The Core (2003)
★ / ★★★★
Science fiction films need not be both fiercely intelligent and savagely entertaining, but director Jon Amiel’s “The Core” is neither. It boasts a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but the experience feels at least twice that. The reason is because the movie appears to be content in being a flat, soporific exercise in visual pageantry. It has aged like milk—a good example of why strong ideas and execution must take precedence over flashy special and visual effects. Consider: the story involves an apocalyptic situation—the Earth’s core has stopped spinning which has led to bizarre occurrences such as 32 people dropping dead at the same time, sudden violent swarm of birds enveloping London, superstorms causing unimaginable devastation in Rome. And yet despite all the razzle-dazzle, the movie lacks genuine excitement, tension, or horror. We are supposed to be seeing the end of the world, but our expressions do not change. An exception is when we cringe at the terribly cliché dialogue between scientists and astronauts. Surely it takes considerable effort to make smart people sound dead dull and stupid. There are at least three instances in which I guessed the next line to be uttered word-by-word. (Even the jokes fall flat.) Words shared among the characters are meant to be forgotten the moment the next scene begins. And so when they meet gruesome fates during their journey to the center of the planet, we cannot be bothered to care. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and Stanley Tucci. Based on the screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers.
The Hunt (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
Make no mistake that “The Hunt” is provocative only on the surface: liberal elites kidnap supporters of the right-wing to be hunted and killed for sport. Twenty minutes into its cheeky violence and mayhem, I found myself still looking for good reasons for its existence. Trigger words like “deplorables” and “snowflakes” are thrown about like candy, but its ideas are not explored in meaningful ways. Here is a picture with energy but little substance, daring to take on a political stance but only willing to slap the wrists of both liberals and conservatives instead of hammering a rusty nail into their skulls. Satire-lite almost always never works in the movies.
It is a shame because Betty Gilpin is highly watchable as a hunted southerner whose mission is to kill every single person running the sick game. Her interpretation of Crystal is athletic and efficient in action; she may not be a talker but she is smart and quick-witted; and she is able to offer a few surprises when others attempt to get to know her. Although a formidable heroine, the screenplay by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof surrounds Crystal with boring characters—enemies and allies alike—who are meant to be murdered just as swiftly as they’re introduced. (Familiar faces include Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, and Ike Barinholtz.)
The point, I guess, is that we are supposed to be shocked or horrified by the rather quick deaths, but when every single one is meant to have the same fate, it is inevitable that the approach suffers from diminishing returns. Despite the film’s ninety-minute running time, the middle section lags and drags. The joke surrounding the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover” is highly repetitive to the point where we can figure out how a scene will work out exactly based on a new face’s overall appearance. How’s that for irony?
The mixture of satire and cartoonish violence does not work in this instance. I think it is due to the fact that nearly every aspect is given a tongue-in-cheek approach. And so we never take the material seriously. The thing is, the most effective satires tend to take the viewer on a wild rollercoaster ride. Slower moments, for example, allow us to stop and consider messages behind the obvious. The best ones inspire us to look within, to recognize and admit our own hypocrisies.
During its anti-climatic climax, when not feeling sorry for someone of Hilary Swank’s caliber simply chewing scenery in this mediocrity, I stopped to consider that perhaps director Craig Zobel shaped the movie with non-stop action precisely because he recognizes that there is nothing much to bite into. We are inundated, distracted by movement and loud noises. Discerning viewers will see through the charade. This is not to suggest, however, that “The Hunt” is without potential. The screenplay is still undercooked and reluctant. With a bit of daring, it could have turned into an entirely different beast worthy of buzz, controversy, and perhaps even censure from all sides of the political spectrum. I would rather have seen that movie.
New Year’s Eve (2011)
★ / ★★★★
In Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” written by Katherine Fugate, not everyone was ready to greet the new year in New York City. Juggling about eight different but some intertwining stories, the film was not only insipid, it also lacked the necessary dramatic pull for us to be touched, in a genuine way, in terms of what it meant to end a year and start anew. I don’t often bring up the issue of race but this film really could have used some flavor. After all, isn’t the act of welcoming a new year celebrated by all people regardless of race, sexuality, shape, and size? The problem wasn’t that the majority of the characters were white: they were white and boring. The minority, represented by the African-Americans, were pushed to the side with nothing much to say until it was too late in the screenplay. And when they did, like their white counterparts, the sentimentality didn’t feel earned. The most bearable of the bunch included Claire (Hilary Swank) who was in charge of making sure that the famous televised ball drop at midnight went smoothly, but technical difficulties with its lights threatened to disappoint millions of people all over the world. There was a scene in which Swank delivered a supposedly insightful speech but it didn’t quite work. If anything, it was a reminder of Swank’s talent, that she could shine despite an egregious material that threatened to dilute what she had to offer. The storyline that tested my patience most involved a couple, Tess (Jessica Biel) and Griff (Seth Meyers), racing to have their baby boy to be the first newborn of 2012. If successful, they would win twenty thousand dollars. Their desperation to win this contest was supposed to be funny. I thought it was pathetic and unfunny because the characters were reduced to glaring matches with another pregnant couple (Sarah Paulson, Til Schweiger). The lessons the couples learned were just so mawkish and obvious, even a third grader could probably tell that what they were doing was wrong in the first five minutes. On some level, I enjoyed the friendship between Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a very stressed out record label employee, and Paul (Zac Efron), a friendly and charming courier. If Paul helped Ingrid to complete her list of resolutions, she’d give him V.I.P passes to a chic event. Although their scenes were unrealistic and at times Efron sounded like he was reading off cue cards, I liked that the material went all the way with this particular subplot. It was certainly better than watching Randy (Ashton Kutcher) and Elise (Lea Michele) get stuck in a lift and look miserable. While the two eventually found redeeming qualities with one another, I didn’t: I found the entire contrivance as false. “New Year’s Eve” suffered from a very basic dialogue, devoid of wit or any semblance of rhythm felt in actual conversations, coupled with one-dimensional characters. I wouldn’t even get started with the so-called romance between Laura (Katherine Heigl) and Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi). It was like pulling teeth without novocaine. The only time I lit up and showed my pearly whites was when Sofía Vergara, as Laura’s sous chef, appeared on screen with her hilariously infectious jovial personality. But what I found most distasteful was the film’s unabashed emotional manipulation. The characters engaged in trifles for the majority of the time and then Bam! a twist designed to pull at our heartstrings occurred toward the end. If it had been more ambitious and more diverse, perhaps most of us could relate and been more entertained by it.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, swore he would never train a girl. But after his main boxer left for a manager who could book him to have a shot at a title, Frankie just might change his mind. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s longtime friend and partner in running the gym, insisted that Frankie should take a second look at the determined Maggie (Hilary Swank). Despite his initial reluctance, Frankie decided to train her. In a way, he saw it as a chance to forgive himself for the decision he made many years ago that led to Scrap losing half his sight. Written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” was a moving story about people who used their body as instruments. I was impressed with its clear vision of what it wanted to tell us about each character and at what point they were in their lives. Maggie was a nobody, just a waitress who took home her customers’ uneaten food, but she turned into a rising star in a matter of months. She craved to be in the ring. She was proud of every beating–if her opponents were lucky enough to land a punch. On the other hand, Scrap had accepted that his turn in the ring was over. He felt the need to pass on his knowledge in regards to both the techniques in boxing and the business side of the dangerous career. Meanwhile, Frankie was somewhere in between. Not really knowing his place hardened him. He couldn’t quite let go of the mistakes he made and he was almost blind to how he made others’ lives better. Perhaps it had something to do with the daughter who wouldn’t communicate with him. The three were connected by their passion for the sport and their own definitions about what it meant to be a true fighter. The actors’ performances were equally strong which elevated an already sublime screenplay. Swank was a natural. I was astounded by her ability to make determination look glamorous and ugliness almost effortless. Freeman had quieter moments but he made each scene he was given memorable. I especially enjoyed the way he balanced his character’s playfulness and solemnity, never settling in being predictable. As for Eastwood, with that soft but ferocious growl, I believed his character’s life being all about boxing. However, one small problem I had with the film was its occasional use of music. I noticed it especially when the movie would cut to scenes of Maggie being a waitress. Cue the sad melody, a sign that we should feel sorry for her. I didn’t need the music for me to realize that she had to work extremely hard to scrape by. I could see it in her eyes and the way she held her pride when she felt like someone was doing her a favor. “Million Dollar Baby” was fearless in reaching into the souls of its characters. As a testament to the film’s power, we eventually find ourselves needing to reach for the box of tissues. Indeed, the events toward the end were sad but it was more than that. I think it’s a wise reminder that even the most ordinary can have the potential to have magic in them.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.