★★ / ★★★★
Just as the queen of the forest (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles) has chosen a bud that will ensure the survival of all, she is attacked by Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), a group of warriors who wish to create a desolate wasteland. MK (Amanda Seyfriend), a human visiting her father (Jason Sudeikis), happens to walk in the middle of the action and she is magically turned into pint-sized being. She is instructed to take care of the bud and deliver it to Nim Galuu, a caterpillar with access to sacred scrolls. Though MK gets help from some of the queen’s loyal friends, Mandrake and his army move ever closer.
Based on “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce, “Epic” is disappointing but passable, energetic but not thoroughly enjoyable. It is likely to entertain really young children but there is not much for adults who need something more than pretty colors and a few chuckle-inducing one-liners. The picture gets by most of the time but the deeper it gets into the conflict between good and evil, one cannot help but wonder who cares and how long until it is all over.
The main characters are not interesting. Initially, MK has an interesting backstory because her mother has just passed away and so a part of her hopes to reconnect with her father. However, she is not surprised that he is more into his work—proving that little people in the forest do exist—than forging a real relationship with his daughter. Meanwhile, Nod (Josh Hutcherson) is a Leaf Man who is having second thoughts about being one. His mentor, Ronin (Colin Farrel), thinks he lacks the drive and discipline to become an effective protector.
It is most awkward that the material forces MK and Nod to share a romantic connection. It simply does not make any sense—she being human and he being a creature of the forest. Taking a friendship route, helping each other recognize what they need to be able to flourish in their own worlds, might have been more effective. And given that the two of them being together is not off-putting, what they have is far from convincing. The dialogue between them is so cloying and trying too hard to be cute that I felt like I was watching a television show for pre-teens. Is their flirtation supposed to be appealing to kids?
The villains are bland as chalk. Their motivation does not make sense. They are a part of the forest as much as the good guys but they supposedly want to kill the environment. It is illogical because if they so happen to succeed, how will they be able to survive? Where will they get food, clean water, and proper shelter? Surely the screenwriters could have chosen a better motivation for the bad guys rather than just giving them a nonsensical reason to stir trouble. Even if the intention is to remain loyal to the source material, translating the work into film requires a level of complexity.
The animation is quite easy on the eyes but there is only two or three scenes that are impressive. Because the little forest creatures move so much faster than humans, the former perceive the latter in slow motion. A standout scene involves MK, Nod, and Ronin breaking into MK’s house and being found out by the three-legged dog and the enthusiastic researcher. The sequence is more visually stimulating than any of the action scenes between the Leaf Men and the Boggans combined.
Directed by Chris Wedge, “Epic” is not imaginative enough to live up to its title. Children deserve to experience something with more weight than good guys and bad guys running around. For instance, if Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King” were only about an evil lion who killed his younger brother to get the throne, it would not have been a classic. It is not too much to expect a bit more thought and meaning from the story being told.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
★ / ★★★★
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott, is nothing but an exercise of special and visual effects. It does not bother to tell an engaging arc; it assumes that all audiences are familiar with the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) so it relies on the template to burn off one hundred fifty minutes. Furthermore, it does not provide any surprising detail about the brothers and their relationship. What results is a limp epic consisting of solemn whispers and hyperbolic yelling—a bore down to its marrow.
Telling this kind of story with a forceful fist is an incredible miscalculation. Thus, it feels like an action film rather than one that inspires us to think a little bit about different aspects of spirituality. It should have been told with a certain delicateness in order to highlight the characters’ choices, recurring themes, and the emotions that they go through that drive them to make life or death decisions. Instead, the picture adopts a lethargic pattern: tragedy, close-ups expressing horror, and then more tragedy.
Even the ten plagues that come to haunt Memphis, Egypt do not command much impact. The only one that stood out to me was the death of all firstborn children. Notice how the scene takes its time as it shows darkness creeping across the city. There is fear in the wind as it blows candles from both poor and rich households. The camera slithers as souls are taken away from their host. I wished that the rest of the material functioned on such a high level. I could not look away.
And then we are back to the plot involving Moses attempting to persuade Ramses to free the Hebrews from slavery. Part of the problem is Bale and Edgerton being miscast—for two very different reasons. Bale is not very expressive here. Although his interpretation of Moses is one that is easily provoked, there are not enough moments in the script where we are made to sympathize with his predicament. Edgerton, on the other hand, is given more chances to express a range of emotions than Bale but the makeup plastered on his face prevents us from appreciating his increasingly desperate position. It might have worked better if a quieter, more thoughtful actor were cast as Moses and an actor who could carry a lot of makeup were cast as Ramses.
Scenes between Moses and Malak (Isaac Andrews), serving as a representation of God, are laughable initially and like pulling teeth later on. Their interactions are so forced that every time they are around one another, the scene comes across very rehearsed: the actors know the lines but the subtleties of emotions are simply not there. There should have been fewer of these scenes and the ones that are necessary ought to have been reshot.
Disappointing almost every step of the way, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a colossal waste of time, an excuse to use money in order to create a project that is pretty at times but one that has no soul. Every minute is felt trickling by.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A few great movies can be summed up in one word and it is not considered a hyperbole. With “Fitzcarraldo,” written and directed by Werner Herzog, the word is “fearless”—in ambition, scope, and execution. Coming into the picture, I have seen about a half a dozen images of a steamboat atop a sizable hill. I was dazzled then. But actually watching the massive boat being dragged from a river onto land and up a steep slope is something else entirely—it is a spectacle. Knowing that none of the images on screen are made by computer trickery adds to the raw sensation of witnessing something extraordinary.
Brian Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream: To build the greatest opera in the South American jungle and have Caruso as his star attraction. Building an opera house will require considerable funds. Since Peru’s rubber business proves to be very profitable, he hopes get into it by purchasing an unclaimed land, one that is teeming with rubber trees. The catch is in order to get there, one must go through dangerous riverbends and rapids as well as survive against hostile native people.
To immerse us in the story, Herzog makes a point to allow the scenes to unfold in a slow but nonetheless fascinating fashion. From the moment Fitzgerald is introduced, we are curious about him because his obsession appears to be indomitable. Kinski is perfect for the role because he creates a character whose frame, movement, and posture communicates a desperation to succeed. His one great failure, which involves an incomplete railway, still hangs over his head and we get the impression that if this latest project were to fail, it just might destroy him. Thus, before the exposition ends, we understand and sympathize with the protagonist. We root for his dream to be realized.
The picture has an eye for nature, from huge trunks of trees being sawed off to the majesty of the river up ahead, and once the journey is over, it feels as though we have gotten a real taste—one that lingers—of the Amazon River. Lesser movies that are shot on location usually fail to capture that feeling of presence. Here, because Herzog is such a perfectionist and he knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey, we are in the moment every step of the way. The experience is one that is considered to be transportive.
It also has an eye for interesting faces, from Fitzcarraldo and his lover (Claudia Cardinale) to Fitzcarraldo’s motley crew on the ship (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez). When the camera rests on an indigenous person’s face, whether it be that of a fierce leader or an innocent child, there is a regal quality in the faces without distracting remnants of one trying hard to give a performance. When they look at a distance, especially during a scene where they mourn for their dead, it is almost like they are telling a story. In a way, the film is similar to a documentary in that rawness is valued and treasured. We get a sense of a specific culture.
“Fitzcarraldo” reminded me a sensational feeling when I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa sangre” for the first time. Both defy categorization. And both demand its images to be ingrained in our minds so deeply that it sets the bar for other movies of its type—if others directors—future, past, and present—are brave enough to take a similar gamble.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew of treasure hunters found a safe under the wreckage of RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that perished, along with about 1,500 people, on April 15, 1912 while on its way to America. They expected the safe contain a diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean, but what they found instead was a drawing of a topless woman wearing the jewel of interest. Rose (Gloria Stuart) saw the drawing on television and called Lovett to inquire about the artifacts. Rose, as it turned out, was one of the survivors of the doomed voyage. Written and directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” was a great achievement because it was able to transport its audience to a time that was and allowed us to experience what could have happened on that ship as the ocean slowly, then quickly, swallowed it whole. One of the most engaging scenes, perhaps only about minute long, was when one of Lovett’s crew explained the physics in terms of how, after hitting an iceberg, the iron giant began to sink and why it broke the way it did. By giving us a picture using images on a computer, we had an idea of what to expect. Yet when it actually started to happen, the suspense and thrill reached an apogee and wouldn’t let go. The manner in which the picture switched from silence, to musicians playing joyful music in order to distract the passengers from reaching total panic, to the angelic hymns of the score made the images of people falling and jumping off the ship, out of fear and desperation, haunting and exhausting. It’s difficult to forget, once the ship was completely submerged, the sounds of people crying, screaming, splashing, and begging the lifeboats, most having plenty of space, to come back turn into complete silence. Cut to sea of corpses floating on freezing water. The heart of the picture was the romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet). Jack won his tickets to Titanic on a last-minute poker game. Along with a friend (Danny Nucci), the two were ecstatic for the epic journey. Rose, on the other hand, was incredibly unhappy because she was to marry Cal (Billy Zane), a pompous, boring, and self-important son of a steel tycoon. While most people tend to blame the romance for being the picture’s Achilles’ heel, I thought DiCaprio and Winslet had a winsome chemistry, benefiting from classic stories of a young man and woman torn by a demarcation of class and disapproving authorities. The dinner scene when Jack was invited to sit with Rose’s rich and snobbish company was a turning point for the two lovers. Despite pointed comments by Rose’s fiancé and mother (Frances Fisher), Jack proved that was comfortable with who he was and what he could offer. Rose looked at him like he was the richest and most desirable man in the room, the way we perhaps tend to do when we’re convinced that a person is exactly right for us. The script needed less cornball lines but they weren’t egregious enough to distract from the collective experience. “Titanic” was very extravagant. From Rose’s stylish clothes to the intricate designs of the ships’ doors and spacious private rooms, one could argue that the lavishness was necessary, even required, in order to highlight the horrors of destruction and lives being taken.
Meglio gioventù, La (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“La meglio gioventù” or “The Best of Youth,” written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, runs for six hours long but I was so invested in all of the characters so I wanted it to run longer. Its focus was on two brothers named Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) and how the choices they made back when they were young in the 1960s have impacted their respective futures all the way to the 2000s. This is one of those films where it’s difficult to describe what it’s about because it’s pretty much about everything. Let’s just say that this is about life and the beauty that comes with it–how cruel yet generous fate can be, how ironic situations are despite the sharply fluctuating sadness and comedy, and how the people we meet can help shape who we are. Yes, it’s about two brothers who are very different from each other (one became a psychiatrist and one became a cop) but what I liked about the picture is that it didn’t paint them as rivals. In fact, they genuinely loved each other even though their political views and how they interpreted situations that faced them were vastly different. I also liked the way the director effortlessly sewn in the Italian history into their lives. I didn’t find it at all distracting because the movie always worked at a personal level. There was always something going on on the surface and underneath it all was a lot of hurt, disappointment, regret and what ifs. I was also amazed with how the movie started off with the actors looking really young and look of the picture reflected that of the 1960s. But as we made our journey through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the same actors looked older and the look of the movie became sharper and more modern. It was fascinating to watch and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As the movie went on, the focus shifted from the brothers to their parents, siblings, lovers, and children. I really felt like I was watching someone’s life unfold before my eyes. As the characters often reflected on a certain memory when they were younger, I actually had a picture on which memory they were talking about as well as the circumstances that surrounded that event. It’s so much more interesting than in other films where a character talks about his or her memory and we can only build from what he or she is saying. I’m so happy to have seen “The Best of Youth” because not only did it inspire me to love the people in my life more but it also gave me an idea of what I could possibly write about for my personal statement for medical school. This film is a treasure and it should not be missed by anyone who loves stories that deftly cover several decades.
Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.
★★★ / ★★★★
After watching the film, admittedly not knowing much about it prior, I looked it up and was at total awe that Stanley Kubrick, the director, made this film in the 1950’s. I was completely aware that he made beautiful films but I had no idea that he could blow other historical epics out of the water which came before and after “Spartacus.” Kirk Douglas stars as the title character, a half-slave-turned-gladiator after being purchased by the hilarious Peter Ustinov. In the gladiator school, Douglas met Jean Simmons, another slave, and the two fall in love. When Simmons was purchased by a rich Roman senator (Laurence Olivier) after an unexpected visit, the slaves/gladiators broke out of the school and they made it their mission to free every slave in the Roman Empire. Everything about this picture felt big: the romance between Douglas and Simmons, the battle scenes between the slaves and the Roman soldiers, and the political strife between Olivier and Charles Laughton. I also enjoyed the side characters such as the poetic Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and Julius Caesar (John Gavin) who made the story that much more compelling. While each scene was or close to excellent, there were some definite standouts such as the bath scene between Olivier and Curtis (not included in the original release). It was so funny (and revealing) due to the homosexual undertones regarding their conversation about preferring to eat oysters or snails. It was taken out in its original release but I’m glad that added it back in the later editions because it made the characters that much richer. Nevertheless, I felt like there was something missing–a special shine that made most of Kubrick’s films so memorable. Perhaps it’s some of the overly simplistic (sometimes downright pointless) dialogue between characters, especially in the earlier scenes, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Still, this picture is definitely worth watching for the ravishing aesthetics, some strong acting and scope even though the script/story could have been stronger. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the number of people that were hired as extras, especially during the battle sequences, knowing the fact that computers did not much have capability to enhance the movie back then as much as it can nowadays. Ultimately, I say see it because its willingness to take risks is something to be commended.
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Intended to be a trilogy, “Mongol,” directed by Sergei Bodrov, painted a beautiful but often complex picture about a man’s (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) journey on how his experiences from when he was a child shaped his ideals and eventually came to a decision to force such ideas to all Mongolian people. I don’t know much about the history prior to Genghis Khan’s ascension to power so I’m not the right person to ask about whether or not it’s historically accurate. Instead, I’ll review this film from a tabula rasa perspective. After reading some of the critics’ reviews, I finally decided to watch the movie and had high expectations. While I did expect scenes that consisted of ferocious bloodbath, I got exactly that and more. I was surprised by the amount of heart that this film had to offer. I liked the fact that it showed more of Genghis Khan’s failures than his victories. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he kept getting up and wanting to fight again so it was not difficult at all to root for him. There’s something truly inspiring from watching a person’s inner drive accumulate in spite of extremely difficult situations and be able to pull through. What didn’t work for me, however, were the mythical scenes. I found it frustrating whenever the picture would cut the scenes whenever Genghis Khan’s life was in danger. It would then jump to another scene when he would be perfectly okay and somehow evaded the situation. I get that faith was an important aspect of Genghis Khan’s life (and the fact that this film was being told in a first person point-of-view, which, as we all know, is not always objective) but I felt that there were too many of those scenes and it took me away from the situations. Regardless, there are still a lot to see here such as the stunning background imageries and well-defined (as well as graphic) battle scenes. If one is into historical epics that humanize a warrior’s journey to power instead of glamorizing it while at the same time dealing with issues such as the fragility of alliances, this is definitely the film to see. It goes to show that an epic film doesn’t need to come out of Hollywood as long as it is ambitious, while at the same time still able to deliver the elements that ultimately convince the audiences why they should care for the lead character.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Australia” focuses on the adventures among an English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman), a drover (Hugh Jackman) and a half-white/half-Aborigine (Brandon Walters) before and during World War II. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!”), this epic tale is visually astonishing despite some flaws that keep it from becoming a great motion picture. I prefer the first half a bit more than the second half because it’s not afraid to be silly yet it can be so suspenseful to the point where I found myself squirming in my seat, desperately hoping that things will turn out well for the characters in danger. The second half is more about the romance between the elegant Kidman and the rugged Jackman. Although I did enjoy watching their chemistry build the more they interact with each other, there were some parts that I wish would’ve been omitted because it got redundant. I also liked scenes when the Japanese dropped the bombs because, from that moment on, I didn’t know which direction it was going to take. Despite the pandemonium being portrayed on screen, it didn’t become a war movie but instead highlighted the human aspect of the story. I divide the film into two halves because they felt so different compared to each other. I did enjoy both but the second half is a bit weaker than the first. When I look at this film as a whole, I can honestly say that it’s been quite a journey because of how much the characters have changed, especially Kidman’s. In the first few scenes she reminded me of a cold porcelain doll but by the end, I felt like she was a genuinely nurturing mother. I also liked the fact that the issue of racial relations were explored in multiple dimensions. Not for a second did I feel that it was heavy-handed or too syrupy. I read a review that the magical aspects of the film dragged it down considerably. I completely disagree because the belief in magic is embedded in the Aboriginal culture. I think it works here–if not literally then symbolically. I also enjoyed the constant allusion to “The Wizard of Oz.” Both share similar themes such as going on an actual journey that parallels an emotional journey. I was pleasantly surprised with this film because of all the mediocre reviews it received. There really are a plethora of things to see here such as the wildly entertaining stampede scene. Definitely check this one out if you’re remotely curious or enjoy epic movies.
Short Cuts (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This three-hour film is more personal than epic. Directed by Robert Altman, this mosaic of people who are living in Los Angeles is truly one of the best pictures of the 1990’s. I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to connect disparate characters which involve multiple storylines but this is the finest example of that kind of subgenre. What I love about it is that it doesn’t try to forcefully connect the characters; each transition and twist of fate happens in an organic way to the point where I can actually picture it happening in real life. I also liked the fact that it doesn’t try to tell a story about how one person changes for the better after going through a hardship. Instead, the film’s aim is to simply show who these characters are and how they respond to certain challenges that come knocking on their doors. I was involved in each storyline but the three that stood out for me was the bit about Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison’s son, Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine’s slowly crumbling marriage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn’s unexpressed frustrations. Other stories that focus on Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Annie Ross are interesting as well but those are more the peripheral storylines that serve to support the picture’s bigger themes. Despite it’s three-hour running time, I wanted to know more about these quirky characters. Even though their lives are painfully normal, enough strangeness happen to such lives that makes them completely believable. If one is a fan of movies involving intersecting lives, this is definitely the one to watch. I was expecting this film to be like “Paris, je t’aime” in order to prepare for the release of “New York, I Love You” (which I’m beyond excited for) but I got something so much more astute and rewarding.