Under the Sea 3D (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m sure everyone had seen movies they wished would last for hours and hours. “Under the Sea 3D,” written and directed by Howard Hall, was one of them because of its great ability entertain and enlighten. In just a span of forty minutes, the deep sea documentary was able to capture lives of sea creatures ranging from small harmless fish, creepy sea snakes, turtles that love to feed on venomous jellyfish to rare sea dragons and cute sea lions in New Guinea, Indo-Pacific, Southern Australian waters. The movie was also able to comment on humans’ impact on the environment. However, it didn’t feel heavy-handed because the focus was really more on the animals and how they depended on their respective habitats (and vice-versa). What I liked best about this film was its ability to create suspense by creating danger for certain animals. For instance, in one scene the innocuous creature was the cute-looking one that you just want to pet but in a few minutes, it turned out being the predator with an amazing speed in terms of capturing and swallowing their prey whole. The film’s technique of turning our expectations upside down made the movie consistently interesting and engaging. It was unpredictable in the best way possible. I even caught myself thinking “What’s next?” with such enthusiasm. I felt like a little kid again who just had his first lesson in grade-school Biology. The living things under the sea were so magical-looking (to say the least), it sometimes reminded me of “Finding Nemo,” especially the coral reefs. I thought it was amazing how much the creatures relied on each other in order to survive. Concepts such as symbiosis, mutualism and commensalism were illustrated nicely, especially how one of the crabs used a jellyfish as “a hat” (as Jim Carrey, the narrator, puts it). Although they were quite simple concepts, the way they actually worked made me feel like everything had a purpose. “Under the Sea” was also one of those movies that made me feel humbled. I couldn’t believe some of the creatures existed even before the age of dinosaurs. Realizing their resilience and effective hunting techniques, it made me want to learn more about the different creatures–creatures that are thriving now and those that are not thriving now but might thrive in the future. I think this is a great film for kids because not only did it have bright colors and strange-looking animals, it was able to educate and inspire. I wish I saw it in the big screens (IMAX or 3D) because it was already stunning on television.
The White Ribbon (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
Broken Embraces (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Los abrazos rotos” or “Broken Embraces,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, was about a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who began to tell a story about a love affair he had in the 1990s with a beautiful actress (Penélope Cruz) to the son (Tamar Novas) of his agent/manager (Blanca Portillo). The affair was riddled with sneaking around, feigning emotions, and spying because the actress had a boyfriend (José Luis Gómez) who eventually became aware of the situation with the help of his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) who had a penchant for the videocamera. When I dive into an Almodóvar picture, I expect melodrama, complex storytelling, interesting use of camera angles, vibrant colors, and passionate characters. On that level, I strongly believe that the film delivered. However, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. I think this is the kind of film that requires multiple viewing on my part because there were times in the picture where I found myself confused with what was happening (notably the middle portion). Although it eventually started coming together toward the end because certain characters stopped holding onto their secrets, it didn’t change the fact that I had to take myself out of the experience for several seconds to figure out where everybody else stood. That lack of flow was the main reason why I didn’t quite love “Broken Embraces.” I admired that this film strived not to fit into one genre. Sometimes it was comedic, sometimes gloomy but there were times when it was thrilling; the director’s use of shadows and the way he used the build-up of tension were very noir-like (particularly the stairs scene–a definite stand-out) and almost Hitchcockian. “Broken Embraces” was teeming with ideas. If the director made a film from each genre he tackled, I’d be interested in watching them as well. I was fascinated with how the characters became so engulfed in their passions to the point where they weren’t even aware that they were ultimately hurting themselves. I couldn’t help but get into the lives of the characters because each of them had passion in their eyes and the way they expressed themselves via body movements. Each of them had a purpose and none of them was a simply caricature. I could feel Almodóvar’s passion for filmmaking in every frame. I just wished that he made sure that the audiences could follow his vision without a significant amount of mental acrobatics because there was already a lot going on.
The Fifth Element (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
I didn’t know much about this movie when I decided to watch it so my expectations were not that high. I thought it was going to be another one of those science fiction movies that deals with the apocalypse and so happens to take itself way too seriously. I couldn’t be anymore more wrong because “The Fifth Element,” written and directed by Luc Besson, was as funny and interesting as the vibrant colors that could be found in it throughout. Every 5,000 years, a strange power appears and tries to engulf life. It could be stopped by combining the powers of fire, water, wind, earth and the supposed “fifth element” for another five thousand years and the cycle continues. Bruce Willis stars as Korben Dallas, a taxi driver in futuristic New York who used to work for the military. He got sucked into the madness of intergalactic battle when Milla Jovovich–the fifth element, also known as the perfect being–literally dropped into his taxi. Their mission was to gather all the elements and save the planet from being obliterated into oblivion. Gary Oldman as the evil Zorg, Ian Holm as the priest, and Chris Tucker as the hilariously flamboyant DJ also star. I enjoyed this movie more than I expected to because its pace was quick; it didn’t dwell on the specifics on who’s who and what their intentions and motivations are. This film definitely reminded me of a hybrid between the “Star Wars” saga and the B movies of the 1950’s because it had that nice balance of imagination and humor. The only minor complaint I had was that sometimes it managed to distract itself from the story to make room for some of the more obvious funny moments. Tucker was the one who stole most of the scenes he was in because he was able to focus his manic personality into a character that had to be very enthusiastic about everything every time he was on his program. As for the visual and special effects, yes, they are sort of dated but I really didn’t care because I’m more concerned about the concept, how well a film builds on the story, and how it utilizes its characters. “The Fifth Element” is one of those movies that one can really enjoy if one doesn’t mind watching something over-the-top on a slow night.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tilda Swinton stars as the title character who is an irresponsible alcoholic and liar who one day agrees to kidnap a kid (Aidan Gould) after the mother (Kate del Castillo) claims that she wants to rescue him from the multimillionaire grandfather. I understand that this can be a difficult film to swallow because of its two hours and twenty minutes running time. Although even I have to admit that it did drag during some parts, I thought that showing Julia’s journey from deep trouble to really, really deep trouble was fascinating in its own strange way. Another reason is that this is primarily a character-driven picture where we see Swinton’s character evolve in subtle ways from beginning to end. I definitely did not expect this film to be so visceral. I thought I was going to see a movie about a woman who was way out of her league as she tries to fight off henchmen and ultimately achieve redemption. I was so wrong because the main character did not want to change, unapologetically lewd and racist. There were times when I thought she really should stop lying to herself (and to others) and admit that she had a problem and that she needed help. But then there were also times when I was glad she was a great liar because her lies sometimes got her out of very complicated (and scary) situations. Without Swinton’s charisma and great timing, I think this film would have essentially fallen apart. Even though the lead character had the negative qualites mentioned prior, I still wanted her to succeed in her plight. In the end, even though she was not the character who appreciated other people’s pity, that’s exactly how I felt toward her. I got the feeling that she was not happy with her life and she ultimately wanted escape because it was too late to turn her life around. I’m giving “Julia” a strong recommendation because it very realistically portrayed people who were drowning in their own desperation. Other people may not agree but I think this film is a diamond in the rough.
Waking Life (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset”), “Waking Life” is an animated film that tackles deep questions about what life is and how it is like to live one’s life. Although it is essentially an animated film, it is very adult in its approach to tell a story of a guy (Wiley Wiggins) who “wakes up” in his dream and into other dreams without knowing whether he’s conscious or awake in “real life.” I admired that this film actively does not confine itself into the kind of Hollywood filmmaking where there is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Just like the look of the picture, the story flows and moves like water, which enhances the film’s overall craft because the issues that it tackles are very abstract. And it also helped because the main character is in a dream. I particularly liked the scene when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their characters from “Before Sunrise” and had a deeper conversation about what was said in that movie. It really made me think about why, when we dream, time feels endless but in actuality we’ve slept for a very limited amount of time. That constant theme of there having to be something more to life than rules and meaning is explored in such a deep and intellectual way to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up because I wanted to savor the conversations. While I admit that I did not fully understand some of the concepts that they discussed and the names they dropped, it made me want to read up on such topics and people that are unfamiliar. This is a thinking man’s movie and definitely not for people who constantly have to have action scenes thrown at them. The power of this unique-looking film lies in the words and the exaggerated, almost expressionistic, images to highlight the transient meanings of the implications. My only main problem with it is that I felt as though part of the last third somewhat felt apart because it did not fully integrate some of the biggest themes that pervaded the rest of the movie. Still, I’m going to give “Waking Life” a recommendation because it was able to incite various insights on how to communicate and see (or feel?) the world in unfamiliar and not fully explained perspectives.
Hard Candy (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw this back in 2005, I wasn’t yet familiar with Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Even though I did notice Wilson’s convincing acting, it was Page who stole every scene. Her character is smart (but not as smart as she believes herself to be), cunning, and twisted in every way imaginable. After watching “Hard Candy” for the first time, I made a promise to myself that I would watch out for her because she not only has the talent for acting but also the subtlety that most young actors don’t have or not yet learned. When “Juno” came out, I instantly recognized her and I knew what she could bring to the table (and she didn’t disappoint). This film is not for everyone because of its subject matter: a seemingly innocent girl decides to hook up with a thirysomething man online; in a span of fifteen to twenty minutes she reveals her true intentions and the film asks its audiences to feel for the potential pedophile/ephebophile. I found this film to be both daring and interesting because most films about molestation focuses on a male taking advantage of a female. It’s about time the tables are turned. Even though the picture is edgy and tries to push the envelope, I never thought it was gratuitous–it may have been disturbing but it was never gratuitous. Technical aspects such as the use of warm and cool colors should also be noticed and appreciated. This also works as a cautionary tale for people who find romantic interests online. You never really know who’s behind the screen and what they really want so it’s smart to always be cautious no matter how friendly they may sound. David Slade, the director, helmed this as the kind of film that will keep someone guessing up until the very end.