Tag: ewan mcgregor

Doctor Sleep


Doctor Sleep (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

In many horror movies, there is almost always an assumption that the antagonist is evil. It has become an awful habit not to tell us how evil the villain can be and thus why it must be vanquished at all costs. About a third of the way through in writer-director Mike Flanagan’s occasionally impressive “Doctor Sleep,” it proves to be more potent than its contemporaries: it takes the aforementioned extra step. It dares to show a child murder that includes all the details: how he is targeted; how he is lured; how he is kidnapped; how he is handled; the precise moment the boy realizes he will die that night; the blood gushing from his small frame; the screaming, crying, and begging due to extreme pain; the terror in his last breath. It creates a level of urgency so high, that when the enemies finally get their comeuppance the viewers are inspired to yell at the screen, “Get him!” “Shoot her!” “Don’t let them get away!”

The work is a solid sequel to one of the most iconic horror films, Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable “The Shining.” However, it does not start strong. In its attempt to bridge the gap between the terrifying events that took place inside the Overlook Hotel in 1980 and 2011 when mid-thirties Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has become an alcoholic in order to suppress his shine (psychic powers), the work relies far too often on familiar imagery such as patterns on walls or floors, word-for-word dialogue taken directly from the previous film, its use of primary colors, how the hair of Danny’s mom (Alex Essoe) tend to fall a certain way so that attention is drawn to her ears.

On the surface, those who have seen Kubrick’s picture multiple times may find some enjoyment from spotting every reference. On the other hand, these images and lines of dialogue pale by comparison against the original. There is a sense of preternatural discipline in the predecessor that this one lacks. The mimicry is amusing twice or thrice, but one wonders eventually when the work will forge an identity of its own. Auspiciously, the story moves at a brisk pace; it does not feel like a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Perhaps because the film, based on the Stephen King’s novel, is interested in expanding the story in ways that are curious and magical. For example, shine, as turns out, tend to vary from one person to another—not only by degrees as “The Shining” implied but also in terms of nature. One person’s shine can mean having the ability to read minds, while the next person’s shine means having the ability to control individuals’ actions by mere suggestion. We usually learn the advantages and limitations of these abilities. We meet about a dozen characters with the shine and so we become curious about their specific talents. It is refreshing that our central protagonist, Danny, is not the most powerful. His experience makes him formidable, but there is least one who we feel has mastered her abilities. She is named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of a cult who feeds on children’s shine. Cult members aim to prolong their lifespan.

The story is about finding the courage to move on from one’s past—nothing fresh. Dan is haunted by literal ghosts. Eventually, he lands a job at a hospice and we learn how he earns the titular nickname. (It involves a cat.) Meanwhile, the highly gifted Abra (Kyliegh Curran) must come to terms with her strange abilities by overcoming her fear of being regarded or treated as a freak. Her parents are aware of her abilities, but it is never talked about directly. Why? Because there is shame there. (I wished the screenplay delved into this further.) The template is unimpressive, but there are enough jolts and plot twists that make for an intriguing watch. Dialogue can be as revealing as overt action.

McGregor and Curran share terrific chemistry. Flanagan’s script consistently underlines the big brother/little sister relationship, the connection between the mentor and the mentee. It never syrupy, just sweet enough to hint a possible happy ending for haunted Dan. He deserves it. Curran embodies the role with gusto; she is not simply required to look scared or cute. She possesses a natural knowing look and so we believe the character is beyond her years. I hope Curran would choose character-driven work in the future, rather than just another role for a child or pre-teen that can be played by anyone.

“Doctor Sleep” is not composed merely of cheap jump scares. Horror is often situational—which is an example of a great nod to its predecessor. It is interested in how people relate to one another, what scares them, how they attempt to find solutions. Flanagan understands why Kubrick’s film works and, for better or worse, he dares enough to modernize the scares while putting his own stamp on what or how a horror movie should be like. He is confident of his storytelling, the craft propelling the scares, and the capable cast. It is a worthy follow-up.

T2: Trainspotting


T2: Trainspotting (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a duplicate of the original modern crime-comedy classic “Trainspotting” are likely to be disappointed with Danny Boyle’s follow-up. While it retains some of the energy of the original, in many ways this installment is more mature, more thoughtful, less concerned about delivering swagger and attitude than it is in telling a story about familiar characters having the opportunity to reconcile with their common past.

I argue that the picture’s main weakness is its willingness to give into fan service. While parallel scenes and flashbacks are quite neat and at times able to draw a smile on my face during the first third, I grew tired of this technique during the latter half, especially when the tone shifts toward a more serious note and there is a genuine dramatic gravity in the center. These winks distract rather than enhance the experience—kind of like having a security blanket when the owner is no longer a child.

All four characters are equally fascinating when apart and when they finally cross paths. To me, despite this film and its predecessor’s generous images when it comes to drug use, its stance is without a doubt anti-drugs. Here, it shows how drugs has ruined the lives (and continues to ruin the lives) of those who have developed a habit. Each character falls on a different spot within the spectrum and the material makes a subtle case about personal responsibility’s role in how each person’s life has ended up the way it did.

The plot involving a man having to return to his hometown and triggering a sequence of events is surely familiar. However, the four former friends are interesting because each has his own demon to battle. Renton (Ewan McGregor) must face his friends after betraying them in the worst way possible. Although twenty years has passed, that feeling of shame doesn’t simply go away. Spud (Ewen Bremner) attempts to lead a drug-free life by channeling one addiction onto an healthier alternative. Admittedly, I wished for him to succeed but somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced he would relapse.

Meanwhile, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is cooking up a plan to take revenge on Renton, his former best friend. Can a person whose bark is more powerful than his bite actually pull off such a scheme or will his soft spot get in the way of his purpose? And then there is Begbie the sociopath (Robert Carlyle) who has found a way to escape from jail. Having learned that Renton is in town, he plots to kill or seriously injure—at the very least. It is quite amazing that years have failed to erode the cast’s chemistry. Sure, there are more wrinkles on their bodies and faces, their postures are more worn, they move a little slower, but tension builds up the moment one looks at another a certain way and starts to dig up the past.

The strength of “T2: Trainspotting” lies in its ability to adapt to the age of its subjects. Because we have learned about them from a certain angle during their youth, the material remains fresh since we get to know them from a different perspective this time around. Credit to writer John Hodge for striving to deliver something of value and not simply rehashing what has worked before.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) works for a firm that represents a sheikh (Amr Waked) who wishes to introduce native Atlantic salmon and the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen, so she contacts Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a fisheries specialist, to ask if this course of action is possible. The scientist responds and expresses that the idea is ridiculous, claiming that salmon live in cold waters and Yemen is anything but wet let alone cold. But Sheikh Muhammed is determined and willing to pay millions to get what he wants. Soon, plans are underway, the British government onboard, with the consultant and the scientist teaming up to make the unfeasible project feasible.

Though propelled by a bizarre idea, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” based on the novel by Paul Torday, is rendered beautifully, from its rapturous landscapes to the human relationships involved in taking fish out of their natural habitat onto somewhere new which, in theory, will serve as a symbol of East and West having a closer, stronger link.

The film is anchored by a professional relationship between Harriet and Dr. Jones, the screenplay playing upon the idea that opposites tend to attract. Blunt plays Harriet with a commanding joie de vivre, intelligent but unafraid to be silly, open to new experiences without losing track of what she considers to be her roots. McGregor, on the other hand, portrays Dr. Jones as a cerebral person but far from blind to the poetries and ironies of words and situations, one who is hungry for something exciting while keeping the majority of the yearning repressed, and having a very droll British humor. There is a joke about him acting like someone with Aspergers syndrome and the material gets away with it.

Their eventual romance is underplayed which is the right decision in a movie like this. If there had been more relationship viscera about Dr. Jones’ marriage and Harriet’s boyfriend (Tom Mison), focus would have been on the melodrama instead of the attempt of making the impossible possible. Despite minimization of the central character’s original relationships prior to them falling for one another, it is nice that we are allowed to understand and sympathize with the scientist and the consultant’s struggles. For a while, there seems to be an equal number of reasons why they should not be together as opposed to the alternative.

The direction allows the landscapes to breathe. Though it does not barrage us with overhead shots of the water, the desert, and the grassy mountains, we get a specific feel for each of them in the backdrop of characters walking from one place to another or simply by standing still. The simplicity in the way it is shot looks sharp, clean, and effortless. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen more fish.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” directed by Lasse Hallström, is slightly inadequate only in the political maneuverings executed by Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the press secretary to the British prime minister, who hopes to use the eccentric project–and a bit of spinning–to establish better international relations. It is supposed to be a satire, I guess, but it looks and feels more like a farce. Such scenes manage to take away some of the poetry and rhythmic groove that make us want to believe and participate in the mystic veins of having faith, the exhumation of the land, and the conflicting matters of the heart.

Jack the Giant Slayer


Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is given the task to sell his uncle’s horse. Instead of coming back with money or gold, Jack has accepted beans from a monk (Simon Lowe) who claims that they are holy relics from a very special time. If Jack delivers the beans to an abbey, he will receive payment that is considerably more than what the horse is worth. However, the monk admonishes that Jack must not allow the beans to come in contact with water.

“Jack the Giant Slayer,” based on the screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney, takes inspiration from “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” and shows us a world that is exciting and magical. Though it lacks development in terms of the romantic tension and feelings between the title character and a princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who craves for adventure, it has enough good action sequences to make up for this shortcoming.

The greatest weapon in its arsenal is the impressive visual effects. Particularly eye-catching is the first time a bean is triggered to grow its stalks up to the heavens. Though obviously generated by a computer, we are shown the details of the plant growing in height and width while crushing everything that gets in the way of its destiny. A thrilling score is utilized and the sound effects are precise in order to keep us transfixed in the moment.

The giants are actually scary. Like the beanstalk, they, too, are computer generated. Although at times they appear somewhat cartoonish, like when they charge in groups, they feel like real threats when one or two share a frame with a human character. The camera gives us enough time to appreciate the look of the giants, from their blotchy, scaly skin as they lumber about to their crooked, rotten yellow teeth when they snarl. One of the more memorable encounters involves a giant taking a bite out of a live sheep and the camera, adopting Jack’s point of view, observes the horror from underwater. Small decisions like this prevents the film from becoming as yet another pedestrian action-adventure.

Tomlinson and Hoult are attractive when together and apart, but their characters’ romance is denied from ripening by the screenplay. Jack and Isabelle share some cute scenes in first half, but the majority of the time they spend together involves running from danger and swinging through collapsing structures. Their interactions start to become repetitive eventually. Would it have been too much for the writers to give these two something interesting to say about their struggles, as a poor farmer and as a future queen, with respect to the teamwork and adventures they are thrusted into?

This is going to sound silly, but it must be mentioned because I kept noticing it. Though Ewan McGregor, playing a knight leader, is a pleasure to watch because he is clearly enjoying his character, most distracting is his hair. In one scene, it is up: very stylish and magazine-ready. The next scene when it is pouring cats and dogs, naturally, it is down. However, when it is no longer raining, his hair is back up–as if the storm had never occurred. The glaring lack of continuity when it comes to the performer’s hair is enough to take me out of the story a few times.

Directed by Bryan Singer, “Jack the Giant Slayer” does not require us to think very hard but it is fun and executed with a lot of energy. I enjoyed its treatment of the villains.

The Impossible


The Impossible (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Instead of staying in their home in Japan, the Bennett family, led by Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor), decide to spend their Christmas vacation on a Thai resort. The day after Christmas, while they relax by the pool, a tsunami comes raging through the coast which inevitably decimates everything in its path. Maria and Lucas (Tom Holland) are separated from Henry, Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). As Maria’s health declines, so is the hope of the family finding one another in a community that must deal with deaths and missing persons.

“The Impossible,” based on the screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez and experiences of the Belón family in December 2004, reaches inside of us and twists what it manages to hold onto. It makes for a consistently compelling watch especially from the standpoint of special and visual effects. Although it is a cut above many films of its type because the humanity of the story is often underlined, it falls into some of the expected dramatic trappings of disaster movies.

What is most sensational is watching the tsunami’s power to change a picturesque serenity of life into a horrifying vision of death. I liked that a choice is made in terms of which group to focus on. By allowing the camera to stay on Maria and Lucas’ struggle to get to one another as they are carried by a raging torrent, tension is heated until it boils. The movement of the camera below and above the water gives us an idea on how difficult it must be to gain some control of the situation for another chance of holding onto a loved one and feeling safe despite the chaos all around.

The direct aftermath is equally fascinating. It changes gears by focusing on the images around mother and son rather than the question of if or when they will be reunited. Particularly memorable to me is the sight of a dead man faced down on the water coupled with a neighboring image of a fish gasping for air. Placing them side by side touched me because it is an effective reminder of the fragility of life as well as our place in nature. Also, even though it does not further the plot, I appreciated that it turns our attention on the senses: images like people walking through mud while a trail of blood is created, sounds of a child crying for his mother, and how it must have smelled when the ocean is mixed with land and modern creations.

Since the picture does not have much plot, in some ways it is crippled. The most disappointing is the screenplay being reduced to putting characters into one place forcing them to just miss each other as one enters and the other leaves the room. It cheapens the material and I started to feel like I was being toyed. Tonally, it is a mess because it eventually begins to feel like something that is taken from a bad romantic comedy-drama. With all the horror and sadness that the Bennett family has gone through, surely they deserve something that is more respectful and less cliché.

Even though “Lo imposible,” directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, has a nasty habit of settling for dramatic techniques that are typical, one of its methods never fails to get to me every single time. That is, when two characters swim or run toward one another as the majestic music reaches a crescendo. I guess it is highly relatable: when you really miss someone and you want to hug him so hard or kiss her in a way she’s never been kissed before, the anticipation from inside of us turns into an uncontrollable spirit animal.

Shallow Grave


Shallow Grave (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alex (Ewan McGregor), David (Christopher Eccleston), and Juliet (Kerry Fox) were looking for a new roommate. Each interview was like a cruel audition in which they mocked, teased, and insulted the person in front of them for whatever they deemed wasn’t worthy of their level of cool. It was established that the trio were far from likable people. Eventually, they decided to take on Hugo (Keith Allen) as their new roommate. On his first day, however, his flatmates found him dead in his bed and right underneath was a suitcase full of cash. Written by John Hodge, “Shallow Grave” was quite sly as it slithered from buddy comedy to paranoid thriller and back. It was fascinating because it magnified the common darkness found in so-called normal people and how that darkness evolved into something much more sinister when a whole lot of free money entered the equation. In one of the most involving sequences in the film, the three friends decided to get rid of the body. As to how, Alex suggested that they cut off Hugo’s hands and feet, pull out all of his teeth, and beat his face to a pulp until it was no longer recognizable. Only then they could bury the corpse in the forest for quick decomposition. His proposal, although morbid, had a certain level of comedy and wit behind it because we were shown several times that one of Alex’ hobbies involved spending ample time in front of the television. Perhaps he learned from watching too many crime movies. I liked that the important decisions that the characters made were loyal to how they were when they just relaxed in the couch. I was able to follow the story, even when it turned somewhat unbelievable, because I enjoyed connecting the seemingly unrelated pieces that had been laid out for us. After getting rid of the body, we saw how each roommate reacted to the terrible crime they’d committed. The most interesting reaction was David’s because I suspect it would be the most typical. Each day, he turned that much more paranoid, feeling that someone knew something about what he’d done and people were out to expose his secret. I feared his instability but felt sad for him at the same time because he traded his peace of mind for money–money that he couldn’t even find the courage to spend. It was deliciously ironic that he was an accountant. There were subplots involving a perceptive detective (Ken Stott) who sensed something didn’t feel right after he’d spoken to the roommates and two crooks looking for Hugo’s money. The latter was handled in an expediently hilarious and unexpected manner while the former was like watching a cube of butter slowly melting on a moderately hot stack of pancakes. Because the two strands offered an opposite atmosphere while still maintaining a level of tension that felt right to the story, it was easy to buy into the plot conveniences. However, I wish the script bothered to consider some questions that were quite obvious. Why didn’t the three flatmates simply hide the suitcase in one of their rooms after they found it and phoned the cops about the dead body afterwards? And, once they felt they were in the clear, why didn’t they divide the money into three? Personally, I would want my share as soon as possible. “Shallow Grave,” directed by Danny Boyle, commanded an air of seriousness when it came to guilt, greed, and morals but it wasn’t afraid to go for the humor even if it felt inappropriate. I even had a slight giggle when Hugo’s corpse was being cut with a hacksaw so strenuously by one of the trio.

Haywire


Haywire (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) thought she was safe in a diner, at least for a while, until she looked outside and saw Aaron (Channing Tatum) approaching. He took a seat in front of her and commanded her to get inside the car. Mallory was not to be persuaded this way. After she mentioned Barcelona, Dublin, and the name Paul, Aaron realized he had no choice but to force her, through extreme violence, despite customers watching. We needn’t worry, though, because Mallory Kane was a former Marine. As a private contractor, she was more than capable of defending herself against colleagues about twice her size. “Haywire,” written by Lem Dobbs, had a simple plot yet quite labyrinthine at the same time because we were dropped in the middle of whatever was going on and we didn’t have a clear understanding of the characters’ motivations. Two-thirds of the picture focused on a flashback sequence involving two assignments in Barcelona and Dublin, respectively: the extraction of a kidnapped Chinese man (Anthony Brandon Wong), in which Mallory was the leader of the on-site operation, and Mallory serving as an escort of a British agent (Michael Fassbender). As pieces fell into place and the plot made more sense, the film was still able to keep a high level of excitement and mystery. Perhaps it was because the fight and flight scenes were equally compelling. Whenever Mallory faced an enemy and both had to inflict incredible amount of pain to each other, there was a lack of score. The sounds–heavy blows delivered to the body, furnitures cracking due to uneven distribution of forces, posh glass breaking–were magnified and they made the visual experience much more visceral. At one point, I found myself wanting to get up and engage in a one-sided fight against a punching bag. It was a great decision to allow the one-on-one matches to play out. Most of the time, Mallory’s enemies were experienced fighters so I found it believable that it would take time for one of them to make a critical error or reach exhaustion. The escape scenes were quite impressive, too. Mallory’s stint in attempting to evade a tracker in the streets of Dublin was almost suspenseful on a Hitchcockian level: a beautiful woman in a foreign country suspecting that a stranger was observing her from afar and following wherever she went. The chaos that Mallory experienced was complemented against the chaos happening under the jurisdiction of Coblenz (Michael Douglas), an influential United States official for various discrete operations. Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) were the puppeteers of the game, the reason why Mallory seemed to have gone rogue. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Haywire” was at times weighed down by desultory technical artistry. Most of the scenes were in color but select scenes were in black and white. I found it inconsistent and I got the impression that the director was trying too hard. Nevertheless, the film was fun due to its energy and well-choreographed duels. It doesn’t require much brain power to sit there and watch it all unfold.

Beginners


Beginners (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.

I Love You Phillip Morris


I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) decided that he was going to be true to who he was after getting in a major car accident. He got a divorce from his wife (Leslie Mann), moved to Florida, met a new beau (Rodrigo Santoro), and lived the fabulous life. But money didn’t grow on trees. This was particularly a problem because he didn’t have a college education. So, he turned to a life of crime pretending to be a litigator, a chief financial officer of a major company, among many things. Steven’s illegal actions landed him in prison where het me the love of his life–blonde-haired, blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). I don’t understand why this picture was shelved for so long. Not to mention it still hasn’t gotten a wide release nor do I hear and see much advertisement for it. I thought it was clever, funny, and completely unbelievable even though it was based on a true story. This was Carrey’s best performance in quite some time. His character’s histrionics suited him well and he probably was the best choice to play such a larger-than-life person. Carrey was smart to inject a healthy dose of charm in his character because being intelligent could only get someone so far. The real Steven Russell wouldn’t have pulled off so many scams if he wasn’t a people-person, the kind of guy we can’t help but trust the first time we meet him. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors, successfully helmed a whimsical love story even though there were times when I was frustrated with its tone. The film was at its best when it was purely comedic. When Steven and Russell were together, I was drawn to them because it was obvious to me why they were perfect for each other. They looked at one another as if they already knew it wouldn’t last. However, it stumbled when it attempted to be a little more sensitive. There were far too many scenes when Steven would declare his love for Phillip. Once or twice was enough. Did the filmmakers run out of ideas to entertain? Neverthless, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in “I Love You Phillip Morris.” For instance, once the male organ joke was introduced, I found it strange that I felt like I saw phallic symbols everywhere. Just before the film ended, it stated that Russell was sentenced for an unprecedented number of years. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. For a guy who didn’t physically hurt anybody during his wild escapes (when he easily could have), I couldn’t help but feel like his term was a bit too harsh. Sure, he stole thousands of dollars from a company but even criminals who’ve committed the same crime received far lighter sentences. Steven treated the justice system as a joke. Perhaps there’s truth in jest.

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, Ewan McGregor played a ghostwriter who was hired to help complete an ex-British prime minister’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoir. Suspecting that something wasn’t quite right in the former British prime minister’s stories compared to what was said by the media and those around him, The Ghost did an investigation of his own which led him to endanger his life. Directed by the controversial Roman Polanski, what I liked most about the film was the director’s ability to take material that we’ve seen before concerning the dangers of politics and inject just the right mood and pacing to create something quietly sinister. I must admit that I did not immediately understand what was going on because it felt as though the protagonist was thrusted onto an island where he had barely any idea what he was doing or why he was really there. He tried to convince himself that he was there for an assignment (with great pay) but his instincts made him question until he couldn’t bear his curiosity any longer. The characters such as the former prime minister’s lead assistant (Kim Cattrall, whom I would love to see more in serious roles), wife (Olivia Williams), and even the housekeeper made me feel uneasy so I could not help but suspect them of hiding something key that might lead to the big revelation. Another interesting layer was the question of whether The Ghost was really on an assignment involving politics, or personal revenge, or possibly both. The questions were difficult to answer and the answers were vague. But I liked the fact that the movie chose to challenge its audience by allowing us to read between the lines. Since the real answers were elusive, we couldn’t help but question whether our protagonist was truly on the right track in terms of solving the mystery or whether he was merely putting together random information and forcing himself to make sense of them. “The Ghost Writer” thrived on subtlety and often reminded me of the underrated “Breach” directed by Billy Ray. Like that film, what kept the film together was not the extended action scenes but the strong acting and constantly evolving atmosphere. Perhaps I am giving the movie too much credit but I did notice some references to noir pictures in the 1940s, the most obvious one being Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” My only minor complaint was I hoped Polanski used Tom Wilkinson a lot more. Wilkinson managed to do so much with how little he was given and it would have been interesting to see how much more he could have turned the main character’s life upside down if he had been given more material.

The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

After being recently heartbroken, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) decided to go with a self-proclaimed psychic-soldier-slash-Jedi-warrior (George Clooney) to Iraq so that he could publish a mind-blowing story and prove to himself that he was not a loser. However, Wilton quickly realized that maybe the man he was with was just a charlatan and there really was no compelling story that could be written. Adapted from Jon Ronson’s book and directed by Grant Heslov, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was certainly not as bad as people claimed it was upon its release because the satire involving American soldiers and reporters worked on some level. Given the strange material, I thought it was refreshing even though some of the jokes didn’t quite work and the story could have been more focused. For me, I’d rather watch something that takes a lot of risks even though it doesn’t work rather than watch something typical that only occasionally works. I found the scenes with McGregor and Clooney the least interesting part of the film. I wanted to know more about Clooney’s experiences in the paranormal sector of the army in its early days (during the war in Vietnam), the person he greatly looked up to (Jeff Bridges), and his rival (Kevin Spacey) who would do anything to be the best. Even though the things they did were undeniably weird such as trying to defeat the enemy with friendship, flowers and the like, I was interested in the characters because they had great conviction in what they were doing. Personally, I think what the characters tried to do were not that extraordinary because there were times in history when other countries turned to paranormal studies (like mind control and science verging on the extremes like trying to bring people back to life) to remain one step ahead of their enemies. But it’s understandable that not many people liked the film because not everyone understands satire and some of the humor was dry and deadpan. Maybe if the picture tried to connect more with the audience, the audience would have liked it more. The movie also didn’t feel like a hollistic project but a series of scenes that were quirky which didn’t add up to anything substantial. Acting-wise, I thought everyone was consistently strong, especially Clooney. Despite his character’s goofiness, somehow I believed in his wild stories and got the feeling that he was much smarter than he let on. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was a cerebral experience more than anything and it would appeal most to those willing to read between the lines. Commentaries such as politics, war and duty were abound but they were far from obvious. Ultimately, I’m glad I gave this movie a chance.

Trainspotting


Trainspotting (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I loved this film the first time I saw it when I was about seventeen because it taught me that it was okay to take so-called friends out of your life when all they did to you was slow you down as you strived to reach for your potential. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer and Kevin McKidd star as four friends (three of which were initially heroine junkies) as they fill their empty lives with drugs, sex and violence. They also hang out with a violent older man played by Robert Carlyle who detested drug addicts but, funny enough, kept drinking alcohol to the point where he constantly got in trouble with the law. One of the many things I loved about this film was, unlike the overrated “Requiem for a Dream,” it was not preachy in terms of overcoming addiction to hard drugs. Instead being obvious about its lessons, it simply showed us the circumstances of the characters’ lives and, more importantly, the choices they made that ultimately landed them in either bliss or misery, temporary as they may be. I also liked the fact that it managed to touch upon the issue of the importance of parenting and that parenting doesn’t end when the child turns eighteen. So as hardcore as the lifestyles that were featured in this picture, there undoubtedly was heart underneath it all and it was constantly at the forefront. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that the four characters were never really on the same stage of addiction: when one was clean, another one was not, while the other straddled the line between being a slave to the drug and being a master of his life. The film also commented on the dynamics of their friendships. Even though they spent a lot of time with each other because they were getting high, they did not talk about the important things to one another. Each of them felt scared and alone as if they were rats trapped in a maze–constantly living in survival mode and trial-and-error. As serious as the film’s core was, I thought the movie was very witty and very funny. Danny Boyle, the director, made sure that the memorable lines were not just cool in itself but also meaningful and infused with double meanings. Boyle also impressed me with certain shots because the images epitomized the definition of cool and careless disregard. “Trainspotting” will always be one of those films that will stay with me because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. For me, its core was not about how drugs are bad for you. It was about the deeper meanings of friendships and having a strong internal locus of control to lead your life the way you want to. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, “Trainspotting” is an ambitious and imaginative film that is not afraid to tell the hard truths.

Velvet Goldmine


Velvet Goldmine (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

I can understand why most people would dismiss this film due to its disorganized way of telling the story and featuring a lifestyle that was not (and still is not) fully accepted in society. “Velvet Goldmine” was about a journalist (Christian Bale) who was assigned to write an article about a glam rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose stardom quickly plunged because he faked his own death. Incidentally, Bale was a fan of Slade when he was younger so the assignment was a lot more personal to him than any other projects he had before to the point where he rekindled some of that obsession he used to have for the rock star. In order to get the full picture regarding Slade’s life, Bale interviewed the people that knew Slade most: the one who discovered him (Michael Feast), his wife (Toni Collette), his manager (Eddie Izzard), and his competition/partner/lover (Ewan McGregor). I must give kudos to Todd Haynes, the director, for featuring strong performances from the four leads (Rhys-Meyers, Bale, Collette and McGregor). He told the story in such a way that each of the four had an equal share of the spotlight and really gave scintillating performances. I also liked the fact that Haynes’ message about music was different. Most pictures that tackle the meaning of music tend to argue that music is a meaningful entity. In here, the message is the antithesis: music is meaningless; music is driven by the artists’ ego and thirst for taking over or changing the world; lastly, music–or real music–should not and does not contain anything personal from the artist because its purpose is to simply entertain; to put something personal in it is to contaminate it and thus defying itself. Well, at least that’s how I interpreted the film. I found this film to be particularly cold: It did not make an effort to convince its audiences why they should care for the characters. Interestingly enough, I loved it because it embraced the feeling of the 1970’s glam rock era which consisted of revolting against the norm, being apathetic to things that should matter, and embracing the dirtiness and griminess of atypicality. For an independent film, I thought it was particularly powerful, especially when it used techniques from the film “Citizen Kane”–fusing past and present in order to truly understand the characters that have been so wrapped up in the darkness they’ve created for themselves. I also appreciated the fact that it featured the fluidity of sexuality, emotions and ideas. This is a rich film with fascinating images and ideas but it’s not particularly accessible so one should be wary on whether he or she should watch it. But if one has an open mind, this should be a pleasant surprise. This reminded me of a weaker “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (though the two are very different films); a little bit more focus would have made this an instant favorite of mine.

Deception


Deception (2008)
★ / ★★★★

To say that this movie was really bad would be an understatement. I love Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams because they are very talented actors (and are easy on the eyes) but I don’t know what they were thinking when they decided to star this in trainwreck of a film. This is one of those cases where both the writer and director are to blame, Mark Bomback and Marcel Langenegger, respectively. I felt like the picture tried to have way too many twists. It didn’t work because it failed to get the audiences to care for its leads. The impression I got during the first few minutes of the movie was that McGregor was a creepy little accountant in need of sex, Jackman was one jerk of a lawyer, and Williams was that girl who tried to be all innocent but she really wasn’t. Unlikeable chartacters aside, I also felt like the tone of the story was a little too gloomy and slow for its own good. I’m not talking about as-slow-as-molasses kind of pacing (which, admittedly, I sometimes like); I’m talking about as-static-as-a-rock-stuck-in-ice-in-the-middle-of-winter kind of pacing. I mean, half-way through the picture I realized that the story hasn’t been going anywhere. The characters are simply running around, trying to outsmart each other and the audiences are left in the dust without any kind of solid background regarding the characters’ motivations. That aspect of one-dimensionality is really a problem and a good writer should’ve been able to detect that. Yes, there were also obligatory scenes with slow motion but another thing that bothered me was its use of score. It tried to signal too much what the audiences should be feeling and it got really annoying because I wanted to realize for myself how I’m feeling with what’s going on on screen. “Deception” is weak all across the board and a one-star review (my lowest rating) doesn’t even begin to describe how egregious it is. If you love McGregor, Jackman and/or Williams, do yourself a favor and skip this one. You’ll prevent yourself from wasting an hour and fifty minutes of your life.