★★★ / ★★★★
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.