Captive State (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Social commentary-heavy “Captive State,” based on the screenplay by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt, is an interesting lo-fi science-fiction picture on paper. Instead of engaging in ostentatious display of special and visual effects through action sequences or focusing on elegant character development, a detached approach is employed as the story follows a group of insurrectionists who wish to destroy a Chicago-based “Closed Zone,” a location where aliens known as Legislators reside (aptly named because they have made and enacted laws ever since humanity’s surrender nine years prior.) It is expected the attack would inspire everyone else around the world to rebel against and usurp the aforementioned extraterrestrial invaders from stealing Earth’s natural resources. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, however.
On the surface, there is tension: we have no attachment to the various insurgents, only their main mission. As a result, we get the feeling that any one of them can drop dead at any second. The camera follows them—a medical student, a mechanic, a father, a soldier, among others—being courageous, afraid, and desperate with little regard to their histories or who they leave at home. A sense of realism is created, from information written on a piece of paper being passed around to the hi-tech bomb capable of camouflage that must be activated and placed at an exact location at the right time. This is when the film is at its best.
However, when the material turns its attention on the three “main” characters—in quotations because we spend a little bit more time with them than the others—the pacing screeches to the halt. In the opening scene we see two brothers whose parents perish in the hands of the invaders. Years later, the elder brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is presumed to be a deceased terrorist, and the younger brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), works in an assembly line where electronics are analyzed for information that could be used against the creatures. Although Majors and Sanders have the versatility to communicate a range of emotions, the screenplay fails to get us to care about them as brothers and as individuals with different end goals.
Not even the great John Goodman, playing a commander in charge of capturing rebels, is able to save the material. He is wonderful in communicating with words but his face tells a completely different story. There is subtlety is how Mulligan carries his power and how he exercises it. But I think the writers’ intention is to create a character who is a master chess player. To me, there is not a shred of mystery on what it is he wishes to attain ultimately. Even I was able to stay one step ahead in regards to the details of his job and the reasons behind his manipulations.
I enjoyed the way it is photographed. “Captive State” offers a near-hopeless future where gray and neutrality is in everyone’s hearts and minds. Bright colors are nowhere to be seen. Garbage is not collected and so they pile up in the neighborhood. The sun always appears to be hidden behind clouds. When we hear music, it is quite depressing and never longer than ten seconds. When it is silent, we hear violence from a distance. Sometimes it is of screaming from horror or pain. Even the spacecrafts look lived-in, decaying.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Captive State” might have benefited from further revisions because some elements are already strong. While an impersonal approach is ambitious, I felt as though the age of drones, lack of privacy, and our every movement being tracked is already here. It is true that we do not have to care deeply for the characters. However, emotions or ideas must be amplified somewhere else. For instance, the screenplay might have attempted to create outrage from communities being forced to live in a police state, the way they are starved to keep them weak physically and mentally, and the brainwashing that occurs to create a semblance of peace.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some movies exist as an exercise of style over substance and David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, is clearly an example of such an approach. One way to enjoy this surprisingly visually impressive film is this: tune out during the would-be mysterious verbal exchanges since it is clearly not the material’s forté (which can be concluded about thirty minutes in) and pay close attention during the flinch-inducing action sequences—not just on the violence but how they are executed. They must have taken weeks to plan out, choreograph, and execute. In the middle of all the wonderful chaos, I could not help but wonder how many perfectly good pieces of furniture they destroyed just for the sake of our entertainment.
The familiar plot, inessential if one so chooses, involves an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being assigned to Berlin to acquire a watch that contains invaluable information regarding the identities of secret agents working from both sides of the wall. Before her departure, her superiors warn that she trusts no one during this most sensitive assignment. From the moment she steps outside the airport, KGB agents ambush her. Viewers experienced with the genre will smell a mole hunt from a mile away, but the visual style of the film keeps it fresh.
There is a look of detachment to the picture which is interesting because it wishes to pique our interest in its world of spies and secrecy. Scenes shot outdoors almost always look cold and gray. Bluish shades dominate, pale skins nondescript, emotionless. Appropriately, East Berlin looks depressing, a hole of misery and corruption. It is only slightly better indoors, whether it be inside a hotel room, a club, or a warehouse, there is an aura of impersonality. Even the living space of Lorraine’s contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), despite being filled with books, magazines, and other collectibles, many of them considered illegal in East Berlin, these items do not look to have been touched or read. Except for the alcohol bottles. Percival’s relationship with spirits likens that of fish in water.
But the centerpiece is clearly the well-executed action sequences. Most impressive is perhaps the drawn-out scene involving Lorraine and a bleeding man being stuck in an apartment complex as protests for freedom rage on outside. The seemingly interminable line of thugs entering the facility, the lack of score or soundtrack, the shattering of glass and numerous appliances, crushing of bones, bullets to the face, chokeholds… all build up to an intense and exhausting visual splendor of violence. I enjoyed that it is strives to deliver Class A entertainment but does not sugarcoat the fact that violence is extremely ugly, gory, and painful. Characters simply do not walk away unharmed. I admired that the film is willing to show Lorraine bruised and battered when it would have been far easier to keep Theron physically beautiful and alluring all the time.
“Atomic Blonde” is a kinetic, hyper-physical, muscular action-thriller. It might have been a stronger work overall had screenwriter Kurt Johnstad taken more of a risk either by minimizing or removing altogether the official meeting between agents and superiors and focused on the protagonist navigating her way through her increasingly complex assignment. It is particularly challenging to establish a suffocating air of paranoia when the picture is divided into two timelines: before and after the mission. During these meetings, on occasion, they tell more than show and this is toxic to aspiring adrenaline-fueled action pictures. But because nearly everything else about the film is strong, it manages to rise above such shortcomings.
Monuments Men, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.
The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.
In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.
The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.
The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.
What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is an inspired spiritual sequel to an alien invasion film that was released almost a decade prior. Instead of telling a story that is bigger, louder, and with more visual effects, the focus is on three people hiding in a bunker right next to a farmhouse as a possible extraterrestrial invasion unfolds outside. It is an intimate sci-fi horror-thriller and ultimately one that works.
The picture is tethered by strong performances, particularly by John Goodman who plays a good samaritan named Howard. Goodman’s performance is at times very reminiscent of Kathy Bates in the classic horror-thriller “Misery.” Howard is a highly watchable character because in just about every scene, Goodman gives him a different body language, a strange manner of expressing his emotions, a questionable look. We constantly ask ourselves what he is up to, what he is thinking, what he is he willing to do to maintain his power and control in an impossible situation.
This makes the character difficult to decipher. There are times when we want him to be good but there are signs that he isn’t, yet there are also instances when we are convinced he is a villain but perhaps our imagination is simply playing tricks on us. We want to understand Howard and wrap our minds around his motivations. Goodman is more than up to the task of creating a curious and highly volatile character.
Credit goes to the writers, Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, for consistently coming up with ways to engage the audience—a challenge because the majority of the film takes place in a confined living space. There is not one moment of boredom because the screenplay takes advantage of the setting to induce an increasingly paranoid feeling. One of the most shocking revelations involves our heroine taking a trip through the air ducts to reset the air filtration system.
Although the look of the film is nothing special, there is a confidence in Trachtenberg’s direction. For example, during the quieter moments, there is fluidity between the framing of a character’s face and body language. That smoothness is necessary so that we can absorb what is being expressed and confessed. During the action scenes, on the other hand, the camera moves quickly and efficiently—but never incomprehensible or headache-inducing—not so much concerned about flow or rhythm between shots but the urgency between survival and death. One gets a sense that the director has a lot of fresh ideas and energy.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” has the desire to genuinely entertain and make us feel uneasy rather than simply rehashing action sequences that do not deliver an iota of thought, creativity, or intelligence. Although some may be put off by the more overt answers during the last fifteen minutes, others, like myself, may consider it to be a moment to showcase the filmmakers’ versatility.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Half man, half ant—all terror!” is the tagline of Lawrence Woolsey’s (John Goodman) new monster film, “Mant!,” strategically released on a weekend when fear is on an all-time high in the Key West, less than hundred miles from Cuba where Soviet missiles threaten nuclear abyss. Gene (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer) are big horror movie fans and they have made the decision to see next week’s feature. Word has it that it is unlike any other monster flick that came before. And although “Mant!” has not yet been released, there is already protesting outside the movie theater.
Based on the screenplay by Charles S. Haas and directed by Joe Dante, “Matinee” offers a real good time, perfect for anyone who loves the movies. It is funny, entertaining, creative, and offers surprises when one least expects it.
There is an innocence about the film, just like the monster movies in the ‘50s. There is a sweetness between the young characters, from the way Gene teases his little brother to the manner in which Gene treats a potential girlfriend (Lisa Jakub) who is unlike anybody else at school. Particularly fresh is the latter. There is no scene where a boy is depicted to be grossed out by girls, vice-versa. Credit to the screenplay for not being afraid to treat kids and teenagers like they have a heart and a brain.
Goodman is at the centerpiece, playing a film producer who is broke. Mr. Woolsey’s many gimmicks to sell the film are riotously amusing, from the way he inspires people who work at the movie theater to the vibrating seats he installs right before moviegoers buy their tickets. There is even a consent form required to be signed by the audience because kids in other cities have supposedly had heart attacks during “Mant!” showings. The look on Dennis’ face reminds us of that tickle we felt in our stomach back when we were children and our little or brother or sister believes just about anything he or she is told.
We get to see a good portion of “Mant!” In a way, we become a part of the audience. They are shown to be having a great time and we get to see why. The black-and-white movie is silly, cheesy, and ridiculous but there is something about it—in terms of visuals, music, and energy—that we cannot help but look away. Though we get to see only several scenes of the monster film, I thought it was actually something I would be interested in watching from beginning to end.
Its weakness is a subplot involving Gene’s classmate, Stan (Omri Katz), and a troublemaker (James Villemaire) who happens to be a poet. Both like the same girl and so the latter threatens the former to back off. Unlike Gene and the girl he likes, this triangle is a tired regurgitation of what we already expect. It might have been better if this subplot had been excised to make room for the real fears of Gene and his family because the head of their household is on a blockade ship by Cuba. Maybe the brothers go to the movies to escape having to think about the possibility that their father might not come back.
“Matinee” offers nostalgia but does not rest on it. It has an active imagination and so we are engaged just about every step of the way. There are jokes on the foreground to be sure but take a second to look in the background once in a while. The film deserves to be seen more than once not for the sake of understanding it completely but to capture the little golden nuggets one might miss the first time around.
Hangover Part III, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has been off his meds for six months and is in dire need of an intervention. His family has found a treatment facility in Arizona and his friends—Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha) and Phil (Bradley Cooper)—agree to take him there. While making their way through a desert, their car is run off the road by a truck. Inside are armed men wearing pig masks. They work for Marshall (John Goodman) who is very upset because Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) had stolen his gold. He thinks that the wolf pack know the man enough to be able to track him. If they fail to present Mr. Chow to Marshall within three days, Doug is as good as dead.
“The Hangover Part III,” written by Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin, has no reason to exist. Clearly, it received the green light because there is dinero to be made. Nobody cared about creativity, making the audience laugh, or creating a good movie. This is as depressing as it gets. It proves that sitting through over ninety minutes of mostly unfunny and forced gags is a draining and maddening experience.
Instead of focusing on how the movie is an endurance test one cannot win, I choose to mention bits that do work. Though evanescent and few, they are there—if one is forgiving enough to see through the boredom and lack of inspiration.
The shining star, not surprisingly, is Melissa McCarthy, playing a pawnshop clerk with whom Alan has fallen for. McCarthy makes the correct decision to play it small because the men’s personalities are larger-than-life. This way, by playing an ordinary character who can be vulnerable and tough, she stands out. The lollipop scene is outstanding. Since it is so effective, I wondered by McCarthy was not given a bigger role to play.
I have always found Alan’s creepy, homoerotic remarks toward Phil to be awkward and odd or somewhat amusing. Galifianakis’ line deliveries during these scenes are close to perfect and having Cooper’s character respond in a macho but secure way is icing on the cake. There is an element of comedy to it because, in real life, most or many straight men that do look like Cooper’s character tend to respond with a level or tone of animosity.
So why is the movie not good? It is a question worth asking because, in my opinion, the on-screen talent is there. Occasionally, they are able to rise above what is on paper because they allow their charm and energy to seep through. The writing lacks a special punch that made the first of the series so surprising and enjoyable. Here, there is nothing to discover about the characters or the wild situations they are thrusted into. In other words, it has nothing to go on and yet the film is made anyway.
Directed by Todd Phillips, “The Hangover Part III” is pessimism on a platter. Though I am optimistic and try to separate what works from what does not, one thing is certain: I do not respond well to mediocrity—a trait embedded in the marrow of this movie. One can only hope that the screenwriters will have enough insight to stop and create a project that is more fulfilling—to them and us—one that contributes something to the art form.
Monsters University (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
If the back half of “Monsters University,” directed by Dan Scanlon, where Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) take a detour from their world and into a foreign universe, had been expanded and explored, it might have turned out to be more than just a superficially enjoyable, family-friendly movie and delivered something truly memorable. Some of these later scenes are so strong, I wondered how it would be like if Pixar made a genuinely creepy or scary film for kids, channeling the same aura as Gil Kenan’s underrated “Monster House.”
Gone is the warm hug of jazz that gave Pete Docter’s “Monsters, Inc.” a special life force. Instead, and perhaps more appropriately, marching band tunes are employed to get us stoked for one-eyed Mike’s first year in the university where he plans to major in Scaring. These tunes also conjure up excitement for the Scare Games, founded by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), which will determine the best sorority or fraternity on campus. According to her, a monster is defined only by his or her ability to scare. A monster that is incapable of it is an embarrassment. It is a shame that the screenplay does not do much with Hardscrabble because she has such a presence, an air of dour authority. She dares her students to surprise her, but not once she is able to surprise me.
There is more to the picture than a series of challenges. While they are highly amusing to sit through, especially the first challenge involving poisonous urchins, it also has easily digestible messages about teamwork, friendship, and acceptance that children should learn (and adults should know by now). And because this is a comedy, it is expected that the fraternity that Mike and Sulley join is composed of outcasts who are anything but scary: a middle-aged salesman (Joel Murray), two heads sharing the same body (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), a long-legged purple philosopher (Charlie Day), and a multi-eyed plump youngster who lives with his mom (Peter Sohn). Each member of the group is given time to shine in and outside the games.
But the real gem is the lesson about knowing one’s limitations. Ever since he was a child, Mike has wanted to become a scarer. However, he simply does not have the physicality for it, not like Sully or the meatheads in Roar Omega Roar, but he is determined to prove everybody wrong. So, he turns to books and hopes that by knowing a lot, somehow it will make up for what he lacks.
This should have been at the forefront more often so that there is a constant build-up of the dramatic core. And yet since the lesson might be difficult to swallow, especially for its target audience, at times the screenplay uses cuteness and easy jokes as crutches when the mood gets too heavy. This frustrated me. It is like being a handed the lollipop when I really want is the steak. With so many children who have and are being led to believe that they are “special” and that they can become “anything” they want to be as long they “put their minds” into it, a point about being aware of one’s limitations is, I think, pretty daring.
The animation is first-class. Every square inch of space seems to glisten, the creatures command a defined set of characteristics (as well as physical gags to go along with them), and scenes that require howling energy to make high velocity movements stand out are mesmerizing. But “Monsters University,” based on the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird, lacks a moving story and the willingness to go all the way with whatever is needed to be communicated. It has the character for it–idealistic, strong-willed Mike Wazowski–but not a clever enough screenplay to camouflage the pill among the candy and trust that the ruse will work.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Due to a severe energy shortage in Metropolis, there is pressure on Mr. Waternoose (voiced by James Coburn), the leader of the company in charge of making sure the city’s power stays on, to motivate the “top scarers,” monsters that sneak into children’s bedrooms to elicit energy-rich screams, and train newbies to become effective at their jobs.
The most important rule is to never leave the closet door open while a scarer is in the bedroom because during that time it serves as a portal to Monstropolis. Equally important is to avoid physical contact with the children because they are believed to be extremely toxic. But somehow a little girl has made it to the monsters’ world. As panic takes over the city, it is up to Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), best friends and co-workers, to return the human child to her bedroom.
Full of unique-looking and adorable monsters, voices that perfectly match the appearance of each character, and executed with energy so wild that it reverberates, “Monsters, Inc.,” based on the screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson, is entertaining for all ages. What it lacks in narrative sophistication, it makes up for a world that demands a second glance. Seeing the monsters, those in focus as well as those in the background, is like being in candy land: they are colorful and we want to know the flavor of their personalities.
Choosing jazz as an animated film’s score and soundtrack is daring and smart. It is very upbeat, friendly, and welcoming. Children, I think, are used to hearing pop songs that bookend the picture and when the story hits a sad note. Jazz, on the other hand, is new and exciting. It has flavor. It demands attention. When it is the trumpet’s turn to shine, it is near impossible to not want to dance or at least tap one’s toes.
The self-absorption of Mike, a single-eyed, circular green monster with horns, is the source of many of the jokes. He thinks he is so handsome, so romantic, and so funny that the way he sees himself so highly often backlashes. At the same time, his vanity is what makes him adorable. In an early scene, Mike and Sully watch a TV commercial produced by the company they work for. Mike expects to be the star. Instead, his full body appears in it for barely a second and is immediately covered by the company logo. His reaction is priceless.
Even throwaway characters like Roz (Bob Peterson), a very serious lady garden snail in charge of keeping track of the employees’ paperwork, and The Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger), exiled in the Himalayas, are given a chance to be memorable. They either do something unexpected or there is an irony to them–sometimes both. The supporting characters Sully and Mike interact with are never boring. I wished there were more scenes of Smitty and Needleman (Daniel Gerson). Their goofiness is infectious.
The picture has two hearts: the friendship between Mike and Sully and Mike becoming the little girl’s father figure, her protector, as Boo (Mary Gibbs) is hunted by the CDA (Child Detection Agency). The latter’s relationship is effectively executed in the third act as their bond is inevitably cut. We can also interpret their separation as a symbol. Eventually, all children stop believing that monsters are hiding or living in their closets. It is one of the first steps of growing up.
Directed by Pete Docter, the effusive charm of “Monsters, Inc.” can win over just about anybody. It moves quickly, the rapid-fire exchanges are witty at times (“Look at you! You have your own climate!” from Mike to Sully for being so hairy), its characters’ goals are always clear, and it does not rest on cuteness to tell a story.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Having led ten flights in just three days, some might say that Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not in the best of shape to fly a plane. Add him having consumed high levels of alcohol and cocaine the night prior to flying an airliner from Atlanta to Orlando the next day through a portentous rainclouds, some would say that not only does he choose to be irresponsible, his behavior is downright criminal.
But SouthJet Flight 227 is meant to crash due to a faulty machinery. Capt. Whitaker just happens to get on that plane. Through intense aircraft acrobatics, he manages to minimize the casualties onboard by landing the plane onto an open field. But there is a problem: a tragedy of this magnitude has the National Transportation Safety Board investigating what went wrong, beginning with the crew’s blood samples. Someone is responsible.
Written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” is superficially about one man’s addiction to alcohol and how it consumes his life from the inside out. Although a topic that has been taken under a microscope many times before, the material is elevated by a carefully measured lead performance in front of the camera as well as ace talent from behind the lens. It paints a scary portrait of the beast in the bottle that takes control of the mind without relying on typical “down in the dumps” scenarios. That is a feat worth noting.
Whitaker is a man of pride who is deeply hurt that his ex-wife and son want nothing to do with him other than times when they are in need of money. Right from the opening scene, Washington tunes into the pain of his character through anger. But not just anger. Anger with a thin layer of regret and yearning to at least have some kind of connection, one that is rewarding, with his family. I liked the way Washington pulls himself back from lashing out completely at his former wife on the other line because it communicates clearly that Whip values her even though she talks to him like he is less than nothing. It is amazing how we can feel their history when we do not even lay eyes on the two of them sharing a space until much later on in the picture. That is telling of a great script.
We can take the gymnastics that the plane goes through as an example of the director’s level of control. Logically, flying the plane upside down in order prevent it from losing altitude requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure that jet airliners are designed to function that way. However, we cannot help but buy into it completely because Zemeckis pays close attention to the details of a typical flight: stewardesses making announcements while most passengers do not pay attention, people walking about on board, and the stresses on people’s faces when a plane goes through convulsions that can attributed to rough clouds. We also get detailed shots of what happens in the cockpit like what is being relayed between pilots and technicians at the command center. It is an isolated environment and since the elements are in place to align, when a jolt is applied, our eyes are glued on the images. We are thrilled, we are horrified and bemused, and we demand how it will all turn out.
Many people are convinced that the alcoholism defines the picture. I thought about it and I’m not convinced. I think the void that Whitaker has nurtured from within is the spotlight. Yes, we see him drink a whole lot, but why is it that he drinks? Because he wishes to fill in that emptiness. The alcohol and the drugs just happen to be there, the alcohol being most available. There is a reason behind someone being an alcoholic. Look closely during the denouement. The attention is on the person who is making a choice.
★★★★ / ★★★★
While talking with his son over telephone and watching J. Lee Thompson’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets an idea on how to extract six Americans, working for the United States embassy, who are stuck in Tehran. It is a near impossible task given that the city is in utter upheaval because the Iranians want the U.S. government to extradite Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to his home country so that he can answer for the crimes he has committed to his people. Mendez suggests that he and the six men and women can disguise themselves as a film crew scouting for a location to shoot the latest science fiction picture called “Argo.” But before Mendez goes to Tehran, the fake movie needs to be as realistic as possible–a script, a poster, storyboards, and the whole shebang–because it is certain that suspicions will arise.
“Argo,” based on the screenplay by Chris Terrio, has the template of a slick caper flick, dramatic gravity of a grim political thriller, and a small but proper dosage of humor that pokes fun of the eccentricities of those who work in Hollywood. Although it succeeds in maintaining a high level of intensity, I could only image how the real extraction must have been like given that most of it is based on true events.
The picture benefits from being shot with confidence. Even though not many of us, including yours truly, may be familiar with the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the film places us into the situation without spelling out everything that is happening. It does so by thrusting us into a mood of urgency, the camera jumping back and forth between the anger building up to rabid rage outside the walls and the paralyzing panic circulating inside. The images of common, sweaty people climbing over walls while chanting in unison is complemented by people in professional dresses and suits desperate to burn and shred files. Those coming from the outside know that they will get inside eventually and those inside know that there is nothing they can do to stop the trespassers. The opening scene, edited by William Goldernberg, makes a highly compelling watch.
The funny moments occur between Mendez and those who work in Hollywood: Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a movie producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist. We get to see how much both men take pride in their work. Though Arkin and Goodman do not have much time on screen, we get a sense of who their characters are right away. The irony cannot be any more beautiful: a man required to perform his business in secret is working with men who create work that are not exactly inconspicuous. This a wacky combination but somehow they manage to work with one another.
The picture is about twenty minutes too long. Halfway through, there are several scenes where the six Americans hiding in the home of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) complain about the plan of their extraction. While it should be shown that anyone has the right to doubt a course of action especially if lives are on the line, it is so slowly paced. Some of the concerns expressed even sound annoying. I took comfort in the fact that at least one of them voices out that they have no choice but to go with it because they do not exactly have any other options to get out of the country. Lastly, the sequences of Mendez looking solemn while alone in a dark room are not exactly subtle. We already have an understanding of the seriousness of the situation without having to be reminded constantly.
“Argo” is an engaging experience divorced from its inspirations, what it is based on, and what is true or what is exaggerated. Strictly as a film, under Ben Affleck’s direction, it makes us root for innocent people, regardless of their nationality, to escape and recapture the chance to live their lives. It is not a history lesson but a lesson on how more thrillers with an intelligent script and eye for detail should be made.
Artist, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was on top of the world. As a silent film actor in the 1920s, everyone clamored to see his movies. During the red carpet premiere of his most recent work, an onlooker, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), dropped her purse. When she crouched to pick it up, she accidentally bumped into the famous actor as he passed by to pose for the photographers. Everyone laughed it off; the two even ended up on the newspaper together. Peppy was an aspiring actress and no one, especially George, had no idea how big she was about to become when sound became available for actors to speak in the movies. While “The Artist,” written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, was able to surmount the challenge of making a black-and-white picture interesting with flying colors, I was most impressed with the range of emotions it put me through. At first, I wasn’t too excited about it because the earlier scenes lacked the grit of classic silent movies released in the 1920s. Rough cuts between scenes down to the decaying feel of intertitles, more widely known as title cards, were not found here. However, it quickly managed to win me over by its careful attention as to why we should care for George Valentin: what made him a star and why should we root for him as a person? We had a chance to observe him at work. He was charming and friendly with just about everybody which lifted the mood from the long hours. When a scene had to be reshot, he was happy to do it, delivering enough variety so editors would have different interpretations of the same scene to choose from for the final product. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he had a contagious smile on his face, which made me want to smile, but was readily erased if required to deliver intensity during a key scene. Upon watching him work, his downfall became all the more involving. I craved to see him rise from the ashes like a phoenix. But his pride in solely appearing in silent movies and lack of willingness to change in order to reroute his career made it an almost impossible wish to be granted. I enjoyed that the story had elements of romance but it wasn’t exactly a romance. It could very well be about friendship, especially from Peppy’s perspective, a story of showing gratitude for someone who changed our lives. Dujardin and Bejo’s chemistry was tantamount to the project’s success because their characters, whether what they had was a blossoming romantic relationship or just friendship (nonetheless a special one), spent most of the time apart. With the aid of cameras designed to zoom in on the perfect moments when the actors emoted specific feelings like jealousy, despair, and pity, their small moments of chance meetings successfully communicated gargantuan emotions with equal impact. The crescendos of the orchestra were also nicely placed; there were times when I was so moved, tears prepared to slide from my eyes despite my best efforts to hold on and suck it up. With big thanks to the presence of George’s extremely cute Jack Russell Terrier, Uggie, the dramatic scenes never felt saccharine because the sheer joy of watching the dog run down the street to seek help, bark as if it were talking, and perform tricks just because it could. “The Artist” was like its mascot: lively and entertaining. One does not require an extensive knowledge of silent movies to appreciate its message.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in my high school Psychology course when we learned about the ethics of dealing with patients. It was a particularly memorable chapter because Kevorkian and his methods sparked a rousing debate about his methods. Like in the film, students who did not support euthanasia, assisted suicide, argued mainly from the perspective of religious dogma. I distinctly remember thinking that it was such a weak argument because it lacked common sense. The reason why I support euthanasia was not about living or dying. It was all about choice. I’d rather jump off a fifty-foot story building than to allow the government to choose when and how I should die. I admired the film, under Barry Levinson’s swift yet careful direction, because it painted Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) as Dr. Kevorkian and not as Dr. Death, as the media and his enemies unjustly labelled him. While the media and government played an integral role in Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle, the picture took a more personal route and allowed us to get to know the medical practitioner in question and his biggest supporters such as his sister Margo Janus (Brena Vaccaro), one of his oldest friends Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a fellow activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), and a lawyer named Geoffrey Fiegler with a flair for the dramatic (Danny Huston). All delivered very strong performances with utmost conviction and devoid of cliché. By showing us scenes not easily found in books or covered by the media, despite my support for the issue of euthanasia, I learned something new and surprising facts about Dr. Kevorkian. There were many scenes that moved me but one that I will not forget for a long time was when Dr. Kevorkian decided to be thrifty regarding the gas required to make the person unconscious prior to stopping the heart. That was an important scene for me because it marked the point where I thought Dr. Kevorkian crossed the line. While he did regret it afterwards, it was unethical because the crux of euthanasia was to allow a terminally ill person to die in a peaceful and humane manner. During that scene, the person was uncomfortable and experienced pain. However, I was glad that the filmmakers added that scene because it showed us that Dr. Kevorkian, despite his best intentions, was far from perfect and that his willingness to push the envelope without fully thinking things through was ultimate downfall. Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian was excellent. Although his portrayal was denitely not as eccentric as the actual person, I believe it was one of his most mesmerizing roles in years. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Adam Mazer, deserves to be seen especially by those who do not quite know where they stand in the issue. It just might help to put certain things into perspective.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love spiders. I used to capture and raise them when I was a kid. When I was bitten, it didn’t stop me from wanting to capture more, make them battle, and observe the way they ate. In “Arachnophobia,” an undiscovered killer spider from Venezuela hitched a ride in a coffin to terrorize a small town in the United States. The killer spider mated with a typical house spider and lived in the barn next to the house that a doctor (Jeff Daniels) and his family recently moved into. It didn’t help that the doctor had a great fear for spiders. Despite my adoration (and respect) for spiders, the film gave me the creeps. The director, Frank Marshall, craftily balanced horror and comedy. As the picture went on, it became scarier but at the same time the laughs were that much more pronounced. The comedy scenes worked because it relieved a lot of tension such as when a spider would sneak up on someone taking a shower. John Goodman’s performance was a catalyst because his mere presence elevated the funny bits. The picture expertly and confidently took advantage of vulnerable situations such as when a character would reach into a cereal box and expect to get food or when they would sit in a toilet. I didn’t find those scenes cheesy because the film established how dangerous the spiders were within the first few minutes. But at the same time, we were aware that these spiders did not take pleasure in killing; their actions were simply means of survival and colonization. What impressed me most was the final duel between man and spider. The filmmakers did a fantastic job weaving three elements that scared people most: darkness, enclosed spaces, and bugs. It was terrifying to watch but I couldn’t look away because I wanted to see how the protagonist could wiggle himself out of another dangerous position. The scene was relentless. I caught myself holding my breath when the doctor did not know where the spider was and voicing out advice about what he should have done next to lure or trick the spider. The jump-out-of-your-seats moments were efficient. Lastly, but most importantly, the film had an after effect. After I finished the movie, I headed to the bathroom and from the corner of my eye, I saw a black figure on the floor. For a split-second, I thought it was a spider and I became very alarmed. For a person who normally adores spiders and then suddenly be scared of them, that’s when I know the film had done something right.