Tag: brad pitt

Ad Astra

Ad Astra (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

During the first hour of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the picture has the makings of a space epic so engaging, it does not need to show a single flying car to inspire the audience to keep paying attention. Advanced technologies are simply there to be used rather than to be gawked at and so we are forced to adapt—quickly—in the story’s universe. By making futuristic images barely visible and putting the protagonist’s inner turmoil front and center, it is without question that the work will be a ruminative sci-fi film instead of action-adventure oriented. However, once the second hour crawls along, the slow, calculated, informative pacing is no longer utilized to build mystery or raise questions—about ourselves, our connections with others, our place on our planet and in the universe—scenes simply drag. The absence of a meaningful payoff is maddening.

We follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), when he is assigned to travel to Mars to send a communiqué to his father, once believed to have perished on assignment while leading a project in Neptune. By hearing his own son’s voice perhaps the old man would finally respond to SpaceCom’s messages: for senior McBride to put a stop to electrical surges that plague the rest of the solar system. You see, his ship contains anti-matter that works as a catalyst to these fatal surges.

The irony is that despite Roy and Clifford sharing the same bloodline, the two are not at all close. (Yes, outer space is employed as a symbol of how distant the father and son are emotionally—neither new nor fresh.) Pitt is highly watchable as a man who has not found a way to deal with his father’s brazen abandonment. I looked closely at Roy and recognized a person who built himself to be something that his father would be proud of… but he is not his own person. This lack of self permeates through his personal life, specifically when it comes his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler—outrageously underused). It is without question that Roy’s father loved his job—finding proof of extraterrestrial life—more than his own son. And so Roy must come to terms with this reality. The story is not about a space mission. It is about finding a way to live and not simply exist based on somebody else’s expectations.

Although this universal message can appeal to most viewers, I’m afraid it will be lost in translation because the second half does not possess enough energy and vitality in order to underline its humanistic themes. Instead, the movie is plagued with prolonged takes of Roy moving from one place to other or Roy sitting at one spot looking hopelessly morose. (On occasion a well-placed and well-timed tear rolls down Roy’d right eye just in case we don’t get the picture of his struggles.) It leaves the viewers cold. Notice that even moments of thrill—shoot-outs on the moon’s surface, confronting a wild animal in an enclosed space—end up with a whimper.

These images can work. But there must be something behind them—consistently—in order for us to feel and appreciate their value. Otherwise these pretty images function merely as decoration; we might as well be staring at a screensaver for two hours.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” does not hold a candle against movies from which it is inspired by, whether it be thematically or visually—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” are most obvious. A key difference: “Odyssey” and “Solaris” consistently build—or break down—their worlds and the characters within them up until their curious, perplexing, unforgettable climaxes. Here, there is mostly hollowness and soulful staring into the void.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.


Allied (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.

The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.

Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.

The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.

By the Sea

By the Sea (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Despite the setting of the picture being right by a body of water, its content—until just about the final act of its interminable, miserable two hours—is desert-dry in intrigue, genuine emotions, and sense of urgency. Writer-director Angelina Jolie has failed to demand and earn the viewers’ attention; there are numerous stretches here where it is essentially a waste of film, so monotonous that it becomes maddening. If one were to point to an example of how to make a marriage drama dull, “By the Sea” should instantaneously come to mind.

Part of the problem is the material’s reliance on showing beautiful people looking sad. We feel every inch of forced emotions, from the languid body language to carefully framed close-ups designed to capture a performer’s best angle. It is the antithesis of romance—not in a romantic sense but in the effortlessness of showing a relationship as is, whether it is currently strong, floundering, or somewhere in between. While it does make us wonder why the couple, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), is experiencing a great turmoil, the answer is revealed too late—when the picture has already exhausted the viewers into not caring.

The supporting characters are more interesting than the main players. Particularly curious is the cafe owner (Niels Arestrup) whose wife has passed away. Arestrup plays Michael in such a natural way that we believe immediately we may come across an old gentleman like him while on a tropical vacation. The way he portrays the character eclipses Pitt’s go-to of preserving masculinity in the face of great inner struggle. Other standouts include Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, a happy couple on their honeymoon who just so happen to be staying in the room right next to the depressed wife and husband whom we are supposed to care about.

It neglects to make the most out of its environment, a small coastal town in France where the beach is within ten feet of the road that houses boutiques, hotels, and convenience stores. When the writer-director is willing to showcase the beauty and elegance of the town, the images come roaring to life; it makes us wish to jump into the screen and lay out under the sun. An argument can be made that keeping us inside the hotel like prisoners is the point: it is a way of suffocating us, making us feel sick of seeing the usual furnitures and hearing the same conversations, urging us to want to scream. We adopt the headspace of the central couple. It does not change the fact that the rewards are few and far between.

“By the Sea” is not meant to be enjoyable—and that is perfectly fine. But the material must tap into the nuances of a crumbling marriage and it is required that emotions behind the performances be throughly convincing, not just another high fashion spread in a magazine. Although supposedly a drama in its core, I found the experience it offers is cheap decoration.


Fury (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great war films offer at least one image that makes an imprint in our minds. For instance, in Elem Klimov’s “Idi i smotri,” a boy uses a cow’s corpse to shield himself from a rain of bullets and in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” a little girl wearing a red coat stands out against a monochromatic background. In “Fury,” written and directed by David Ayer, the memorable image is that of a young, armed German soldier coming across an equally young American soldier but the former chooses not to turn in or kill the latter. It is likely that some people will ask why that Nazi soldier chose to be merciful, but what is certain is the writer-director made the right decision not to provide an explanation.

Logan Lerman plays Norman, a clerk typist who is assigned to join the crew of Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) when word got around that they are need of a new bow gunner/assistant tank driver. Norman is convinced his new role must have been a mistake because he was trained to type up to sixty words per minute, not to handle a gun, let alone murder another man.

The film is unlike many war pictures for several reasons. Although we know that the story takes place in April 1945 Nazi Germany, there is no big mission presented that will serve as a turning point of war. In addition, the story unfolds over only two or three days. By compressing its scope, it must employ details specific to the characters’ experiences to tell a story that is interesting and engaging. People who grow bored watching this movie are likely to have boxed themselves when it comes to what they expect from a war film: a fantasy where big, heroic action sequence happens every fifteen minutes, where good always triumphs over evil. This one, on the other hand, is courageous enough to leave a bitter aftertaste.

It allows us to get to know the characters as soldiers and as people. I found insight in Norman not wanting to kill even though he knows why he is there and the enemy will not likely think twice before killing him. I found Collier’s leadership tough but necessary and Pitt envelops the role so completely, at one point I was curious how his character must have been like before becoming a U.S. soldier. Scenes between the rookie and the veteran command power because there are two conflicting ideologies on screen.

Jon Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf, and Michael Peña also do a wonderful job making their characters memorable. Bernthal employs an animalistic, intimidating, highly unpredictable personality while Peña provides a bit of humor to an otherwise grim trek across war-savaged lands. I was most surprised by LaBeouf because he is able to turn his deeply religious character into a person I would like to know. The performer almost always has tears in his eyes—as if his character has nothing left to give, his faith, in a higher power and his fellow crew members, being the sole element that propels him forward.

I found the gray, foggy look of the picture to be beautiful. To me, the fog is like a population of ghosts from a distance, remaining on Earth because the skies have no more room for new spirits. We see violent images like people’s heads being blown off and men choosing to kill themselves because being burned alive is too painful, but the film is more than just about violence. It is about living in an apneic nightmare with little to no hope of waking up from.

“Fury” is not one of the most extreme war films I had ever come across. However, it is several levels above many mainstream American war movies because this film wallows in the muck of war and it is willing to share details of war changing people as a way to adapt to impossible situations. The scene with the two German women who make an appearance in middle of the picture creates then bottles up so many conflicting emotions that I detected a whiff of the late Alfred Hitchcock.

The Counselor

The Counselor (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Most of the time, I preface my reviews with a brief plot summary as to what one might hope to expect from a movie in question. But approximately fifty minutes into “The Counselor,” written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, I still had no idea what was going on. There are images to be seen and dialogue to be heard but there is nothing to be processed and compiled to create a sensical narrative arc.

Still, I did not find the movie to be egregious on every level. On the contrary, there are a few scenes dispersed throughout that inspired me to look closer to the screen either due to a strong performance or the rhythm of the dialogue being effortless and magnetic.

Two scenes stand out. The first involves the meeting between a man only referred to as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and an even more enigmatic gentleman called Westray (Brad Pitt), the latter of which has been involved in the drug business for years. The magic between their interactions lie in the performances. Fassbender and Pitt play their characters cool, calm, and collected—like reunited old buddies sharing a drink—but the unsaid—silent moments where they measure each other up—suggests that something very bad is going to happen to one or both of them. And it does.

The second involves the counselor’s visit in prison because he is appointed by the court to deal with a woman (Rosie Perez) whose son is in jail because he is unable to pay a speeding ticket. It is memorable in a different way—with respect to Westray and Counselor’s meeting—because one is playing a certain level of toughness, almost aggressive but never completely obvious and the other is more relaxed, almost taking his job lightly or as a joke. The interplay between Fassbender and Perez is executed with a whiff of playfulness but at the same time we are left wondering if there is more to it than meets the eye.

Figuring out how subplots interconnect is a challenge because the script offers very little connective tissue as the picture moves from one scene to another. It is like being given an incomplete mathematical formula and expecting us to arrive at the right answer. I wondered if the writer intended it to be this way. Is the big picture not supposed to matter? Are we only meant to understand or be entertained by individual scenes? What is the target audience? It functions as a thriller but is not accessible enough to be a good one.

The film should have been called “Westray” because I did not at all care about Counselor. Though Fassbender attempts to emote by invoking desperation, fear, or grief, I felt nothing toward his character. The problem is that the central character is not written to pass as a whole person. He has the charm, the confidence, and sexual magnetism but we never get the chance to get to know him on a personal level other than the fact that he loves a woman (Penélope Cruz). As a result, the emotions come off false. On the other hand, Westray is played straight—a smooth talker, very little emotion. And yet I cared what would happen to him. He talks big but can he back it up when it counts most?

“The Counselor” is a mess but I was never bored by it. It made me laugh when I probably was not supposed to but it is much better than just waiting for the film to be over. There is a very funny scene where Fassbender engages in a sort-of phone sex—awkward, pointless, and amusing. There is also a pair of horrifying sequences involving beheadings. It dares one to keep watching. It is really too bad that the material fails to form a coherent whole.

World War Z

World War Z (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Gruesome shots of limbs getting severed, getting shot in the head point-blank, stabbings, slashings, and beheadings are dime a dozen in horror movies, certainly in zombie flicks, but for some reason one of the images that has stuck with me since seeing Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is the way a virus-infected zombie continues to smash its face and body, seemingly insensitive to pain, onto a bulletproof glass in a desperate attempt to get through it only so it can infect more people. A few early shots of “World War Z,” loosely based on a novel by Max Brooks, reminded me of that image, the sheer insanity of the crazed undead bashing their skull through solid objects just so they can take a bite out of an uninfected.

Those looking for copious blood will be disappointed. While some of it is seen–drops can be observed on the face or stains on clothing–the usage of the dependable red goo is minimized. This is a welcome divergence from the norm because the material is forced to focus on increasing the ante for thrills and suspense. But to expect Marc Forster’s “World War Z” to share the same bloodline as Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” simply because of the fast-running zombies is a mistake. It takes a more globe-trotting approach which almost makes it a long lost cousin of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.”

What works well is the staging of mass panic and the way it is directed. The first big scene takes place in the busy streets of Philadelphia as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), formerly an investigator for the United Nations, is driving his family (Mireille Enos, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) to school and work. It starts off with a curiosity: news about somewhere far away, a radio announcement citing a rabies outbreak in Taiwan. Just as it ends, the outbreak is seen right outside the vehicle: people sprinting against traffic, cops in motorcycles driving to the source of the problem with hopes of containing it, and then the deafening terrorized screams.

When I was a kid, anthills would form in my family’s backyard, right next to a mango tree. Observing the hardworking tiny creatures from a good distance gets boring after a while so, as entertainment, I would pour water on and around the fire ants’ homes. Their sting was hell, but the few seconds of them scattering about seemed like magic to me. The number of ants that came out of a mound amazed me. In here, the overhead shots of panicked and confused people running all over the city reminded me of the poor ants I tortured. To this day, I still think that the image of quiescence turning into complete chaos all of a sudden is neat.

For a movie with millions of expensive CGI zombies, they get old real quick. While visually impressive when seeing them move as a group, especially during the intense action sequence in sun-soaked majesty of Jerusalem, I wanted to see more of the undead up and close and personal. I wanted to marvel at the levels of putrefaction, if they are missing body parts, if some of them are children or older folks. Sometimes less in more and there are moments, mostly in the middle, when I grew tired of seeing them swarm.

This is why I enjoyed the second half. After Gerry is contacted by his former employer to find the source of the outbreak so scientists can understand how the virus works–if the disease is indeed triggered by a virus–and make a vaccine, eventually he ends up in a medical facility… and with a theory. Instead of continuing to use weapons like grenades, pistols, and rifles to get from Point A to Point B, the film changes gears. It must then function on a different level of tension. It should be recognized that it is uncommon for horror-thrillers, especially commercial ones, to undergo–or even attempt–a change of pace. It is a risk because there is a possibility that drastic changes in mood or tone can alienate viewers.

What does not work completely is the way it ends: it feels too abrupt and yet the narration tries to explain it all. I felt that there is pressure on the film to remain to have a running time of just below two hours. It is a shame because it needed at least fifteen to twenty minutes more to deliver a smoother falling action and an ending that feels right for itself. I am fairly certain that there is a great movie inside “World War Z.” However, what is up on screen is only slightly above average–entertaining but not immersive.

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

A man known as the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) hires two ex-convicts, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to knock over a card game. The Squirrel thinks it is a smart move because there is a natural scapegoat: Given that its manager, Markie (Ray Liotta), has a history of admittedly robbing his own in the past (and allowed to get away with it), if it so happens to occur again, the mafia would surely look at him. With the money stolen combined with angry men who want the heads of those responsible, Jackie (Brad Pitt) is hired to figure out the identities of the brazen thieves and set things right.

“Killing Them Softly,” based on a novel by George V. Higgins, involves a lot of tough-looking men in suits sorting through their feelings so expectations that it is an action-filled thriller should be adjusted. It is a gangster film that adopts a more introspective approach but is nonetheless suspenseful in its own silent, slithery way.

Its individual scenes possess a central ember that crackles once in a while. An early scene involving the robbery of interest is executed with a high level of control. Almost every movement that Frankie and Russell make is accompanied by an equal sudden burst of energy by the camera. It is like dance and we are engaged by expecting that something very, very wrong will soon occur. We can imagine what the men that the sawed off shotguns are pointing to might be thinking. We pay close attention where their hands go as they continue to stare into the souls of the increasingly nervous duo.

Conversely, scenes without a gun in sight are equally compelling. The exchanges between Jackie and Driver (Richard Jenkins), an attaché for the mafia, are amusing at times because even though both have an understanding of the business, there is a soft tug-of-war in terms of what they want out of the situation. Although they do not share very many scenes, we get a real sense of their personalities. They are smart and they have their own way of getting exactly what they need to move forward. I thought that if this job had not been between them, they would have been very good friends.

The weakest points of the film are the moments of violence where not much is left for the imagination. The slow motion is most frustrating. I suppose it makes the killings and beatings look beautiful in a monstrous kind of way, but it decreases the urgency as well as tension of the situation. Take the character being shot down in a car. If it had happened so instantaneously to the point where we barely had time to absorb what had just transpired, we would have been shaken. Instead, we wait for the scene to unspool which feels like molasses being transferred from one jar another another. We get it; the character is dead due to the bullet holes through his head and body. The visuals beat us over the head with unnecessary details. Sometimes less is more.

Directed and based on the screenplay by Andrew Dominik, “Killing Them Softly” is anchored by believable performances. McNairy stands out especially during his scene with Pitt in a bar. There is a sad and quiet surrender in the way he plays Frankie as his character slowly realizes that there is a big possibility that the man to his right will not allow him to live for very long. The picture succeeds in communicating the conundrums in the minds of men about to do or did bad things. Like men who steal are asked to pay the price so do men who choose to pull the trigger.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

After a disease killed ninety-nine percent of the world’s population and forced the survivors to live underground, James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict with a tough mind and knack for observation, was chosen by a group of scientists to “volunteer” in an experiment. If he decided to take on the project, he would receive a full pardon for his crimes. The assignment involved time travel and tracing the precise path of the virus’ introduction to the population. He was supposed to be sent to 1996 but actually ended up in 1990 where he was immediately apprehended by the police and sent to a mental institution. What made “Twelve Monkeys,” based on the screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, more than a standard time travel film was its ambition to eventually ask the audience which reality was “real” after it had actively blurred the lines among past, present, and future. Although we didn’t spend plenty of time to explore the ravaged future, it provided enough haunting images, from an abandoned metropolis covered in ice where wild animals roamed to the dismal jail where convicts awaited their destinies. The scientists of various specializations were of suspect characters. There was a general feeling that the experiment in question was not really what they claimed. Meanwhile, the present seemed equally unforgiving in aesthetics. The bright but claustrophobic mental institution was crowded by men and women under the influence of drugs, the deceptive calm often interrupted by a very colorful madman named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). James and Jeffrey eventually became allies after the former unveiled his mission to the latter. I enjoyed that while the duo were given a chance to bond, the atmosphere of paranoia aimed to convince our gut from truly trusting Jeffrey even if his actions proved otherwise. Like the worlds that James jumped in and out of, his relationship with Jeffrey was equally full of questions and uncertainties. This was the reason why Cole’s relationship with his psychiatrist, Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), turned out to be of utmost importance. It couldn’t be denied that Kathryn cared for her patient immensely. Stowe did a wonderful job in showing us her character’s struggle between professional and personal, between wanting to help James and being with him. The eventual romance didn’t feel like a distraction because it remained true to the theme of duality. For instance, James was a criminal and a potential savior; Kathryn was a pragmatist and a believer. However, the pacing was not always consistent. The kidnapping situation between James and Kathryn felt too contrived and contained very transparent seeds that would later move the plot forward. More importantly, we were never given a chance to really understand the mind of the person responsible for unleashing the virus. Therefore, its final scenes were not as impactful as they could have been given that we only appreciated the complexities of one side. “12 Monkeys,” inspired by Chris Marker’s “La jetée” and directed by Terry Gilliam, astutely diluted its bleak and gloomy environments with bright energy and questions that held weight. As a result, it was worth looking back and analyzing if we had mistaken certain red herrings for truths, vice-versa, which was a brilliant way of putting us in James’ shoes all over again.


Moneyball (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.


Se7en (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.


Kalifornia (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.


Megamind (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Future supervillain Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) and future superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt) were sent to Earth by their parents right before their home planet was engulfed by a black hole. The former grew up in a prison and the inmates taught him right from wrong–rather, wrong from right. His only friend was an adorable fish, equipped with wit and razor-sharp teeth, named Minion (David Cross). Grade school was horrible for him. He was often picked last for gym and his many attempts to impress his classmates always ended up horribly wrong. Over the years, he became bitter and developed a penchant for kidnapping Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a reporter, who had a crush on the superhero. But when Megamind, with a bit of blind luck, finally defeated Metro Man, he found his villainous role obsolete. Megamind’s big brain came up with a brilliant plan: He would construct a superhero (Jonah Hill). Would this little experiment backfire like all the others? Absolutely. “Megamind,” written by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, was a kaleidoscope of colors aimed for the younger kids and double entendres for the adults. Its manic energy successfully tickled every sense as it referenced other superhero films and comic books. However, it would have been far stronger if it didn’t try so hard to be funny like the characters breaking into a dance for no reason. If might have sounded cute on paper but painfully awkward to watch and sit through. What I enjoyed most about “Megamind” was although it spoofed other superhero franchises, it had an identity on its own. The scenes were not simply driven by references. There was a defined story, interesting and amusing characters, and a specific perspective in which it remained loyal throughout so the allusions were secondary. It aslo had real moments of creativity. For instance, after Metro Man’s death, Megamind began to rely on his invention which had the ability to make him transform into any being. Due to certain circumstances, he chose to be Bernard (Ben Stiller), a geeky guy who worked in the newfangled Metro Man Museum. As Bernard, Megamind started to fall in love with Roxanne Ritchie. His identity crisis from a lack of a superhero to fight on a daily basis also worked on another level. He started to have a literal identity crisis as he switched from Megamind to Bernard which generated some of the best scenes when both had to appear in front of the girl. Our protagonist rationalized that the villain never end up with the girl so he had to be something else, preferably not blue. There was sadness in his situation and we rooted for him to find happiness. Directed by Tom McGrath, “Megamind” was a good animated film for the majority of the time. If it managed to dial down the cheese and pumped up the edge, it could have been special.