Albert Nobbs (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) was the apotheosis of fastidiousness. As a a butler in one of the most prestigious hotels in Dublin, Morrison’s Hotel, it was almost a requirement more than a desired quality in order to impress the wealthiest upper-class considering each had their own special need. On another level, Albert’s keen attention to detail was dependent on survival. Albert was a woman and for many years she kept the fact hidden from everyone. When a charming painter, Hubert (Janet McTeer), was hired by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the hotel’s mistress, and was assigned to room with Albert, the butler’s secret was exposed. Still, the two found a commonality because, as it turned out, Hubert was also a woman posing as a man. Based on a short story by George Moore and directed by Rodrigo García, there is no doubt in my mind that the filmmakers of “Albert Nobbs” wanted us to experience the story of Albert, seek understanding from the restrictive circumstances of the ninetieth century, relate it to our time, and recognize that people still do hide their sexualities and lead a life of unhappiness out of shame, fear of judgment, and rejection of friends and families. In a way, it wanted to inspire the viewers to be a little more sensitive and understanding. While its intentions and messages were venerable, I felt that, as a film, there was something missing in the way the plot unfolded. Some scenes felt rather awkward. For instance, Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), one of the posh guests in the hotel, woke up with a naked man in his room as if to suggest that they had a romantic or sexual relationship. And yet it was never expanded upon in order to highlight certain trends, in this case male-male companionship, in terms of having to hide one’s sexuality from society. It was a lost opportunity because of their sex and socioeconomic status, very different and an excellent complement to Albert’s situation. That scene that seemed to suggest more could have been taken out completely and it would not have had any sort of impact on the work, except perhaps that the audience wouldn’t expect a different perspective from the screenplay by Glenn Close, John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop. As a whole, Close delivered a good performance but I was not always completely captivated by her as a man. There were times when I thought the actress was trying to deliver a performance and trying to emote subtleties required to make us believe that Albert really was a man. The inconsistent greatness in Close’s acting, which caused distraction, almost worked against itself. However, her high notes were memorable. For example, I admired the part when Mrs. Baker and Albert were speaking and the conversation was suddenly interrupted by one of the staff. In a split second, I thought there was a mistake in the editing because Albert seemed to have disappeared from screen. As I looked closer, it turned out that Albert just moved a couple of steps back, out of respect, and seemed to blend into the wallpaper. Although understated because it happened so quickly, there was something in me that couldn’t help but respond to it. It made me consider that Close perfectly embodied her character’s ability to hide and blend in from fear of suspicion that there was something different about her. It highlighted the sadness of Albert’s life: while most of us strive to stand out from the pandemonium of life, people like her strive to camouflage into the most nondescript corner.
★★★ / ★★★★
A tire suddenly came to life in the desert. Like a toddler’s uncertainty in taking its first steps, we observed Robert the tire rolling around and falling over. It learned that it liked to put its weight on things like plastic water bottles and small animals. When Robert couldn’t physically destroy something, it used its psychic powers in order to force its target to explode. Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, I had fun with “Rubber” because it took a ridiculous idea and kept its head high like it wasn’t anybody’s business. The bad acting, thin dialogue, and lack of sensical narrative worked because our expectations were turned inside out before we even had time to form them. I was consistently interested in the murderous tire and what it was going to do next. There was a subplot involving Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) and an accountant (Jack Plotnick) wanting to kill the audiences, literally the people with binoculars watching the tire murder people from a distance. Sometimes it worked. I saw the subplot as the director’s frustration of Hollywood unabashedly rehashing the same old formula in terms of which movies would receive the green light and the audiences’ willingness in swallowing it all up. I saw the turkey, poisoned food given to the onlookers, as a symbol of most of the garbage in the film business. The garbage is killing our culture. I share that frustration. In every ten movies I watch, only one (or two if I’m lucky) is truly original and refreshing. Another scene I enjoyed was when the lieutenant tried to convince his men that they should stop doing their jobs (they were at a crime scene) because it was all a movie. Just so his colleagues would believe him, he ordered one of them to shoot him. If he didn’t die, it was proof that everything was fake. Lastly, I was amused when Lieutenant Chad, whose goal was to destroy Robert, looked into the camera during the opening scene and explained to us the lack of reason for the things we were about to see. It prepared us for what was coming. However, there were times when the picture didn’t quite work. We were not made aware of Lieutenant Chad and the accountant’s endgame. Were they aware of the tire’s true potential? We they fully invested in supposedly saving mankind from tired ideas? Was the universe that the characters inhabited a part of some sick joke? We never found out. I had some questions for Robert as well. The tire was interested in a woman (Roxane Mesquida) but was it aware of its own lack of body structures like limbs, torso, and a head? There was one shot in which the tire saw its own reflection and, despite being an inanimate object, it seemed a bit sad. I imagined it thinking, “Why do I look like this?” That moment made me realize that, despite its wild premise, I was enjoying the picture for what it was. “Rubber” was absurd, some would say unnecessary, but the director used such qualities to make a statement and create something quite original. If anything, it had to be given credit for its sheer audacity.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn-based high school student with ambition and drive, occasionally snuck out with Laura (Pernell Walker), her best friend, to spend time in lesbian-themed clubs to make hooking up with other girls much easier. However, Alike’s devoutly religious parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) weren’t aware of their daughter’s attraction toward other women, so Alike had to lie and change clothes before going to the club and stepping inside the house. Word travelled fast and soon enough, the parents began to suspect that perhaps there was a pinch of truth in hearsay. Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Pariah” was painfully honest in its approach of what it was like to lead a second life outside of the home without relying on easy emotions, like pity, to make Alike’s situation more digestible for the audience. The picture was proactive in showing us that while Alike was capable of making mistakes like any other person, gay or straight, who was growing up, her strength was dependent upon the fact that she knew who she was and that there was nothing wrong with her being attracted to women. Because Alike had such a strong sense of self, the material had a chance to hone in on those who wrestled with gnawing suspicions and Alike’s eventual admission. But this wasn’t to suggest that the picture utilized the coming out scene as its center. I liked the way the parents were not showcased as ignoramuses when it came to their child’s life. By avoiding that tired cliché, it was already one step ahead of its peers. Audrey was the kind of parent who took the word of the Bible as an absolute. We may not agree with her position and some of us may detest her for it, but people like her do exist. I’ve had gay and lesbian friends in high school who were kicked out of their homes because their parents wouldn’t accept them from the way they interpreted certain passages in that book. Some of my friends were even forced to attend certain institutions to “cure” their homosexuality to no avail. Arthur, on the other hand, was a parent so in denial, he’d rather dance around the issue than just ask if his daughter was gay. He was a part of the police force and for someone who valued pithiness and truth, it was ironic that something as trivial as sexuality was the kind of thing that he couldn’t face head-on. The film astutely showed that such a type of an approach could potentially be as damaging as directly saying that one’s sexual identity was not unacceptable in a particular household. Under Rees’ direction, the theme of disconnect involving the relationship among mother, father, and daughter was highlighted in subtle but powerful ways. I guess having been able to identify with Alike’s experiences, there were times when a parent’s look communicated a thousand words. I hate to admit it but those small yet precious moments could potentially go undetected under the observation of those outside the LGBT community. For me, those moments were what made the film felt so real and why I had such a gut reaction to it. It’s difficult to make LGBT movies because most of them tend to use melodrama as an excuse to avoid more complex emotional and psychological explorations. “Pariah” is a shining exception. While it had lessons to impart about self-esteem and self-acceptance, telling a story through a specific perspective was its most remarkable achievement.
Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.
The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.
★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
This Means War (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), best friends and partners at work, turned a supposed covert assignment into a public catastrophe, their boss in the CIA (Angela Bassett) relegated them away from field work. During their time off, Tuck thought it would be a great idea to join an online dating service and see women. Luckily for him, Trish (Chelsea Handler) clandestinely created a profile for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) because she thought her friend could use a man in her life. Eventually, though, Lauren decided to see both FDR and Tuck because she was the kind of girl who liked having options before settling for a product. “This Means War,” directed by McG, had a ridiculous premise which almost worked because its early scenes were full of swagger. Unfortunately, as it went on, it couldn’t be denied that there wasn’t much to the story and Witherspoon as a blonde Barbie was not only unsympathetic, she was not funny. Pine and Hardy had wonderful chemistry and the screenplay by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg capitalized on their characters’ opposite qualities. FDR’s softer facial features was a nice contrast against his blasé playboy lifestyle. He was so slick, he even had a swimming pool elegantly, mesmerizingly placed on his apartment ceiling. On the other hand, Tuck’s more angular features provided an interesting incongruity to his more sensitive side. Having a young son and a passive-aggressive ex-wife, it was very easy to root for Tuck to find some sort of happiness in his personal life. When FDR and Tuck were together, there was a natural bromance that oozed out of their verbal sparring, a very fun, funky energy that reminded me of how it was like to be with my best friend. Because the two were so charming in their own right, scenes that might have been creepy, like the two breaking into Lauren’s home to know more about her and use the knowledge they had acquired to gain an advantage in the dating scenarios, had a playfulness to them. Sadly, Lauren was as boring as a cardboard cutout. The writers injected neuroses in her in order to convince us that she had a semblance of a personality, but not only did her quirks not come off as amusing, it felt almost desperate. It seemed like in every point where she had to make a decision, she consulted Trish. Lauren had a fancy job in downtown L.A. but how come she couldn’t she think for herself? Trish had the funniest lines and Handler was more than capable of reaching a certain level of energy to deliver the punchlines. I wish the picture was more about her. In the middle of it, I began to wonder how the movie could have been more interesting if the two handsome bachelors tried to win Trish’ affections even if she was happily married most of the time. There was a subplot involving Heinrich (Til Schweiger), a person of interest in the eyes of the CIA, wanting revenge for the death of his brother but, like Lauren, it was just so banal. The action scenes were very uninspired, almost unnecessary. “This Means War” was an innocuous romp that desperately needed edge in order to keep its audience on their toes, to feel like we were active participants in the charade. Since pretty much everything was so safe, I noticed that there were times when my eyes began to gloss over out of the dreariness happening on screen.
★★★ / ★★★★
A pregnant queen was terminally ill and the only thing that could cure her was a magical flower. But Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), obsessed with reclaiming her youth, kept the flower for herself because it only gave back her good looks for a short time. When the royal soldiers found the flower, the queen was cured and she successfully delivered a baby girl. Villainous Gothel snuck into the castle, discovered that the child absorbed the fantastic properties of the flower, kidnapped her, raised her as her own child, and kept her in a tower for eighteen years. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) yearned to experience life outside of her home but couldn’t find it to do so because her so-called mother convinced her that the world was dark, selfish, and cruel. Based on the fairy tale of Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “Tangled” was a joy to watch because it radiated positivity but wasn’t afraid to take a dark turn when it needed to. There was a good amount of humor for both kids and adults. I laughed at Flynn Rider’s (Zachary Levi) vanity, Rapunzel’s purloiner of a prince charming/wanted man. I liked him because he was a different kind of lover that a girl ended up with in most Disney movies. He was modern, almost a parody, but he had good qualities that convinced us that he was a great fit for a girl like Rapunzel. I also enjoyed the chameleon, Rapunzel’s pet and only friend, and the horse determined to catch Rider and his thieving ways. The chameleon and the horse were more than just animals for us to think of as cute. They had human qualities. They were capable of giving begrudging looks, had the tendency to be bossy, and were capable of being sweet. They couldn’t speak, unlike Sebastian the crab in Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid,” but they didn’t need to. Their facial expressions and body languages said it all. The songs were catchy and they always related to the story. I particularly enjoyed two songs: the time Rapunzel cleaned her house and the visit in the pub full of ruffians. Listen to the lyrics and there was a wink or two aimed directly at our pop culture. The style of animation kept my eyes fixated on the screen. I especially admired the scene in which the characters had to run away from the powerful water after the dam had collapsed. I felt like I was with Rapunzel and Rider when the camera showed the raging water in the background as the duo ran toward us. I mentioned the film having a dark side. It showed Gothel holding a knife. The manner in which she held it with malice suggested murder. There was even a scene in which someone was stabbed in the back. I’m glad that the filmmakers were brave enough to show them. With all kinds of violence featured on television, I think kids of all ages should be able to handle it. “Tangled” wasn’t very deep but it didn’t need to. It just needed to feel magical.
The Woman in Black (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young father and a widower, was assigned by his London-based law firm to go to the country and peruse through the documents that Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) left upon her death. If it was certain that the firm had her final will, her gothic mansion, known to everyone around it as the Eel Marsh House, would be ready for clean-up and sale. Arthur assumed it would be a relatively easy job. When he arrived at the village, however, the residents were very unwelcoming and keen on sending him back to where he came from. Soon enough, he had a chance to visit the supposedly abandoned house and began to see a woman observing him from the grounds. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and screenplay by Jane Goldman, the greatest strength of “The Woman in Black” was its understanding of the importance of building suspense prior to delivering a genuinely scary moment that either left its audience startled or horrified. I enjoyed the way it kept me interested as to why the distressed townsfolk were so opposed to Arthur’s visit. While we suspected that it probably had something to do with his assignment at the secluded house, we weren’t sure as to how that was related to the three seemingly happy children who jumped to their deaths in the first scene. By not giving us immediate answers, I actually ended up wanting Arthur to finally get to the house and do a bit of investigation in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The creepiness increased tenfold when the camera loomed over the estate. It was surrounded by a marsh in which tides came and went depending on the hours. At times the road was unavailable which meant that Arthur wouldn’t be able to escape when his encounters turned grim. When he was left alone to look around the house, the picture was at its best because the filmmakers highlighted the stillness that surrounded our protagonist as well as when the stillness was threatened by supernatural forces. Typicalities occurred such as a ghost appearing behind Arthur when he wasn’t looking but a handful of them were executed so convincingly, the clichés were almost negligible. The most chilling scene involved a nursery room with a rocking chair that seemed to defy physics. It was enjoyable on more than one level because while the direction forced our senses to focus on sounds and images, the horror elements–like dolls moving and stopping on their own, the eventual reveal of the malevolent ghost and the like–also challenged us, if we wished, to recreate an image of an unhappy life that had driven the woman in black to do the things she did. This could be connected to the moment when we first met Arthur as he held a blade to his neck but changed his mind for his son’s sake. This led to the picture’s main weakness. I wasn’t totally convinced that Radcliffe was a young father who was grieving for his wife’s death. Although he had no problem conjuring emotions like sadness, the angst behind his eyes and actions weren’t quite there. I felt that a certain level of realism within the character to be important because the reason why Arthur decided to take the job and continued to perform the job despite eerie warnings was because he wanted to provide for his son. Instead of an engaging beginning, since certain emotions didn’t feel true, I found it rather languorous. “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins,” could have also used an ending that didn’t feel so saccharine that it derailed its consistently minacious tone. It was an example of how toxic a cliché can be if there was nothing else behind it other than lazy or confused writing.
Lone Star (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a skeleton was discovered alongside a badge that belonged to former Sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a corrupt man who held Frontera in his vise grip, Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) led the investigation. Sam suspected the murderer was his late father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), a legendary figure in town, because rumors went around that the night Charlie Wade disappeared, there was an altercation between Buddy and Charlie. Written and directed by John Sayles, I was fascinated with the film because the town was menudo of diversity when it came to ethnicity, culture, and intentions. Although there was racial tension among the African-Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos, there was a deep complexity among their relationships. The town was on the verge of critical change and Sam was torn in many directions. He was careful in trying to preserve that change, the present, but at the same time he was torn about his feelings toward a Hispanic teacher, and former childhood flame, named Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), the past. There was something about her that he felt he needed to get to know more on a personal or a romantic level. The passing of time and the distance he created between them didn’t seem to hinder their connection. Cooper injected his character with subtlety and grace. When he stared off into space and recollected the past, we looked with him and struggled to make sense of the literal skeletons that surfaced. For some reason, he was convinced that his father’s name wasn’t as clean as the residents claimed. After all, memories change and the mind tends to repress the negative when word-of-mouth focused on the positive and optimism. When Sam interviewed men who knew his father back in the day, such as the cop (Clifton James) and the pub owner (Ron Canada), there was a mutual respect between the current sheriff and the men who were used to living in simpler times. The subplots were equally fascinating. There was Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), Pilar’s mother and a cafe owner, who looked down on her own people. She was quick to call the Border Patrol when she herself got into the country illegally. We often heard her telling her workers, “Speak English! This is America.” It was painful to watch because it was almost as if she was embarrassed of her roots. However, I found myself being able to relate to her since that self-hatred was a familiar feeling. As a pre-teen immigrant, turning my back on my ethnicity seemed like the only solution at the time in order to feel like I belonged. The Ms. Cruz character was often played for laughs but I understood her need to assimilate. Lastly, there was an excellent scene between a soldier (Chandra Wilson) and a colonel (Joe Morton). The former lacked ambition, seeing her role in the military as someone who simply followed orders, while the latter thought about long-term goals and defying the odds. It was interesting when the two shared the same room because, in a way, it also reflected the mindsets of the past and present. Although sometimes confusing because of the number of characters it juggled, I found “Lone Star” beautiful because it managed to capture the lyricism of it meant to be in a diverse community on the verge of change. It treated us like the smart people we are and it didn’t compromise for the sake of easy answers.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Newspapers pegged anarchists as responsible for the recent bombings in Europe. Everyone was nervous that the bombings would eventually spin out of control and war among European nations would ensue. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) suspected foul play, believing that someone smarter and more cunning was behind the terrorist attacks. When not flirting with the beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a contract purloiner of all things important, Holmes served as a friendly thorn on Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) side, attempting to convince his friend that getting married was tantamount to a lifelong enslavement. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, was a movie so intent to impress, it almost won me over despite its clunky plot and distracting–although at times impressive–technical gadgetry. What prevented me from being fully immersed in the film was catching myself sitting passively waiting for something really interesting to happen. Although twists and turns were abound, each successive surprise suffered from diminishing returns. At one point I wondered what other type of tricks it had, if any, in its bag. There were two well-executed scenes that matched the material’s ambition. First, the train scene in which Holmes and Dr. Watson had to escape from assassins sent by Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) wielded a certain level of suspense mixed with glee. Of course, given that the train had a lot of small spaces, the script capitalized on the weird sexual chemistry between the duo–some angles taken from typical pornographic positions–which I found hilarious. Second, the chase scene through the woods as Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortuneteller, evaded bullets, cannonballs, and rockets was quite inspired. I found it a standout because the slow motion highlighted the artistry of the action scene instead of merely bombarding the audience with quick cuts. It was interesting to see certain images like how a bullet scraped a tree and how loamy soil fell onto the characters after a cannonball hit the ground with great force. The scene was a nice change from boring hand-to-hand combat where choppy editing met a vague semblance of martial arts. Why wasn’t uninterrupted physical combat shown more often? Furthermore, the flashback scenes were as ineffective as the sequences where Holmes weighed how a battle would play out. By allowing us to see what would or could happen next before it actually happened, the filmmakers left no tension for us to bathe in. Both the flashbacks and fast-forwards were not used as astutely–in this case, far from sparingly–it should have in order to increase the drama. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the biggest problem that “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” suffered from was although it had a lot of fun on the outside, it needed to work on real emotions so the audiences would be more invested in whatever was going on. Since it failed to inject gravity into more serious moments, when a key character died, for instance, it felt like a mere plot convenience than a genuine loss of a character some of us have grown to like.
American History X (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Edward Furlong) was taken to the principal’s office because he wrote a paper called “My Mein Kampf” in which it justified Adolf Hitler as a civil war hero. Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principal, thought that the best solution would be for the two of them to meet every day, discuss current events, take what was going on in the world, and put them into perspective. Danny’s first assignment was to create a narrative about how his brother, Derek (Edward Norton), released from a three-year prison sentence the very same day, ended up becoming a neo-Nazi. “American History X,” written by David McKenna, was like swallowing a bitter pill that was good for you. I found it difficult to sit through not only because we were demanded to endure a lot of rhetoric pregnant with hatred, but because it also allowed us to question our own predilections toward discrimination, most of them we might not be consciously aware of, without beating us over the head about the toxicity of racism despite the characters inhabiting a diverse Los Angeles milieu. Regardless of our race, we’ve all experienced passing through a group of African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, or Asians ranging from teenagers to middle-aged and felt threatened in some way due to their appearance and behavior–wife beaters, pants hanging low, profanities being thrown around like prepositions–stereotypically considered as lower-class. The picture was essentially divided into two. The past was told in black-and-white while the present was in color. This was appropriate because in the past, Derek, under the mentorship of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), considered it his duty to recruit impressionable, young white males who were tired of being scared and beaten by people of color. Derek’s speeches, whether it be out in public or inside his home while sharing a meal with his family (Beverly D’Angelo and Jennifer Lien as Derek’s mother and sister, respectively), were full of zealously executed offensive language disguised as logical reasoning. Although Derek was very smart, he adopted a “white versus non-white” mentality, just like the images we saw on the screen. On the other hand, the present marked Derek’s seemingly sudden change of heart. He wanted out of the neo-Nazi party for the sake of his family, especially when he saw Danny treading a similar path that he’d taken years prior. For a picture that relied on flashbacks to show the roots of Derek’s reformation, the pacing was rather brisk. The interactions between Derek and Lamont (Guy Torry), though awkward and drenched in silence at first, felt genuine as a whole because the screenplay used humor to seep through the cracks in Derek’s armor which eventually allowed him to open up and question. Furthermore, Dr. Sweeney’s presence, Derek’s former Honors English teacher, was utilized sparingly but to a great effect. It was a particularly dangerous type of character, especially in social message movies, due to the wise words that had to be imparted. Dr. Sweeney did not overstay his welcome. However, I wished that we knew more about the neo-Nazi mentor. From what I’ve seen, he didn’t seem such a magnetic presence, how smart young men would be drawn to his evil. Directed by Tony Kaye, although “American History X” touched upon but did not fully immerse itself in the complexity of bigotry in modern urban America, it is nonetheless emotionally involving and it dares us to look within. It argues that if we are brave enough look inside and happen to see something ugly in terms of how we treat others, it’s not too late to change. That message is an important first step.