J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.
Falscher Bekenner (2005)
★ / ★★★★
Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) had recently graduated from the university. With a competitive job market and his lack of enthusiasm during his interviews, he couldn’t seem to snag a job. His parents’ (Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff) insistence that he put in more effort to everything he did didn’t quite sit well with him. As a response, he sent a false confession about a crime he didn’t commit. It seemed as though getting away with it was his biggest accomplishment. Written and directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, I knew the message that the film wanted to relay to its audiences. That is, young adults’ minds are irrational, volatile, and curious. However, it lacked important transitions between scenes. Too often were we left with Armin in his room as he stared at his computer, procrastinating instead of working on job applications. Then it would jump to scenes when he would search for Katja (Nora von Waldstätten), a girl who he considered to be his girlfriend but she thought otherwise. When he did find her, he was at a loss for words. What was the relationship between the two scenes? The formula became almost unbearable to sit through. Since the scenes lacked transition, the rising action felt disconnected and the film lacked tension. The movie was at its most interesting when Armin was being interviewed for a job. His voice sounded apathetic and his body language lacked energy but his responses were unpredictable. There were times when I was impressed that he could think on his feet and sometimes flat-out lie about his experiences. But there were instances when I felt like he was drowning in questions, that his mind needed more time to process the situation and come up with a reasonable response. When Armin was most vulnerable, the picture seemed to wake up from its deep slumber. The parenting was another critical strand in the plot. It was obvious that the fathered preferred Armin’s older brother (Florian Panzner): He played sports, sociable, had a career, and about to start a family. Our protagonist didn’t like to show it but he was sensitive to his father’s expectations. What son isn’t? On the other hand, the mother was lenient. She thought that if Armin tried harder, he would have no problem getting a job. She was in denial. I got the impression that it never occurred to her that her son was simply not ready to have a career that he would have, or was expected to have, for the rest of his life right after graduation. Some people just need a bit more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong it. “Falscher Bekenner” had some decent ideas about society’s expectations of its young minds that happened to be a little lost. However, it desperately needed to snap out of its insularity and not be ashamed to allow us to feel for its main character’s struggles.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
Down Terrace (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Bill (Robert Hill) and Karl (Robin Hill), father and son, had recently been released from jail. Bill was convinced that the reason why they were sent to jail was because there was an informant in their midst. It was a matter of finding out the informant’s identity and putting him in the ground. Meanwhile, Karl’s girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) revealed that she was pregnant and about to have the baby in a few weeks. Despite the big surprise, Bill and Maggie (Julia Deakin), his wife, were unmoved and did not look forward to becoming grandparents. They thought she was impregnated by another man. There was something wonderfully devilish about “Down Terrace.” It had my type of dark humor: a tablespoon of family dysfunction, a pinch of a character beginning to question his place and true value within a group, and a gallon of strange coincidences coming together in which the characters were led to believe they were smart and had a firm handle with what was going on but, in reality, they were as lost as ants without scent trails. While the film was also about finding a mole within their crime circle, I was far more fascinated with watching the way the dynamics within the family unfolded. I thought the material was highly amusing because the family had only one way of communicating their personal problems. They yelled at each other to the top of their lungs which didn’t help their situation because each of them was like fortress. They knew how to voice out their wild opinions but they didn’t know how to listen. They saw questioning and changing themselves as a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of. Another source of great comedy was the pregnancy and the naming of the baby. I couldn’t help but laugh when Bill, with enthusiasm to spare, would go from talking about experimenting with all sorts of drugs in order to gain enlightenment to brainstorming names for his future grandchild. He was an intimidating figure but a fun person, given the right temperament, in family gatherings. But what didn’t work for me was in finding the identity of the mole. It was important because it was one of the two elements that drove the story forward. In the end, I was somewhat confused whether there really was an informant and why some of characters had to be killed. To me, it felt like a convenient way to generate cheaper laughs. From that angle, I wish it didn’t try so hard to impress. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Down Terrace” had, without a doubt, something different to offer in terms of crime families. From the looks of it, the budget may have been relatively low but its dark humor were like punches that came hard and fast. I just wished the murder scenes made more sense and were as intense as the increasingly suffocating and crumbling family.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
★★ / ★★★★
Half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert) and Vincent (Michael Harris) met for the first time. Everyone in the film, including the two, thought they looked alike. However, the audience knew better because they were obviously nothing alike in terms of physicality: Clay was an African-American who looked like a linebacker and Vincent was a Caucasian who looked frail but with a mind full of devious intentions. Vincent wanted to get away with murder so he tried to fake his death by using Clay’s body in a car explosion. However, Clay lived without any memory of who he was. It was up to Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) to reconstruct Clay’s face and Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono) to reconstruct Clay’s memories. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “Suture” had a fascinating, almost Hitchcock-ian premise but it ultimately failed to deliver because Clay’s journey to eventually realizing what happened to him lacked tension. Instead of keeping his relationship with Dr. Descartes strictly professional, they got involved in a romantic relationship. In a way, that romance was a distraction instead of really exploring interesting questions involving living a life that was not meant to be. As a person of science, I also had questions about Dr. Shinoda’s techniques in the attempt to recover Clay’s memory. I’m not quite sure if the film was aiming for accuracy but I believe Freudian methods are far from the most effective ways in treating amnesia (at least from what I’ve been taught). The movie only regained its footing near end when Vincent finally decided to finish off what he had started. It was a nailbiting scene because the characters moved ever so slowly and so quietly to the point where the audiences were keen on potential mistakes that could cost a character his life. I loved that the movie was gorgeously shot in black and white but at the same time it was disappointing because the filmmakers did not play with shadows. It would have been a perfect because the characters, especially Vincent, had something to hide and he was often in the dark in terms of what he was thinking and his true motivations. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if Vincent had become a more sympathetic figure over time instead of remaining to be a one-dimensional cold-blooded killer. The same goes for Clay: it would have been much more fun to watch the film if his desperation had led him to make decisions that we did not necessarily agree with. In the end, I wanted to see the malleability, fluidity and complexity of identity. Instead of taking a step beyond the switching identity storyline, it stayed within the conventions and it failed to leave a lasting memory.
Battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, De (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Jacques Audiard posed a classic nature versus nurture question about a man in his late twenties (Romain Duris) who wanted to remove himself from a life of crime and to recapture his talent in playing the piano. His time was torn on two fronts: his father (Niels Arestrup) who made dishonest real-estate deals and his piano lessons with a recent immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) who taught him discipline and how to relax. This film had an exceptional use of tone. The push-and-pull forces that the character experienced were often reflected by the music that we heard (electro versus classical) and the images we saw (indoors versus outdoors, night versus day, order versus chaos). Since the film spent equal time between each forces, I understood the character’s anger because nobody believed in him. When he would tell someone of his extracurricular activities, the person would imply that he was too old and he was no longer a talented pianist that he once was. Naturally, his anger was fueled and so did his need to prove that he was good enough. I immediately related with the things he went through so I knew that his biggest enemy was ultimately himself. Since he never received approval from his distant father who only contacted him for favors, he tried to look for approval from other people which involved him sleeping with other women (Mélanie Laurent, Aure Atika) and moving on just as quickly. The reviews I encountered made a point about the movie not really going anywhere and the ideas were much larger than the final product. I disagree because Tom’s journey wasn’t about but life-changing revelations provided by those who surrounded him. Although he tried to look for answers by looking at others, the ultimate lesson was looking inwards and realizing that he had to love himself whether he still had the talent or otherwise. I thought the film was thoughtful about its arguments without spoon-feeding its audiences critical information and had a quiet power that moved me the more I thought about it afterwards. “De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté” or “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” could have easily been an obvious story of a man wanting redemption. Instead, it chose the more intelligent and sensitive path by allowing us to feel for, although not necessarily pity, the tortured protagonist. The film was also successful at asking us about our own lost potential.
Informant!, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) had it all: a stable job that paid well, a loving family, a huge home, and absolutely no drama in his life. But his ambition and greed got the best of him and decided that he was going to accuse his company of embezzlement. He just didn’t want to be near the top of the pyramid, he wanted to be at the peak. Somehow, in his mind, he had this idea that if he could take down everyone who was in a higher position than him in the company, he would end up running the whole place. He was logical on the surface but his logic’s core was seriously flawed so he was a fascinating specimen for me to observe from a psychological point of view. “The Informant!,” based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was a hilarious look at a man who was drowning in his lies and delusions, but even funnier was he had no idea when to quit and seek help. I think Damon should have been nominated for an Oscar for his acting in this film because even though he got everyone trapped in his tornado of lies for five years or more, like his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and the two FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) who recruited him as a spy, I had to admit that I ended up rooting for him because his charisma was as powerful as his lies. The desperation that Damon infused in his character made me feel bad for him not just as a character but as a person. In other words, he successfully made a pathological liar look like the good guy. I loved the way Soderbergh helmed the picture. Instead of telling the story in a typical crime drama, it was nicely balanced with dark humor, especially the scenes when the lead character would narrate for a bit so we could hear the many random (sometimes insightful) thoughts and what was really going on inside of his head. Just when I thought I had the movie all figured out, it surprised me because it actually became darker and more amusing as it went on. The director had a way of playing with tones at just the right amount so it didn’t feel jarring when it shifted. Considering the movie covered a span of ten years, the pacing was superb and I actually wanted it to run longer because I was having such a great time. The progression of a confident and obviously smart man who slowly lost all the good things in his life (including his mind) was sad but at the same the journey was quite a ride. I loved that most of the movie’s humor was in the dialogue and situations instead of playing on the obvious. I’ve read reviews from regular folks who claimed that it was stupid. I think those people just need to think for a bit and realize the fact that there’s a Mark Whitacre in all of us (narcissism and all)–the way we lie to people and sometimes how we eventually get tangled up in our own lies to the point where we end up betraying our own ideals.
Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Das (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
★ / ★★★★
Five groups of people were the focus of “Gomorra” (or “Gomorrah”), directed by Matteo Garrone, and, unfortunately, none of them worked. I expected a lot from this movie because I assumed that since it was over two hours long, it would really have a chance to explore the psychologies and motivations of the characters. Not to mention it received glowing reviews from critics and audiences alike. I should have known to lower my expectations because I just don’t have good experiences with movies that show people being involved or growing up in a life of crime (like the overrated “City of God”–a decent movie but overrated nonetheless). With such movies, I feel like internal exploration is often sacrificed for grittiness, griminess and melodrama when instead all of those elements should be working together to make a trascendent, if not moving, picture. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the names of the characters in this movie because I was just so uninterested with was happening on screen. In my opinion, the characters got what they deserved in the end (whatever they may be) because throughout the movie’s running time, they often thrusted themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations. I read one critic mention that these people do not have a choice in being involved with the life of crime. I completely disagree. We have a choice to not dump toxic waste in illegal areas which pose a threat to the health of others; we have a choice to not put a gun on someone else’s ahead and pressing the trigger; we have a choice to not be chained to the bad reputations of our neighborhoods and strive for something more in life. I know this because I know how it’s like to grow up in a poor neighborhood. Another element that really bothered me was that the disparate stories never really aligned. More than halfway through, I constantly wondered where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. I feel like the picture had some sort of a thesis deep inside its walls but it was never really tackled head-on until those notes appeared prior to the credits. This was definitely a different movie-going experience and I would have liked it a lot more if it had flowed better. I’m not saying that it should have conformed to the Hollywood standards. In fact, I would have disliked it just as much if it did. But a chaotic storytelling that confuses its audiences and not letting them in is not a trait of a good film. There were some glimmer of potential here and there (and that’s pushing it) but those weren’t enough to draw me in and keep me interested. To be honest, I felt like watching it was a waste of my two hours.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
★★ / ★★★★
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t enjoy this western classic about two fugitives, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who decided to go to Bolivia in order to escape the law and rob banks there instead. Directed by George Roy Hill, Newman and Redford were definitely charismatic and their characters had a brotherly chemistry without even trying; unfortunately, everything about it was so blasé to the point where I thought I was watching boys acting on their id rather than men trying to accomplish something that they could be proud of (no matter unlawful such things may be). Although it had a lot of energy especially during the chase and gun-wielding scenes, the movie had no idea when to turn down the energy and focus on the characters so that the audiences would know more about the two leads, such as where they came from, why the turned to the life of crime and what was it about their relationship that made them dependent on each other. The romantic angle regarding Katharine Ross as Etta Place was a mere filler for me. Those scenes lacked passion and sensuality so I was somewhat uncomfortable watching it. I wish Redford and Newman’s characters had more edge or danger instead of just being likable because there were times when I thought the film glorified violence. Except for the final minutes, I didn’t feel like their actions had any sort of consequences so the movie became one-dimensional for too long. I expected a lot coming into this film because I’ve heard from both critics and audiences alike that it was nothing short of exemplary. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I saw the picture, I don’t know, but it didn’t engage me like “Bonnie and Clyde,” with which it had a number of parallels. I wouldn’t have minded the (very light) humor so much if it let the darkness took over from time to time. It’s a shame because I really do love watching Newman and Redford because I think they’re very talented actors. Luckily, they star together again in “The Sting,” a movie that really showcases the two of them as a whole package backed up with superior writing and direction (also by George Roy Hill).