★★★ / ★★★★
The relationship between feisty Dr. Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) and ambitious Dr. Bellows (Michael Douglas) was on the rocks. Susan liked to do things her way without compromise while it seemed like all Mark could ever talk about with her was hospital politics. Although “Coma,” based on the screenplay and directed by Michael Crichton, started off like a relationship drama because of a drawn out argument in the couple’s apartment in the beginning of the film, just below its epidermis flowed something more sinister. Several patients in Boston Memorial Hospital, one of them being Dr. Wheeler’s pregnant friend, underwent minor surgeries which required induced unconsciousness via anesthesia. The problem: they never woke up. After further inspection, electroencephalogram tests suggested that the otherwise young and healthy patients showed no sign of brain activity; they were now corpses being kept “alive” by machines. The wonderful thing about the film, one of its two unambiguous elements, was we knew that Dr. Wheeler was our protagonist and everyone else, including her boyfriend, was a suspect. The second clear-cut component involved the illicit goings-on beginning with the hospital. With each passing scene of increasingly gray motivations, the audience was given a piece of information about a possible conspiracy and we followed Dr. Wheeler into all sorts of trouble until she discovered the horrors within her workplace as well as the co-workers she thought she could trust. Because there was an obvious right and wrong, our sympathy was with Dr. Wheeler. She was not always efficient but we rooted for her to come out on top in the end. The filmmakers created a great atmosphere of paranoia. The seemingly endless walls of the hospital were appropriately nondescript, the lingo heard in the air and through telephone wires required a medical handbook of terms for full understanding, and the snip and tear of the flesh during surgeries left a lot to the imagination since not much gore was shown. The sense of detachment made the hospital look like an actual place of business where important things happened instead of a magical place where everyone went to be completely free from their illnesses. An understated but memorable scene, at least for me, involved Dr. Wheeler telling a little boy that there was something wrong with both of his kidneys and they needed to be replaced. He asked when he would get new ones. She couldn’t answer exactly. However, we knew that it would either take a long time or he wouldn’t get them at all. There was a sadness and truth in that scene which resonated with me. I appreciated its level of reality, down to the doctor casually eating his lunch while observing an autopsy within inches from the corpse. However, the film had critical missteps tonally. In its desperate attempt to convince us that what Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Bellows had as a couple was good, although quite brief, it happened just enough times to take me out of the moment completely. The sequence that made me wince most involved Susan and Mark running along the beach, perfect lighting and all, and kissing while lying on the sand. During those moments, I laughed at the film not because it was darkly comic but because it was so cheesy. I felt like I was watching a made-for-TV movie instead of a focused, edgy paranoid medical thriller. Despite being based on Robin Cook’s novel, I’m sure alterations could have been made regarding the tawdry romance given its high level of screenplay. It couldn’t be denied that “Coma” had an imagination. It just needed to play upon its strengths instead of taking a gamble with cornball.
The Descendants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Matt King (George Clooney) had more problems than he had hands. Within the next several days, he had to decide which multi-million dollar deal to accept which involved selling an untouched piece of land in Hawaii. Since his cousins were in debt, going through with it would help them out immensely. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was recently involved in a boating accident that forced her into a coma. The doctors informed Matt that there was little to no possibility that she was ever going to wake up. Her will clearly stated that if such a thing happened to her, she was to be taken off life support. Meanwhile, Matt found out that Elizabeth had been cheating on him with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” excelled in shaping individual scenes where Matt had to face another person and the two were required to speak to each other with frankness and at times painful honesty. I found that such scenes were loyal to the theme regarding appearances and how deceiving they could be. A great example was Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Matt’s eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). At first, it seemed like he was a typical “Hey, Bro!” surfer dude who had a propensity toward saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune times, but the scene where Matt found himself so desperate to know what was really going on with rebellious Alexandra showed that Matt and Sid had more common than we were led to believe. Both, in a way, were quite easy to dismiss: Matt with his first-world problem of selling a portion of land and Sid’s easy-going personality. Because the characters, not restricted to the aforementioned scene, were eventually allowed to talk about things that were important to them, often sandwiched between the comedy embedded in the every day, we had reasons to keep watching even though we might expect that not everything would turn out alright. Furthermore, the relationship between a husband so unequipped to handle his household and a wife in a vegetative state was exquisitely executed. I found it a refreshing experience because the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash strived to be more than about a man being sad and wishing that his wife would magically wake up. There was an instance when Matt felt he just had to yell at his wife for her indiscretions. It wasn’t pretty and it was uncomfortable, but those were the qualities that made their one-sided relationship feel very real. Most of the time, when a married couple knew that their relationship was on the rocks, they could deal with their issues through words and body language. In other words, the picture found a way to circumvent the fact that a spouse was comatose. The pacing of the film, however, could have used a bit of fire. When Matt, his two daughters, and Sid attempted to track down the real estate agent, there were a number of comedic scenes that did not work and should have been excised to improve flow. “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne, was about how we shouldn’t expect closures that we believe we deserved to come to us passively. Like everything else in life, at least one that’s worth living, closure ultimately feels good because effort is put into it.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
Saint Ralph (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael McGowan, “Saint Ralph” stars Adam Butcher, a boy who believes that if he can perform a miracle by winning the 1954 Boston Marathon, God will take his mother (Shauna MacDonald) out from her coma and everything will be okay again. What I loved about this movie was that it started off pretty funny. Ralph was not exactly the model student: he got into trouble by “accidentally” masturbating in the swimming pool (did I mention he attends a Catholic school?), his peers constantly made fun of him, made forgeries with his best friend (Michael Kanev), and lied about his dead grandparents. But as things started to get serious, the director slowly showed the audiences how Ralph forced himself to be more mature and eventually run the marathon. I liked that he had occassional slip-ups because it showed that he was still a fourteen-year-old and not someone who turned into a saint overnight. I usually don’t like movies that glorify religion because most of them are too preachy. However, although this film was set in a religious school and community, it was really more of an inspirational story about someone who desperately needed an outlet for his negative emotions and channel it into something good. I was touched by his relationship with Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), the teacher who helped him to get better at running, and was infuriated with Father Fitzpatrick’s (Gordon Pinsent) attempt to put Ralph in an orphanage. I also thought that Jennifer Tilly as Nurse Alice was pretty good; she became more like a mother figure to Ralph and I thought it was a nice that she was playing a different sort of character compared to her other movies. I have to admit that the end of the picture made me tear up in so many ways because I wanted Butcher’s character to succeed so badly. There’s just something about characters in movies who work really hard because they want to achieve something that gets me every single time. I guess I can easily relate because I used to feel like I always had to prove myself to people that I’m good enough. (Which reached its climax in my high school years.) After the movie, I was just overwhelmed with many different emotions and I was really happy that I saw it.