★★★ / ★★★★
The relationship between feisty Dr. Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) and ambitious Dr. Bellows (Michael Douglas) was on the rocks. Susan liked to do things her way without compromise while it seemed like all Mark could ever talk about with her was hospital politics. Although “Coma,” based on the screenplay and directed by Michael Crichton, started off like a relationship drama because of a drawn out argument in the couple’s apartment in the beginning of the film, just below its epidermis flowed something more sinister. Several patients in Boston Memorial Hospital, one of them being Dr. Wheeler’s pregnant friend, underwent minor surgeries which required induced unconsciousness via anesthesia. The problem: they never woke up. After further inspection, electroencephalogram tests suggested that the otherwise young and healthy patients showed no sign of brain activity; they were now corpses being kept “alive” by machines. The wonderful thing about the film, one of its two unambiguous elements, was we knew that Dr. Wheeler was our protagonist and everyone else, including her boyfriend, was a suspect. The second clear-cut component involved the illicit goings-on beginning with the hospital. With each passing scene of increasingly gray motivations, the audience was given a piece of information about a possible conspiracy and we followed Dr. Wheeler into all sorts of trouble until she discovered the horrors within her workplace as well as the co-workers she thought she could trust. Because there was an obvious right and wrong, our sympathy was with Dr. Wheeler. She was not always efficient but we rooted for her to come out on top in the end. The filmmakers created a great atmosphere of paranoia. The seemingly endless walls of the hospital were appropriately nondescript, the lingo heard in the air and through telephone wires required a medical handbook of terms for full understanding, and the snip and tear of the flesh during surgeries left a lot to the imagination since not much gore was shown. The sense of detachment made the hospital look like an actual place of business where important things happened instead of a magical place where everyone went to be completely free from their illnesses. An understated but memorable scene, at least for me, involved Dr. Wheeler telling a little boy that there was something wrong with both of his kidneys and they needed to be replaced. He asked when he would get new ones. She couldn’t answer exactly. However, we knew that it would either take a long time or he wouldn’t get them at all. There was a sadness and truth in that scene which resonated with me. I appreciated its level of reality, down to the doctor casually eating his lunch while observing an autopsy within inches from the corpse. However, the film had critical missteps tonally. In its desperate attempt to convince us that what Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Bellows had as a couple was good, although quite brief, it happened just enough times to take me out of the moment completely. The sequence that made me wince most involved Susan and Mark running along the beach, perfect lighting and all, and kissing while lying on the sand. During those moments, I laughed at the film not because it was darkly comic but because it was so cheesy. I felt like I was watching a made-for-TV movie instead of a focused, edgy paranoid medical thriller. Despite being based on Robin Cook’s novel, I’m sure alterations could have been made regarding the tawdry romance given its high level of screenplay. It couldn’t be denied that “Coma” had an imagination. It just needed to play upon its strengths instead of taking a gamble with cornball.
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.
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.