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.
War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.
Angel Heart (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a private detective from Brooklyn, was hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a man named Johnny Favorite. For $5,000, Harry took the job. All clues pointed to Louisiana where some people were believed to practice witchcraft. However, every person who divulged information about Johnny’s whereabouts were eventually murdered in a gruesome fashion. Some of the dead bodies included a doctor (Michael Higgins), a psychic (Charlotte Rampling), and a musician (Brownie McGhee). Based on a novel by William Hjortsberg, “Angel Heart” was like watching a confused animal move from one side of the room to another. It was interesting because of the dark atmosphere that surrounded the mystery but it didn’t have enough rewards to keep us guessing. While murders consisted of bucket-loads of blood on the floor and on the walls, we felt no attachment to any of the characters because Harry didn’t spend enough time with them. The theme of the picture was a man suddenly forced into a world that was, to say the least, strange to him. He wasn’t aware of less popular religions so he feared people who practiced them. He claimed he was just a man from Brooklyn. We also learned his quirks which included an oral fixation and the wave of anxiety he felt when he was around chickens. He was an enigma because he had kind eyes but he kept himself from a distance. Even the girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) with whom he eventually fell for was kept at arm’s length. The picture’s strongest asset was the performances. Rourke was charismatic but he possessed a quiet danger. When chased by thugs and questioned by cops, he had a certain way of defending himself and answering questions without giving much away. There was chemistry between Rourke and Bonet. Their sex scene, though graphic, was magnetic. I would say it was the highlight of the film. De Niro wasn’t given many scenes but he made the most of it. His character was one-dimensional, a snide leer here and there, but he relished every word and emotion to the point where we believed that maybe he was up to something devious. Directed by Alan Parker, I wish “Angel Heart” wasn’t so predictable. I correctly guessed who the evasive Johnny Favorite was and where he was located about half-way through the film. I’m afraid audiences with a keen eye for mystery would most likely pick up the red herrings too quickly, come to a conclusion, and then lose interest. Unfortunately, a multi-layered mood and consistently solid acting weren’t enough to keep it afloat.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of American bombers, led by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), received a false transmission that they were to obliterate Moscow, leaders from the Strategic Air Command, like General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a scientist (Walter Matthau), and the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) struggled to come up with ways to avoid World War III with the Soviet Union. Based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail-Safe” was a gripping exercise in what soldiers and politicians were forced to do to delay a war when they could no longer stop it. Under Sidney Lumet’s focused and assured direction, the film successfully highlighted the fears of three groups of men confined in one place. All three were fascinating but I found the room where the president, with the help of his interpreter (Larry Hagman), tried to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union to be most sublime. The conversation occurred via telephone but from the minute the president picked up the telephone and a voice from the other line answered, it felt like watching two leaders looking intensely into each other’s eyes and weighing whether to trust the words they heard through a machine. After all, the president warned his translator to be very wary of certain intonations of the Premier’s voice. He could be saying one thing with words but the fluctuations in his voice could mean something else entirely. So I inched toward the screen and listened closely. I had a laugh at myself for realizing a couple of seconds later that I didn’t speak or understand Russian. Fonda was excellent in the role because the air of confidence he carried around with him, combined with his character’s intelligence, made us hope and believe that the mistake’s repercussions had a chance to be circumvented. I also admired Matthau’s turn as the scientist with extreme ideas. I didn’t always agree with his negative vision of society, applicable just to Americans or otherwise, but his sharp insight was undeniable. The film asked a lot of questions about responsibility in terms of human or mechanical error. If the transmission was a simple mechanical error with disastrous consequences, in technical terms, wasn’t it still considered human error because we were the ones who designed (and ultimately relied on) the machines? What I loved was the material didn’t get stuck on who or what to blame. Tragedy was embedded in the images of planes falling from the sky and the fear reflected in the soldiers’ eyes as they obeyed commands that they knew would lead to their deaths. “Fail-Safe,” purposefully claustrophobic so we were forced to look inwards, is more relevant than ever with our reliance in technology and the seeming lack of accountability just because we can hide behind clever inventions and foolish notions of anonymity.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager, was about to lose three of its most high-profile players to other teams. Instead of wallowing in pessimism, Beane decided that it was a great opportunity to reinvent the team and win games. Given that the Oakland A’s did not have the budget to pay players millions of dollars, Beane focused on statistics to form his new team. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who majored in Economics, the duo challenged the system and figureheads set on thinking a certain way about baseball. Given that baseball is a sport that I never learned to love or be remotely interested in, I expected to be very confused when the characters in the film used baseball jargon to explain why certain decisions were practical or downright negligent. Surprisingly, I had no trouble catching on because the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin was first and foremost a story of a man who was both passionate and tired of the sport. That contradiction in Beane was highlighted by Pitt so convincingly and so lovingly, there were times when I wanted to scream for the GM because no one seemed to understand what he was trying to achieve. With the exception of Brand, everyone was convinced that he was bitter about losing and had decided to sabotage the team. Since the material allowed us to construct an attachment to Beane, we are ineluctably reminded by our own experiences when we tried to make a difference or accomplish something unexpected, but everyone just seemed intent on getting in the way. With every losing battle against his peers (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we had a chance to see a glimpse of Beane’s younger years as a promising baseball sensation. One important conversation was when he had to choose between playing in Major Leagues versus accepting to go to school in Stanford. Obviously, he chose the former given the money involved. But it didn’t work out; he wasn’t the shining star that everyone predicted him to be. Slowly, the audience was given an increasingly complex and interesting portrait of the protagonist and why he was so driven to choose players that were considered out of their primes. Furthermore, the dialogue was easy on the ears because there was a consistent flow in the delivery of the lines. When the flow was interrupted by a silence or a character stopping mid-sentence in order to look at another character a certain way, dramatic beats were appropriately used to maintain dramatic momentum. However, there were about two or three scenes that felt out of place, notably Beane’s interactions with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). While they shared a sweet chemistry, one was more than enough. Scenes like Beane serving ice cream to his daughter felt like an obvious montage of “Daddy Still Cares Even If He’s Busy at Work.” We knew he loved his daughter from their first scene together. We could see it in the way Beane looked at her while she played guitar in public. Directed by Bennett Miller, “Moneyball,” based on the nonfiction novel by Michael Lewis, was a well-made underdog story about the business side of baseball, yet that isn’t to suggest that it was without nifty surprises clandestine enough to appeal to our soft spots.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist for the “Millennium” magazine, had just been ordered by the courts to pay Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) of an amount that would almost render him bankrupt as remuneration for libel. Meanwhile, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), one of the most successful businessmen in the country, received yet another picture of a flower from his niece’s killer. Aware of Mikael’s financial situation and public embarrassment, Henrick contacted the journalist for a job involving a bit of investigating and hopefully solving a crime that happened forty years ago. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, the cold detachment of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seeped through the pores of every frame yet the screenplay by Steven Zaillian found a way for us to care about Mikael and his eventual partner in solving the mystery, the magnetic and enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). There was something great at stake for the both of them. Henrick claimed that, by the end of the investigation, he would give Mikael hard evidence that would lead to his exoneration while Lisbeth was driven by her need to catch a man who had gotten away with sexually molesting and killing women in cold blood. As they became closer to the identity of the killer, the film’s mood felt more portentous and menacing, reflected by more intense winter storms and increasingly sparse score. I was most fascinated with the scenes dedicated to Mikael asking the Vanger family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Geraldine Jame) all sorts of questions about what happened or what they thought happened to Harriet. Despite the picture not having a lot of obvious chase scenes, there was an adrenaline rush because the chase took place in our minds. We looked at the suspects and ascertained the discrepancies among the pictures provided by Henrick, what the family members had to say about the matter, and how they reacted when certain questions moved toward a more sensitive subject. Watching Mikael inch toward a conclusion was like observing a doctor touching his patient ever so carefully and finding his way to the parts that hurt. We also had a chance to see why Lisbeth was the perfect partner for Mikael. She had her share of difficulties like having to report to an unethical guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), using our heroine for sexual favors every time she needed money. Despite being declared as incompetent to live on her own by the state, Lisbeth was very smart and calculating. She was more than capable of extricating herself from a man who thought he could get away with illicit and immoral activities because he was in a position of power. With Craig’s world-weary, humiliated gaze and Mara’s unpredictable bursts of intense anger, the picture was effective as a procedural and a character-driven work. But what I admired most about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher, was its courage in taking the liberty to slightly deviate from the original film for the sake of being a better movie. For instance, compared to “Män som hatar kvinnor,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the ending that this version offered provided more insight on how tough and lonely it was to be in Lisbeth’s leather jacket while luring us to wonder what would happen next.
The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.
Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.