Mission: Impossible II (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) was on the plane to the United States after he discovered a virus named Chimera, fatal to its host within twenty hours of contact. However, the only way to transport the virus safely was to inject it inside a living person. The plane never made it to its destination. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was assigned by his superior (Anthony Hopkins) to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief, so that she could reconnect with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), former beau and rising international terrorist. Incidentally, Ambrose used to double for Hunt during missions back when he was still an IMF agent. He’d gone rogue and he planned to profit from the virus by forcing a pharmaceutical company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) to surrender his company. Based on the screenplay by Robert Towne and directed by John Woo, “Mission: Impossible II” was everything Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” was not: gone were the atmospheric paranoia that kept the characters from fully trusting each other, the heart-pounding scenes in which silence was successfully executed to attain the highest levels of suspense, and the thrilling possibility that anyone could drop dead at any time. Instead, we were subjected to more hand-to-hand combat, slow motions that featured Cruise’ well-shampooed and well-conditioned hair, and forceful, supposedly meaningful, glances between Hunt and Nyah, both of whom shared no chemistry. I wouldn’t have a problem with the direction the filmmakers wanted to take if more thought was put into it. The elements of great drama, a bridge to a solid action movie with a heart, were certainly there. Nyah was trapped between two men, obviously attracted to her, who used to work for the same team. But how were Ethan, not as Hunt the IMF agent, and Sean, not as Ambrose the criminal, different and similar to each other? The closest we got to getting to know them was toward the end when they tried to kill each other from their motorcycles. Ambrose knew how Ethan worked and processed information given that they went through the same training. There should have been more scenes when Ambrose took advantage of the fact that he knew who he was up against. Ethan, on the other hand, didn’t know much about Ambrose. He saw the man as just his double. It would make sense if he took a while to get accustomed to his adversary. Furthermore, there was a duality involving Greek mythology: Chimera, a monster with a head of a lion and a tail of a serpent’s head, and Bellerophon, a hero most famous for slaying Chimera. Incidentally, Chimera was the name of the virus and Bellerophon was the name of the cure. But how was Chimera and Bellerophon related to Ambrose and Hunt, respectively? The film missed another opportunity to further explore its characters independent of blazing guns and egregious slow motion montages. What bothered me most was the script seemed desperate to turn Ethan Hunt into James Bond. Doing something different for a sequel does not mean it’s acceptable to be disloyal to the original character. It means giving us something unexpected but still hanging onto his core, the reason why we rooted for him in the first place.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) had been living within the fortified walls of a medieval outpost all his life in which his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) was the no-nonsense leader. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), with a mysterious but incomplete book in hand, successfully escaped from the Vikings’ invasion of his home island and seeked refuge in the outpost. In order to complete the book, he gave Brendan a mission to collect berry-like fruits in which emerald-colored ink could be extracted. The problem was such berries could only be found outside of the walls and in the dangerous forest where dark creatures lived. “The Secret of Kells” had to really earn my attention and keep my interest. After watching so many computer-generated animation, I’m willing to admit that watching an old-fashioned style of animation can be a bit of a struggle. Another factor in the struggle was the fact that I was not familiar with the Celtic culture and traditions so I was initially confused about what was happening and why certain artifacts were important to the characters. However, thirty minutes into the film, I found myself completely engrossed because it told its story in a refreshing way. The images were deceptively simple. Its lack of depth and dimension actually added to the magic because there were times when it created illusions. But there were times when the images were almost abstract, it was hard what to make of them. I did not find it to be a negative quality because my eyes were always busy. I would gloss over an image, fixate on something else for a second, then it occured to me that something I just saw did not make particular sense, and I found myself needing to look back on the initial image. It may sound exhausting but it was actually a fun experience. The strange images aided by various types of animation highlighted the picture’s folk stories and sense of wonder. The story and the dialogue were relatively simple so kids would be able to follow the storytelling with ease. Time was constantly against the characters because they had to finish the book before the Vikings’ invasion. Without the book, knowledge would be lost and their traditions would not be passed to future generations. There was also enough danger and scary imagery, such as when Brendan was attacked by wolves and had to obtain an eye from a mythical serpent, to keep the adults curious and entertained. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nota Twomey, “The Secrets of Kells” had a rich and colorful imagination with an inspired execution. For a children’s movie, I find it strange that I couldn’t help but think about the images and the meaning the behind the images for hours afterward.
The Village (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” back in 2005, I didn’t like it because I thought it was too strange for its own good and the pacing was too slow. I’m happy to have given it more than one chance because I thought it got better upon multiple viewings. The story involved a small village terrorized by creatures in the woods. For some odd reason, skinned animals started appearing in greater numbers but the leaders of the village (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson) had no idea what they have done to anger the creatures. As the younger residents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Judy Greer, Michael Pitt) lived a life of relative bliss thanks to the secrets they have not yet discovered, chaos started destroy the village from within until a blind girl, played by Howard, went on an important quest through the feared woods. I thought the second half of the movie was stronger than the first half. While the first half had the bulk of the story, I constantly waited for small rewards that would keep me glued to the screen until its climax. Unfortunately, those small rewards did not deliver so I felt like the story could have gone in any direction. I questioned whether it wanted to say something about the specific group of people in relation to the environment they built for themselves or if it wanted to be a psychological-supernatural thriller. The lack of focus lost me. Fortunately, the second half was when everything started to come together. I’ll try not to give anything away but I enjoyed the way Shyamalan incorporated the reality and the supernatural. Specifically, when Howard went into the woods and encountered something she did not at all expect. There were twists on top of another and it made me think without feeling any sort of frustration which I think is difficult to accomplish. The scenes in the woods were beautifully shot but at the same time the beauty was sometimes masked in an ominous feeling of dread and anticipation. I can understand why a lot of people would consider “The Village” one of Shyamalan’s worst projects especially if they’ve only seen the movie once. The pacing was indeed quite slow and there were a plethora of questions with open-ended answers concerning the characters’ histories and the multilayer mystery surrounding the village. However, the second half piqued my interest (even though I’ve seen it before) and I thought it was very well done without overdoing the twists. At its best, “The Village” is imaginative and unafraid to take risks; at its worst, “The Village” is a bit insular and may drown in its own vanity.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Before returning to Hogwarts for his fourth year, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) was haunted by nightmares involving Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) hiding and waiting for the perfect opportunity to finally gain his strength. Meanwhile, Hogwarts hosted the Triwizard Tournament in which a champion was chosen from from each wizarding school: Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) from Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) from Durmstrang Institute, and Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But this year was a unique case because the Goblet of Fire had also chosen Harry, only a fourth year, to participate. I find “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” directed by Mike Newell, one of the most fast-paced installments in the series. I highly enjoy it every time I watch it because I love the way competitions unfold. I was happy that the filmmakers took a gamble and actually showed the competition as very dangerous and intimidating. Up until this film, we did not get to see much blood and dark magic. There was a breath of fresh air in the story because we finally had a chance to see negative tension between Harry and Ron (Rupert Grint), as well as Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson). Both involved jealousy–the former jealousy involving celebrity (or lack thereof) and the latter jealousy involving a budding romantic relationship. On the other hand, Cho Chang (Katie Leung) caught the attention of our protagonist. Much of the humor came from the awkward interactions between the teenagers, the things that went wrong when hormones took charge, and sarcastic remarks. Since the film painted the teenagers as always on edge, there was real tension as they struggled to find their identities. Furthermore, the addition of students from other wizarding schools made the magical universe that much bigger and the issue of camaraderie despite language and cultural barriers was a touching common theme. Given that “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is my second favorite book of the series, I had very high expectations from the film. I am aware that a lot of hardcore fans did not enjoy it as much as I did because it left out important details (or got it wrong altogether) and that the screenwriters failed to remain loyal to the book in terms of character development. While I do agree to some extent, if I had not read the book, I still would have enjoyed the movie because the adventures were so thrilling. There were some truly scary moments (the third task in the tournament), very curious mystery (the addition of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody played with great fun by Brendan Gleeson), and there were a plethora of laugh-out-loud comedy (pick any scene that had to do with the Yule Ball). My only minute criticism was that the male actors should have gotten much-needed haircuts.
Green Zone (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
U.S. Army officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) decided to go rogue when his team constantly stumbled upon inaccurate intelligence provided a U.S. Intelligence Agent (Greg Kinnear). Miller eventually found an ally (Brendan Gleeson) within the U.S. government and both aimed to expose the false reasons why the United States went to war with Iraq. I’ve read a lot of reviews comparing this movie, inspired by the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, to the actual war in Iraq. I chose not to see it from that perspective because at the end of the day the material was fictional. Instead, I saw it as an action picture with an emphasis on Miller’s struggle on three fronts: his loyalty to his country and the American people, his struggle to trust the powers that lead (or controlled) the U.S. government, and the role of the media (specifically Amy Ryan as a New York Times foreign correspondent) in and out of Iraq. As an action movie, I thought it worked. It was suspenseful because I cared about Miller’s dangerous mission to expose the big lie that led the United States to go to war. Paul Greengrass’ signature shaky camera that defined the second and third “Bourne” films worked especially in increasingly enclosed spaces as Miller’s character chased after targets in residential areas. I felt the danger and uncertainty that he and his men felt so my eyes were glued to the screen. I was also impressed with the way Greengrass’ shots shifted between indoors and outdoors. With each shift, the tone changed but it wasn’t jarring or distracting because the intensity regarding what was happening was consistent. But there were some scenes that fell completely flat. The ones that stood out to me in a negative way were the “Don’t be naive” admonitions accompanied by intense eye contact between Damon and Gleeson. I couldn’t help but laugh because it was so heavy-handed and obvious about the messages it wanted to convey to its audiences. I wanted the movie to let the images and the characters’ decisions to speak for themselves and tone down the obvious propaganda as much as possible. Lastly, I would have liked to see Ryan’s character to have done more instead of just standing around begging for a story. Nevertheless, “Green Zone” ultimately worked as a political (but fictional) action picture because of well-shot and involving action sequences. Others may have the usual complaints of, “The camera was so shaky and I got dizzy” but I suppose it’s an acquired taste. I think Greengrass chose that style because he wanted to us to feel like we were right there with the characters.
Black Irish (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Here’s another indie film that suffers from the Everyone Must be Depressed Syndrome. After all, it’s about an extremely dysfunctional family whose members are emotionally distant from one another. Michael Angarano plays the youngest of the McKay family and is surrounded by people he wants to look up to but are often disappointed with them: a father who keeps secrets and seems to have no positive outlook on life (Brendan Gleeson), a mother who cares too much about what other people would think so she guilts her children into doing the “right” thing (Melissa Leo), a brother who everyone gave up on because he can’t control his criminal proclivities (Tom Guiry), and a pregnant sister who wants to escape her family’s suffocating environment (Emily VanCamp). Even though each of the actor is featured and sewn into the big picture in some way, I felt like it was too forced. Stories about families must be organic because they have a natural connection to one another despite their idiosyncrasies. Angarano is really coming into his own; he’s come a long way from “The Brainiacs.com” and “Will & Grace.” Like in “Snow Angels,” he’s able to add layers and complexity to his character even though the movie is barely above mediocre. As for Guiry, I’m tired of seeing him as a damaged tough guy like in “The Mudge Boy.” Whatever happened to that nice harmless kid in “The Sandlot”? Even though I think he’s extremely talented, I think he’s repeating the same characters. I knew Emily VanCamp would have no problem with the dramatic scenes. Ever since “Everwood,” she proves to me time and again that she can look sad without trying. In essence, I felt that Guiry and VanCamp are merely cruising along and that really frustrates me because I know they can perform at a higher level. Perhaps they could have done so if the writing and direction (both credits go to Brad Gann) are sharper. Since this is Gann’s directoral debut, clichés tend to pile up on one another. But the nice thing about this movie is that it offers the characters some kind of hope at the end of the tunnel. Even though that hope is somewhat bittersweet, it’s what the characters desperately needed (so did the audiences). I also liked the fact that not everything in the film is solved because it gives the picture some sort of realism. I’m not against recommending this film because it does have some memorable scenes. But I’m not going to enthusiastically recommend it either because it has the kind of story that has been featured by better films.