American, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jack (George Clooney), an assassin whom his superior (Johan Leysen) considered to be losing his edge, took refuge in an Italian village after his last job had gone horribly awry. When Jack wasn’t gathering materials to create a weapon for a fellow contract killer (Thekla Reuten), he spent his time with a prostitute (Violante Placido) who wanted to get out of the countryside and a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who sensed that Jack had something to hide. “The American,” directed by Anton Corbijn, was an atypical thriller about a hitman dealing with the prospect that his career was coming to an end. It was a great exercise in tone and mood. While I admit that I do agree, to an extent, with audiences’ critiques involving the pace being slow, I relished every second because once an action sequence was thrown on our laps, it was like we were paralyzed and there was nothing we could do but to stare at a bomb about to explode in under five seconds. I enjoyed the picture because it was surprisingly character-driven. Clooney did a wonderful job in balancing a character who wanted redemption because he suspected that perhaps the small village was his final destination. He wondered how lower-level assassins were able to find him even though he was convinced that he covered his tracks well. Did one of the people who he had a conversation with simply a disguise and he failed to noticed it? Paranoia started to seep through his mind. When he slept and heard a creak, grabbing a gun was an automatic response. He was like a machine or a weapon he so desperately wanted to perfect. Maybe he really was starting to lose it. On the other hand, even though deep inside he knew he wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life, he wanted to explore the possibility of settling down with a woman. She was warm, free-spirited, easy to form a smile–a complete opposite of himself; he was cunning, calculating, suspicious. The only time they seemed to be on the same page was when they shared a bed. But even then he had to pay for her services. As one scene switched tone from Jack’s personal to professional battles, Clooney would go from a nondescript man in a café to a predator whose one and only purpose was to catch his prey. In Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity,” my favorite scene was the silent duel between Matt Damon and Clive Owen in the yellow fields. All we could hear were rapid footsteps, bullets flying, our protagonist gasping for air, and the birds. “The American” captured that brilliance for the majority of its running time. However, it certainly isn’t for those without patience or audiences who are expecting adrenaline-fueled entertainment. I’m no assassin, but I think if they were to lead some sort of a life, it wouldn’t be far from Jack’s lifestyle.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Annie (Kristen Wiig) was informed by Lillian (Maya Rudolph), her BFF, that she was getting married, Annie was very happy for her friend yet she was reminded of her own failures. The list included her business venture involving a bakery that went under because of the recession and the fact that she was far from being in a stable romantic relationship. She thought the best she could do was to be in a no strings attached relationship with a womanizer (Jon Hamm) who drove a fancy car and was brazen enough to criticize her teeth. Upon hearing the news, the lingering moment when we noticed her genuine happiness change into critical self-evaluation was “Bridesmaids,” written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, at its best. It wasn’t just a comedy about a wedding but it was about the people that made the celebration stressful and special. When Lillian introduced Annie to little-miss-perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie felt threatened. Helen was rich, men noticed her when she entered a room, and had a natural elegance in the way she carried herself. Annie was just none of those things. One of the most memorable scenes, gloriously awkward and laugh-out-loud funny, involved Annie and Helen attempting to deliver the best toast. The way they snatched the microphone out of each other’s iron grip defined their relationship. As audiences so used to seeing the maid of honor and her rival in more generic and spineless comedies, we expected Annie and Helen to eventually deliver a punch (or purposefully dig one’s stiletto in another’s foot) as the scene went on. But they never did. Part of the joy of watching them together was experiencing the uncomfortable and unbearable tension, their passive-aggressiveness, their willingness to prove that, for Annie, Lillian chose the right friend to be the maid of honor and, for Helen, that she was the more practical choice because she had a talent for micromanagement and the fact that she had connections. The other hilarious bridesmaids were Melissa McCarthy, unapologetically profane and we love her for it, Wendi McLendon-Covey, the extremely unhappy mother of three boys, and Ellie Kemper, bored of her life because everything was rooted in being safe. The unhappiness of these women were relatable, engaging, and ultimately touching. But “Bridesmaids” had its share of gross-out humor. I’m particularly difficult to impress with scenes involving bodily functions but I actually enjoyed those moments. It worked because the material was already very funny. The over-the-top gags were simply icing on the wedding cake (or should I say wedding dress?). Directed by Paul Feig, “Bridesmaids,” character-driven, calculated shots but effortless delivery, and appealing to both women and men, is a rarity in mainstream comedy.
Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Flickan som lekte med elden,” or “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” was the second installment from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series which took place about two years after computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) solved their first mystery. A freelance writer (Hans Christian Thulin) was hired by the “Millenium” magazine because he claimed to have names of high-ranking officials within the government who were involved in sex trafficking. But prior to the anticipated publicity of the article, the writer and his girlfriend were murdered in cold blood. Lisbeth was framed for their murder. Despite the film not having the same level of tension and intrigue as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” I still highly enjoyed it because it did not feel like a carbon copy of the first film. Instead, we had a chance to observe the two main characters apart from each other and see how they attempted to solve problems laid before them. Its strength remained in being a character-driven, gritty crime procedural. More importantly, it answered big questions I had about Lisbeth’s past and why she did not enjoy the company of men who saw and treated women as less than their equal. Furthermore, the story remained fresh. In some ways, it was a nice surprise. Since the mystery involved sex trafficking, I thought the protagonists were up against some sort of an underground society where a number of interconnecting companies were involved. Instead, the climax felt small and when key information were revealed, it almost felt muffled and understated. It also had enough time to introduce fiery new characters such as a prostitute, a professional boxer, and a hitman with a rare genetic disorder. However, there were some plot points where I thought the picture could have improved upon. I was curious about Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and her obvious sexual and possible romantic relationship with Mikael. When she was on screen, I could not help but feel like there was something about her character that was overlooked or did not translate from novel to screen. I hope she will become a prominent character in the final installment because Endre had such elegance about her. “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” directed by Daniel Alfredson, successfully separated itself from its predecessor in terms of tone and pacing. Nevertheless, it made itself necessary by giving us new information which complemented pieces that did not quite fit prior.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
House of Games (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite her many successes in her career, a psychiatrist named Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) felt like something was missing in her life. She had her routine at work but at the end of the day she wondered if she was even alive. A void was inside her was increasing in size and she didn’t know how to fill it up. When a patient with a gambling problem confessed to her that he’d be killed if he didn’t come up with the money the next day, she went to a bar and met Mike (Joe Mantegna), the man who supposedly would murder her patient. Being next to him, she felt instant attraction. And when she found out about his occupation, she felt excitement–something that helped to cure the emptiness inside her. The film’s greatest weapon was its script. Every time the characters would speak, I was drawn to them because they were intelligent but ultimately wounded. The camera would move with jurisdiction whenever there was a subtle change in tone so I was always curious with what was about to transpire. After many twists involving several cons, I tried to stay one step ahead of the material just as the characters eventually tried to outsmart each other. The filmmakers had fun with the material because there were times when I thought a twist would occur but it simply didn’t. There were other times when my hypotheses were correct. Furthermore, I was surprised how exciting it was even though it lacked car chases and explosions, elements that are easily found in movies like this one. Instead, the picture focused on the characters and how the dynamics between them changed drastically with a slight of hand. As much as I liked the heist scenes, I found Dr. Ford’s compulsions to be most disturbing and haunting. The way the darkness in her moved from her thoughts to her actions made me feel very uncomfortable. The scary thing is that I found a bit of myself in her. I’m a perfectionist and I love my routine. I love being around people and working with them but sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it. Like her, there are times when I feel the need to do something completely out of character because constantly trying to have everything just right had become trite and painfully boring. In other words, sometimes I feel like the law doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been a model citizen. Written and directed by David Mamet, “House of Games” was a psychological thriller that worked in multiple levels. Its subject matter directly and astutely commented on human nature and how our behavior could sometimes define us.
★★★ / ★★★★
Throughout my time in the university, about seven to ten people have asked me about Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” in hopes of confirming their opinion that the movie “sucked.” All I could tell them was I had not yet seen it but would be getting around to watching it sooner or later. In short, I thought it was quite compelling. Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) was called by a friend (Ulrich Tukur) to go to a space station located along the orbit of planet Solaris. Strange things had been happening and he thought that Chris was the perfect person to solve whatever was going on. Naturally, I asked myself why the government didn’t intervene because taxpayers usually fund space explorations but I chose to overlook that lack of logic. When Chris arrived at the space station, dried blood was all over the place. Some crew members were dead and the two who were still alive (Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies) were locked in their respective spaces. Little did Chris know that the planet had to power to create a person the crew members loved most out of thin air (known as “Visitors”) via taking advantage of their subsconsciousness while they slept. In Chris’ case, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Chris’ dead lover, woke next to him. This was a different kind of a science fiction film because the visuals were not at the forefront (although it still looked beautiful). It was very heavy on the dialogue which, understandably, irked a lot of its viewers. But that’s exactly what I liked about it. Even though the story was set in the future, it tried to answer timeless questions that the most influential philosophers discussed (or obsessed about) during their careers. For instance, do other people only exist through our minds and our memories of them? In that case, do we exist only through other people’s minds? With each passing minute, the stakes were that much higher as Rheya started to gain memories in the way Chris remembered the original Rheya. In other words, she slowly became more human-like. If they kill her, is it murder? We get to observe the protagonist struggle morally and psychologically because he blamed himself for the death of his wife. However, I wish the constantly-on-edge Davis was in more scenes. She was voice of practicality in the picture and I just loved the conviction she infused in her character. If I was stuck in a space station next to a creepy planet capable of producing clone-like creatures, I would definitely want her to be on my side. I highly enjoyed the film because it was able to frame paranoia in an effective manner without trying to be flashy with shaky cameras and other more mainstream techniques. It relied on its story and took its time to explore its themes. I appreciated that it treated its viewers with intelligence. Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” is a success because it reminds us that our lack of knowledge about outer space and its many potentials may be equivalent to the untapped abilities of our minds.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Gattaca” took place in a time where designer babies were the norm (known as “Valids”) and were expected to live nothing short of their potential. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was a special case because even though he was not genetically engineered, he found a way to pass as one with the help of a recently crippled Valid named Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Vincent claimed Jerome’s identity so he could work for Gattaca and reach his dreams of exploring outer space. Meanwhile, a murder in the company led the cops (Loren Dean, Alan Arkin) to find Vincent because of an eyelash they found in the scene of the crime. Vincent, as Jerome, had to evade the authorities and balance his time with a co-worker (Uma Thurman) he fell in love with. I watched this movie for the first time when I was a freshman in high school Biology. I remember generally liking it but I did not love it because I was basically forced to sit down and watch it. Having grown up a bit and given it a second chance, I immediately fell in love with the film because the main character had so much conviction. I looked in his eyes and I saw pain–pain for not being conceived as “perfect” and for not being loved as much as his brother. I related to him because he felt like he had so much to prove to the point where it almost destroyed him. The picture could have been a typical science fiction project–too cerebral for its own good and almost insular in its approach. However, “Gattaca” was really more about the emotional struggle of a character so brought down by society (even his father told him the closest he would get to reaching his dreams was to become a custodian for Gattaca) that he would do asolutely anything to prove them wrong. One of the many things I loved about the movie was it boldly took its argument regarding nature versus nurture in relation to being successful a step further. It also was able to comment on the role of the kindness of other people and the right timing of events that could help to pave a new path for a person with a specific circumstance. I thought it was a powerful contrast against things that were very controlled such as aformentioned genetically engineered babies where parents could pick the physical attributes of their future child. If I were to nitpick on a weakness, there were times when the romance between Hawke and Thurman became borderline cheesy with the two of them giving each other a piece of their own hair as a test to determine if they trusted each other. Neverthless, those scenes were negated by a consistently beautiful cinematography with its use of color indoors and outdoors. “Gattaca,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is not only one of the most astute science fiction films but also one of the most moving. The film is set in the future and the issues are more relevant than ever but it’s quite timeless.
True Grit (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a plucky fourteen-year-old girl, was adamant about finding Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s cold-blooded killer, and getting even. She left her grieving mother and siblings at home while she went to town to hire a competent bounty hunter. She crossed paths with an alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who was first reluctant to tackle the task. Mattie desperately wanted him because she claimed he had “true grit” or the right spirit she was searching for. Mattie and Cogburn were accompanied by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also wanted to bring the criminal to justice. The western genre is normally not my cup of tea, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Steinfeld’s energetic performance as a headstrong girl who wanted vengeance instantly caught my interest especially the very amusing scene when she tried to sell back the horses her late father bought. In just one simple scene, Steinfeld established that Mattie was intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to bluff when the occassion called for it. She saw adults as untrustworthy so she had to be self-reliant and use fear to motivate others. Adults saw her as a child who didn’t know any better. On the positive side, she could get away with certain things that older folks simply would not. Much of the picture’s humor was embedded in the scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf tried to ascertain which one of them was the more effective lawman. Cogburn, aging and a drunkard, just didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead and LaBoeuf was difficult to take seriously because he walked around as if he already deserved to be respected. Bridges was successful in delivering the softer side of a man who wanted minimal contact with the world. Meanwhile, Damon complemented Bridges’ character by wanting to be seen, heard and admired. It was obvious that both were having great fun with their roles. As opposite as Cogburn and LaBoeuf were, the two could make a great duo when the situation turned grim. I admired the look of the film because I felt transported to that era. The contrasting images of the blistering hot desert and the bone-chilling snowy nights not only were great visually but they reflected what the characters felt, especially Mattie since we saw the story from her perspective, during their arduous journey. I just wished we had a chance to get to know Chaney a bit more in order to make room for another layer of complexity. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “True Grit” was a straightforward and character-driven revenge story. Simple is not something I’m used to when watching Coen brothers picture. Maybe that’s the irony.
Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.