Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with great logic and acumen. In 1930, a little girl was kidnapped and later murdered in cold blood. Five years later, the murderer boarded a train and was later found dead. Since the train was stuck due to weather, the police couldn’t get to the train. It was then up to detective Poirot to figure out who killed the murderer. (I love the irony.) Aboard the train with him and the murderer were twelve other people (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Michael York) who came from different backgrounds and had unique personalities. The question is, which one or which ones of them did it? I had a lot of fun with this movie even though I found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters. The dialogue was electric; I loved the way Finney used different tactics of interrogation that matched a character’s type of personality. For the longest time, I had no idea who to suspect but even after the mystery was revealed, I still found myself shocked with who committed the crime. However, I have to say that this movie is not for everyone. Although it is essentially a mystery picture, it is very heavy on the dialogue (the main reason why I loved it) and the whole movie consisted of characters being stuck on a train. The movie also started off pretty slow because it took about thirty minutes to introduce all of the important characters. But I think with a little bit of patience and really paying attention to what was happening, people would find this movie worth their time. “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, has a wonderful supporting cast that fascinated me from beginning to end. The big names involved in this project really lived up to their reputation because they were able to inject complexity and dimension to their characters even though they didn’t get much screen time as opposed to, say, when they were asked to carry an entire film. This film had nice twists dispersed throughout so it was never boring once the viewer gets accustomed to its style. For a two-hour film and having more than a dozen crucial characters, the pacing was efficient. I wish there are more modern whodunit films are being released in cinemas these days because I’m just a sucker for them (it probably explains why obsession with board games like “Clue”).
The Color Purple (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Alice Walker’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Color Purple” stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson who endured years of suffering in the hands of a very abusive husband (Danny Glover). Celie lost everyone she loved–her son, daughter and sister (Akosua Busia)–and since she was so used to being treated as less than human, she learned to shut herself down and live as though she was a ghost. But when her husband’s kind mistress (Margaret Avery) came into her life, Celie learned to not hide her smile and then everything else fell into place. Most importantly, she learned to fight for her freedom. Watching the lead character struggle physically and emotionally touched me in so many ways to the point where I wanted to cry or yell or scream for her. I admired her because she was so strong–she didn’t break when everyone else told her that she was useless, ugly, unloved, and dumb. She took all of it because she had nowhere else to go. I liked that although the picture was primarily Celie’s story, it was also about the bond between strong women. The bond between Celie and her sister was so powerful and I loved watching them interact, especially the scene when Celie’s sister taught her how to read. It was a huge catharsis when Celie realized that her sister had been writing to her for years but she never received any of it. The bond between Celie and Shug–the mistress–was just as heartbreaking, notably the scenes when Shug would give Celie a boost of self-esteem. There was also a bond between Celie and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong charismatic woman who everybody wanted to talk to and get to know. Celie looked up to the three women not only because they were strong but also because they were free. The film didn’t take any shortcuts. It tackled the complex issues head-on whether it was about sexuality, race, gender and societal norms. Even “evil” characters like the husband were not one-dimensional. One of the many lines that stood out to me was “Even sinners have souls, too.” Despite the picture being two hours and thirty minutes long, I thought its pacing was exemplary. The passing of the years as the characters we came to love (and hate) growing considerably older was painful to see because one minute they were at their primes and the next they were shriveled up and almost defeated. I think it’s a shame that this picture was nominated for eleven Oscars but did not win a single one. I’m at a loss because the performances were all excellent, the soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings, the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking, and the writing was multidimensional.
Breakfast with Scot (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Ben Shenkman) and Eric (Tom Cavanagh), a gay couple who chose to pass as straight because of their careers, decided to take in a boy (Noah Bernett)–Sam’s nephew–because his guardian (Colin Cunningham) living in Brazil essentially did not want him despite the fact that the boy’s mother who passed away really wanted the boy to have a good father figure. There was something about this movie that I just didn’t like because I believe it spent too much of its time focusing on the boy’s gay tendencies–from his penchant for wearing bright clothing, putting on make-up and jewelry, to singing showtunes as if everyday was Christmas–as a source of comedy. And then it showed Eric being so embarrassed for the kid time and again that he took away everything that made the kid happy and led him to play hockey to toughen him up a bit. It was supposed to be amusing on the outside but I think it was very sad in its core. For one, I could relate with the kid because when I was younger I was called names by the other kids and the adults in my life at the time made certain decisions (I’m not going into specifics here) so that I could “toughen up.” Like the boy in this movie, the decisions they chose for me made me, though I did “toughen up” in the end, very unhappy and when I got older, I became very angry at not only myself but also to those around me. Essentially, this movie took the safe route because everything turned out for the best in the end. Although it did try to teach a lesson about letting children be who they are, I think it really missed the point when it came to teaching adults the real repercussions of their actions if they did to choose to “correct” their children’s natural behaviors. This movie was thinking short-term instead of long-term and I just didn’t buy it. I think the movie had the potential to really explore a child’s psychology and the self-hatred of a man desperately wanting to appear straight to his co-workers and random people in the streets who could care less about him. Instead, it tried so hard to be cute to the point where it was almost cringe-worthy. Although I must say that the scenes involving the cruelty of children as they tried to find their identities were pretty good. Those were the only scenes where I thought, “Hey, something like that happened to me or someone I know when I was in grade school.” Based on a novel by Michael Downing and directed by Laurie Lynd, “Breakfast with Scot” lacked edge and, more importantly, honesty and believability.
The Road (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
★ / ★★★★
I have a lot of patience when it comes to miniseries, especially the ones based on Stephen King’s novels, because the first hour or so usually consists of slow build-ups. However, this one completely rubbed me the wrong way because it did not have enough small payoffs during the first nintey minutes of exposition. Clichés such as a man (David Soul) returning to his hometown to deal with his traumatic past, the husband and the cheating wife, and a strange man (James Mason) taking care of an even stranger home quickly began to pile up. The horror and the mystery became secondary which is always a bad thing when it comes to movies that are supposed to be scary. I haven’t read King’s novel of the same name so I can’t comment on how closely this film followed its source. However, having been familiar to some of King’s novels, I doubt that the book was as slow-moving, boring and hollow as this one. Perhaps Tobe Hooper, the director, is to blame because he directed the picture with such a lack of urgency. In my opinion, when people start dying in a small town, one would expect the residents to gossip, form outlandish guesses on what was really happening and all kinds of histrionics. In this movie, everyone stayed quiet at home and awaited being visited by a vampire. It just wasn’t believable even for a horror movie. After all, half the fun of watching a movie about strange happenings are observing the reactions of the individuals who are directly affected by such. I was also very annoyed with its use of soundtrack. Like in most horror movies, whenever the soundtrack would come blasting from the speakers when nothing profound was happening on screen, I’m immediately taken out of the situation and I start questioning why the movie is directing me to feel something. For me, a strong movie shows what it wants to show and it has the confidence to allow the audiences feel any sort of emotion. The soundtrack should only fascilitate the emotion and never force it down the audiences’ throats. I’d have to say that “Salem’s Lot” is a complete misfire for me. I really tried to like it because I enjoy most miniseries based on King’s novels. But the more I tried to like it, the more I ended up hating it.
The Informers (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Set in the early 1980’s Los Angeles, “The Informers” based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, was about the emptiness of multiple characters who would rather try to escape their problems in hopes that they would eventually go away rather than tackling them head-on. Although there were five to six storylines, only about two or three worked for me. I wished that Gregor Jordan, the director, instead focused his energy on those three and really explored why the characters chose to make certain decisions. Kim Basinger, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke and Winona Ryder are the big names who I thought would elevate this picture. However, their storylines were so uninteresting, they might as well not have appeared in it. What did work for me was Jon Foster as a rich twentysomething who seemingly had it all but he chose not to use his priviledges to his advantage. Instead, he decided to deal drugs and hang out with people who really did not care about him–people who only cared about drugs, sex and living the luxurious life. I was really engaged with his scenes because little by little he realized that he was just being used, especially how his girlfriend didn’t care about him as much as he cared for her. I also liked the dynamics between Foster and his sister and how they felt about their parents’ (Basinger and Thorton) decision to move in together after they’ve been separated. Unfortunately, that bit was very underdeveloped. Lastly, I thought the scenes in Hawaii with Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci–father and son, respectively–was pretty well-done. It was somewhat humorous to me because it was a classic desparate father-son bonding where everything pretty much went wrong. But it could also be seen through a dramatic lens because the son hid this true hatred toward his father since the father only cared about himself. I really believe that critical adjustments such as a different director, sharper and bolder writing, eliminating storylines and expanding others (like the rising unknown disease now known as AIDS), this movie could have become a totally worthwhile experience. After all, the material was based on the works of a writer a really enjoyed such as “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction.” “The Informers” could have provided insight on how it was like to live life without any sort of internal locus on control and how that manner of living could drive us to the ultimate levels of boredom, unsatisfaction, and madness.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I cannot believe I saw this in theaters considering I wasn’t that impressed with the first “Twilight” film. However, since my expectations were low, I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed (but I wasn’t happy about it either). I expected a mediocre outcome and got just that. Chris Weitz directed the second installment of the highly popular franchise. He tried to balance Bella’s (Kirsten Stewart) depression when Edward (Robert Pattinson) decided to break up with her due to an incident during her eighteenth birthday and Bella’s attempt at recovery when she finally got the chance to get to know Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who saw her as a romantic interest. And that was pretty much what the whole movie was about because I felt like this was more of a transition than anything. With that said, I found that this movie had no reason to be over two hours long. There were far too many scenes when Edward and Bella would talk and circumvent the main point they wanted to get across. For me, the sexual tension that worked in the first film simply wasn’t there anymore. Simply saying, “I cannot live without you” over and over is simply not good enough. In fact, I hated it when Bella and Edward were alone together because I knew I would hear an extended conversation that lacked gravity. On the other hand, I was interested in Bella and Jacob’s blossoming friendship. There was a certain brother-sister connection there even though Jacob wanted Bella romantically (and not the other way around). I was also happy with the new characters that involved a vampire royalty called the Volturi (mainly Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning). I completely bought that they were menacing, powerful and very unstable group of vampires. One of the many ways this movie would’ve been more entertaining was having more action scenes. I loved the scenes that involved the diabolical Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre). Even though she barely said a word, her presence was mysterious and posed as a real threat. Granted, the film was based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel so it had plot limitations that were strictly designed for this sequel. However, there’s a certain way–an elegance, confidence, and ability to take risks–to make those limitations work for this project but I felt like it didn’t even try. With a much bigger budget than its predecessor, it should have been that much better, bigger in scope and more urgent. Regardless, I’m still curious with how the story would play out in the future installments especially with the way they ended this one. I cannot believe I said (more like yelled) “What?!” out loud when a certain line was said and it cut to the end credits. The fans of the novel probably looked at me and wondered why I watched the movie before I read the book.