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.
Dark City (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) woke up in a bathtub with barely any memory of where or who he was. The phone rang and a psychiatrist named Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland) told him that a group of men called The Strangers were on their way to John’s hotel room to kill him. Another group that was after John was the police led by Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) because they believed John was a serial killer. Bumstead’s first lead was John’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). The picture’s greatest asset was its ideas that continued to challenge the audiences. The fantastic visual and special effects became secondary but they enhanced the experience of watching the city’s many mysteries unfold. We couldn’t help but question why every time it was midnight, time seemed to stop except for The Strangers and some select individuals. What were The Strangers up to? Specifically, what did they want from humans? Why were they living underground? How come we and the characters never see the light of day? I had my hypotheses because of one scene involving Dr. Schreber and a mouse attempting to find its way out of a maze. Crossing out my guesses one by one was half the fun. Like Bumstead, we were forced to pay attention to the small details and the implications in the dialogue. I loved that the film chose not to spoon-feed its viewers critical information. Its magic then comes from us as active participants. We become detectives and try to make sense of whatever was happening. “Dark City” had major negatives that I believe prevented the film from becoming a masterpiece as most people consider it to be. I had problems with the first half’s pacing. I think the picture spent too much time putting John in situations where he was confused and disoriented. I didn’t think it needed to hammer the fact that he had amnesia because the first scene did an excellent job setting up John’s psychological state. Furthermore, when the movie tried to be philosophical, it did not always work for me. For example, John told one of The Strangers that what they wanted could be found in the heart and not in the brain. Technically, everything we are and everything we can be is embedded in our brain. While the two undoubtedly need each other, the brain governs the heart. This can be observed when we tell ourselves to calm down when we’re angry and we find that our heart rates tend to decrease. In a way, when the film tried to be philosophical, I found it borderline cheesiness. Nevertheless, “Dark City,” directed by Alex Proyas, is a strong science fiction film. It was appropriately titled because it was literally dark, it had many mysteries worth exploring, and it had just about the right amount of menace to keep those with short attention spans engaged. I admired its ambition and film noir undertones.
★★★ / ★★★★
A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.
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.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vargtimmen” or “Hour of the Wolf” plays on the idea that between night and dawn, it is the time when most people are born and most people die. It is also the time when we are haunted by our greatest fears whether we are asleep or awake. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, while I thought the story was interesting, I can’t quite recommend it because I know Bergman was capable of producing a stronger picture. It just didn’t have the signature tension that most of his movies had. I absolutely loved Liv Ullmann’s scenes because she had a talent for balancing sweetness, anxiety, fear and internal rage. This was highlighted when she talked to the camera such as in the first and last scenes. I wanted to console her and ask her about the finer details of what she thought happened to her increasingly detached husband. While I thought the performances were fine, such as Max von Sydow as Ullmann’s husband who was afraid of the dark, nobody else could match the lead actress’ intensity so I felt like she somewhat carried the film. For a horror film, I didn’t feel scared for a second because it really was more about the fractured mind of von Sydow–how the guilt for something he had done in the past had suddenly become so unbearable; and how one experience he had as a child had changed the way he dealt with irrational fears. As for the people they met in a gothic castle, they were more strange (and amusing) than anything. While they did have their moments, Bergman did not really give the audiences a chance to understand what they really about. For me, they were more like cackling fools in a corner instead of malevolent strangers whose sole intention is to harm. I know a plethora of people who love the cinema that consider “Vargtimmen” a classic. I certainly do not because I don’t feel like it all came together as a strong whole. In the end, I had more questions than answers. While it did incorporate the subject of psychology in its story, it lacked tension. Instead of really being enveloped into the story, I constantly questioned what the point was. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s work, “Hour of the Wolf” may seem pretty good. But for those who are not, we all know this is not his finest hour (and a half).
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.
The Pianist (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Walt Disney’s first full-feature animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” directed by David Hand, may be too simple in story and animation when it comes to today’s standards but that was what I loved about it. An evil queen (Lucille La Verne) decided to kill her step-daughter named Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) because the Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) claimed that the queen was no longer the fairest in the land. The queen sent a man to kill her step-daughter but he instead let her escape because he couldn’t find it in himself to commit murder. Snow White then ran away to the forest and there she met the seven dwarfs with very distinct personalities. Most of this picture was pretty much singing and dancing, while the story could only be found in the beginning and the final showdown between good and evil. While I did think that Snow White was not a very smart character in particular (who decides to eat a random apple that came from a shifty stranger?), she was likable enough for me to ultimately root for her. And although the lesson in the film was questionable because it pretty much implied that women should be good at cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking and depending on men to rescue them from a sad situation, kids should nonetheless be entertained because of the sheer amount of vivid colors and energy that the film had all the way through. Not to mention the songs were really catchy, especially “Heigh-Ho” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” It must be noted that this animated film explored a little bit of darkness that might scare the children. Some examples include the queen’s determination to kill Snow White in not-so-subtle ways such as cutting off her heart and poisoning her with an apple, the witchcraft and transformation scenes of the evil queen to a decrepit old lady, and the nightmarish experience that Snow White had when she ran into the forest. Yet, in a way, I was glad that those elements from the fairy tales of Wilhelm Grimm and Jacob Grimm, from which the picture was based on, remained intact because it kept me engaged, which meant that the older viewers would most likely not get bored by the repetitive singing and dancing. The great artistic endeavor that was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” opened the door to so many of Disney’s most excellent animated features. Although the film had its flaws, I believe we must honor it not only because it was progressive but also due to the fact that it provided people laughter and hope during the Great Depression.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.”
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
★★ / ★★★★
Even though I really wanted to like this film more than I did, I can understand why it gained its cult following. The film features dark alleys and hallways as if to resemble the dark side of humanity. That metaphor is consistent throughout so it’s difficult not to admire Abel Ferrara’s direction. Each scene is so visceral and honest to the point where it was painful to watch; two scenes I can recall right away is the scene that involves a rape and when the lead actor (Harvey Keitel) actually sees Christ. Keitel pushes his acting ability to its limit and it was great to see. His character is extremely difficult to like because he’s on drugs pretty much every hour of every day, he doesn’t really care for his family, he terrorizes unknowing teenage girls and his obsession with gambling ultimately takes a toll on his soul. That latter component, in my opinion, is the one topic that’s fully explored. On the outside, it seems like he gambles for the money but if one were to look closely, it’s more about his desperation to stay in touch with reality. Without living in some kind of risk, it seems as though the lead character doesn’t feel like he exists–at least exist in a meaningful way. As much as I love symbolism and reading between the lines, at the same time, that’s the most frustrating part of this film. It doesn’t really let the audiences know why things are unfolding as they are. It’s open to interpretation so it automatically weeds out those who are unwilling to look past the grimy, nihilistic setting. To me, it needs more focus in terms of exploring its core and why this tortured character ended up the way he is. The pictures gives us a lot of scenes that involve Keitel’s character doing a lot of very bad things but without some sort of background, he becomes the enemy instead of someone we can watch all the way through–not necessarily root for. I admired this film’s many conflicting ideas but I cannot quite recommend it because I feel like it needed more substance instead of just featuring self-destruction for about ninety minutes.