Bottle Shock (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I decided to watch this movie because I was interested to learn more about one of the landmarks of the wine industry (even though I don’t know much about wine). That is, the creation of the perfect Chateau Montelena chardonnay. Alan Rickman stars as Steven Spurrier, the owner of Academie du Vin, who traveled to the United States in order to collect wine for the Judgment of Paris wine competition. One of the places he visited was Chateau Montelena which was owned by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a man who was buried in loans and frustration with the fact that his son (Chris Pine) failed to show interest or enthusiasm when it came to the family business. The weaker and less interesting part of the film was the romance triangle among a Hispanic worker (Freddy Rodriguez) in Chateau Montelena, a new intern (Rachael Taylor), and Jim’s aimless son. Another negative was that even though the story was supposed to be set in 1976, it didn’t feel like it was because of both the actors and the script. That sense of authenticity was important to me because I really wanted to be sucked into the time period. I also felt as though the picture played everything a bit too safe. With each scene everything just felt nice and breezy instead of revolutionary, which is a problem because the core of the movie was how the events in the vineyard impacted the wine industry. Randall Miller, the director, should have taken more risks instead of resting on the romance between the three younger characters. In fact, I think the movie would’ve been better off if about thirty minutes were cut off because it would have been more focused and the pace wouldn’t have felt as slow. Still, I don’t consider “Bottle Shock” a bad movie because there were moments of true wonder for the audiences, especially when the wine suddenly changed from clear to brown. I had no idea whether that was a positive or a negative thing prior so I certainly learned something from the film. And the exciting competition scene was quite amusing because the French judges tried so hard to discern which wines were from France and which ones were from the United States. The looks on their faces after the competition was priceless.
★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those first American films I saw when I was about six or seven years old. Even though I had little understanding of the English language back then, I found myself mesmerized with what was happening on screen. Directed by Frank Marshall, “Alive” was about a group of survivors, led by Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado and Josh Hamilton as Robert Canessa, whose plane had crashed in the Andes mountains back in 1972. Not only did they have to deal with the plane crash and the death of their mates and loved ones, they had to deal with starvation, plunging temperatures due to the weather, avalanche, and eventually finding a way out because the rescue teams had given up looking for survivors. Revisiting this picture after thirteen years after I’ve seen it for the first time, the images were that much more haunting and their journey that much more unbelievably brave. Their willingness to survive to the point where pretty much all of them decided that they would eat human flesh was so touching. It definitely made me think what lengths I would go to if I were put their situations. But I liked the fact that cannibalism was not the focus on this film because it was so much more than that. Instead of being a movie about people who got stuck in the mountains and cannibalism, it was a movie about how much the human body can withstand and how willpower can push us to our extreme limits and beyond. I found this to be a very moving tale and at times I couldn’t believe the trials that the survivors had to go through. My only minor complaint about the film was that I would have liked to see the real survivors get interviewed instead of John Malkovich (as great as an actor he is). I think the movie would have been that much more personal if the actual people recounted what had happened to them. If I had not rewatched this movie again, I would have easily labeled it as “that one movie where the plane crash survivors ate each other.” But now I know better and I consider it a dishonor to those who survived to label the film merely as that. This is a harrowing and haunting picture but there were definitely signs of uplift and hope which highlight the human spirit.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Gerry Colnon, an Irishman who was forced to confess and sentenced to jail for life for the bombing that killed five people in England. If that wasn’t enough, three of his friends, father, and his father’s friends were sentenced to jail as well. Emma Thompson plays the lawyer who struggled to expose the truth regarding the injustice that the British police and detectives have inflicted on the Irishmen. Day-Lewis absolutely blew me away. Despite his actions that involved petty crimes shown in the beginning of the film, I could immediately tell that there was something more interesting underneath his persona. Whenever I looked into his eyes, I felt as thought there was a story, which involved a lot of hurt, that he desperately wanted to cover up. A lot of it came out when he and his father (Pete Postlethwaite) shared a prison cell for the first time; Day-Lewis brought up a lot of things that he thought made him the way he was (mainly experiences from his childhood). That particular scene was so revealing and hurtful at the same time so I couldn’t help but connect with it. Yet despite the anger and outburst, I felt a genuine love between the characters. Jim Sheridan, the director, told the story in such a concise manner so I felt like I wasn’t watching a two-hour-plus film at all. In fact, I wanted to know more about certain details of their ordeal, especially the detective work that Thompson’s character had gone through. With such a complex and compellingly human story like this, it could have easily fallen apart with all the Hollywood banalities. “In the Name of the Father” expertly balanced and eventually fused the political battles and personal demons so it offered a very powerful character study. I also think that this is still a very important film today because the issue of torture for information regarding the war in the Middle East is still not settled. While watching this film, I kept remembering (with utter disbelief) the time when I was still young and had complete trust in the government. The movie makes a thesis that sometimes people of power use the law as a mask in order to fulfill their jobs so they can look good in the eyes of the citizens. However, somewhere along the way, they completely lose track of who they are and how to do their jobs with honor so they start digging their own graves and try to take everyone else with them. This is a beautiful but haunting picture that deserves to be seen by anyone interested in human drama.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Alan Parker, this based on a true story film follows Agents Rupert Anderson and Alan Ward (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, respectively): how they arrived in a town in Mississippi, which predominantly favors segregation between white and blacks, and investigated the disappearances of three civil rights activists. I wish I could’ve been more into this film; it dropped my interest from time to time. Although one of its strongest elements is the stark contrast between Hackman and Dafoe’s personalities and methods of getting information, sometimes their arguments can be a bit too much. There were more than three scenes which involved the two of them arguing, which I thought was unnecessary because their actions already reflect their differences. This could’ve been a ninety-minute film without such scenes and other redundant scenes that involve burning homes and churches. I think those elements are a bit too “Hollywood” because this picture uses such images as a crutch in order to get emotions out of the audiences. They really didn’t need to because the story is powerful and important enough to instantly grab its viewers. As usual, I thought Frances McDormand is great as Brad Dourif’s conflicted wife. She might or might not know integral information about her racist husband (who also happens to be one of the members of the Ku Klux Klan) that could help Hackman and Dafoe close the case. This film is set in 1964 so the Civil Rights Movement is at the foreground. However, I would’ve liked to see an African-American to be one of the film’s heroes instead of a victim. Yes, even though it’s based on a true story, I feel like the filmmakers could’ve integrated or hinted that not only white people are doing everything they can to find the missing bodies. Other than that, this is a solid motion picture and I can understand why some university history courses do some project regarding this film. This is one of those movies that holds up a mirror in front of America: how race, fear and assumptions–to this day–still manage to bring out the darkest evil in us.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I was surprised by how much this film was grounded in reality even though the trailers sold it off as a typical “based on a true story” demonic possession. Virginia Madsen and Martin Donovan star as the parents who choose to move in a house with a creepy history because their son’s (Kyle Gallner) cancer treatment facility is nearby. It’s not long until spirits start to get themselves known to Gallner’s character in truly horrifying manners. I really admired the first thirty minutes of this horror flick because things that most people would consider as supernatural are things that can happen to cancer patients going through various therapies (i.e. hallucinations). I wish Peter Cornwell, the director, decided to keep straddling the line between science and the supernatural because it’s very reminiscent of “The Exorcist.” To me, the closer a horror film is to reality, its resonance after I leave the theater is amplified many more times as opposed to a horror movie that’s so unbelievable to the point where it loses its power. Unfortunately, this movie is the latter. Another frustration that I had with it was the film’s use of soundtrack to cue that something terrifying is happening on screen. I was really taken out of the moment whenever the soundtrack would be heard; most of the time, I don’t like outside cues to tell me how I should be feeling especially when the obvious is being shown on the screen. Its scares would’ve been more effective if there was less jarring creepy sounds–let the creaks of each footstep or a body hitting furnitures do all the work. After all, this is a horror film about a house with a questionable past (in the least) so the-less-the-better technique could’ve done wonders. As for its acting, I thought everyone did pretty good but I felt like Gallner was holding back. I’ve seen him in several television shows and movies so I know that he could’ve done more. Still, “The Haunting in Connecticut” had three or four solid scares so I’m giving it a mediocre rating. However, it would’ve been so much better if the booming soundtrack during scares was kept at a minimum or was not integrated at all.