★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Denzel Washington), a train engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a rookie train conductor, attempted to stop a runaway train of increasing speed and containing toxic chemicals before it reached a curve in the tracks and killed thousands of lives. A corporate employee (Rosario Dawson) guided them from behind-the-scenes, completely neglecting her boss’ orders of choosing to protect stocks instead of lives. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Mark Bomback, what I liked most about “Unstoppable” was it didn’t pretend to be philosophical or allegorical. It wasn’t even a satire of the media considering FOX News, an easy and deserving target, was covering the whole ordeal. It was simply about a train that was out of control and if the characters didn’t stop it, people would die. Naturally, there were clichés such as Will’s struggle at home involving his wife and not being able to be with his son and Frank missing his daughter’s oh-so-important birthday party. It was obvious the script wanted to infuse some heart in the two main characters so we would care about them when their lives would eventually be in danger. With their acts of heroism, despite their imperfections, we all knew both of them would be forgiven in the end. There was nothing new because its only aim was to entertain. On that level, I thought it was successful. I enjoyed the scenes when the train would collide onto cars and other trains, the cops’ ridiculous attempt of shooting at a target that would supposedly slow the train down but the target was right next to tank full of very combustable gas, and when the train would go slightly off-track as it leaned on one side over another. I caught myself trying to steer the train in the correct direction with my mind so I knew I was involved with all of the insanity. I did wish, however, that Scott wouldn’t have been so transparent with his camera work. He took the obvious path of making an action picture too many times to the point where I wondered if he would (or could) change up his technique. Shaking the camera, blurrying the scene, and increasing the volume of the score is a familiar action picture formula. It would have been nice if the director tried to surprise us my suspending our expectations in the air. For instance, an occasional use of silence or perhaps slow motion during the most critical times could have helped to build some level of suspense. Sometimes taking a risk, whether the outcome be success or failure, might go a long way. It’s better than being one-note and driving some audiences dizzy from all the movements. Still, “Unstoppable” was thrilling, sometimes amusing, and had energy to spare. Sometimes that’s all we need.
The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two very attractive assassins (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) decided to get married, unaware that the other worked for their agency’s rival. Five or six years into their marriage, they found out the truth and they were assigned to kill each other or else they would be the ones that would end up dead. I saw this movie back in 2005 but it was not at all what I remembered it to be. While it did have over-the-top and very in-your-face destructive action sequences, I did not expect it to have more than a handful of funny running jokes. Some of which included living in suburbia and adhering to its unstated rules, keeping their extracurricular activities a secret (or is their extracurricular activity their marriage?), the rut of being in a relationship where both are sick of trying to pretend to be normal and, most common of all, the increasing frustration on both parties when sex was taken out of the equation for quite some time. I thought the picture was at its peak in its first two-thirds when the characters were not aware of the truth and the decisions they had to face when finally found out each other’s true identities. It was painfully obvious that they weren’t going to kill each other (I thought it was hilarious that Jolie hit Pitt in the face multiple times but not vice-versa) but I had a good time picking sides regarding who would outsmart the other (I was on Jolie’s team). The two leads were very different and that’s the reason why the movie worked. Mr. Smith liked to have fun on the job and wasn’t afraid to detach from the plan and let his instincts take over. Mrs. Smith, on the hand, was very dedicated to sticking with the rules and was not willing to compromise both on and off the field. The last third was more or less a typical action picture where the protagonists tried to evade grenades, raining bullets and rocket launchers. I started to get bored but at least Pitt and Jolie looked good and it was obvious that they were having fun. As for the supporting actors like Vince Vaughn and Adam Brody, they did not bring much into the film but when they were on camera, it was a nice break from the deafening explosions and pots and pans hitting the floor. However, it would have been nice if there was some sort of twist involving those two. Written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Doug Liman, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a very commercial action movie that everybody can watch and have a good time. With movies like this, it’s easy to try too hard and difficult to be effortless. Fortunately, with Pitt and Jolie’s charm and a great script, the film was effortless when it came to balancing action, comedy and sexiness.
Under the Sea 3D (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m sure everyone had seen movies they wished would last for hours and hours. “Under the Sea 3D,” written and directed by Howard Hall, was one of them because of its great ability entertain and enlighten. In just a span of forty minutes, the deep sea documentary was able to capture lives of sea creatures ranging from small harmless fish, creepy sea snakes, turtles that love to feed on venomous jellyfish to rare sea dragons and cute sea lions in New Guinea, Indo-Pacific, Southern Australian waters. The movie was also able to comment on humans’ impact on the environment. However, it didn’t feel heavy-handed because the focus was really more on the animals and how they depended on their respective habitats (and vice-versa). What I liked best about this film was its ability to create suspense by creating danger for certain animals. For instance, in one scene the innocuous creature was the cute-looking one that you just want to pet but in a few minutes, it turned out being the predator with an amazing speed in terms of capturing and swallowing their prey whole. The film’s technique of turning our expectations upside down made the movie consistently interesting and engaging. It was unpredictable in the best way possible. I even caught myself thinking “What’s next?” with such enthusiasm. I felt like a little kid again who just had his first lesson in grade-school Biology. The living things under the sea were so magical-looking (to say the least), it sometimes reminded me of “Finding Nemo,” especially the coral reefs. I thought it was amazing how much the creatures relied on each other in order to survive. Concepts such as symbiosis, mutualism and commensalism were illustrated nicely, especially how one of the crabs used a jellyfish as “a hat” (as Jim Carrey, the narrator, puts it). Although they were quite simple concepts, the way they actually worked made me feel like everything had a purpose. “Under the Sea” was also one of those movies that made me feel humbled. I couldn’t believe some of the creatures existed even before the age of dinosaurs. Realizing their resilience and effective hunting techniques, it made me want to learn more about the different creatures–creatures that are thriving now and those that are not thriving now but might thrive in the future. I think this is a great film for kids because not only did it have bright colors and strange-looking animals, it was able to educate and inspire. I wish I saw it in the big screens (IMAX or 3D) because it was already stunning on television.
Cape Fear (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” was about a man (Robert De Niro) who was recently released from a fourteen-year prison sentence. The moment he got out, he made it his goal to make his former lawyer’s (Nick Nolte) life a living hell by torturing his family (Jessica Lange as his wife and Juliette Lewis as his daughter) and his budding flame (Illeana Douglas). I think I was particularly tough with this film because I expect a lot coming into a Scorsese picture. In trying to analyze things such as motif, consistency of tone, foreshadowing and other elements, I found myself not impressed with the big picture. I thought the storytelling was scattered because there were too many times when De Niro and Nolte would confront and threaten each other and it got old pretty quickly. However, I did like the fact that everything about this film was exaggerated–the soundtrack, the characters’ emotional reactions to certain events, the decisions they chose to tackle–to the point where the film almost felt comical instead of chilling. The style somewhat reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s. The two scenes that stood out to me were when Lewis and De Niro had a “talk” in the theater and when De Niro broke into the family’s home as they tried to trap him. I felt like those scenes had Scorsese’s signature of wit, irony and just enough tension to keep us engaged because we were completely aware of the fact that the antagonist had the upperhand. Those scenes were so powerful, I felt like I held my breath during those times. Unfortunately, I felt like the rest of the picture did not quite hold up to those highs and I was somewhat underwhelmed when it was over. When I look back on it, while it was nice that De Niro’s character brought out a lot of almost repressed issues of the family, I still felt as though the characters were one dimensional. It was so unlike Scorsese’s movies because most of the time he features characters who are complex because they want to redeem themselves. In here, I saw Nolte’s character as a person who was a cheater and only felt bad for his actions because he got caught and problems were quickly proliferating in her life. If I did not know that Scorsese directed this picture, I most likely would not have guessed that it was indeed his work. Granted, one could argue that I shouldn’t compare “Cape Fear” to the director’s other projects as a basis of a film review. And I agree. I just wanted to emphasize the particular mindset I had while watching the movie. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll be able to enjoy it more. The elements of creating a great thriller were certainly there but I felt like they did not come together as well as they should have had.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, focuses on a crew called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty) as they try to dismantle bombs in Iraq in 2004. This film shook me in so many ways. Right from the very first scene until the very last, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and I couldn’t help yelling “Hurry up!” at the characters because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Bigelow had an uncanny ability to make the environment as threatening as possible; when Renner was on the process of stopping a bomb from going off, the camera would quickly shift and focus on random onlookers and there were times when one of them had the remote that could trigger the bomb. The way she combined and balanced the soundtrack, the images, the dialogues and the camera movements was inspired because, unlike other films about Iraq, all the varying elements came together to make something almost tragically poetic. Even though this picture was set in Iraq, I hardly think it’s another one of “those” movies about the war. It was essentially a story of survival–how the three men coped when put in life-threatening circumstances. But it’s not just about the physical survival. It was also about what was happening in their minds as they got closer to ending their rotation: one was a risk-taker, one succumbed to fear and one put up a false front of courage. Another element that I loved about this movie was it did not repeat itself. Each action scene was very different from each other so we would not know what to expect. Some definite highlights include the snipers from 350 meters away (with Ralph Fiennes making an appearance), the first nail-biter scene with Guy Pearce, when the three leads took different alleys after a suicide bomber killed and injured innocent people in the middle of the night, and the horrific scene that involved a bomb being attached to man. I also liked the fact that Bigelow took her film to the next level by using contrasting images when one of the three main characters returned to the United States. I never thought I would experience so much sadness by looking at rows and rows of cereal boxes. Having not been in the battlefield, I often forget how much I’m surrounded by excess. In other words, I forget how lucky I am to not be out there. “The Hurt Locker” is a tremendous, first-rate dramatic-thriller film and I believe it deserves every recognition it received. I may not support the war in Iraq but there is no doubt in my mind and in my heart that I support our soldiers who are there (despite some of their negative portrayals in the media). It’s been a while since I felt so much tension in my body and adrenaline running through my veins as I did from watching “The Hurt Locker.”
★★★★ / ★★★★
The best thing about this movie was its intensity. From start to finish my heart was racing like crazy because I knew that something bad was always bound to happen. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-CIA agent father who embarks on a mission in Paris to rescue his daughter (Maggie Grace) from the hands of slave traders. I can see why this became a sleeper hit: it had a lot of genuine thrills, exciting action sequences, and a plot that was easy to understand. Aside from the obvious rescue mission, this was a story of revenge in its purest form, supported by the fact that Neeson’s character did not take any prisoner. This was essentially a very “guy” movie because the lead character had a one-track mind and would do anything–even hurt innocents–to get to his daughter. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from audiences that it did not make any sense that a “regular guy” suddenly turned into a Jason Bourne (from the “Bourne” series). I am happy to say that those people simply did not pay attention because in the exposition of the picture, it was discussed that Neeson’s character was once a part of the CIA. I feel that this criticism needs to be addressed because, as a person who waited to see this film on DVD, such comments implanted a seed in my head that the movie was going to be unbelievably atrocious. It was far from ridiculous because active agents who go on assassination missions do exist and, as we very well know (unless one is so deluded or lives in a bubble), slave trade exists as well. Lastly, I have to commend Neeson for essentially carrying this entire movie. Not only was I convinced that he was a dangerous man, but I was convinced that he was a father who really loved his daughter more than anybody in the world, including himself, even if his gestures were not quite appreciated given the amount of thought and effort that was put into them. (He’s very detailed-oriented.) Directed by Pierre Morel, “Taken” is a must-see movie for fans of secret agent films and those who love great suspense mixed with good action sequences.
Man on Wire (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This is a beautifully crafted documentary–full of thrills and the use of reenactments are amusing–but I think it’s been getting way too much praise. Yes, it’s important to recognize Philippe Petit’s amazing feat in 1974 but I couldn’t help but get tired of the film’s slow and saggy middle portion. I love the beginning because the soundtrack is rousing and it instantly grabbed my interest. It was like being dropped in a first-rate heist movie. I love the ending because it deals with issues like friendship, what it means to accomplish one’s dreams, and the fact that it didn’t result to discussing the 9/11 attacks. (Although it’s related because of the landmark being featured, it would’ve been unfocused because the core of the film is Petit’s infamous wirewalk between the Twin Towers.) I had my reservations prior to watching this documentary because I thought it would just be about wirewalking from one tower to another. As it turns out, it’s so much more than that. It’s about careful planning with friends and strangers who want to see a person reach his goals, transgressing the law to achieve one’s dreams, and to make art that no one can ever take away. Still, I would’ve loved to see more actual footages of the wirewalk, not to mention what Petit’s life is like before and after the event. Since I didn’t fully know his background, Petit seemed selfish to me especially toward the end when someone came up to him and said she’s willing to go with him “wherever his destination” may be. Granted, this is a documentary and no one is perfect but it would’ve been nice if I knew something else about Petit that is not about the wirewalking. I feel that James Marsh, the director, could’ve taken the film’s title to another level instead of just making it so literal. I wouldn’t say this is one of the best documentaries of 2008 but it is one of the most fascinating.