★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
House of Games (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite her many successes in her career, a psychiatrist named Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) felt like something was missing in her life. She had her routine at work but at the end of the day she wondered if she was even alive. A void was inside her was increasing in size and she didn’t know how to fill it up. When a patient with a gambling problem confessed to her that he’d be killed if he didn’t come up with the money the next day, she went to a bar and met Mike (Joe Mantegna), the man who supposedly would murder her patient. Being next to him, she felt instant attraction. And when she found out about his occupation, she felt excitement–something that helped to cure the emptiness inside her. The film’s greatest weapon was its script. Every time the characters would speak, I was drawn to them because they were intelligent but ultimately wounded. The camera would move with jurisdiction whenever there was a subtle change in tone so I was always curious with what was about to transpire. After many twists involving several cons, I tried to stay one step ahead of the material just as the characters eventually tried to outsmart each other. The filmmakers had fun with the material because there were times when I thought a twist would occur but it simply didn’t. There were other times when my hypotheses were correct. Furthermore, I was surprised how exciting it was even though it lacked car chases and explosions, elements that are easily found in movies like this one. Instead, the picture focused on the characters and how the dynamics between them changed drastically with a slight of hand. As much as I liked the heist scenes, I found Dr. Ford’s compulsions to be most disturbing and haunting. The way the darkness in her moved from her thoughts to her actions made me feel very uncomfortable. The scary thing is that I found a bit of myself in her. I’m a perfectionist and I love my routine. I love being around people and working with them but sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it. Like her, there are times when I feel the need to do something completely out of character because constantly trying to have everything just right had become trite and painfully boring. In other words, sometimes I feel like the law doesn’t apply to me because I’ve been a model citizen. Written and directed by David Mamet, “House of Games” was a psychological thriller that worked in multiple levels. Its subject matter directly and astutely commented on human nature and how our behavior could sometimes define us.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen Pedro Almodóvar’s work from the late 1990s to the present and have been nothing but impressed so naturally I became interested in seeing his older projects.”Matador” stars Antonio Banderas as a 22-year-old aspiring matador who was working under Nacho Martinez’ wing. When Martinez’ character asked Banderas if he was a homosexual due to his lack of experience with women, Banderas tried to prove his masculinity by trying to rape his mentor’s girlfriend (Eva Cobo). Eventually ending up in jail due to some strange coincidences and choices, a femme fatale lawyer (Assumpta Serna) came running to defend Banderas’ innocence. I love Almodóvar’s films because no matter how much I try to guess what would happen in the story, I always guess incorrectly. He has such a knack for telling unconventional stories that are funny, witty, tragic and ironic often all at the same time. The way he uses color to highlight a character’s fate or what he or she might be feeling and thinking always takes me by surprise even though I’m familiar with his techniques. I also was fascinated with the way Almodóvar used his characters’ occupations as a reflection of what they were really capable of when they think nobody was watching them. Admittedly, the writing can get a bit melodramatic at times but I think that’s half the fun of Almodóvar’s movies. He’s not afraid to reference to the supernatural, such as a certain character experiencing “visions,” to possibly make sense of the natural world. It’s the twists and turns that keep us wanting to watch. Like in most of his later projects, “Matador” was very passionate (or obsessive?) about sexuality–not necessarily sex–how his actors moved and delivered certain lines. Another element that I thought was interesting was the fact that Almodóvar used sex and violence as a backdrop to explore the darker side of human nature. The characters in this film were not necessarily good; in fact, they were far from innocent. But we root for some of them because the protagonists were capable of less evil than their counterparts. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy Almodóvar’s earlier works but after watching “Matador,” I’m more than excited to see them. I just hope that they have the same level of vivaciousness, drama and sensuality as this picture.
A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.
Saw V (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I don’t know why I keep watching this series. Even though I have a feeling that it’s going to be disappointing, I still feel some sort of excitement whenever they release a sequel. I guess it has something to do with human nature and violence. Everything about this film is recycled. People claim that each sequel adds to the storyline because it provides information that the audiences did not have prior to a specific installment. I cannot disagree more. I think the writers have dug themselves so deep into the “mythology” of the series to the point where there’s five plotholes to each so-called twist. Each sequel then tries to solve those plotholes by trying to tell a story and providing more twists to keep the viewers engaged. It’s an interminable cycle that I think will not end any time soon as long as people are actually willing to pay for a ticket in the cinema. Even though I did enjoy this sequel more than “Saw IV” because it’s more comprehensible, we get too many flashbacks (it’s literally more than half of the film) that practically say, “Look over here! You missed this! Aren’t we brilliant and you’re not because you didn’t figure it out before?” It’s an insult but a laughable one so it becomes somewhat harmless. What worked for me was the rivalry between Costas Mandylor and Scott Patterson. I’ve been wanting these two to collide ever since the first few sequels. (I actually do not remember when each of the character appeared because all of them have the same “story.” Only the torture scenes are different.) Here, they get to battle it out a bit. Another actor that worked for me was Julie Benz even though I strongly believe that they could’ve used her more. She’s a strong actress (I’m still a big fan for her role in of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Dexter”) and it shows in pretty much each scene she was in. What didn’t work for me was the return of Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. No, that is not a spoiler and you will see why. He talks in the same pitch and tone in pretty much every line and I can fall asleep listening to him. If they are going to make a “Saw VI” (which I bet they will), I want to see less of him. As for the infamous traps, I only have one favorite which has got to be the opening scene involving a pendulum. I also liked the part where Benz finally figured out what they were supposed to do right from the beginning. I cannot recommend this picture because everything is like a rerun of the first four movies.