Tag: forest whitaker

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

A mercenary named Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is sent by his boss, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life in an alley, to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) because he is sexually involved with the daughter of a head mobster. The problem is, everyone had assumed that the girl, Louise (Tricia Vassey), was not going to be with Handsome Frank at the time of the murder. She witnesses the cold-blooded killing and Mr. Vargo (Henry Silva) is livid. The head mobster demands Louie to give up the man he sent to do perform the job or risk being killed himself.

“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, combines two sub-genres found in the opposite spectrum: gangster pictures and samurai film. What is created is an original and inspired product about what it means to be a killer but a man of honor, a recluse who is capable of connecting with others in unexpected ways.

It can be argued that the material is influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s work in that the writer-director is not afraid to allow individual scenes to run longer than they should. This is best captured during the scene when Louie is summoned by his superiors to discuss his source’s mistake and why he has to be neutralized. Louie sits on one side of the table, nervous but trying not to show it, and the other three do not even crack a smile. It starts off scary, then awkward, and, finally, sort of amusing. The mobsters think Ghost Dog’s name is inspired by rappers on television and the radio.

And then there are scenes that one might think should not be in the movie at all. After all, it is supposed to be about the hunt for the title character and, eventually, his choice on whether to fight back against those who have pushed him into a corner.

Ghost Dog meeting his best friend (Isaach De Bankolé), an ice cream man who speaks only French and does not understand English (nor does Ghost Dog understand a word of French), and a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) allows us to get a feel and explore the hidden depths and alleys of a complicated character. Especially touching is his relationship with Pearline. As avid readers, they talk about and recommend each other books. Through this common interest, they are able to understand each other even though they come from very different age groups. He does not talk down to her.

I appreciated that the material chooses not to put the child in danger for the sake of getting a reaction out of Ghost Dog and the audience. Under more typical hands, she would have been kidnapped by the gangsters eventually and he would have had to rescue her. Instead, Pearline talking about the books stored in her lunchbox is enough to establish how much the main character values his relationship with her. Like the great samurai movies, it understands the art of restraint.

The violence, coupled with a lack of score or soundtrack, is suspenseful and efficient. Even though our protagonist is up against older gentlemen, there is danger because we get a sense that the men in suits know exactly what they are doing. I flinched every time a gun silencer exhales and the bullet punctures the target’s forehead. It shows violence for what it is.

Body Snatchers

Body Snatchers (1993)
★ / ★★★★

A chemist (Terry Kinney) from the Environmental Protection Agency is sent to a military base for a month to test possible toxicity of various sites. His daughter, Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), is less than excited about the assignment because she did not expect him to get remarried after her mother’s passing. Though she and Carol (Meg Tilly) get along just fine, the new wife is a constant reminder of her mom’s replacement.

Speaking of replacement, something strange is brewing in the base. Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) admits to Steve that he has been receiving a surge of patients with extreme delusional fixations like being deathly afraid of their family members because they are convinced somehow that the people they are living with are not really their loved ones.

Inspired by Jack Finney’s novel, “Body Snatchers,” directed by Abel Ferrara, is an exercise in, ironically, identity crisis. It is very frustrating to sit through because although it is science fiction on the surface with horror and paranoid thriller elements, it also deals with teen angst—a most toxic combination. Because the suspense-thriller and teen drama realms depend on vastly different moods and tones, they picture fails to propel forward. The little mystique it conjures up is aspirated out just as quickly.

The characters are severely malnourished in terms of development. Although the first scene suggests that Marti is a lead character of deep thought and intelligence, the scenes that come afterwards show that she is really nothing special, just another teenager who is neither a bad girl nor a good girl—just somewhere in-between, boring, waiting for outside forces to compel her to react. Anwar has the physical beauty and grace to become a compelling watch but the screenplay by Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and Nicholas St. John makes her character as bland as possible. Why?

One does not get a real impression that the story is really taking place at a military base. It looks more like a set with soldiers sitting on vehicles, jogging, looking stern. The interiors of the house Marti and her family are staying in offer nothing eye-catching in terms of design or geometry. Pale lighting is used to give the impression that the house has had prior residents but upon looking more closely, change the lightbulbs and everything would look artificial.

Because these crucial elements—characterization and a real sense of place—do not fall into place, it is difficult to buy into the reality of individuals being replaced by emotionless doubles. Instead of engaging us in a natural flow, coupled with the chemist’s analytical mind—which the writers prove too lazy to place any significance toward, just about everything comes off silly, very often forced.

Reduced into its final minutes, just about everyone is running around either trying to catch someone or a person trying not to get caught. It is all very standard and unimpressive. Where is the sense of wonder? Where are the interesting questions? Where is the palpable sense of danger? Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and Philip Kaufman’s remake of the same name are effective because they work literally and as metaphors.

This one is not about ideas. In fact, it is not about anything. As you saw, I was able to summarize the plot but there is nothing substantial to hold onto. About less than halfway through, I wished that my double were watching this brain cell-killing film instead while I enjoyed the sunshine and fresh air.

Powder Blue

Powder Blue (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, “Powder Blue” tells the stories of an exotic dancer, a suicidal man, an ex-con, and a mortician and how their lives are connected to one another days before Christmas Eve. While the picture aims to communicate the sadness in the paradox of living in a hugely populated city yet no one seems to really care, most the scenes, I must admit, made me laugh when it is supposed to be very serious.

For instance, as Charlie (Forest Whitaker) lures strangers to shoot a bullet through his heart for $50,000, the execution of the character’s request lacks a proper build-up that comes across effortless and commanding genuine tension. Although Whitaker’s performance might have been convincing given a proper direction coupled with a script that offers a backbone and supporting substance, it feels very awkward here. The rare glimmers of intensity is a testament to how good Whitaker can be as a raw performer.

Another weak strand involves Jack (Ray Liotta), recently released from jail, frequenting a strip club because there is something about the sight of Johnny (Jessica Biel) that piques his curiosity. While inside the strip club, each time he is shown standing about or sitting down staring into nothing, he always looks sad. It is emotionally manipulative because not enough time is invested toward honing in on the character’s sadness and communicating it to us that does not come across preachy.

The convenient flashbacks do nothing to make us more sympathetic and sensitive to the characters’ struggles. If there is one shining moment in the film, it is found in the waitress that Charlie meets in a diner that stands in as his second home. While Sally (Lisa Kudrow) has her own share of problems and sadness, the light within her resonated with me. I enjoyed the way Kudrow allows her character to reach out and help Charlie and yet she isn’t quite sure if she is ready to take on a friend or a potential romantic interest.

Sally and Charlie share several gauche conversations but the way in which they mirror each other’s energy made me want to know more about their relationship and consider ways that could help them to move on from their current problems. What they have is about hope and it is critical to the picture because everything about it is so depressing: the cinematography, the subject matter, and the characters being convinced that there is no escaping their fates.

The storyline that shows potential but ultimately does not deliver involves Qwerty (Eddie Redmayne) and his reclusive existence. We are given information about his life like the fact that his father, also a mortician, recently passed away and that their family business is about to go under due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately, there are not enough scenes of his struggles designed to show rather than tell. What is executed nicely is his interactions with a dog he accidentally had ran over and later taken home. It shows that he is capable of giving love but recent events in his life almost prevents him from going out there in the world and living his life as a young person.

Because “Powder Blue” is so intent on showcasing the seedy environs of Los Angeles, it neglects to paint its characters as real people. It also feels overlong. The problems of the protagonists defines them and the screenplay is unwilling to explore other potentially more interesting avenues.

Repo Men

Repo Men (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star as former childhood enemies whose job was to extract vital organs from people’s bodies when they fell behind on their payment plans. But after Law was involved in an accident during a job, his boss (Liev Schreiber) didn’t waste a second to get Law to sign a document so he could get an artificial heart. Only then did Law began to sympathize with the people he decided to shock into temporary paralysis and cut open without remorse. I liked this movie in parts but not as a whole. I thought the second half of the movie was much stronger than the first because it eventually didn’t second-guess itself in delivering the action, blood and violence. The first part of the movie felt a little bit forced; not for one second did I believe Law and Whitaker as colleagues let alone friends. I also thought that the scenes with the Law’s wife and son were a bit redundant and if I were to disregard those scenes altogether, the overall product would have been the same. In other words, the director (Miguel Sapochnick) wasn’t quite efficient in terms of time, which scenes were really important and which others needed to be taken out. Although the movie had some nice ideas splattered throughout, none of them were fully realized because the characters were not fully developed. Since it lacked character development, it was difficult for me to read their beliefs despite what they portrayed on the outside and their specific motivations. Just when I thought it was about to dive deeper into its characters, the scene would have a drastic change of tone and it took me out of the moment. I wished that it had taken one route instead of trying to balance thoughtfulness (comparable to “Gattaca”) and pure escapism (comparable to “From Paris with Love” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”). Instead of me enjoying the picture as a whole, I liked specific scenes such as Law trying to sneak into his former workplace, scenes that involved bloody surgeries, the white room, the battle to the pink room, and the final scene that (admittedly) took me by surprise. Overall, it made me think whether I enjoyed the movie despite its flaws or whether I enjoyed it because of its potential to be great. It had a great setting because it looked futuristic but not so far off that it was completely unbelievable. In some ways, it reminded me of post-apocalyptic films like “Children of Men.” Perhaps with a better writing and more focused direction, “Repo Men” would have had more punch to match its ambition.


Platoon (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) signed up to be a soldier because he felt like participating in a war was a family legacy since his grandfather and father fought the wars of their generations. Being a new soldier, he looked up to two people who had higher ranks: Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). The former represented composure, control and ethics despite the craziness of war, while the latter embodied the evil, darkness, and cruelty. I thought this movie was going to be another one of those war classics that was overly long. I was quickly proven wrong because of the number of scenes that highlighted the silence and all we could hear was the rustling of the leaves as the soldiers slithered their way through the jungle. I also didn’t expect a lot of character development because war pictures often focus their energy on the epic battle sequences. The narration worked for me because the thoughts and insights that Sheen’s character was unable to talk about with his comrades was out in the open for the audiences. There was a real sensitivity to his character; the real turning point for me when I decided that I was going to root for his character was when he proudly wore his naïveté on his sleeves regarding one of the reasons why he volunteered to be a soldier. He reasoned that that the rich always got away from all the dirty work and he felt that he shouldn’t be anyone special just because he was born with money. Also, since he felt like he wasn’t learning anything in college, essentially, he might as well make himself useful by joining the army. Scenes like those when the characters were just talking and measuring each other up really fascinated me and I was interested in what ways they would change by the end of the picture. Oliver Stone, the director, helmed a war film that had an internal mologue mixed with moral ambiguities instead of taking the easier route of simply entertaining the viewers with empty explosions and guts being flung into the air. “Platoon” was gorgeously shot in the Philippines and the night scenes really captured the horror of the enemies blending into the environment. Lastly, it was interesting to see future stars such as the younger Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, and Forest Whitaker. “Platoon” ranks among other unforgettable war pictures such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.

As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)

A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.