★★★ / ★★★★
The western genre is often romanticized to such an extent that it has gotten tedious and so it is a cold splash of water on the face when a work a comes along without the expected ornamentations. Instead, writer-director Scott Cooper focuses on the harsh trials of a journey and the people with harrowing histories who harbor deep and sharp prejudices. We wonder if, in the face of great adversities, external and internal, they would be able to put aside their differences in order to make it to where they need to be. More importantly, might a temporary armistice bring about a more permanent shift in one’s perspective?
As far as plot goes, it is typical in that a white man of rigid countenance must escort a person, or persons, of lesser power to a specific location, often across several states on horseback. Specifically, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered by his superior (Stephen Lang) to take former war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Valley of the Bear, Montana so the old man, imprisoned for seven years and now dying of cancer, can live his final days with his tribe as a free human being. Despite Blocker’s insistence that he is not at all the right person for the task because many of his friends were murdered by Yellow Hawk, the president’s wish is not a request. Tension builds as Blocker’s company dwindles due to ambushes and severe miscalculations.
This is a story about loss and the profound psychic gashes it leaves for time to heal over but not mend completely. I admired that the screenplay commands subtlety in reminding us that every character is hurting in some way, that there is no villain other than what we create for ourselves sometimes and how, compared to an external force, this ideation that we peel into and pick apart can be more devastating shall we allow it. It is surprisingly thoughtful in parts, particularly when a lieutenant (Jesse Plemons) opens up to a superior (Rory Cochrane) after a life-defining experience. Notice how this standout scene is drenched in shadows, right after the sun had just set. This smart eye for visuals coupled with its nearly glacial but purposeful pacing provide the viewer time to ponder and consider the film’s thesis.
Bale delivers yet another strong performance. I loved how he is able to tap into a rather stoic character and finds gradation within the quiet, reserved man who is a soldier through and through—even when he talks of retirement. When those eyes refuse to blink in order to get a point across, the camera remains still, staring back, daring us to wonder what Blocker might be thinking or which course of action he is about to take for the group. As characters enter and exit the story, Bale’s solid performance is rooted in the middle of it all and so we never feel lost despite the changing faces.
Another standout is Rosamund Pike who plays a woman whose entire family is murdered by a Comanche war party. While she has the showier performance, the power behind her presence and complex emotions complement Bale’s interpretation of Blocker.
“Hostiles” is not for everyone, even for the fans of standard westerns. But such atypicality is what’s exciting about it. The harsh wilderness is only one of the many elements that can kill a person. It also shows that time and life experience can render one so weak that there comes a point when a person is long dead even before he takes his last breath.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Rodney (Casey Affleck) owes a lot of money and he believes a quick way to pay his creditors is to participate in mano-a-mano fights. But defeating locals prove not profitable enough. So, Rodney convinces his manager (Willem Dafoe) to schedule a fight in the hills of Jersey where inbred drug dealers like Harlan (Woody Harrelson) having grown so powerful that even cops feel the area is out of their jurisdiction. Harlan expects Rodney to drop the fight. Maybe Rodney is too much of a loose cannon. When Russell (Christian Bale) learns that his younger brother is missing, he drives to Jersey where Rodney is last seen.
Directed by Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” is not for people who expect a straightforward revenge picture where it gets violent real quick and justice is served cold in equal servings. It is a moody, messy, meandering piece of work with a lot offer to those willing to follow the bread crumbs and value asking questions more than getting easy answers. Watching the events unfold is like looking through a dark fog—the focus is not necessarily on what happens but the feelings behind and underneath the occurrences.
Rodney and his debts, Harlan and his drugs, Russell and his clean way of making a living—it is clear that money is the main motivation of the central characters. The brothers live in a working class neighborhood and they are often dirty-looking—often covered in dirt, sweat, or grime, sometimes bruises and blood. Meanwhile, Harlan is a rabid dog who lives in the woods with nameless lackeys. As far as they know, he is always right. To say something otherwise is to gamble one’s life. Outsiders do not know this fact.
The picture does not reach full power until about halfway through. Clocking in at about two hours, the first half involves Russell losing those that he values. Every day is a struggle to keep them close by. One mistake—involving drunk driving and an auto accident—costs him just about everything. It is easy to sympathize with Russell because he is a good guy and he wants to do the right thing. Unlike his brother, he has learned to be humble—even if it means forcing himself to do so—and how to keep his temper in control.
Because the material is so patient before delivering the big blow just above the hour mark, it creates a real sense of dread and convincing, palpable tension. And yet, surprisingly, even though it tackles the subject of vengeance, it does not lose track of the sadness with regards to what can never be reclaimed.
What does not work is a subplot involving a chief of police (Forest Whitaker) and Russell’s ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Though the material avoids certain trappings, we never see the cop doing anything of value other than delivering lines about how important it is to follow procedures and allowing the men of the law to do their jobs. In addition, the ex-girlfriend is underdeveloped. She is reduced to doing two things: laugh or look sad. Whitaker and Saldana are good performers, but they could have been played by another pair and it wouldn’t have made a big difference.
“Out of the Furnace,” written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper, will divide viewers. I admire movies like this. It has a goal and it carries out its vision without compromise. It may not be perfect but others ought to follow its lead when striving to commit to a specific voice. Forget trying to impress the audience. Just tell the story the way it is intended, assuming a solid screenplay, and rest are likely to fall into place.
Big Short, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short” offers a witty, funny, intelligent, consistently shocking, and educational experience about the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and the persons, mostly hedge fund managers, who are able to see through the fog and bet against the housing market before the bubble burst. Although there are numerous fiscal terms and acronyms that might as well have been in hieroglyphics or alien language, the screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay ensures that the information can be digested by laymen.
Explanations are often done through humor using cameos. Particularly memorable is the appearance of Selena Gomez and Dr. Richard Thaler, an economist, as they explain the term “synthetic C.D.O.” (collateralized debt obligations) at a blackjack table in Las Vegas. Notice that as information is slowly broken down, the initially amusing scenario at the table quickly turns horrifying. The volatile energy of the film maintains the forward momentum of the material and so, despite the business talk, not once does it get stale or boring. On the contrary, by the end of the picture, I wanted to know more about how things worked in that realm.
Performances are top-notch all around. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a man who has an eye for details and numbers despite having one glass eye. He creates a character who is very intelligent and socially awkward but not one who is inaccessible. Accessibility is absolutely necessary because there are a handful of moments when we must feel the pressure he feels as his clients and co-workers begin to express their anger and frustrations on top of his own.
Ryan Gosling, who plays a trader named Jared Vennett, creates yet another charismatic, smooth talker—which is not all that different from some of his other roles. However, Gosling is so entertaining, full of verve, and so quick on his feet that we tend to overlook the familiar and look forward to how his character will respond to increasingly stressful situations.
But the best performance in the film belongs to Steve Carell, a hot-tempered hedge fund manager who begins to question the lack of morality in his line of work. Most memorable is his breakdown in a Las Vegas restaurant as he comes face-to-face with a businessman named Mr. Chau (Byron Mann) who is very proud of the fact that he is a cheat, to say the least. With every close-up employed, the tension is amplified to the point where it is almost unbearable to stay on that table. Mr. Chau is an excellent symbol of capitalist greed and it is the correct decision have him in one scene only.
“The Big Short” takes an insular topic and makes it relatively easy to understand using simple language and analogies. Equally important, it is able to summon the anger from the viewers so that we are more mindful of not only the next potential housing bubble on the horizon but also where we put our money and where we sign our names.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
★ / ★★★★
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott, is nothing but an exercise of special and visual effects. It does not bother to tell an engaging arc; it assumes that all audiences are familiar with the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) so it relies on the template to burn off one hundred fifty minutes. Furthermore, it does not provide any surprising detail about the brothers and their relationship. What results is a limp epic consisting of solemn whispers and hyperbolic yelling—a bore down to its marrow.
Telling this kind of story with a forceful fist is an incredible miscalculation. Thus, it feels like an action film rather than one that inspires us to think a little bit about different aspects of spirituality. It should have been told with a certain delicateness in order to highlight the characters’ choices, recurring themes, and the emotions that they go through that drive them to make life or death decisions. Instead, the picture adopts a lethargic pattern: tragedy, close-ups expressing horror, and then more tragedy.
Even the ten plagues that come to haunt Memphis, Egypt do not command much impact. The only one that stood out to me was the death of all firstborn children. Notice how the scene takes its time as it shows darkness creeping across the city. There is fear in the wind as it blows candles from both poor and rich households. The camera slithers as souls are taken away from their host. I wished that the rest of the material functioned on such a high level. I could not look away.
And then we are back to the plot involving Moses attempting to persuade Ramses to free the Hebrews from slavery. Part of the problem is Bale and Edgerton being miscast—for two very different reasons. Bale is not very expressive here. Although his interpretation of Moses is one that is easily provoked, there are not enough moments in the script where we are made to sympathize with his predicament. Edgerton, on the other hand, is given more chances to express a range of emotions than Bale but the makeup plastered on his face prevents us from appreciating his increasingly desperate position. It might have worked better if a quieter, more thoughtful actor were cast as Moses and an actor who could carry a lot of makeup were cast as Ramses.
Scenes between Moses and Malak (Isaac Andrews), serving as a representation of God, are laughable initially and like pulling teeth later on. Their interactions are so forced that every time they are around one another, the scene comes across very rehearsed: the actors know the lines but the subtleties of emotions are simply not there. There should have been fewer of these scenes and the ones that are necessary ought to have been reshot.
Disappointing almost every step of the way, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a colossal waste of time, an excuse to use money in order to create a project that is pretty at times but one that has no soul. Every minute is felt trickling by.
American Hustle (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
For all its twists and turns, “American Hustle,” based on the screenplay by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, can be digested as a straightforward story because of its overarching theme: desperate individuals who will do just about anything to procure better lives. It is irrelevant whether the word “better” is defined by money, celebrity, love, or improving the community. It is about a person who embodies a dominant motivation and how he or she clashes and struggles, forming partnerships—tenuous and durable—along the way if necessary, to get to an endpoint. The whole dance is ruckus fun.
Duplicitous characters—deliberate or otherwise—are front and center. It is made clear that not one of them is trustworthy. Part of the enjoyment is trying to figure out how they think and anticipating what they might do in order to dislodge themselves from sticky situations. The screenplay uses the ‘70s milieu—flamboyant suits and dresses, big hair, attention-grabbing soundtrack—to serve as a complement for moral ambiguity.
At one point, one character tells another, while looking at a painting, that the world is not exactly black and white—bad or good, dirty or clean—but is extremely gray. While the idea has been explored many times prior, it is a way of asking us whether we are we supposed to root for any of the characters. I found it interesting that I was on all of their sides eventually. But the picture highlights the dangers of wanting it all, that it is foolish to expect that everything will work out perfectly just because a plan is planned ever so carefully.
The four central performances are colorful and entertaining. Christian Bale plays a conman named Irving Rosenfeld whose so-called business involves luring unsuspecting people—desperate folks looking to make a lot of money by “investing” five thousand dollars. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party, shows her his laundromat, and the two begin an affair. Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) but they might as well be divorced. She insists they stay together because her mother and grandmother never divorced their husbands. Meanwhile, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, has picked up the stench of Irving’s scam. It is such a joy how the actors are able to hit the right comedic and dramatic notes so consistently while managing to avoid making their characters so quirky that it distracts or takes away from the narrative momentum.
But the real magic is in the details. David O. Russell’s astute direction is most welcome and fitting when the camera lingers on a face for a couple of seconds longer than the standard close-up. This enables him as a storyteller to truly capture his characters’ quiet desperation. When they seem happy, perhaps they are really not. When things appear to be going right, whether it be a con or one’s love life, the eyes remain unconvinced—there is worry and anxiety that maybe everything is going too right. What is the Plan B? When doubt or uncertainty paces to and fro in the back of the mind, is that happiness?
Notice I mentioned the main players but I did not describe the con. The reason is I do not think the con is important the story. It drives the plot—to keep it going so that we can observe how the four characters will—or fail to—survive and acclimatize to new situations.
Little Women (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
The March household consisted of a matriarch (Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters: Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), Jo (Winona Ryder), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst, but later played by Samantha Mathis). The patriarch participated in the Civil War as part of the Union Army. We observed the girls bask in their innocence as they starred in their own plays to pass the time and the way they responded to life’s small and big challenges that threatened their bond. Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott and directed by Gillian Armstrong, “Little Women” captured how it was like to be young and the feeling that we had all the time in the world to play, laugh, and be loved despite our imperfections. The film started off strong because each sister was given the chance to shine. Meg was concerned that she might never get married. She wanted to marry for love, but being around girls her age, most of them from rich backgrounds, made her realize that perhaps marrying for money was a more practical approach so she could provide for her family. Beth was the quiet and innocent one. It seemed like the only time she stood out was when she played the piano during the holidays. Jo, our protagonist, was the firecracker. She wasn’t like other girls. She was unafraid to roll around in mud and yell at boys from a distance. Older folks, like Aunt Match (Mary Wickes), were seriously concerned about her prospects for marriage. Boys just wouldn’t want to be with girls who acted like boys. Amy was the unpredictable one. Being the youngest, she was a keen observer. She didn’t like being poor and she made a personal promise that she would marry a rich man. The film’s first half was intriguing because there was complexity among the sisters’ relationships with each other and the men (Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz) they interacted with. Unfortunately, the second half didn’t feel as strong because there was a certain tone of detachment. Instead of focusing on the sisters’ relationships, the story turned its focus on the uninspiring romance between Jo and Friedrich (Gabriel Byrne), a German professor, while in New York. Since Jo’s story was supposedly based on the author’s life, I expected the screenplay to pay particular attention to Jo’s struggle in trying to become a woman writer in the big city. There were only approximately scenes which showed us that it was difficult for her to get published because nobody was interested in her “fairytale” stories. There was dramatic weight in the way she put her dreams at bay, that is, writing literature, and instead resulted to writing fantasy stories about vampires and beasts because she needed the money. Even though she was published, she felt like a failure because she wasn’t published for the right reasons. I felt as though there were a lot more meaningful things that needed to be said about Jo’s career. The romance felt unnecessary because it offered no excitement or spark. In fact, the romance almost felt like an antithesis to the film’s feminist undertones. Once scenes of reckless abandonment of youth passed by, the film never looked back and there was an off-putting lack of closure.
Dark Knight Rises, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney and one of the leaders of the fight against war on crime, organized crime had been completely exorcised from Gotham City. Since Batman took the fall for the demise of the white knight and several police officers, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had been living as a recluse. This temporary peace in Gotham, however, was threatened by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a thewy mercenary who recently kidnapped an important scientist. But Bane was not a typical mercenary: he was a former member of the League of Shadows, the same group that trained Bruce before he created Batman, and personally exiled by its leader, Ra’s al Ghul. “The Dark Knight Rises,” directed by Christopher Nolan, delivered an absorbing exposition by allowing us to feel sympathy for the true hero that afforded Gotham citizens the kind of city they’ve always wanted. More than ever, Bale was allowed to shine in the way he meticulously but naturally portrayed a character who was no longer needed by his creators. There was drama not simply because Bruce felt lost and depressed, it was due to the fact that we knew that he deserved fulfillment, a life he could call his own, outside of the mask. No other person could understand the man behind the mask more than Alfred (Michael Cane), Bruce’s help, best friend, and father figure. The most emotionally moving sections of the film involved the two clashing in terms of what the city really needed versus how Bruce should go on with his life. Cane was so good with his line deliveries, I teared up a bit when Alfred mentioned his yearly vacation in Florence, Italy and what he hoped to see across from him while sitting in a restaurant. There was a much deserved complexity in Alfred and Bruce’s relationship which was more than I can say about Bane’s plot to so-called give the people exactly what they wanted. While the action scenes held an above average level of excitement, such as when the villain made his first public appearance, there were too many characters running all of the place–characters who were worth knowing more about. There was Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), conflicted in terms of whether he should reveal Dent’s true colors to the public; Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an ardent young man willing to fight to preserve the good in his city; and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who wished to wipe her criminal past clean. And then there was Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Bruce’s romantic interest that came so far out of left field, I found it completely unconvincing. There was already little chemistry between Cotillard and Bale and the writing didn’t help them in building something the audience could get behind. Each of the supporting characters was given the spotlight one way or another but the screenplay didn’t have enough time to really drill into what made them more than pawns in the people’s liberation against Bane’s grasp. And so when the denouement arrived, some of the revelations, one of which I found predictable in a fun way, did not feel entirely rewarding. Based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, while “The Dark Knight Rises” was undeniably entertaining, it could be observed that perhaps it attempted to take on too much. It wasn’t a breezy bat-glide to the finish line.
Dark Knight, The (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when Gotham City seemed able to completely delouse itself of its gangster and crooks, a makeup-wearing man with green hair and scars around his lips, known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), emerged and threatened to send the city back into its original state: crime-ridden, a general lack of hope for the future, and citizens living in fear. “The Dark Knight,” based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, was a menudo of complex ideas, from what it meant to be a symbol of justice to what could happen if that symbol was driven to an extreme and then derailed, coupled with thrilling action sequences with enough tricks up its sleeve, to describe the experience of watching it in one word would be “transportive.” What I loved about the screenplay was its treatment of Batman (Christian Bale) in terms of his relationship with Gotham City. While the earlier scenes showed him capturing crooks of all levels, there was a certain level of detachment between he and us. Scant information was given about his personal life; he was defined by his actions as a man with a mask and as Bruce Wayne when he expressed his intentions to Alfred (Michael Caine) and what he felt he could do better for the city. Despite sporting a cape and a mask, it was made clear to us that he was a civil servant first and that felt refreshing. Other civic servants in the film included Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a police lieutenant, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney who felt equal passion as Batman and his comrades to overturn the Gotham underworld and to rid the streets of crime. I enjoyed that much of the attention was on Dent and how he responded to the stresses incited by The Joker. While there was a clear character arc in Dent, it was an unpredictable course because, like a real person, although he valued many things, not all of them were of equal importance. As more of his buttons were pushed, the pressure increased until the inevitable breaking point. Eckhart had to be lauded because we had to be with his character every step of the way. As Gotham’s white knight, Dent didn’t prowl the streets at night to capture bad guys but the actor found a way to communicate to us why he was a heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. Another performance worth nothing included Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s friend since childhood and Dent’s romantic interest. Gyllenhaal found a balance between intelligence and spunk so I cared about Rachel when she eventually had to confront The Joker and was threatened to have her face carved with a permanent smile. Lastly, Ledger gave a performance so magnetic, I relished every sound that came out of his mouth and obsessed over the subtle body movements he embedded within his deranged character. While the script was very sharp to the point where just about anyone could read it and sound evil, Ledger made it his own, techniques ranging from strange ticks to awkward pauses, allowing The Joker to be evil and fun without being silly or cartoonish. The film was a rousing entertainment partly because it had an excellent villain. I likened The Joker to a super-bacterium, a microorganism resistant to antibiotics. Batman, government officials like Dent, and the police were the drugs meant to cure its host, Gotham City, of an affliction. While they were able to get rid of regular bacteria like Falcone and his successors (Eric Roberts), The Joker was immune because his mind functioned differently as a super-bacterium’s wall composed of various unexpected defenses which made it impervious to the effects of drugs. This made The Joker a real threat, mirrored by his realistic-looking terrorist attacks in the city. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight,” though slightly longwinded toward the end, gave us credit by not just being about right or wrong or which side would win ultimately. It was about the process of reaching a goal which meant taking a magnifying glass on victories, big and small, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, failures. There’s a chance for growth in failure and unfortunately, in our society plagued with cynicism, that isn’t emphasized enough.
Batman Begins (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was sent to solitary confinement for fighting six fellow prisoners, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), invited the richest man in Gotham City, currently on the other side of the world and anonymous, to train and join the League of Shadows. Still angry from the murder of his parents (Linus Roache, Sara Stewart) in the hands of a desperate man (Richard Brake), Bruce accepted. “Batman Begins,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, had a gravitational pull so potent, its more sensitive moments actually managed to rival its most thrilling action pieces: it offered us a believable story that we could sink our teeth into instead of simply expecting us to lick a plate full of sugar and fluff that would inevitably leave us unsatisfied. The level of screenplay was impressive because it focused on the story of Bruce the man through first exploring his formative years prior to delving into Bruce the Batman, a symbol meant to inspire and nudge citizens of Gotham out of their apathy involving the city being ruled by criminals and the corrupt. While Bale was convincing as a man full of rage and thirst of vengeance, his character arc was even more involving despite the fact that the material jumped forward in time several times, especially toward the beginning when one detail after another regarding Bruce’s past were thrown on our laps. By keeping its dramatic momentum intact, it caught and maintained our attention; since we could follow its strands almost every step of the way without too much strain, the rewards were fulfilling. The film had a dark atmosphere, especially with its talk of the undetected depression serving as a catalyst for the common people’s desperation, it managed to have fun without being cartoonish and breaking the mood. For instance, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne’s longtime butler, caretaker, and Bruce’s remaining father figure, was given amusing comments regarding his master’s nightly extracurricular activities. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), formerly a member of the board in Wayne Enterprises but exiled to the basement after new power took control of the company, also had his share of the spotlight when Bruce paid him a visit for nifty and very expensive gadgets. This gave way to questions I’ve always wondered about such as how the Batcave was discovered, how the Batsuit was assembled, and how the Batmobile looked in its early stages. It even featured one of the most beloved treasures in my toy box when I was a kid: the batarang. The picture was also notable for its intelligent use of its antagonists. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), one of the biggest crime bosses in the city, was not an ostentatious figure that craved attention. He actually preferred to operate in the shadows but he wasn’t afraid to make threats in public if necessary. Still, he was notorious for his reputation. Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, zealously creepy behind those glasses), the eventual Scarecrow, was actually more interesting divorced from his mask. No DNA mutation here, just a regular human so willing to push his experiments to the extreme, he was no better than the criminals he surrounded himself with. The topic of fear ran in the veins of “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and it was handled with profound insight. The screenplay explored the various meanings of the word and how it changed contingent upon the stakes on the table. The film showed respect by treating the audience as thinkers.
Prestige, The (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.
Hauru no ugoku shiro (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” an unextraordinary young woman named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) with a low self-esteem and a penchant for dressing like an old woman was cursed by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Being in a body of an old woman, Grandma Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) decided to go into the mountains to find another witch or wizard who could reverse her condition. In the unforgiving cold mountains, she stumbled upon a castle with legs owned by the mysterious and slightly vain Howl (Christian Bale). Out of all Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” contained my favorite group of characters. Each of them had a defined personality from the sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young magician (Josh Hutcherson) who yearned for an adult figure, to characters who did not say a word like loving Turnip-Head and Heen, an old dog with only one facial expression. There was something unexpected revealed about each of them, particularly the villainous witch who cruelly casted a spell on our protagonist. All of the core characters shared one similarity so they had a reason to keep walking forward together. They were all caught up in a senseless war. Since it wasn’t explained to us why a war was happening or which side was fighting for what reason, the violence, burning homes, and people attempting to escape with their lives were that much more compelling. In some ways, the magical world that these characters inhabited served as an escape from the harsh realities of war. With the help of the castle, they had a chance to escape and hide but only temporarily. Eventually, they would step out on a once peaceful landscape and were confronted with flying ships used to drop bombs in beautiful cities by the sea. Unfortunately, when the picture decided to focus on the romantic bond between Sophie and Howl, I began to lose interest. They did have their cheesy moments, but I was more concerned about what Sophie saw in Howl and vice-versa. Sophie claimed to love Howl but for what reason? Did she love him because of his looks? It certainly wasn’t because of his maturity because he threw tantrums like a child. Was their so-called love pre-ordained? There was an evidence of time-travel toward the end of the story. Nevertheless, I could also argue that the heart of the film wasn’t about the romance between Howl and Sophie. The friendship between humans and magical creatures and the sacrifices they made for each other during a time of need would probably make more sense. “Hauru no ugoku shiro” teemed with great detail and imagination but the story always came first. Quirky, funny, adventurous, with just the right amount of dark undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will enchant both young and old.