★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite his doctor’s recommendation against traveling, Frank (Robert De Niro) decided to go on a road trip across America when his thirtysomething children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) made last-minute cancellations to come visit over the holidays. Frank wanted to reconnect with his kids due to the recent death of his wife. Also, he felt lonely being by himself at home. “Everybody’s Fine” had an interesting premise but it ultimately left me wanting more. Since Frank’s children had vastly different personalities and temperaments, I thought that each visit would reflect a change of tone. Unfortunately, it remained mind-numbingly one-note. It was depressing because the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with their father which were reflected in their phone conversations when Frank was on the train, the bus, and the plane. Although he was somewhat welcomed with smiles and hugs, the emotions felt fake because we knew what they really thought about the surprise visit. It was like watching a guide called “How Not to Treat Your Parents When They Get Old and You Have Your Own Life.” It would have been refreshing if two of them didn’t want him over but at least one genuinely did without question. One visit could have been strange, the other really funny, and the last quite cantankerous. Big shifts in tone could have signified that the material wasn’t afraid to take risks. So what if everything doesn’t quite fit together? Just keep the audiences interested. There were some mildly comedic scenes like when Frank was portrayed as being out of touch with recent technology and his unawareness that the heavy bag he’d been carrying had a handle and wheels which could have made his life easier. There were also some touching scenes such as when we finally realized that there were some truth in Frank’s high expectations of his children and why they felt distant toward him for years. Nevertheless, I still disagreed with the way they treated their father as if he was a child. Protecting someone doesn’t always equal keeping them in the dark especially when the person had a right to know what was happening. The writing could have used some work. The scene I found most awkward and uncomfortable to sit through was the fantasy scene involving Frank sharing a meal with his children, played by actual kids, and secrets were revealed. Some of the divulged information could be surmised from Frank’s visit but some were simply out of nowhere. That scene felt cheesy, forced, and it diminished the little dramatic pull it had going for it. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, “Everybody’s Fine” had a great cast, with some effective acting from De Niro, but it made far too many missteps because of a weak script. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected during the more serious revelations.
Edge of Darkness (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mel Gibson stars as a homicide detective and a father of a girl (Bojana Novakovic) who was gruesomely killed by two men the night she visited him. The deeper Gibson’s character got into the investigation of his daughter’s death, the more he realized that maybe he was up against something way bigger than himself. However, that didn’t stop him from trying to do what was right even if he had to commit a few wrongs. Even though the film was very serious (sometimes too serious), I couldn’t help but enjoy it because it was such a joy to watch Gibson deliver such intensity into his character. It was kind of like watching Liam Neeson in the sleeper hit “Taken.” Every pause, every sharp breath and every shifting of the eyes communicated something to the audiences so it was fun trying to figure out what the main character was really thinking or what he was about to do in each scene. I completely believed that he was a father who wanted both justice and vengeance; I didn’t agree with some of his methods but I rooted for him because he exuded confidence and intelligence without sacrificing his heart. However, if I were to point at the movie’s major weakness, as the body count started piling up, the picture became more convoluted. Elements of politics and business were introduced but it didn’t quite hold up for me. By the end of the movie, some of my questions were left unanswered such as the further involvement (or lack thereof) of a rival company that Gibson’s daughter worked for and the real identity of a mysterious figure named Jedburgh (Ray Winstone). Winstone matched Gibson’s intensity in some scenes but I wanted to know more about him and his motivations. Since I didn’t know more about that particular key character, certain developments toward the end made me not buy what had just happened and I was left confused and a bit cheated. (Perhaps his character was further explained in the mini-series.) I’ve read reviews that said “Edge of Darkness” was an old-fashioned thriller. That’s exactly what I liked about the movie. “Edge of Darkness,” directed by Martin Campbell, is an effective thriller-mystery about corruption and revenge. The lead character may not be a typical hero that we can easily root for but we instinctively identify with him in his journey to finding out or getting as close as he can to the truth.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“World’s Greatest Dad,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, was a satirical film about a father/writer/teacher (Robin Williams) who decided to hide his son’s (Daryl Sabara) accidental death from masturbating and instead made the death look like a suicide. Williams wrote a suicide note and when the school got a hold of it, the note became an instant hit. Being a failed writer time and again, Williams decided to take advantage of his son’s death and get the acclaim he always wanted by writing a journal full of sad thoughts and claiming it was written by his son. From the sound of it, I expected to immensely dislike Williams’ character because nothing is right about taking advantage of someone’s demise, especially that of a loved one’s. However, his son was such a prick (for the lack of a better word–and that’s putting it lightly) who didn’t care about anybody but himself (including those who were really nice to him such as his father and his only friend played by Evan Martin). In fact, I didn’t feel sad or remorse when the son died. I really cared more for father because he genuinely loved his son despite his son’s lack of appreciation. I’m beginning to think that Williams really shines in smaller pictures like this one and the underrated “One Hour Photo.” There’s something about the way he hides his feelings and thoughts that I can’t help but identify with. I especially liked that one scene when he pretended to be happy for a fellow teacher who was recently published on The New Yorker. There’s something very true about that scene because we all know how it is like to smile on the outside but feel really jealous inside after hearing about someone else’s success, especially if we don’t particularly like that person for whatever reason. I thought the darkly comedic scenes worked because it was able to point to the hypocrisy of high school students and the faculty that supposedly cared. I’m talking about how everyone suddenly started caring about Sabara’s character after his death when nobody really cared about him when he was alive. It reminded me of the time in high school when my fellow students and I would hear about a death over the morning announcements. For a couple of hours everyone sounded like they cared but the next day everything was back to normal as if nothing happened. This might be a difficult film to swallow for most people because the content might seem a bit “cruel.” But that’s what I admired about it; it was able to point to us and say, “This is what’s wrong with you” but not to the point where we feel bad. In fact, the pictures gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.
The Return (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Vozvrashcheniye” or “The Return,” directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, was about two boys’ (Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin) response and ways of coping when their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) who abandoned them twelve years ago suddenly came back. This movie really took me by surprise because I thought it was going to be more about the siblings’ relationship: the rivalry between them, their quest to find their identities and to learn how to be secure about who they were. When the father came back, I suddenly realized that the film aimed to be so much more. Although the brothers were pretty much on the same physical journey with their father to head to a place unknown to the audiences, their emotional and psychological journeys were distinct and fascinating. The older brother (Garin) accepted his fathers return while the younger brother (Dobronravov) was more reluctant and cautious. His doubt became so strong to the point where he expressed to his brother that the man who returned might not be their father–the father that they came to recognize in an old childhood photo. This alarmed me because I wondered if he was right. After all, that gut feeling in us is sometimes right, especially when circumstances are dire. I had to question about the father’s intentions because of the way he treated his sons. Even though they were both stubborn, if I was a father who hadn’t seen his sons in over a decade, I’d be ecstatic and be more than willing to let certain things go so that my children would be able to trust and open up to me. The way the father was so dead-on into coming to a particular place made me very suspicious and I found myself constantly evaluating the situation. The last thirty minutes was impressive. The quiet moments were so painful after certain events have unfolded. I could feel what the characters were probably feeling and known what they probably were thinking. I loved the way Zvyagintsev helmed the picture because of the fact that the movie was focused from beginning to end yet it wasn’t monotonous. In fact, it was very fluid when it comes to the emotions that it wanted to get from the viewers. I also enjoyed that the title eventually had two meanings. I will remember this Russian film for a long time, despite its minimalist dialogue, because of its haunting moral conundrums.
The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.