★★★★ / ★★★★
Some movies leave you quiet when it ends because something deep inside you knows that you had seen something great. “Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is that kind of film. Its weapon: jazz music and inimitable performances by Miles Teller, who plays a first-year student at a music school known for being the best in the country, and J.K. Simmons, an instructor who recruits the freshman to be in his orchestra. Andrew and Fletcher, respectively, share a relationship to be remembered.
It is to be remembered because all of us are likely to have had a teacher who was tough, punctilious, a perfectionist. The material works as an exaggeration of such an idea. Imagine a glass of water with plastic tightly wrapped around its rim. With each passing scene, weight, never constant, is placed on top of that flimsy covering. There is genuine tension because we never know when the plastic can no longer support the pressure.
The verbal and psychological abuse that Andrew goes through is fascinating to watch unfold. I think it is meant to make us wonder how far we are willing to go, how much we are willing to sacrifice to become and to be considered great at what we do. But it is not just about willingness. Sometimes it is about having a tough skin. If one does not have it, better get one real quick because it is either sink or swim out there. Andrew’s goal is to become a great musician, to be remembered long after he is gone. He must seize and fight for what he wants, what he believes he is destined for.
There is a partnership between jazz music and the editing. A synergy is reached between them and what results is a series of images, many of them close-ups of the instruments and the highly physical act of drumming, coming across as music. There is a natural flow between the cuts, versatile in terms of whether the tempo is high or low, whether the energy is vibrant or soft. I am not a jazz aficionado but I felt like I knew more about the genre by the end or at least can appreciate it a little more because the picture actively welcomes the audience into the genre rather than remaining insular, too good for the common masses to be understood or appreciated.
Humorous and dramatic moments have a natural ebb and flow, too. This is where Simmons’ character is key and must be played exactly right. The performer embodies the character with unpredictable verve. In one scene, he is throwing verbal daggers left and right. In another, a more quiet menace is communicated. Notice his posture change in subtle ways when he is unimpressed. Pauses between the lines carry additional weight. What is he thinking when a musician is playing? How is he going to respond by the end of the piece? Will he even allow the piece to be played in its entirety? Not once did I feel like I knew him as a person, more like a figure to be respected, feared, or both.
“Whiplash” is a movie that should be remembered decades from now but I am somewhat doubtful whether it will be. It does not command a typical arc, expected character development, and feel-good messages about ambition and “reaching for one’s dreams.” But the lack of such qualities is exactly what I loved about it. We need and deserve more films of this caliber.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Although technically proficient because it is able to create an illusion that the film is shot via one long take, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” does not command an absorbing story. It reminded me of a typical Wes Anderson work: all style, no substance; all glamour, no soul. For that, I claim that this film will not stand the test of time.
Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play in order to be taken more seriously—both as an actor and as a person. His most recognizable role was playing a superhero back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been on a downward spiral of being forgotten since—at least in his mind. As the play gets closer to opening night, problems arise, starting with the lead actor needing to be replaced because of an “accident” involving a stage light falling on his head during rehearsal.
I always felt like I was watching actors performing rather than getting to know their characters as people first and then as thespians. I get it: It is supposed to be a self-aware comedy that lampoons the business. Thus, a certain level of hyperbole is expected. Still, there is a way to write the screenplay in such a way that we are drawn in, a part of the joke, instead of being kept at an arm’s length. Its charm, on the level of technique from behind and performance in front of the camera, proves evanescent. Around the thirty-minute mark, I found myself bored stiff. Ninety more minutes to go.
Perhaps the problem lies in having so many co-writers (the director, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó) having worked on the material. Because it wants so badly to introduce multiple subplots, many scenes come off extremely forced. Sam (Emma Stone) is having daddy issues and may or may not be back to doing drugs, Lesley (Naomi Watts) does not feel fulfilled even though she has reached her dream of being a part of a Broadway play, and Mike (Edward Norton) touches just about everybody’s nerves because he is too much into method acting that to describe him as “obnoxious” is putting it lightly.
The problem is that even though we learn information about the characters, it does not mean that depth comes naturally. This limitation is magnified by the fact that these characters are juggled like clockwork and I could tell three or four scenes away when the camera will return to them. One of the most frustrating things about sitting through a movie is having an exact idea what will happen and when. If our imagination is ahead of what is in front of us, that is a sign that maybe what we are seeing is a waste of time.
I did, however, find Keaton’s portrayal as a washed-up actor to be somewhat interesting. While the schizophrenic/“hearing voices” sort of mumbo jumbo is irritating, observe Keaton closely as he manipulates his face into portraying subtle emotions like fear and panic—that the play will not reach liftoff despite the amount of time, money, and effort he and his crew has put into it. Conversely, Keaton has a way of communicating exhaustion in fresh and exciting ways. Notice how he walks when he is by himself and compare that walk when he is around people. It is like putting on a mask around his entire body. Because Riggan wants the play to work so badly, he tries to communicate that everything is fine even though he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a complete performance which helps to elevate the film.
“Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” caters to the in-crowd of theatre and fails to get the rest of the population who may not be as knowledgeable about the business, to care. To me, sitting through this film is like attending a therapy session where privileged people, who are not all that interesting to begin with, whine a lot for no good reason. There is a scene in which a character claims that there are real people out there with real struggles and real stories. I wanted to know about those people instead.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The film started off with General George Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) delivering a speech about war and the importance of winning being embedded in the American culture with the gigantic United States flag on the background. It was probably one of the most patriotic scenes I’ve seen portrayed on screen, but at the same time I felt that the picture was making fun of itself. The scene aimed to establish our main character: He was intimidating because he was obsessed with discipline and excellence. His reputation as being one of the feared generals, especially by the Nazis, was well-earned because he was an uncompromising man. Fear sometimes generates respect. The film was beautifully shot. In war pictures, I find it uncommon that I notice the environment because, to me, at least with the more recent war movies I’ve seen, the environ is simply a template where we get to see bombs exploding like there’s no tomorrow. But in “Patton,” I found the second scene outstanding because it featured a peaceful landscape in the Arabian desert where American soldiers’ bodies laid lifeless as Arabian people stole the soldiers’ clothes and other belongings. Again, there was the theme of duality. On one hand, it was sad to see those dead and rotting soliders. On the other hand, we could look at the Arabian people and see that looting was their chance for survival because they obviously didn’t have much. The film is different than other war movies. With “Patton,” we don’t follow any soldier in the battlefield or realize any of his personal struggles. It simply followed the general during his glory days as he tried to compete against British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates), attempted to outsmart German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), his probation because he slapped a soldier around for complaining about being afraid of the sounds of war, up until he regained his footing in the military. Throughout his journey, we learned so much about him such as his passion for poetry and penchant for history. The latter was his strength but at the same time it was his weakness. His enemies who didn’t know much about history often lost but those who were knowledgeable thought Patton was predictable and almost pretentious. Naturally, his strongest enemies were the ones who were just as smart as him. No one can argue against Patton’s biggest weakness being his mouth. He had no filter; he didn’t think he needed one so he was prone to saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune time. “Patton,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and partly written by Francis Ford Coppola, won seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) not only because of its epic scale but also because of its small details that made this biopic all the more personal.
★★★ / ★★★★
When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.
★★★ / ★★★★
Several people’s lives in a multicultural, post-911 Los Angeles collide in Paul Higgins’ racial issue drama. I distinctly remember watching this movie for the first time back in high school and I was riveted because there was a certain honestly in its portayal of a very diverse community but the people in the community didn’t quite accept each other. Having been raised in a place where diversity was abound, I thought “Crash” was multidimensional and it managed to avoid some traps concerning movies about characters turning out to be connected to each other in several respects. I still don’t believe “Crash” should have won over “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture, but the film was solid because it clearly set up an argument. That is, racism is a part of us and just because we project that ugliness to the world from time to time, it doesn’t mean that we are not capable of good or that we or not capable of changing. My main problem with the movie was it had too many characters and not all of them were fully explored. I thought the ones that worked were Sandra Bullock as a politician’s (Brendan Fraser) wife who was traumatized after a night out in the city, Ryan Phillippe as a cop looking for redemption, Matt Dillon as a cop dealing with his father’s health, and Thandie Newton as a Hollywood director’s (Terrence Howard) wife who was disgusted with the way her husband dealt with the situation after she was sexually harrassed. Side stories like Don Cheadle’s strained relationship with his mother and Ludacris running around stealing cars, as good as they were in their roles, weren’t at the same caliber and intensity as the others. Those unnecessary scenes held the movie back in terms of pacing and focus; they just didn’t hold my attention and I found myself standing up and taking a bathroom break during those scenes. Furthermore, I thought the ending didn’t quite stay true to the tone of the picture. I enjoyed that some characters went through drastic changes while others didn’t change at all, but the ending was borderline silly. Instead of pushing me to ponder over the images and the dialogues that I just saw and heard, it took me out of the experience and I felt a bit emotionally cheated. However, “Crash” is one of the better movies about racism because it wasn’t afraid to address certain issues head-on (such as being a light-skinned African-American versus being dark-skinned) and to show that there is more to a person than what comes out from his or her mouth. I suppose with a movie like this that tries to tackle very controversial issues, we always feel like it missed something or that there wasn’t enough deep exploration in terms of character development. But for what it’s worth, I think it managed to be right on target for most of its running time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.
French Connection, The (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).