Thousand Words, A (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a fast-talking literary agent, is assigned by his boss (Allison Janney) to snag a book deal with Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), a very popular spiritual leader, whose most recent work is likely to prove profitable for the company. Pretending to have read Dr. Sinja’s book, the two eventually make a deal and shake hands. That night, a Bodhi tree magically sprouts from Jack’s posh backyard; the deal somehow establishing a connection between Jack and the tree. Each word that Jack utters resulted in the tree losing a leaf. If the last leaf were to fall off the branch, Jack would die.
Written by Steve Koren and directed by Brian Robbins, in theory, “A Thousand Words” is a perfect vehicle for Murphy because he has established himself as an actor who could say about a hundred words per minute, on average, and yet still deliver his lines with wit and clarity. While his performance is consistent, the script is neither as funny nor sharp as it could have been because the logic concerning the protagonist’s decisions in terms of whether to speak during Moment A or not speak during Moment B lacks practicality.
I had no problem accepting the magical elements with respect to the tree, but I struggled in accepting that Jack, a very successful man in the publishing world, lacks the intelligence to choose his battles wisely until the very end. Saving good decisions toward the back half of the story comes across forced. The character arc in connection the lessons Jack learns would have been much more believable if he made good decisions almost every step of the way while still having the tendency to slip back to his undesirable social habits. When it comes to human behavior, we expect change does not occur over night.
The picture does have very funny moments. One of my favorite scenes involves a book deal that has to be done via telephone. It is paramount that Jack is successful because his boss, Samantha, has not been very happy with him lately. In order to not waste words, Jack results to using various toys that can be pressed and a built-in voice is then activated. The idea is creative. Conjoined with quick editing, it creates a manic but fragile energy where a tiny error, like pressing on the wrong toy or the correct toy saying an unexpected alternate programmed message, might ruin the deal entirely.
There are instances of real sensitivity as well. I was touched by the scenes with Jack and his mother (Ruby Dee), the latter afflicted with dementia. I have had the chance to work in a facility with people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and, like Jack, patients have mistaken me for a family member and their sad stories are revealed.
When the film does not try so hard to be sad or funny, the lessons born from Jack’s struggle feels true. There is value in silence as well as choosing the right words while communicating. For instance, many people think that “being real” is saying whatever is on their minds. That isn’t necessarily the case. There is a difference between, say, honesty and rudeness or confidence and arrogance. We all have met people who just cannot stop talking. If only a Bodhi tree would magically appear in their yards.
★★ / ★★★★
In 1992, when young Cataleya (Amanda Stenberg) was only five years old, she witnessed the assassination of her parents (Jesse Borrego, Cynthia Addai-Robinson). Her father wanted to stop working for Don Luis (Beto Benites) but leaving the organization was simply out of the question. Equipped with natural athleticism, street smarts, and a bit of luck, Cataleya was able to escape her country and seek refuge in the United States to live with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis). When he asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a killer.
Based on the screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, “Colombiana” is engaging during the action scenes but when it shifts its focus on the human drama, it comes across like a tepid spin-off of a great television show. Although Saldana plays a very watchable heroine, her presence is not enough to make up for the picture’s more noticeable inadequacies.
The scene of young Cataleya running from gangsters—in the streets, inside homes, and on roofs—is most enthralling to watch because the chase consists only of images and score, alongside minimal usage of sound effects. Add the decreasing distance between the little girl and the men with guns, it is impossible not to root for the child. In other words, the director is aware that he need not do too much to the viewers that there is suspense on screen.
Fifteen years later, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) becomes involved in the contract killing business run by her uncle. Unbeknownst to him, however, Cataleya is responsible for the murders of people connected to Don Luis because she hopes to get his attention. This left me feeling confused about half the time. Why go through all the trouble when she suspects that Don Luis still lives in the same country? To me, it is obvious: the man will not dare to leave country because he has the greatest influence in Colombia. Our protagonist is a smart woman with excellent instincts. It would have made more sense if she had returned, did a bit of investigation, and systematically narrowed down the gangster’s location.
Due to the material’s lack of logic, the situation provided above being one of the half a dozen examples, it is difficult to process all the happenings as more than a mere set-up to inject more sadness in Cataleya’s life. And of course she there is a subplot involving a boyfriend (Michael Vartan). The relationship is written in such a cheesy at times that I wondered if the lead character might have been better off as a college student in her twenties and slowly figuring out what is important to her than a woman so driven by revenge that she is willing to make unnecessary sacrifices.
“Colombiana,” directed by Olivier Megaton, has plenty of ideas but about half of them need to be excised so that Cataleya’s redemption arc has a chance to come into focus. Why not dedicate more scenes between Emilio and his niece? Both have experienced losing persons they loved. Instead, their interactions are reduced to secret meetings in a library or a laundromat.
Whale Rider (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, “Whale Rider” was about a little girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who possessed the ability to communicate, through prayers, with whales. Unfortunately, her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) was so caught up in traditions regarding the leader of the Whangara people being a boy that he was blind to his granddaughter’s gift. In a way, he connected Paikea and the death of her male twin with their tribe’s increasing lack of passion for their culture. Desperate to find a leader, the grandfather gathered the local boys but no one could match Paikea’s natural abilities and passion for what she was meant to do. Even though I’ve seen the angle of older generation clashing with a younger generation with respect to traditions, I thought the film was still refreshing because I knew nothing about the Maori tribe and the Whangara people. So I saw the picture through a fresh set of eyes and I was curious with how they were so in touch with nature. Castle-Hughes blew me away because she was so good at exuding strength but at the same time remaining vulnerable. Her acting culminated in the scene where she had to present a speech in front of an audience dedicated to her grandfather but he didn’t bother to show up. The way she composed herself and delivered her lines, despite the tears, showed so much strength that I couldn’t imagine an American actress so young as she was pulling it off quite as swimmingly. I also enjoyed the scenes when the community tried to help the whales when the animals swam to the shore to meet their demise. That sense of unity made me feel warm and I wanted to join them because I was so inspired. As for the supporting actors, I loved the grandmother played by Vicky Haughton because she was not afraid to say what she wanted to say to her stubborn husband when everyone else were forced to swallow their words. But at the same time, she was warm to others, especially her granddaughter. I just wished that Paikea’s father (Cliff Curtis) was in it a bit more because the movie didn’t spend enough time establishing his role in his daughter’s life. “Whale Rider” was a magical film full of fascinating culture. It’s a nice reminder that there’s this whole world out there that is so immaterial and far values working together more than competition. I expected a movie for kids because of the synposes I read but I got to see something much more rewarding.