Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Garfield stars as Eddie Dunford, a journalist on a quest to solve Britain’s infamous Yorkshire Ripper case. When a girl was found dead with wings stitched onto her back to make it seem like she was a fallen angel, everyone knew that the murder wasn’t a typical one. Everyone talked about it but no one was willing to come forward to the authorities or members of the media because they feared for their lives. I expected this film to be a procedural because it was such a popular case so I was a bit underwhelmed when it turned out to be otherwise. While I did enjoy the way the picture was shot and the dark undertones just boiling above the surface, it could have used a laser-like focus on the case at hand while exploring important questions such as why Eddie’s friend and fellow journalist (Anthony Flanagan) was killed. Instead, our protagonist became entangled in an unethical affair with the murdered child’s mother (Rebecca Hall), who may or may not know more than she lets on. I could have been more invested in the material if it had taken the time to explore and demonstrate how strong the bond was between Eddie and his friend. While Hall was strong as usual, the romantic angle grew stale pretty quickly because their relationship didn’t evolve. The script hinted at something insidious the more passionate the couple became but there were far too many scenes in the bedroom when the two would get intimate. Knowing that Eddie was keen at solving the mystery surrounding her daughter’s gruesome murder, I would think that she would encourage him to go deeper into the case and not into her. The film also consistently touched upon the corruption of the cops, journalists, and businessmen. Were they protecting each other because everybody wanted money or was it because something about the murder was mishandled in some way? There is no definite answer because the movie was too busy asking questions. The more questions were asked, the more frustrated I became because a lot of information thrown at us just did not make a lot of sense when I applied it to the big picture. Since this is the first of the trilogy, I am hoping that more of my questions will be answered the deeper I get into its mythology. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by Julian Jarrold, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” left a lot to be desired. The performances were engaging and the look of the movie reflected the times. It just needed more editing so it focused more on the actual case and less about our protagonist’s secondary adventures.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by David Yates, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was essentially the calm before the storm. Despite a dead boy and Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) had returned, the Ministry of Magic and the Daily Prophet, the newspaper the ministry controlled, insisted that it was all a lie. Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) had instructed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to act as Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, evil dressed in pink, who ignored the fine line between punishment and torture. Meanwhile, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) made an effort to avoid Harry for certain reasons, but our protagonist could not help but take it personally. The fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s highly successful series was my favorite because it was all about the preparation for the upcoming war that the first four books built upon. It was so rich in detail about corruption of power, the role of the media, and finding one’s place in the world. The first mistake the filmmakers made was condensing the longest book to just about over two hours, making it the shortest film. The book had an excellent reason to be the longest. As a result, the movie felt very rushed, particularly the very important scene when Harry and his friends (Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright, Evanna Lynch, and Matthew Lewis) had an exciting, but ultimately tragic, showdown against the Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries. It should have taken its time because it was at the point where the main character finally learned of his probable fate if he was to finally defeat Voldermort. I loved the book because it showed Harry as not only an emerging leader but, above all, a great teacher and a friend, too. I was not convinced that Yates paid enough attention to the importance of developing Harry as a strong person on his own but who was able to perform at his best when he had the full support of his friends. Character development is all about subtlety. Subtlety is not achieved with quickly edited scenes that do not add up to anything substantial. Lastly, I was greatly disappointed that the movie only had about two scenes of Snape (Alan Rickman) training Harry to control of his mind, the art of Occlumency, against Voldermort. It would have been fantastic if the script spent more time exploring their very complicated relationship. I found it strange that the film spent so little time with the subject of Occlumency because a big part of the fifth installment was Harry’s struggle against Voldermort taking over his mind and body. I was left with the impression that Yates did not understand what the book really about. I will not even get started with the lack of scenes involving the Ordinary Wizarding Level exams and the stresses the students had to deal with. Sadly, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is perhaps the weakest entry in the series when it should have been the best because the elements for greatness were provided by the original material.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.
Edge of Darkness (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mel Gibson stars as a homicide detective and a father of a girl (Bojana Novakovic) who was gruesomely killed by two men the night she visited him. The deeper Gibson’s character got into the investigation of his daughter’s death, the more he realized that maybe he was up against something way bigger than himself. However, that didn’t stop him from trying to do what was right even if he had to commit a few wrongs. Even though the film was very serious (sometimes too serious), I couldn’t help but enjoy it because it was such a joy to watch Gibson deliver such intensity into his character. It was kind of like watching Liam Neeson in the sleeper hit “Taken.” Every pause, every sharp breath and every shifting of the eyes communicated something to the audiences so it was fun trying to figure out what the main character was really thinking or what he was about to do in each scene. I completely believed that he was a father who wanted both justice and vengeance; I didn’t agree with some of his methods but I rooted for him because he exuded confidence and intelligence without sacrificing his heart. However, if I were to point at the movie’s major weakness, as the body count started piling up, the picture became more convoluted. Elements of politics and business were introduced but it didn’t quite hold up for me. By the end of the movie, some of my questions were left unanswered such as the further involvement (or lack thereof) of a rival company that Gibson’s daughter worked for and the real identity of a mysterious figure named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone). Winstone matched Gibson’s intensity in some scenes but I wanted to know more about him and his motivations. Since I didn’t know more about that particular key character, certain developments toward the end made me not buy what had just happened and I was left confused and a bit cheated. (Perhaps his character was further explained in the mini-series.) I’ve read reviews that said “Edge of Darkness” was an old-fashioned thriller. That’s exactly what I liked about the movie. “Edge of Darkness,” directed by Martin Campbell, is an effective thriller-mystery about corruption and revenge. The lead character may not be a typical hero that we can easily root for but we instinctively identify with him in his journey to finding out or getting as close as he can to the truth.
La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger still living in the Philippines, I had this idea that America was a great place where everyone was happy because everyone had an equal chance to get what they wanted in life. But now that I’m a little older and living in America, I’m beginning to see this country for what it really is: a machine designed to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. When I talk to my friends who came from different countries in Europe about how different things are in America, especially about healthcare and education, I can’t help but feel like America is a second-rate nation and that progress (if there is any) is too slow. “Capitalism: A Love Story,” written and directed by Michael Moore, tackled the topic of capitalism and the many components that drives it forward. I’m not going to mention all the points he brought up even though they are indeed very interesting ones, but there were three things from the film that struck me: teenagers being sent to private juvenile facilities for extended amounts time (without any sort of hearing involving extension changes) because they committed so-called crimes that I think were mere inconveniences or just a part of youth, companies buying insurance policies for their workers (without the workers knowing about it) so the companies can get money in the event of their workers’ death, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s touching speech at the end of the documentary which summarized what America should be. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was that sometimes Moore was too enthusiastic about getting his point across to the point where he got too cheesy in terms of using certain movies or television shows. It was all very dramatic but I did not find those elements convincing. In fact, I found them a bit distracting. I thought his strongest points came about when he actually interviewed members of the Congress (with real footages from Congress and the frustrations of various politicians about the current state of the country) and people who are taking a stand for the things they more than deserved (such as payment for the time they put in at their jobs). If those dramatic–sometimes cartoonish–footages were taken out, I think this film would have been more focused than the riveting and insightful “Sicko” (probably my favorite film by Moore to date). I found a lot of reviews discrediting this film for the fact that Moore directed it and everyone assuming that he’s just going to target Republicans. Well, he also showcased Democrats making deals and promises that are, from my perspective, not only dishonest and unethical but ultimately immoral. I say “immoral” because they’re making decisions for the American people and not just for their own private lives. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is an incisive and honest look about some of the (biggest) injustices in America. One may or may not agree with that statement but one cannot deny the current unhappiness of the American people. And what’s sad is that the unhappiness is only growing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot about Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a modern noir about a private detective (Jack Nicholson) who decided to investigate about water dealings in Los Angeles, only to discover later on that what he was onto was deeper than he could tread. I was impressed by this classic picture because even though it was set in the 1930s, there was something about it that was very aware of the noir films that came before. I thought that subtle self-awareness worked in its advantage because although it did follow some of the textbook rules of noir movies, it had the ability to flip some of those rules upside down and I was taken by surprise time and time again. I loved the acting especially by Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It’s an excellent collision of two great actors because Nicholson played a character who was always asking questions and snooping around no matter what the cost and Dunaway played a character who was a fortress. You never really know what she’s thinking or feeling because she’s so good at hiding certain bits of information that are crucial to her endgame. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to give away facts that could help Nicholson’s character but still keep her secrets. I also liked the recurring theme of a character thinking he or she knows everything but it turning out to be quite the opposite. In the hands of a less gifted director, I think the messages would have been obvious and less fun to think about. There were also certain metaphors in the film that I found to be fascinating. For instance, that scene between Dunaway and Nicholson regarding a flaw in the iris meant so much to me in ultimately determining whether I was in the right direction of guessing who was involved in what. And in this film, a whole array of things were happening all at once to the point where a less attentive viewer will almost certainly get lost in the maelstrom of intrigues, social commentaries and taboos. “Chinatown” was well ahead of its time because it was able to synthesize remnants of what made the noir films in the 1940s and 1950s so great yet still embrace the very modern moral and ethical conundrums that plagued the era of its release. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll love instead of like this movie. I recently found out that the more I think about certain movies and the more the events connect in my mind, the stronger my appreciation for them. Given the chance, I’ll be interested in watching “Chinatown’ again in the near future to see if its subtle ways had embedded themselves in my psyche. If it does, that is a sign of a great film.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The people who claim that this is another “Borat”-style kind of documentary are the exact same people who believe in god to such an extent that they’re willing to delude themselves that Bill Maher is not asking questions worth answering. I do think that Maher asks valid questions to the religious individuals featured (whose religions range from Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology) but he is smart enough to not let go of that trademark sense of humor that made him so famous. Even though I was born a Catholic, I do not affiliate myself with any religious group because, to be blunt, I think the whole thing is a crock. Even though my parents are Catholics, they provided me the freedom to choose and think for myself so I’m going to exercise it until the day I die. When I watch documentaries that challenge any religion, excitement comes over me because I love taking apart people’s arguments from both sides and decide which side is weaker. Although Maher did bring up a plethora of excellent points, I can admit that there were times when I wished he went straight for the jugular instead of dancing around the issue and eventually reaching it. However, Maher had enough insight to keep me on my feet and such insights made my arguments that much stronger the next time I get into a debate about religion. Another thing I liked about this film was its fast cuts to random images like Jonah Hill, cartoons aimed for children, older films that tell a story from the Bible, nuclear weapons going off, and even Maher’s childhood videos–all of which serve to provide a sense of humor and to support certain arguments on how ludicrous biblethumpers really are. One downside about this documentary, however, was that it lost a little bit of that great momentum in the final twenty minutes. There were less laughs because the jokes weren’t as sharp even though it’s still making fun of religion and people who build their lives around it. I highly recommend this film especially to agnostics and atheists. I doubt anyone with a strong set of religious beliefs will change their minds. There were a couple of quotes that stood out to me but this quote pretty much embodied the film’s argument: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”
Swing Kids (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
After wanting to cry so badly for about an hour, the ending was done in such an over-the-top way to the point where I really wanted to laugh. That said, I really liked this picture not because it’s particularly accurate or even about an important group of people that changed the tide of World War II, but because I truly felt the emotions it wanted to convey. It’s about three friends and their love for swing music. As Nazism grew, their friendship is challenged in a meaningful way: one did not compromise his beliefs and remained a civilian opposing Hitler (Frank Whaley), while the other two joined in a training facility for Hitler’s army (Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale). I thought it was interesting how Leonard and Bale were being corrupted for a while; at some point one of them managed to wake up but the other one did not. There’s so much drama involving Leonard’s character but the one I found to be most involving was his relationship with his family. It was painful for me to watch the family implode because they are essentially good people caught in circumstances where they have to make the tough decisions in order to survive. But the one jarring thing that made me almost give up from even giving the movie a good review is for about forty to fifty minutes, no one voiced out that by joining Hitler’s army, despite one’s belief that it’s wrong or one is only using it for the perks, it’s basically supporting something evil. For me, that was the most obvious fact and when no one was saying it out loud, especially by characters who are questioning their identities and what they stand for, it’s a big misstep. Thankfully, at some point someone finally said it and that’s when the core of the picture started to show. If the director, Thomas Carter, has established the core sooner and made room for a more subtle ending, this film would’ve been more powerful. Instead, “Swing Kids” becomes a movie that has a powerful middle but a weak beginning and ending. Still, I’m giving it a three out of four stars because it made me care about what would happen to the characters even though they were one-dimensional in the beginning: kids who oppose Nazism and love swing music. I would also recommend it for the fans of Leonard and Bale who want to see them look really young. It made me wonder how big of a star Leonard would’ve become if he didn’t star in “House, M.D.” because he can outshine Bale in many scenes.