My Little Eye (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Five strangers were picked to live in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. If Matt (Sean Cw Johnson), Rex (Kris Lemche), Danny (Stephen O’Reilly), Emma (Laura Regan), and Charlie (Jennifer Sky) could stay together six months, they would receive a million dollars. It seemed like an easy task but living together became challenging when one of them ended up dead. If they stepped outside the premises or contacted the police, the game would be over. Directed by Marc Evans, “My Little Eye” was obviously inspired by reality shows like MTV’s “The Real World.” However, the film was more about the characters feeling isolated from society and the paranoia that resulted from cameras that surrounded the place instead of drinking, bar hopping, and engaging in all sorts of casual sex. The build-up from seemingly small pranks to a possible murder was executed nicely. Was there a killer among the five or was everything controlled by the company that chose them? The former was possible because there was no crew. Cameras were simply installed from a certain height and they moved according to someone’s motion. But the latter was also quite possible. Someone could just as easily sneak in the house as the five slept. They wouldn’t notice because the old mansion made all sorts of noises. Unfortunately, once the mystery was revealed, the picture lost the majority of its momentum. It became a routine running around the mansion until someone tripped or slipped. It wasn’t scary. Since it was so dark and the images from the cameras were blurry, I couldn’t help but adopt a passive stance. The editing was manic. Instead of lingering at one creepy shot, it would jump from one camera angle to another in attempt to show all the creepy shots. It’s better to have one very effective shot that goes for the jugular instead of having many less effective shots with questionable purpose. It wasn’t a good sign when I didn’t care who lived or died. We heard about Emma’s childhood story involving a friend who killed his family using a hammer but it didn’t reveal much about who she was. And as much as I appreciated the fact that the five strangers talked like regular people off the streets, I couldn’t help but snicker when a character would blurt out, “I’m scared!” or “I’m in it for the money!” Another unintentionally funny scene was when the remaining four decided to put the dead body outside, in the snow, right after one of them stated that they should leave the body where it was because it was a scene of the crime. For a bunch of mid- to late-twentysomethings, they lacked common sense. But then again, so are those who choose to appear on reality shows for the sake of fame that never lasts.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
Winnebago Man (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve never heard of Jack Rebney and the viral video that made him infamous. I don’t actively search for viral videos because most of them feature people being hurt or humiliated. I don’t take pleasure in watching other people’s misery unless the material is fictional. If I do end up watching a viral video, it’s because either a friend sends me a link with an accompanying, “Watch this! It’s hilarious!” message or I’m at a friend’s or relative’s house and I have no choice but to watch a video they want to show because I don’t want to be impolite. So when Ben Steinbauer, the director, claimed that Jack Rebney was someone he looked up to, I was surprised. After all, how can one look up to someone based on a viral video? I was curious and I considered Steinbauer to be the subject as much as Rebney. The director searched for Rebney and it turned out that the man had isolated himself from society. He claimed to not know about his status as a YouTube sensation, but was he telling the whole truth? One of the documentary’s goals was to explore how Rebney felt about the video tape of him cursing like there’s no tomorrow because he could not deliver the lines correctly for the Winnebago commercial. It was able to touch upon the surface but I wasn’t convinced that Steinbauer went deep enough into the man’s psychology. In the end, I felt sorry for the subject which has been dubbed as The Angriest Man in the World. It was obvious to me that he wasn’t enjoying the process of being in the documentary because he hadn’t yet found closure about the past–the very reason that tarnished his reputation and thereby his decision to live in isolation. I felt his hurt and anger and it made me feel like the director crossed the line between respect and asking pertinent questions and causing further controversy. After watching the viral video, I didn’t find myself laughing too much. I chuckled about three times because Rebney had a knack for cursing like he abhored the world. But then I realized that what he was caught doing was completely natural. We all have different ways of venting our frustration. Some of us break down in tears, some of us internalize (my weapon of choice), and some of us express the frustration into apparent rage. Actors in Hollywood most likely are guilty of the same thing (may I remind you of Christian Bale’s rant?) but they aren’t as visible. So the way I saw it was Rebney was a product of an unfortunate circumstance. I wish Steinbauer had enough courage to confront the specific people who decided to release the behind-the-scenes video. The whole thing may have been a big joke to them but they essentially ruined Rebney’s career. I find that a lot more shameful than a man who was simply having a bad day at work.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
★★ / ★★★★
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell in “Moon,” written and directed by Duncan Jones, an astronaut who was sent on the moon by a company to gather precious gas that could solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Excitement came over him as soon as he realized that his three-year contract was about to expire in two weeks. However, his positive energy was quickly doused when he started hearing and seeing things that he wasn’t supposed to. I can’t help but feel very disappointed in this film because I saw so much potential in it. The feel of the picture very much felt like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but I appreciated the fact that it tried to bring something new to the table with regards to man’s relationship with machine (the super-computer named GERTY voiced by Kevin Spacey). I hate saying this about science fiction movies in general but I’m going to: it just didn’t feel real. I’m not talking about the visuals (which wasn’t that inspiring), I’m talking about how everything started to play out. For instance, when Sam realized that there was a clone of himself walking around, his reaction was very underwhelming. I don’t know about you but if I saw a copy of myself without my prior knowledge of its existence, I would freak out, throw things at it and attack it in every way possible (basically act like a crazy person) to get the upperhand. I won’t just sit there and play nice with it, especially when the copy is trying to bully me around. I also had a problem with its pacing. For a film that’s supposed to be full of wonder, mystery and surprising twists, it felt strangely stagnant. Once the clone was revealed, there wasn’t much to drive the story forward. Even their interactions weren’t really that interesting except that they seemed to have opposite personalities. The second twist regarding Sam’s life on Earth was sad but ultimately empty because I didn’t care that much about Sam. I agree with critics and audiences that it was eerie and atmospheric but that’s about it. I don’t see it as being a classic because the elements it tried to tackle weren’t fully realized. “Moon” felt like the SparkNotes version of a really dense material full of complex story arcs and mythologies. And it certainly didn’t have that wow-factor that could be found in sci-fi greats.
★ / ★★★★
If I were to describe “Pandorum” in one word, it would be “convoluted.” When Ben Foster finds himself in a space ship waking up from an extended hypersleep, he had no memory of where he was and what he was doing there. Upon further exploration of the ship, he found Dennis Quaid as the lieutenant who was supposed to be in charge during their cycle. He, too, just woke up from hypersleep. They then decided to help each other find a way to a nuclear reactor to reset the failing power of the ship and then take control it. The catch was that the ship was teeming with aliens that are hungry for human flesh. I really like science fiction films because it often begs the question of “what if?” Unfortunately, although this picture was set hundreds of years into the future, it just didn’t feel futuristic. The characters talked like people living today, cursing from left and right included, and for people who are supposed to be smart, they didn’t act that way. The overall look of the picture didn’t look futuristic at all. In fact, it looked grimy and uninspired–like something that one could easily see in a video game. Speaking of video games, the action sequences were subpar. Half of the time, I couldn’t see a thing because not only was the environment really dark, the camera would shake uncontrollably to match the dizzying movements of the characters. None of it worked for me and I grew tired of it after thirty minutes. However, I did like the idea of “pandorum.” It’s a psychological term when a person in space goes through a mental break for unknown reason. Two major symptoms include paranoia and bodily sensations that aren’t there yet the person believes otherwise. That concept somewhat came into focus when Cam Gigandet appeared on screen. Unfortunately, the writers couldn’t help themselves and had to write in a riduculous twist that completely took me out of the experience. This movie was not without potential. If there were no aliens and therefore no annoying action sequences, the film might have had a chance to really explore the silence and isolation that the characters were going through. With such an interesting concept, the aliens were just too literal for my liking. It was too literal to the point where unintentional laughs were unavoidable because what was happening on screen was so ludicrous. And I’m not even going into the very typical one-liners. I say skip “Pandorum” and rewatch “Alien,” “Aliens” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” if you’re looking for an unforgettable space adventure.
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.