★★★ / ★★★★
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.