★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, “Gamer” was set in 2034 where humans can pay a company (led by Michael C. Hall) to control other humans as if in a video game. One gamer (Logan Lerman) paid to control one of the death row inmates (Gerard Butler) to take part in a very violent “survival of the fittest” competition where the winner could earn his or her freedom. I have to admit that this movie did not interest me whatsoever going into it. The only reason why I decided to watch it was because of Hall. I was interested in what else he could do other than play a sympathetic serial killer in “Dexter.” This movie was a dizzying experience at best. Right from the first scene, we got shoot-outs right after another; body pieces and bullets were everywhere, the camera shook as if the cameraman was having a seizure and the main character acted as though he was on steroids. (Perhaps he was.) The filmmakers took the egregiousness to another level by shamelessly adding “ethical questions” such as whether it was right or wrong to put people in death row in a place where they could kill each other and eventually “earn” their freedom. It wasn’t at all difficult to arrive at the right answer: of course it’s wrong! It’s also wrong to control other human beings for sake of our twisted desires even if such vessels “volunteered” to do it for money. It would have been so much better if the picture embraced its own stupidity instead of trying to ask “insightful” questions. It’s also unfortunate how this film had so many talented supporting actors (Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Aaron Yoo, Ludacris) but they ultimately didn’t do anything. It was easy to tell that they just did it for the money. They couldn’t have chosen to appear in it because of the script since it had no depth or wit. While the performances were fine, I really think the problem was the writing. The violence was highlighted even though the core was essentially about what it means to be human and actually live our own lives. The gratuitous explosions and nudity should have been secondary if the filmmakers wanted to grasp a more elevated social commentary. Hall made a good villain but, like “Gamer,” it’s the same old song and dance (pun intended for that riduculous musical scene).
12 Angry Men (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film was not difficult for me to love at all because it was able to focus on a number of very distinct individuals in one room and really pick apart their own moralities as well as our own… in about an hour and thirty minutes. If that isn’t filmmaking at its highest level, I don’t know what is. Directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” was about an eighteen year-old boy who was accused of stabbing is own father to death, now on trial to be put in the electric chair, and how one juror (Henry Fonda) out of the twelve (Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber) decided to stand up for what he believed to be right–that is, that a person’s life should not be taken lightly, especially when that decision is in our hands. I thought it was fascinating that although we didn’t know the names of the jurors and we didn’t observe each of them in their respective homes, we learned a great deal about them with the way they argued their point of views regarding the case, how they argued against each other whether it was about the case or not, and how they looked into themselves when a really good point was brought up. Anyone who loves hearing great dialogues in cinema would immediately be interested in this film because it was pretty much like dropping in on a real jury who was deliberating behind the courtroom. Nobody is perfect and the arguments are strong yet they each had their flaws–but that complexity is what I found to be the most beautiful and engaging. This is the kind of film that is timeless because most people today absolutely hate it when they would be chosen to participate in jury duty and they would do anything to get out of it. (Sometimes including myself if I have class or a prior crucial commitment, but there’s a tiny part in me who is very interested on how it’s really like to be a part of the jury.) Although made in 1957, those eleven men are not at all different from people today because everyone has their own problems to face and responsibilities fulfilll; worrying about another person’s life who they consider as less important was the last thing on their minds. As the men tried to sort out the details of the crime, we really come to realize the power and the importance of reasonable doubt. Even if one is not interested in the justice system, this is a fascinating classic film about morals, ethics and what it means to live in a democratic society, the latter of which we most of the time take for granted. If I was ever on trial, I would want to show this movie to the jury before they make their decision.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) signed up to be a soldier because he felt like participating in a war was a family legacy since his grandfather and father fought the wars of their generations. Being a new soldier, he looked up to two people who had higher ranks: Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). The former represented composure, control and ethics despite the craziness of war, while the latter embodied the evil, darkness, and cruelty. I thought this movie was going to be another one of those war classics that was overly long. I was quickly proven wrong because of the number of scenes that highlighted the silence and all we could hear was the rustling of the leaves as the soldiers slithered their way through the jungle. I also didn’t expect a lot of character development because war pictures often focus their energy on the epic battle sequences. The narration worked for me because the thoughts and insights that Sheen’s character was unable to talk about with his comrades was out in the open for the audiences. There was a real sensitivity to his character; the real turning point for me when I decided that I was going to root for his character was when he proudly wore his naïveté on his sleeves regarding one of the reasons why he volunteered to be a soldier. He reasoned that that the rich always got away from all the dirty work and he felt that he shouldn’t be anyone special just because he was born with money. Also, since he felt like he wasn’t learning anything in college, essentially, he might as well make himself useful by joining the army. Scenes like those when the characters were just talking and measuring each other up really fascinated me and I was interested in what ways they would change by the end of the picture. Oliver Stone, the director, helmed a war film that had an internal mologue mixed with moral ambiguities instead of taking the easier route of simply entertaining the viewers with empty explosions and guts being flung into the air. “Platoon” was gorgeously shot in the Philippines and the night scenes really captured the horror of the enemies blending into the environment. Lastly, it was interesting to see future stars such as the younger Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, and Forest Whitaker. “Platoon” ranks among other unforgettable war pictures such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.”
Wall Street (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) believes in working hard and achieving little rewards which eventually add up to a big accomplishment. That is, until he one day decides that he wants to move up the economic ladder by teaming up with a corporate raider named Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Gekko assigns Fox to obtain illegal information via spying, lying, and basically throwing out his ethics out the window in order to be successful. But Fox eventually realizes Gekko’s true colors when Gekko decided to mess with Fox’s father’s business (Martin Sheen), without taking into consideration what would happen to the workers ad everything they’ve worked hard for. I enjoyed watching this film in many levels. For one, it had a plethora of brilliant one-liners and references to literature. Second, the acting is spot-on; Douglas as the greedy corporate raider was a bad person, but he had a certain charm that made me believe at times that his methods were justified. That characteristic was brilliantly painted during his speech in front of the stockholders. I also liked the fact that the lesson was “greed is bad” (the antithesis of the picture’s tagline) but it did not feel too heavy-handed. While it did show the glamorous side of achieving quick and easy ways to make money, it showed just enough serious consequences that would inevitably happen to those who choose to steal instead of patiently creating something for themselves. Lastly, I have to admit that I didn’t think the financial world was interesting, but by the end of the film, I understood it a bit better and, oddly enough, found it to be interesting. I also found it to be exciting with everyone wanting to sell and buy, and others in fear that they may lose a whole lot of money in the process. I guess the issues such as the fragile nature of loyalty, not realizing that one is standing on thin ice, and worries about not amounting to anything made the picture that much more interesting to me. Not to mention that there were a lot of notable supporting actors here such as Hal Holbrook, Daryl Hannah and James Spader. I definitely had to admire the film’s intelligence, but most importantly, its earnestness to entertain in both subtle and overt ways.
District 9 (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes it’s a gift for a film to have a relatively low budget. If this had been another Hollywood-supported movie, it undoubtedly would have been another one of those forgettable special and visual effects-driven films where the aliens had one thing in mind: to destroy humankind. Instead “District 9,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, tried very hard to make up for its lack of budget by creating big ideas that reflect the important events happening in the world which, unfortunately, are being overlooked because Jon and Kate’s divorce are all over the glossy magazines. It also had to compensate by injecting ideas that have been done in other science fiction movies before and actually taking them to the next level. (Some movies that easily come to mind are the “Alien” franchise, “Robocop,” “Starship Troopers,” and even “Cloverfield,” only not as shaky.) Instead of a big introduction that involves an alien spacecraft landing on Earth as everyone panics or prays, the story started off with people offering commentary on how life changed after the spacecraft arrived on Earth years later: the aliens were malnourished, taken to concentration camp-like areas where living conditions were absolutely horrid, and bureaucrats, led by Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe, were pretty much forcing the extraterrestrials to sign some paperwork to agree to be moved to another location in order to mollify the anger of nearby human citizens. What started off as “fun” bullying ended up in a tragedy where Copley’s character was accidentally exposed to an extraterrestrial substance which began to change his outlook on humans and aliens through very dramatic means. I enjoyed the fact that the aliens were not the villains here. Instead, it was the humans who thirst for power by acquiring weapons and knowledge by any means necessary (including harming the innocent and throwing ethics out the window), readily able to engage in battle without even once putting in their best efforts to understand the other side, and readily able to turn against their own kind with the slightest sign of supposed disloyalty. I also admired the film’s use of perspective. Right from the first frame, the picture placed us in a certain perspective but as it went on, layers began to peel off (no pun intended) and we got to know more about the motivations of each character or group of people. With its brilliant premise (and viral campaigns), this is an unpredictable film with enough power, imagination, and heart to fill other summer blockbusters that lack such qualities. I can only hope that some of the unanswered questions and lingering plot holes will be answered in the sequel (if there is going to be one). “District 9” more than lives up to the hype.
★★★ / ★★★★
This horror-comedy cult classic is about a medical student (Bruce Abbott) and his newfound eccentric roommate (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) who brings people back from the dead. I think this being a low-budget film actually worked in its favor. There are only two locations in the film: Abbott’s apartment and the hospital’s morgue where the two lead characters work. By the end of the film, those places look completely familiar to the point where I felt like I’ve known those places for years. Another thing is that it consistently tried to push its limits–whether it’s the question of what would happen if we brought people back to life or just showing us impressive special effects such as blood, guts and severed body parts. Stuart Gordon, the director, should be commended because he was able to balance images of horror with situational comedy. I thought he did a neat job showing the audiences how far a doctor will go to complete his experiment, completely neglecting the ethics and moral conundrums that should be faced by a man of science. Gordon also had enough time to comment on the dynamics in the scientific community–that it isn’t any different than other jobs. In fact, jealousy is abound because pretty much everyone wants to discover the new best thing and some are willing to kill for the discovery. But one thing did bother me, though. I know it’s not meant to be realistic because it’s a zombie film but I couldn’t get over the fact that the decapitated head could control his own body. If the brain is not connected to the spinal cord, the body will not be able to move because the source of electrical signals that may trigger certain chemical signals that control everything else will not be present (such as muscle contraction). I cannot help but get a bit distracted whenever something is glaringly incorrect even for films that do not exactly scream realism. Still, if one is a fan of horror-comedies with interesting premises, campy and has a plethora of gore, “Re-Animator” is a must-see.
My Sister’s Keeper (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) eventually gets tired of all the forced medical procedures done to her in order to save her sister (Sofia Vassilieva) with leukemia. She enlists the help of a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and this immediately causes tension within the family, especially between Anna and her mother (Cameron Diaz). Right off the bat, the audiences come to know that Anna is a test tube baby for the sole purpose of extracting healthy cells (and eventually organs) so that she can help her sister survive. I thought this was a smart film because of all the ethical questions it raised and the way it avoided to define for the audiences what is right and what is wrong. It was definitely easy to immediately side with Anna because I strongly believe that everyone has a right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body. However, after a series of flashback scenes told in a non-linear way, I was able to sympathize with Diaz because I was convinced that she genuinely loves her family. It’s just that she’s required to make the tough decisions since no one else will even if it means butting heads with her husband (Jason Patric) and increasingly conflicted son (Evan Ellingson). I must say that Diaz absolutely blew me away. I keep forgetting that she can be a good actress because I’ve seen her way too much in a lot of (sometimes lame) comedies. In here, she was able to carry her character with such complexity and dramatic weight. I’d like to see her in more dramas because she can balance toughness, intelligence, sensitivity so well. Another actor I really enjoyed was Joan Cusack as the judge who was supposed to decide whether Anna can ultimately get medical emancipation from her parents. Cusack’s character was still grieving for the untimely death of her daughter (due to a car accident) and it was easy to tell that she was still unstable; it made me think that perhaps she was not quite fit to get back to work and whether she should be the right person to decide the case’s outcome, especially since it involved a child. Cusack’s silent moments, while interacting with Breslin in her chamber, were so powerful, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit. After only a week since my parents almost died in a car accident (which I haven’t really talked about with anyone because whenever I think about it, I just lose it; while a friend of theirs died, my parents luckily got away with a few fractures and bruising), her situation made me think how easy it is for someone to be alive and healthy one day and not here the next. Lastly, Thomas Dekker as Vassilieva’s boyfriend-to-be provided a lot of sensitivity it needed so the audiences could get a better picture that people should not be defined by their diseases. A lot of the fans from the book didn’t like the fact that the ending was altered. From the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the book, I thought pretty much everything about this film unfolded in a way that made sense but still had a powerful impact. It’s extremely difficult not to be moved by this picture.