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Castle in the Sky” was magical, involving, and suitable for all ages. It made me think of the time when my dream was to become pilot.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
The government had found a drug that could suppress the mutant gene which recently became available to the public. Magneto (Ian McKellen), more than ever, was desperate to eliminate humans due to their intolerance against Mutants. Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) came back from the dead but, Phoenix, her other fiery and unpredictable personality had almost completely taken over. It seemed like not even Professor X (Patrick Stewart) could control her. Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, “X-Men: The Last Stand” felt like it settled with one concept and allowed the action scenes to take control of the material. As it went on, I wondered when it was going to offer us something fresh. The idea of finding a cure to a mutation could have gone in a million interesting directions, but the script didn’t break away from the topic of humans versus mutants. Humans were bad, mutants were good–except for the ones who chose to team up with Magneto. We just knew they were bad because they wore leather jackets, had tattoos, and rode motorcycles. There was a painful lack of depth. The introduction of Beast (Kelsey Grammer), a key figure in the United States public relations, could have been a chance for the material to acknowledge that not everyone in the government wanted to “cure” Mutants. There was irony in the way he looked versus the manner in which he carried himself. He looked like an animal but he was professional, smart, and very likable. The fact that the filmmakers didn’t do more with the character was beyond me. Did we really need more sloppily put together action sequences? The tension between Mutants and humans became increasingly complicated because the root of the problem wasn’t black and white. Further, the characters weren’t utilized in an interesting way. For example, it seemed like Rogue (Anna Paquin) only wanted to be cured because she wished to be able to touch Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), her boyfriend, without a glove. She became very jealous when she saw Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Bobby get close physically. The complexity between Rogue and Iceman’s relationship was suddenly thrown out the window for the sake of typical teen drama. Rogue looked selfish. She didn’t even get to help in the final battle. The writers needed to sort out her priorities. As for Angel (Ben Foster), he wasn’t given much except to look pretty while flying around the city. I wanted to know how he felt with the fact that his father didn’t accept him for who he was to the point where he felt the need to cut off his wings when he was a child. If Angel’s scenes were completely removed from the film, the final product would have been the same. That subplot’s lack of connection to the main storyline reflected the picture’s main weakness. Directed by Brett Ratner, “X-Men: The Last Stand” did exactly the opposite of what made its predecessors very entertaining. The material having imagination didn’t necessarily mean expensive-looking special and visual effects. It meant bringing out the magic from within the characters and reminding us why we loved them even though they were genetically dissimilar from us.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a teleporter, was sent to kill the president for the sake of peace between humans and Mutants, William Stryker (Brian Cox) blamed Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the mutants he harbored in his School for Gifted Youngsters. Unbeknownst to the president, Stryker, a military scientist, had devoted his career in solving the “mutant problem” and wasn’t above genocide to reach his goals.”X2: X-Men United,” directed by Bryan Singer,” was a confident sequel which was reflected from its energetic opening scene. There was a certain flow in which the camera moved, the way it smoothly slithered across and between hallways, sometimes in elegant slow motion, as it followed Nightcrawler’s impressive disappearing acts. It was a stark contrast from its predecessor’s modest approach; it immediately gave us something new. Much of the film’s goal was to expand storylines it already introduced. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) learned more about his past and his adamantium claws, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) actually acted like a real couple, Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) continued their struggle in not having a physical relationship, and Magneto (Ian McKellen), with the help of a very resourceful Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), finally escaped his plastic prison. But what impressed me most was in the way the filmmakers took opposing sides, Professor X and Magneto, and made them work together in such a way that didn’t feel forced. In fact, we relished them occupying the same space because of the awkward tension. How do you work with someone who tried to kill you or one of your friends just some time before? They didn’t have to necessarily like each other but without one another, they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goals. Various levels of symbiosis were explored which ranged from mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. I admired that the action sequences always had purpose but never afraid to go over-the-top. For instance, there was a gruesome scene in which Magneto sensed one of the guards having too much iron in his blood. I watched in wide-eyed anticipation (or horror) as Magneto extracted the metal from the man’s body. It looked painful and there was no way the guard would have survived the extreme experience. Some scenes served no purpose other than to show off the Mutants’ powers. Take Iceman and a couple of shots in which he froze a bottle of pop and a cup of coffee by simply touching or blowing on them. But the key was heart being always ahead of the cool factor. His visit to his home and the way he had to inform his family that he was a Mutant reflected a coming out experience. He wasn’t one of the lucky ones. “X2” met and exceeded its grand ambitions.
★★★ / ★★★★
Evolution is a slow process but every once in a while, and for unknown reasons, it jumps forward. The next step in evolution for humans was for select few to develop unique abilities, which typically began in puberty, that ranged from varying psychic powers to consciously deconstructing one’s molecular structure. This created fear and hatred between normal humans and Mutants. There was a legislation, if passed, would allow the government to legally keep a record of those with abilities. Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), also called Magneto for his ability to control metals and create magnetic fields, found the idea outrageous and was willing to kill, along with his henchmen (Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn), those without tolerance. It reminded him of his time in the concentration camps, the way the Jewish was marked like cattle. On the other hand, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, created a school for Mutants so they would learn to control their abilities. He believed that over time, Mutants and humans would be able to co-exist. Directed by Bryan Singer, what I loved most about “X-Men” was it had a modest feel to it. I imagine that might have been difficult to accomplish because there were so many interesting characters worth putting under the spotlight. By giving us a relatively simple story and a modicum of, though never obvious, character development, we could easily navigate ourselves into their world and the conflicts that impacted their existence. It didn’t take the easy route of putting the Mutants’ abilities ahead of what they stood for and their place in the brewing war between humans and Mutants or, quite possibly, Professor X’s group versus Magneto’s. It started out small with Rogue (Anna Paquin) not understanding her powers. It was a smart decision because most Mutants’ abilities came to a surprise to them. From there, everything fell naturally into place as she met amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X’s instructors like Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Storm (Halle Berry). She even found potential romance in Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), a boy who could generate ice at whim. In spite of being a modern and sleek science fiction film on the outside, it had elements of classic coming-of-age elements which paved the way for us to become emotionally invested in the characters. By highlighting who they were and what they stood for, it underlined the prejudice from both the humans and the Mutants. “X-Men,” a fast-paced action-adventure with enough humor on the side especially the friendly banters between Wolverine and Cyclops, understood the importance of having a solid foundation before dealing with more ambitious storylines.
Scream 4 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ten years had passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was stalked by Ghostface. She had written a bestseller based on her experiences and Woodsboro was the last stop of her book tour. Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) had gotten married. And while Riley, now a sheriff, was happy with the marriage, Gale was less than ecstatic because she missed being out in the field as a sassy reporter and solving crimes. It must be Gale’s lucky day because it seemed like there was a new killer in town. Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, “Scream 4” felt fresh. That is an important quality because sequels tend to run out of ideas over time. This film was an exception because it took advantage of what social networking sites and fame meant to the new generation. The eleven-year break felt necessary. The challenge our beloved trio had to overcome was to quickly learn how to adapt to the new rules. Failure to do was tantamount to being a big-breasted dumb blonde who decided to investigate a strange noise upstairs. We all know what would eventually happen to that character. There were new horde of sheep ripe for the picking. Jill (Emma Roberts) was Sidney’s cousin but they were never really close. She had two spunky but good-looking best friends (Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe), an ex-boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) who cheated on her, and two horror movie geeks (Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin) who had a crush on her galpals. There was also Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), openly flirtatious to Dewey while on the job and Sidney’s assistant (Alison Brie) who was actually elated when she found out that teenagers were being butchered. Needless to say, all of them were suspects. After a self-satirizing and highly enjoyable first scene (with a nice cameo from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), I immediately got the feeling that no one, including Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, was safe. After all, they weren’t getting any younger. Perhaps the writer and director decided that it was time to pass on the torch. Furthermore, the teens were very similar to the characters in the original picture. What I loved was Craven’s awareness of that suspicion. He held onto our expectations, turned it upside down, and shook it with purpose. In doing so, the story actually felt unpredictable for a change. I paid more attention to where the story was heading next instead of the horror movie references or how knowledgeable the characters were about scary movies. I felt like there was more at stake this time around. Most importantly, “Scream 4” had something to say beyond the fences of horror pictures. Admittedly, the idea wasn’t fully developed but it’s far superior than torture porn where the violence depicted on screen were done simply for shock value. After a decade, the knife still felt sharp.