White Palace (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Max (James Spader) ordered fifty White Palace burgers for his friend’s bachelor party, but when the guys opened some of the boxes, it turned out that six of them were empty. Max, being a man of principle, ignored his friends when they said it was no big deal and actually drove back to the burger joint to either get a refund or claim the missing burgers. Nora (Susan Sarandon) happened to be manning the cashier and she was not at all the type to be pushed around. After the night was over, out of pure coincidence, Max and Nora ended up drinking in the same bar. The power of “White Palace,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and Alvin Sargent, can be found in the way the filmmakers focused on two damaged souls and why they were potentially each other’s healing agents. Their devotion toward each other was so intense at times, it bordered on obsession. I liked not knowing whether I should be happy for them or be concerned that something was about to go very wrong. Every time the characters spoke about himself or herself and to each other, there was a piece of information given to make us consider reasons why Max looked so sad and Nora felt the need to put on an air of false confidence to remind herself that she was good enough. Since Nora and Max were initially strangers to one another, hearing them speak so vividly and openly about their personal lives was like going on a journey with them through their beautiful but tragic memories. Spader and Sarandon, although the two exercised different approaches to communicate what grief meant to their respective characters, were equally consummate performers in that each time the lens of the camera focused on their faces, the act of recollecting the past and discussing those they loved was like opening a gash that desperately wanted to heal. I felt their pain, rage, and disappointment toward an imagined life that would never be. I was most impressed in the way the material dealt with passion. Its rawest form was Max and Nora having sex and working to reach an orgasm. I found it titillating–sexy but not pornographic–mainly because the camera didn’t linger on the body of one gender. Most often, the two bodies shared a frame as to highlight their need for connection in a physical as well as in an emotional way. I enjoyed and admired that Luis Mandoki, the director, allowed the sex scene to play out without resulting to sleaze. The direction was so assured, there was even a nice comedic touch about a sandwich found on the floor. Equally commendable was the scene in the bar where Nora tried to seduce Max. It showcased Sarandon’s acting as Nora slinked from her initial lonely spot until she was able to place her hand on Max’ thigh. I just loved the idea of an older woman and the possibility of her taking advantage of a younger man. I was so intrigued by that sense of danger, I caught myself hoping the characters would put deposit more drinks down their throats just to see how far they would get with one another if all the red lights they lived their lives by suddenly turned green. But “White Palace,” based on a novel by Glenn Savan, was more than painful pasts, sex, and seduction. Although slightly less surprising, it was also about class differences experienced through Nora not having a college education and “just” being a waitress. With all the eyes that judge, it was no wonder that not only was she a fighter, she was a survivor.
In Darkness (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In the Nazi-occupied Lwów, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sanitation worker, decided to rescue a group of Jewish people who were contained in the ghetto. His partner in the sewers, Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny), was reluctant to help at first because if they got caught, it meant treason and certain death for them. But Socha proved persuasive. He urged his partner that they could always turn in the Jews to the Nazis later, but it would benefit them now to see how much money they could squeeze out of the desperate Jews. A payout of 500 zlotys a day, provided by the affluent Chiger (Herbert Knaup), suddenly wasn’t so bad, especially for a pair of sewer workers. But what would happen when the money ran out? Based on the book by Robert Marshall, while no one can deny that the events in “In Darkness” were horrifying, the filmmakers failed to harness the material’s power in order to really deliver a film that is both about the efforts of Socha as well as the Jewish individuals he hid from the Nazis. The first half was at times confusing because too many characters were introduced at the same time, their surface characteristics permeated and choked the remaining fresh oxygen prior to the extended stay underground. And once they had made one part of the sewers their “home,” it felt like an obligation for the camera to check up on them. While not a bad idea, glimpses in terms of how they coped (or did not cope) offered nothing beyond what we could see: the physical, psychological, and emotional suffering they had to endure. What I liked about the first half, however, was it had a chance to establish Socha’s complex motivations. He eventually learned that the Nazis were willing to pay 500 zlotys per Jew found hiding in the sewers. Given that the daily cost of food pretty much ate up Socha’s extra salary provided by Chiger, it would make sense, if his motivation was only influenced by economy, to hand over the people he protected. But he didn’t. Socha’s personality wasn’t especially likable but it became clear that his motivation was beyond money. The director, Agnieszka Holland, did a wonderful job using money as the protagonist’s excuse to hide his genuine human compassion amidst indescribable cruelty. Furthermore, because Socha was established slowly and in a subtle way, the events in the second half, especially when the location of the hideout was threatened, were suspenseful and moving. Unfortunately, the camera remained focused on jumping back and forth, showing us the terrible conditions in the sewers as if we didn’t already knew that such a place was untenable. To its credit, the scenes that took place underground looked and felt very real. It was appropriately dark and grimy. We could see rats, garbage, and excrement floating on the water. There were even corpses in there, Jewish corpses, and no one from above could be bothered enough to take the bodies out and give them a proper burial. I guess to the Nazis, Jewish corpses were exactly that: rats, garbage, and excrement–out of sight, out of mind. “W ciemności” certainly had emotional peaks, some earned while some weren’t, but the thinly molded supporting characters hindered its pacing and emotional momentum. At one point I wondered if Socha and “his” Jews’ story deserved something better.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.
The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.
The Woman in Black (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young father and a widower, was assigned by his London-based law firm to go to the country and peruse through the documents that Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) left upon her death. If it was certain that the firm had her final will, her gothic mansion, known to everyone around it as the Eel Marsh House, would be ready for clean-up and sale. Arthur assumed it would be a relatively easy job. When he arrived at the village, however, the residents were very unwelcoming and keen on sending him back to where he came from. Soon enough, he had a chance to visit the supposedly abandoned house and began to see a woman observing him from the grounds. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and screenplay by Jane Goldman, the greatest strength of “The Woman in Black” was its understanding of the importance of building suspense prior to delivering a genuinely scary moment that either left its audience startled or horrified. I enjoyed the way it kept me interested as to why the distressed townsfolk were so opposed to Arthur’s visit. While we suspected that it probably had something to do with his assignment at the secluded house, we weren’t sure as to how that was related to the three seemingly happy children who jumped to their deaths in the first scene. By not giving us immediate answers, I actually ended up wanting Arthur to finally get to the house and do a bit of investigation in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The creepiness increased tenfold when the camera loomed over the estate. It was surrounded by a marsh in which tides came and went depending on the hours. At times the road was unavailable which meant that Arthur wouldn’t be able to escape when his encounters turned grim. When he was left alone to look around the house, the picture was at its best because the filmmakers highlighted the stillness that surrounded our protagonist as well as when the stillness was threatened by supernatural forces. Typicalities occurred such as a ghost appearing behind Arthur when he wasn’t looking but a handful of them were executed so convincingly, the clichés were almost negligible. The most chilling scene involved a nursery room with a rocking chair that seemed to defy physics. It was enjoyable on more than one level because while the direction forced our senses to focus on sounds and images, the horror elements–like dolls moving and stopping on their own, the eventual reveal of the malevolent ghost and the like–also challenged us, if we wished, to recreate an image of an unhappy life that had driven the woman in black to do the things she did. This could be connected to the moment when we first met Arthur as he held a blade to his neck but changed his mind for his son’s sake. This led to the picture’s main weakness. I wasn’t totally convinced that Radcliffe was a young father who was grieving for his wife’s death. Although he had no problem conjuring emotions like sadness, the angst behind his eyes and actions weren’t quite there. I felt that a certain level of realism within the character to be important because the reason why Arthur decided to take the job and continued to perform the job despite eerie warnings was because he wanted to provide for his son. Instead of an engaging beginning, since certain emotions didn’t feel true, I found it rather languorous. “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins,” could have also used an ending that didn’t feel so saccharine that it derailed its consistently minacious tone. It was an example of how toxic a cliché can be if there was nothing else behind it other than lazy or confused writing.
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
The Descendants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Matt King (George Clooney) had more problems than he had hands. Within the next several days, he had to decide which multi-million dollar deal to accept which involved selling an untouched piece of land in Hawaii. Since his cousins were in debt, going through with it would help them out immensely. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was recently involved in a boating accident that forced her into a coma. The doctors informed Matt that there was little to no possibility that she was ever going to wake up. Her will clearly stated that if such a thing happened to her, she was to be taken off life support. Meanwhile, Matt found out that Elizabeth had been cheating on him with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” excelled in shaping individual scenes where Matt had to face another person and the two were required to speak to each other with frankness and at times painful honesty. I found that such scenes were loyal to the theme regarding appearances and how deceiving they could be. A great example was Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Matt’s eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). At first, it seemed like he was a typical “Hey, Bro!” surfer dude who had a propensity toward saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune times, but the scene where Matt found himself so desperate to know what was really going on with rebellious Alexandra showed that Matt and Sid had more common than we were led to believe. Both, in a way, were quite easy to dismiss: Matt with his first-world problem of selling a portion of land and Sid’s easy-going personality. Because the characters, not restricted to the aforementioned scene, were eventually allowed to talk about things that were important to them, often sandwiched between the comedy embedded in the every day, we had reasons to keep watching even though we might expect that not everything would turn out alright. Furthermore, the relationship between a husband so unequipped to handle his household and a wife in a vegetative state was exquisitely executed. I found it a refreshing experience because the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash strived to be more than about a man being sad and wishing that his wife would magically wake up. There was an instance when Matt felt he just had to yell at his wife for her indiscretions. It wasn’t pretty and it was uncomfortable, but those were the qualities that made their one-sided relationship feel very real. Most of the time, when a married couple knew that their relationship was on the rocks, they could deal with their issues through words and body language. In other words, the picture found a way to circumvent the fact that a spouse was comatose. The pacing of the film, however, could have used a bit of fire. When Matt, his two daughters, and Sid attempted to track down the real estate agent, there were a number of comedic scenes that did not work and should have been excised to improve flow. “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne, was about how we shouldn’t expect closures that we believe we deserved to come to us passively. Like everything else in life, at least one that’s worth living, closure ultimately feels good because effort is put into it.