Tag: gary oldman

Darkest Hour


Darkest Hour (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joe Wright’s biographical drama “The Darkest Hour,” focusing on Winston Churchill’s appointment to become the British Prime Minister as Adolf Hitler takes over Western Europe during World War II, is filled with strong performances, particularly by Gary Oldman as the iconic leader and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife and source of endless support, but the material does not find a way to make the drama as thoroughly engaging as it should be. This is a common problem with many biographical films because we already know what is going to happen. One way to boost intrigue is to provide details not considered to be common knowledge. While I learned a few bits of information, the rest is a waiting game before the famous “Fight on the Beaches” speech.

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, one looks at the images and is immediately convinced at the authenticity of each furniture, clothing, spectacles, extravagant paintings and artifacts because the lighting hits these objects in such a way that they almost glow age. Particularly stunning are two scenes in which Churchill addresses the Parliament, one a failure and the other a rousing success. It is amazing how one room, with the help of Delbonnel’s eye, is able to communicate two different moods. I wondered how it might have been like in the actual room back then and I wished to look closer at the books neatly stacked in the heart of the room where the main source of light is focused.

Oldman is thoroughly convincing as the renowned British leader. Despite the pounds of makeup and fat suit, he is able to communicate the necessary emotions and thought processes that come with being in charge of a nation mired in war. However, I do have to say, even though it happened only occasionally, there are moments when I was taken out of the performance. Take a look at Oldman’s eyes. They do not look like an old person’s; they lack a feeling of weariness and wisdom of someone over eighty. And when you focus on those eyes and then look at the face that houses them, the cosmetics become apparent, distracting. I wish the filmmakers had found a way to make the eyes look more aged, perhaps with the use of CGI, because the performance itself is wonderful.

There is one questionable character and casting choice. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary. As the picture goes on, one cannot help but wonder what purpose this character serves other than the obvious that is her occupation since she neither does nor says anything particularly interesting. It is possible that Layton is supposed to be our conduit to the story, but a conduit must function as more than a mousy observer. James’ one expression drags down an otherwise strong collective.

“Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten, is at its best when Churchill is with his war cabinet. Disagreements abound when it comes to the subject of Britain’s survival. The irony is that the cabinet members are almost at war with one another. Even more ironic is the fact that Churchill filled his team with political rivals. There are threats of shame, taking the wrong side in history, resignation. Stephen Dillane is great as Viscount Halifax, convinced that peace negotiations with Hitler is the better choice than fighting the Nazi scourge.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard


The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Considering the sheer talent and great comic timing of the leads, it is most disheartening that “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” written by Tim O’Connor and directed by Patrick Hughes, is not a better movie. Instead of presenting us a breezy, balanced action-comedy, it is a limp death march, nearly absent of any big and lasting laughs, to the finish line—quite literal because the plot involves a bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) escorting an assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) so that the latter can testify against a dictator (Gary Oldman) at the International Criminal Court. Naturally, the dictator’s goons attempt to prevent the bodyguard-hitman duo from reaching their destination.

One gets the impression the script is barebones. Casting a pair of charismatic motormouths as co-leads is a good decision because the two have different approaches to wring laughter out of the audience. But relying on the duo to ad lib in order to plug holes in the script is a critical misstep. Notice that as improvisation unfolds, we begin to lose sight of the characters. This strategy is executed too many times and so during the latter half, it is a challenge to care about the story and whether Bryce and Kincaid would make it to their destination. The picture does not seem to understand how buddy comedies work since it is all behavior, no substance.

Action sequences unfold in beautiful open spaces, particularly one in Amsterdam, but a film can have the most eye-catching shootouts but ultimately amount to nothing if everything else around it is a bore. Such is the case here. It does not help that the villain is stuck in a courthouse and not one of the hired guns is genuinely threatening or memorable. Imagine if there had been two minions who have equally recognizable faces as Reynolds as Jackson. Cast performers who do not typically appear in comedies but turning out to have comedic chops. Now, isn’t that more exciting, more creative, more inspired that what is shown here? It certainly would have surprised the audience.

There are romantic subplots forced into the plot which do not work on any level. Reynolds and Elodie Yung, an Interpol agent who happens to be Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, share desert-dry chemistry. There is not one instance in which the viewers recognize what they see in one another. On the other hand, Jackson and Salma Hayek, playing Kincaid’s wife, do share some chemistry, but the screenplay’s lack of substance reduces the relationship into an unfunny, tired caricature. The picture struggles to get basic emotions and relationships right.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a disastrous action-comedy because it lacks inspiration and imagination. Numerous awful comedies tend to have jokes on paper first and a semblance of story is built around them. Here, however, one gets a sneaky feeling that there is neither jokes nor story in the first place. It goes to show that just because the right actors are booked it may not necessarily translate, especially if there is nothing to support them. It is a waste of precious two hours that feels like four.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The so-called simian flu having wiped out half of the planet’s entire population, a small faction that remains, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), hopes to fix a dam and reactivate electricity. Doing so will allow them to send a transmission and reconnect with other survivors. However, the dam is located within the territory of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, many of which have grown to fear and hate humans.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, is highly visually-driven, at times a feast for the eyes, but it lacks well-established human characters that function as Caesar’s sounding board. As a result, the story is only interesting up to a point and while the images are beautiful, the material is not emotionally involving overall. And with its overextended finale, it challenges the patience.

The computerized apes are convincing especially when their faces are front and center. There is a humanity in their eyes which is important because it helps us to buy into the gamut of emotions they have toward each other and those who threaten their existence. Perhaps most entertaining are the interactions between Caesar and Koba, the latter driven by revenge for having been treated badly by humans. Although both are apes, there is a significant difference between the way they act and reason. The former is very human-like while the other likens that of a rabid dog.

The apes eventually do speak but it is most effective when they communicate via sign language. With the latter, we get a sense of their camaraderie and culture. The former, on the other hand, comes across too forced. At times I found the speaking patterns to be uneven. For instance, earlier in the film, pronouns are uncommonly used. Later on, it is more prolific. Thus, the difference sounds jarring.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), volunteer to go to ape territory and fix the machines that will enable the dam to work again. It is reasonable to expect that at least one of them will be a viable character worthy of exploration by the screenplay actively establishing subtleties and various shades with respect to human-ape relationships.

Instead, the changes that Malcolm goes through, if any, are quite elementary and so quickly presented that a believable arc is not created. And although there are instances when these characters are thrown into grave danger, I did not feel particularly moved by whatever fate awaits them. I grew worrisome of the possibility of yet another speech denoting how much they care about each other.

Directed by Matt Reeves, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” entertains on a visual level during the first hour or so but when firearms in the latter half get involved, there is a certain level of detachment often found in shoot-‘em-up action films. While I liked the subtle differences in firearm technical proficiency between apes and humans, this detail is not enough to save a limp, rather brainless third act.

RoboCop


RoboCop (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

With four degree burns all over his body and a spine that is severed from the waist down, the possibility of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) surviving the ordeal is, according to the specialists, highly unlikely. It is most fortunate that the CEO of OmniCorp, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is scouting for a man to enroll in a program led by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). The hypothesis: Putting a man inside a machine will give the company a chance to ease the minds of a mostly robophobic American public and eventually annul a bill that bans crime-fighting robots domestically.

One of the key problems with “RoboCop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is a lack of dramatic focus. What kind of story does it wish to tell? A man who one day wakes up and realizes that he is part-machine? The complications that arise when business and science form a collaboration? The role of the media in politics and vice-versa? A family ripped apart by greed and corruption? Although these questions can be very interesting to explore, such are only worth sitting through with a high level of writing. This film excels in showcasing expected action scenes but suffers severely when it attempts to shed some insight.

When bullets are involved, my attention was transfixed on the screen and my ears relished every sound when somebody pulls the trigger. The pop of the firearms are alive and coupled with camera movements with a sense of urgency, it is exciting to a point. The robotic suit of the protagonist is sleek and easy on the eyes despite never convincing us fully that with such a bulky exterior—not to mention the mass of the thing—aerial acrobatics is possible. Yes, there are a few moments when it feels cartoonish.

I enjoyed that the villain is not really bad, per se. Sellars is a businessman and wants to make a lot of money. What kind of CEO of a billion-dollar company is not driven by capital? His justifications to reach his goal, one can argue, are the elements that make him villainous. Keaton plays his character like a real person. And in an action picture with shades of science fiction, it is critical that we get a taste of something that is grounded. Oldman playing the scientist, on the other hand, makes a mistake by embodying too likable a character. Doesn’t he want to make money, too? Funding is important.

What does not work entirely is Alex/RoboCop’s relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son. Pick any of their scenes and it feels tacked on and forced—as if the only way for us to root for the good guy would be to reminded again and again that he has a family to leave behind. Cornish’s dramatic scenes are awkward. I could feel her trying to push the tears out. I felt her thinking about the lines rather than just letting go and communicate the anguish of a woman who is being denied to visit her husband. It is not entirely the performer’s fault. The women characters in the film are not given depth.

“RoboCop,” directed by José Padilha, is good-looking but empty. It is neither cerebral nor brawny enough—which makes it somewhere in between. And that is boring. When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching the original “RoboCop” on HBO before going to bed. A handful of its images made an impression on me. I may not remember the details but the fact that I could remember something about it two decades later proves that there is something extreme about it, an element that is dangerous, not safe.

The filmmakers should have taken inspiration from the original and strived to push the envelope beyond what is expected, to prove to the naysayers when it was announced that a remake was in works that they were wrong to have doubted. Wouldn’t that have been icing on the cake?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) was assigned by Control (John Hurt), head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) during the Cold War, to meet with a man in Budapest who claimed to know the name of the Russian mole deeply embedded in the organization. The mission was a failure which forced Control and Smiley (Gary Oldman), one of the head’s main lieutenants, into early retirement. When Control becomes indisposed, Smiley takes over the investigation, in secret, and makes Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) his right-hand man.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on a novel by John le Carré, daringly thrusts its audiences in a translucent fog of mystery sans proper introduction in terms of who serves which function and why, but it is nonetheless fascinating, in a very dry manner, because there is a traitor in their mist who is very good at what he or she does. Although it requires a bit of time and patience for us to acclimate to its languid pace and dour mood, it feels appropriate and increasingly impressive due to the paranoia that constricts the plot.

Because certain elements in the picture offer varying levels of austerity, like its sparseness of music, it forces us to focus our senses on the minutiae. I found myself focusing on facial ticks and thinking about which gestures specific characters end up adopting when I suspected fabrication in their stories.

Funnily enough, I began to notice the texture of the walls. For example, in the SIS conference room, the walls look yellow, funky, and rough. It is very business-like, the room being very orderly, and each person knows his or her place. In Smiley’s headquarters, however, the wall is similar to a typical middle- to upper-class home with paintings and photographs for guests to admire.

Because the status of people and events being tracked are constantly updated, there is always commotion. Everyone has a goal and a job to do and so we become active participants in figuring out what those are and how they plan on accomplishing their aims.

But the picture is not without important weaknesses. Later on, we are given a list of five suspects: Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man (David Dencik), and Beggar Man (Oldman). While two or three are given proper background information rife with implications, the rest are pushed to the side. Given the time constraints, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers must deal with the challenge of weighing which aspects of the characters are important enough to include in the material so that the audience will have a relatively good idea or feeling toward each of them.

Although the filmmakers’ intentions are admirable, I was not fully convinced that their approach is successful. For example, I could not remember anything of particular importance that Soldier has done to garner suspicion, but I recalled Hinds’ stolid facial expressions and how shadows curiously find angles on his face which make him look sinister half the time. Since all the suspects are not fully explored, some might argue that we are expected to solve a puzzle with missing key pieces. Such a criticism is valid.

I imagined that if the film were about three hours long, it would have been a more potent and accomplished realistic spy-thriller. Based on the screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” meticulously directed by Tomas Alfredson, has a certain beauty that made me believe that I was looking through a time capsule. Its intricacies and uncertainties inspire us to think like the characters even though many of us may not have experience in similar situations.

A Christmas Carol


A Christmas Carol (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an old man who holds onto his money so tightly, he eventually gets a reputation of being a parsimonious grouch around town. Christmas disgusts him because the very idea of people sharing food, exchanging good words, and being easy with money seem so foolish and false. Recognizing that Scrooge needs to change, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), Ebenezer’s deceased business partner, pays him a visit and announces that three ghosts— The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—are going to show him why he needs to change his outlook on life and the way he treats others.

Directed and written for the screen by Robert Zemeckis, “A Christmas Carol” is a lively animated film that proudly takes some liberty in diverting from Charles Dickens’ classic novel. While others might criticize or dismiss the style of animation as “creepy” due to the characters’ blank and bug-like eyes, I enjoyed its artistry and level of detail.

I liked seeing the many wrinkles on Scrooge’s hand and face. By highlighting his physicality, the minutiae force us to look a little bit closer, especially on his facial expressions when another character says, does, or shows him something that pushes him to become emotional. It gives us a chance to look closely at the protagonist prior to his inevitable change of heart. For the record, I did not care if the animated humans looked convincing. (I did not they think were.) What matters is how well the story is interpreted, if its strengths overshadow its weaknesses, and if it entertains.

The film takes risks when it comes to embracing the scarier elements. For example, prior to Marley’s appearance, Scrooge is shown cowering in his chair when he hears strange noises in the other room. There is a dance between silence and a suspenseful score. I enjoyed the way the film takes its time to milk every emotion that Scrooge experiences: uncertainty, curiosity, and fear. When he hears creaking noises, he does not simply rush to the door and slam it close. His stubborn personality dominates even when his instinct urges him that something is very wrong.

Furthermore, there are some exciting and beautifully rendered chase sequences between The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a shadow in the shape of the Grim Reaper, and Scrooge. While the scarier elements can potentially force younger kids to want to look away or leave the room, they are effective and necessary because the main character’s intractability needs to be shaken out of him.

However, the picture’s enthusiasm in featuring what it can do with its style of animation is not always for the better. There are a handful of scenes when it takes on a little too much like when Marley leaves and Scrooge sees a lot of suffering translucent green ghosts outside his window. Marley’s appearance and exit are executed just right but adding other ghosts just because they are pretty feels like an overindulgence. This problem persists in scenes where Scrooge must interact with the three ghosts. Instead of following a formula that works sans flashiness, the picture occasionally goes off on tangents in terms of its visual effects and I wondered when it was going to get back to simply telling a story.

“A Christmas Carol” is an optimistic exercise of an evolving technology. Since it offers some good humor, the more sensitive moments are believable. It just needs to pull back when necessary so the magic it wishes to show does not lose its power.

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Just when Gotham City seemed able to completely delouse itself of its gangster and crooks, a makeup-wearing man with green hair and scars around his lips, known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), emerged and threatened to send the city back into its original state: crime-ridden, a general lack of hope for the future, and citizens living in fear. “The Dark Knight,” based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, was a menudo of complex ideas, from what it meant to be a symbol of justice to what could happen if that symbol was driven to an extreme and then derailed, coupled with thrilling action sequences with enough tricks up its sleeve, to describe the experience of watching it in one word would be “transportive.” What I loved about the screenplay was its treatment of Batman (Christian Bale) in terms of his relationship with Gotham City. While the earlier scenes showed him capturing crooks of all levels, there was a certain level of detachment between he and us. Scant information was given about his personal life; he was defined by his actions as a man with a mask and as Bruce Wayne when he expressed his intentions to Alfred (Michael Caine) and what he felt he could do better for the city. Despite sporting a cape and a mask, it was made clear to us that he was a civil servant first and that felt refreshing. Other civic servants in the film included Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a police lieutenant, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney who felt equal passion as Batman and his comrades to overturn the Gotham underworld and to rid the streets of crime. I enjoyed that much of the attention was on Dent and how he responded to the stresses incited by The Joker. While there was a clear character arc in Dent, it was an unpredictable course because, like a real person, although he valued many things, not all of them were of equal importance. As more of his buttons were pushed, the pressure increased until the inevitable breaking point. Eckhart had to be lauded because we had to be with his character every step of the way. As Gotham’s white knight, Dent didn’t prowl the streets at night to capture bad guys but the actor found a way to communicate to us why he was a heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. Another performance worth nothing included Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s friend since childhood and Dent’s romantic interest. Gyllenhaal found a balance between intelligence and spunk so I cared about Rachel when she eventually had to confront The Joker and was threatened to have her face carved with a permanent smile. Lastly, Ledger gave a performance so magnetic, I relished every sound that came out of his mouth and obsessed over the subtle body movements he embedded within his deranged character. While the script was very sharp to the point where just about anyone could read it and sound evil, Ledger made it his own, techniques ranging from strange ticks to awkward pauses, allowing The Joker to be evil and fun without being silly or cartoonish. The film was a rousing entertainment partly because it had an excellent villain. I likened The Joker to a super-bacterium, a microorganism resistant to antibiotics. Batman, government officials like Dent, and the police were the drugs meant to cure its host, Gotham City, of an affliction. While they were able to get rid of regular bacteria like Falcone and his successors (Eric Roberts), The Joker was immune because his mind functioned differently as a super-bacterium’s wall composed of various unexpected defenses which made it impervious to the effects of drugs. This made The Joker a real threat, mirrored by his realistic-looking terrorist attacks in the city. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight,” though slightly longwinded toward the end, gave us credit by not just being about right or wrong or which side would win ultimately. It was about the process of reaching a goal which meant taking a magnifying glass on victories, big and small, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, failures. There’s a chance for growth in failure and unfortunately, in our society plagued with cynicism, that isn’t emphasized enough.

Prick Up Your Ears


Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) wished to write a book about British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) so he set up an appointment with Orton’s friend and agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave). Initially, Peggy hid Orton’s diary, which consisted of important details about his life as a homosexual and relationship with a lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), but the theater critic eventually won her over. As John and Peggy discussed Orton’s life and accomplishments, we were allowed to observe the elements that led up to his brutal murder. Based on a the book by John Lahr and written for the screen by Alan Bennett, “Prick Up Your Ears” captured the painful reality of the past in having to hide one’s nature from society that deemed homosexuality was not only immoral and a sin but a disease that had to be purged. I noticed that a lot of the characters hid their fears and failure/unwillingness to understand homosexuality by not wanting to talk about it or, if the issue came up, rerouting the conversation into a more “acceptable” topic. The adults certainly didn’t want children to hear what being gay meant just in case the word itself could “turn” kids into degenerates. It was interesting that the physical act of gay bashing wasn’t there but the words and intonations in the characters’ voices when sharing how they felt about homosexuality didn’t make the experience any less maddening. For me, although the film was a biography, the tone inspired me to focus on feelings such as anger and rebellion with occasional humor right around the corner. These feelings were personified in scenes when Joe and Kenneth shared their first sexual moment while watching the Queen being officially given power to lead her country on television. To rebel was to be free and Orton knew this well. Despite being in a committed relationship, he felt the need to seek excitement in men’s restrooms. Orton, so focused on his needs as a man and who relished in being constantly under the spotlight, ignored the fact that his lover was deeply unhappy. Orton’s lack of perceptiveness provided a rich human drama without relying on too much sentimentality. As the picture went on, it became obvious that their issues could be applied to all couples. Molina was very convincing as a troubled man who didn’t feel appreciated. His neediness got on my nerves and I think that was the point. Kenneth knew that Joe thought he was, essentially, a joke. For example, when Kenneth decided to buy a wig due to an early onset of baldness, Joe mocked him. They were cruel to one another and, for most of the time, it seemed like they only needed each other for sex. So it begged the question why they were in a relationship in the first place. The answer was embedded when they would laugh together, when they both were on the same level of happiness in a specific moment in time. I was convinced that they shared a history, that when they met they were a good fit for each other, and despite their rotting relationship, they still loved each other in the most rudimentary way. Directed by Stephen Frears, “Prick Up Your Ears” offered multilayered performances from Molina and Oldman. In a way, it showcased potential problems that could arise in all relationships. In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder why some couples who used to look into each other’s eyes with nothing but love and adoration could turn into a couple with nothing but disdain for one another.

Kung Fu Panda 2


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.

Red Riding Hood


Red Riding Hood (2011)
★ / ★★★★

By making appropriate sacrifices, a small village located deep in the woods was able to co-exist with a werewolf. But just when Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) accepted Peter’s (Shiloh Fernandez) proposal to run away together, her sister was found dead. The villagers claimed she had been killed by a werewolf. Written by David Johnson and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “Red Riding Hood” was a poor, hormone-driven re-imagining of the classic tale. The main character was an embarrassingly typical damsel-in-distress. Given that the film was targeted toward young girls, I was disturbed and irked by the fact that Valerie defined her happiness in being with a man. Her main problem, despite her friends and neighbors dropping like flies, was choosing between Peter, her childhood friend, and Henry (Max Irons), the man she was arranged to marry. When she found out her sister had passed away, I was aghast when she seemed to be more worried in the idea that her sister kept secrets from her. She lacked common sense and I wanted to shake her. Seyfried, a wonderful actress, was not given anything to work with other than to look cute, sad, and scared. The same applied to Gary Oldman as the priest, Father Solomon, who was hired to kill the werewolf. The picture often relied on telling rather than showing. Father Solomon was discussed to have had first-hand experience in dealing with a werewolf and the confrontation, which led to the death of his wife, made him vengeful. Why not give us the images instead of simply listening to his words? He had extreme, almost totalitarian-like, ways of extracting information just so he could get his hands on the creature. Where did he learn what he knew about werewolves? Was he successful in catching other werewolves from other lands? We didn’t know much about him other than he was a very angry man. Because he was angry, he was bad. Despite being framed as the villain, he was the most interesting character because he had what other characters didn’t have: edge. We were given a list of suspects: Valerie’s lovers, grandmother (Julie Christie), parents (Virginia Madsen, Billy Burke), and the boy with a so-called twisted speech (Cole Heppell). We were given one clue: the werewolf had dark brown eyes. The problem: every person Valerie suspected had dark brown eyes. How were we supposed to narrow down the suspects if we weren’t given more information? The picture didn’t even work from a simple detective angle. After the reveal, I felt incredibly underwhelmed and angry because I felt like I was cheated off my time. “Red Riding Hood” was plagued with destitute writing and monotonous direction. It lost the essence of “Little Red Riding Hood.” That is, the dangers in conversing with strangers. Instead, its core was really about having a boyfriend.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first scene showed Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the covers. I loved the double entendre and from that moment on, I knew that director Alfonso Cuarón would inject something special in an already magical and beloved series. There must have been an added pressure for Cuarón and the crew because J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is arguably most fans’ favorite book out of the seven published. On the way to Hogwarts, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) encountered a dementor, prison guards from Azakaban that were on the hunt for a criminal who had a reputation for being one of Voldemort’s most loyal followers. Rumors went around that the criminal in question was responsible for the deaths of Harry’s parents and that he wanted to kill Harry next. Although the third novel was not my favorite due to Voldemort’s absence, I was surprised by the film because it introduced three new characters in fun and memorable ways: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the dangerous criminal who escaped Azkaban, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense of the Dark Arts professor (which, we all know up to this point, there is something quite off about them), and Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the neurotic but amusing Divination professor. The movie also had another challenge by having Michael Gambon fill in the shoes for Albus Dumbledore because Richard Harris passed away. Despite that hurdle, it was ultimately a good change because Gambon’s interpretation of the character involved Dumbledore being a bit tougher and more prone to sarcastic remarks. Gambon should be given credit because he could have as easily played a nice, old wizard without any sort of edge. This film was a vast improvement from the second installment. While its predecessor tried too hard to be darker and only came to focus toward the middle portion, the storytelling here felt more natural and the direction felt more confident. It was actually a turning point for the series because it was when the actors finally felt comfortable in their roles and it sets up the tone for the upcoming movies. Furthermore, there was not a scene that I thought was wasted. I was not left confused because it included enough (admittedly, not all) key details from J.K. Rowling’s book. Since the material tackled some time travel, a less capable director could have delivered a less than satisfactory result. There were some changes from the novel but I welcomed such changes because I accepted that the film was Cuarón’s vision. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” did not have the magical golden glow that the previous two movies possessed but it was the most accomplished.

The Book of Eli


The Book of Eli (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.

True Romance


True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.

Léon: The Professional


Léon: The Professional (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jean Reno, a reclusive assassin whose best friend is a plant, takes twelve-year-old Natalie Portman under his wing after her family was killed by police officers led by Gary Oldman. Written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita”), I enjoyed “Léon” because it was more about the humanity of a contract killer instead of his many interesting ways of killing. Even though the action sequences could be found more toward the beginning and the end of the picture, I still found Reno and Portman’s relationship to be quite endearing. Undoubtedly, there were times when I found the director would cross the line between father-figure/daughter relationship and older man/younger girl relationship. Those scenes made me uncomfortable but perhaps it was because this was Besson’s first full English-language movie. In my opinion, European films have a more sensual feel compared to American movies. Still, I was able to overlook such flaws because I found the story to be interesting even if it needed to have more depth. Another quality I liked about this film was that there really was no “good” character. Pretty much everyone had done something shameful in their lives. And the main character was aware of this so he locks himself up in his room and only comes out whenever he has an assignment. Oldman’s character was the kind of guy that you love to hate because he has no redeeming quality. Nevertheless, I thought he was very interesting to watch because of his quirky mannerisms and sinister aura. I kind of expected an intense duel between him and the protagonist so I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. For such a sadistic man, I thought the bad guy would suffer more in the hands of another killer and get the delicious irony he deserved. If one is looking for action with picture with a heart, I’m giving “Léon” a pretty solid recommendation despite its sometimes glaring flaws.