The Verdict (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a depressed lawyer who decided to take a malpractice case to trial, against his friend’s advice (Jack Warden), instead of settling for $210,000 out of court with a cut-throat lawyer (James Mason). I think this is a powerful film; it reminded me of the classic “12 Angry Men” because it was essentially about how one man decided to stand up for what was right. While the main character had his flaws such as alcoholism and he didn’t let the plaintiffs know about a chance of settlement, I could easily connect with him because he desperately wanted to redeem himself as a lawyer and as a man coming out of grief. I thought the script was electric both in and out of the courtroom. It wasn’t afraid to show the subtleties of the characters for the sake of plot conveniences so the movie felt multidimensional instead of just another one of those courtroom dramas where the climax could be predictably found in the last thirty minutes. I liked the fact that Sidney Lumet, the director, shaped a challenging movie where the ante kept increasing until the final verdict. When the case was over, there were no grand overtures for the losing or the winning team. What’s even better was that the main character was always challenged by those around him and the chance of him winning the case was always dim (sometimes too dim). I must applaud Newman because he had such a talent for balancing strength and sensitivity. He knew exactly what he wanted but at the same time he wasn’t afraid to stop to look at someone and allow himself to feel for them. Given that he lost someone important to him, I really felt like he wanted to fight for the helpless. His silent moments and pauses were so compelling because I could just feel his self-loathing and disappointments with himself and with the law. Another neat element was the tone of the movie reflected the inner struggle of the character–dark, brooding, self-reflective. Charlotte Rampling was also good, although somewhat underused, as Newman’s love interest. However, I think her character could have been developed some more. While she was an important tool to the story arc, she wasn’t utilized in such a way that she could have made a much bigger impact. Still, the scenes between her and Newman were sometimes heartbreaking because they were two lonely people wanting to speak with someone willing to be honest in an environment where lies were pretty much the default and most advantageous quality. Based on the novel by Barry Reed, “The Verdict” was an intense and compelling experience that one shouldn’t miss.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.
Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
★★★★ / ★★★★
It’s very uncommon for me to be interested in musicals so it took a little bit of effort for me to finally decide to watch “Cabaret.” I wish I could have seen it sooner because it was fantastic. I loved Liza Minnelli as an entertainer in a cabaret who had a dream of becoming a famous actress before the Nazis took hold of Germany. She was spunky, edgy, funny, self-deprecating, and a little bit vain; but despite her bold personality, she was a damaged character who yearned to be genuinely loved–not merely for her stage persona–but her real self, something that she was still striving to get from her father. I also found Michael York as a British writer who taught English on the side to be fascinating. At first glance I thought he was the typical leading man who was supposed to come in and sweep the leading lady off her feet, but he, too, had his own problems such as his anxiety of getting into a relationship with women. Was he a heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or simply a man who had taken a vow of celibacy? I desperately wanted to know. Minnelli and York’s character quickly got along and the film started off pretty light. However, as the film went on and a rich man (Helmut Griem) entered their lives, the dynamics between the two changed and the film became a little darker with each passing scene. I thought the film’s ability to balance between character development and commentaries about the relationship between the decadence inside the club and the reality outside was special because most musicals that I’ve seen do not even come close to reaching such a dramatic weight. The songs, in a way, were sort of the background but they were far from secondary because the musical numbers often connected the horrific events that were unfolding and the personal battles that each character had to face. Watching “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse, was really quite compelling and I couldn’t take my eyes (and my ears) off the screen. I think it deserved winning the eight Oscars it received because it was as complex or perhaps more so than, say, a typical “dramatic” Oscar-bait movie. Watching the film made me want to visit a Kit Kat Klub–cross-dressers, cigars, androgyny, debauchery and all. I’ll be on the lookout for more dark musicals like “Cabaret.”