Tag: joseph gordon-levitt

Project Power


Project Power (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Project Power” is “X-Men”-lite without the interesting mythology and biting social commentary. Written by Mattson Tomlin, it appears to be content in just being an action flick with some sci-fi leanings and a few corny jokes peppered along the way. While there is nothing with such an approach, there is a nagging problem: The elements it does offer seem to function at only half potential. What results is a watchable but entirely unmemorable project that by the end imaginative viewers are forced to consider possibilities had more creative, ambitious, and experienced filmmakers were at the helm. The premise is so fun, it can ignite a film franchise or television series.

The secret project involves a pill that grants superhuman powers for five minutes. In mere six weeks, this drug has completely overtaken New Orleans—so much so that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have had much trouble taking down criminals who have access to it. The catch: the person who consumes the pill has no idea what type of power he or she will exhibit. And because the drug is unstable, some who take it will explode. This role of chance is a masterstroke and it is a shame the screenplay fails to capitalize on it.

At least the three central protagonists have personality. While Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn up the charm to expected levels—the former having been the original test subject of the project who is now on a mission to rescue his daughter (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from the villainous Dr. Gardner and the latter an NOPD cop who chooses to consume the drug in order to even out the playing field when dealing with beefed up baddies—it is Dominique Fishback who shines as Robin, a drug dealer who aspires to become a rap artist. I enjoyed moments when the picture simply sits back and allows Robin to spit out killer rhymes. It’s clear that Robin has the talent for it and so we wonder how her future might be like should she take the opportunity to leave drug dealing behind, graduate high school, and focus at who and what’s important in her life.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the picture is its aversion to human drama. For instance, Robin’s mother suffers from diabetes and so money is always an issue because they have no health insurance. But what about the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of a family dealing with this chronic illness? Another example: We never get to see Frank (Gordon-Levitt) interact with his fellow cops in the force. We get one exchange between Frank and his captain (Courtney B. Vance), but the setup and twist are entirely expected. Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is reduced to having flashbacks of his daughter being taken from him. Clearly, more attention is put into how to make special and visual effects look cool.

Having said that, I enjoyed the CGI for the most part. The more ostentatious ones, like when a man’s entire body is ablaze and everything he touches is reduced to cinders, are certainly eye-catching, but those that impressed me most are a bit more restrained. A standout includes Frank facing off with a man with elastic limbs and they are required to battle it out in a tight space. Due to the enemy’s bizarre (and amusing) ability in addition to having such a limited room to move around, we are that much more drawn into the action. I wished, however, that the leader of the project, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who works for private defense contractor Teleois, had been given more things to do outside of looking menacing and giving orders. Therein is a classic case of henchmen outshining their superior.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” delivers C+ entertainment when it is apparent the template is capable of delivering at higher levels. One angle worth exploring: Teleois targets residents of New Orleans, in which the black population is close to 60% according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, as test subjects for the Power drug before it goes national. There are overwhelming evidence throughout history that people of color were more often used as guinea pigs since black and brown lives were considered to be more dispensable than whites lives (Tuskegee experiments, Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Project 4.1, among others). So why not acknowledge and shape a universe based upon this fact (or other well-documented, real-life issues or events) so the story commands real punch behind it? Why not strive for more?

Latter Days


Latter Days (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

One scene perfectly showcases why “Latter Days” does not work as a convincing human drama. Christian (Wes Ramsey), having just confronted by his love interest (Aaron played by Steve Sandvoss) of the possibility that there might not be anything else to him other than being a physically beautiful party boy, visits a man named Keith who is dying of AIDS (Erik Palladino). For a while, Christian and Keith are provided dialogue with spark; the screenplay introduces the idea that Keith is a reflection of Christian should the party boy continue the path he’s on. But notice how the scene ends. A psychic or magic element is introduced which completely derails the grounded human angle.

This lack of restraint is pervasive, particularly in the third act in which drama on the level of soap opera takes over. So much is going on that at some point we lose or fail to appreciate the passage of time—necessary because lovers Aaron and Christian are supposed to be fighting their own seemingly insurmountable challenges. Aaron must deal with his homophobic and devoutly Mormon family who would rather have a dead son than a gay one; Christian must learn to be alone and possibly move on from the man he thought he loved. On paper there is conflict, but much of the story’s power fails to translate on screen. And just as suddenly, the picture simply… ends and it feels like all problems are solved.

It is a shame because Sandvoss and Ramsey share good chemistry. The script sounds forced from time to time, but the actors are true professionals in that they commit and inject a real sense of joy, especially in some of the awkward-sounding confrontational exchanges. Their charisma, together and apart, is so strong that despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, we come to appreciate that there is more to the repressed Mormon missionary and the party animal who begins home a different man every night.

Another weakness: the work fails to communicate why Aaron’s religion is important to him. We see him studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, but what is it about his faith that helps to define him as a person? Having come from Idaho and being raised by religious parents isn’t good enough. To answer the question is to separate character from caricature.

In regards to Christian and his party-loving ways, this character is more defined. He recalls a heartbreaking memory about his father who took him hunting. The father believed that if his boy killed an animal, it would make him a man—it would stop him from becoming queer. This memory gives us enough information to consider why Christian lives the way he does. The connection between his past and present is touching and beautiful, but I will not detail it here.

Supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. We learn not one interesting detail about Aaron’s fellow Elders played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rob McElhenney. And even less when it comes to Christian’s friends and co-workers at the restaurant, one of whom is played by Amber Benson. Jacqueline Bisset plays the restaurant owner; there is whiff of enigma in her Lila, but I think it is because she is the most subtle performer of the bunch. Those eyes tell a story. She need not say a word to capture our attention. I wish the screenplay adapted her elegant approach.

Written and directed by C. Jay Cox, “Latter Days” did not move me emotionally. I recognize a few of its strengths. I recognize, too, that the love scenes may be titillating for some. The actors’ built bodies are well-photographed, the lighting sets up the right mood, and they do not end too quickly nor do they wear out their welcome. But the storytelling must be strong. It must be told with focus, energy, and grace. It must be paced well. Otherwise, nearly everything sticks out like elbows.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is a disappointing sequel to a visually stunning, funny, thrilling, and engaging picture that is still unique to this day. While it does offer two opposite but interesting performances, the screenplay by Miller fails to offer anything fresh or exciting. He forgot to ask and answer a most basic question: What makes the sequel worth visiting?

Perhaps Miller thought that the visual acrobatics and trickeries would be enough to sustain our attention. While I still enjoyed that the film is presented in beautiful black-and-white, painted with bright primary colors once in a while, there is barely any dimension to any of the characters. And although most of them are supposed to be tough and have a proclivity for bloody violence, it does not mean that there should not be anything else to them. Successful graphic novels that fall under the action genre translated onto screen tend to work well as drama, too. It is because audiences are able to emotionally invest in the characters since the characters are, in a way, a reflection of ourselves—our insecurities, our doubts, we feeling like underdogs at times.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny, gifted with hands that are lucky. Every time he puts a dollar into a slot machine, coins come rushing down like waterfall. Card games are a piece of cake for he always gets the best hand. He hopes to snag the attention of the feared Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), still angry about his son’s death. Gordon-Levitt plays Johnny with a calculated cool and we hope for the character to get exactly what he wants. But the story takes place in Sin City, not la-la land.

Eva Green plays Ava, a beautiful, seductive woman who hopes to be set free from her abusive husband. She enlists the help of a photographer named Dwight (Josh Brolin), a former lover who remains to have feelings for her despite her previous act of betrayal. Green is delicious in every scene because she plays her character like a snake eyeing its dinner. Ava is the most unpredictable of the bunch and Green knows it. And so she milks every frame of every scene.

The rest relies on platitudes. The script has a tendency to offer lines such as “Death is like life in Sin City.” Perhaps it is meant to be a serious commentary on the moral decay of the place but it comes across as cornball fluff. And speaking of cornball fluff, Jessica Alba once again rests on her physical beauty and fails to create a convincing character who is angry and full of angst. It is not entirely her fault.

Alba plays a stripper—one that remains fully clothed for the duration of the performance—who wishes to end the life of Roark. But every time she is given the opportunity, she cannot muster her fingers to pull the trigger. I was confused as to why Miller wrote the character to be this way in this film when he knows that Alba is not a performer who has much range. She is good at playing soft, flirtatious, and friendly characters.

What she lacks is a desperation in the eyes to denote her character’s craving to really hurt someone for the sake of payback. The screenplay demands the character to disfigure herself to come across as tough. It does not work because even though her outer appearance has changed, the inside—the absence of inner brutality—remains the same.

Don Jon


Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.

Lincoln


Lincoln (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is up for a second term as the president of the United States and he is determined to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, designed to ban slavery across the country, by the end of January 1865. Although it had been passed by the Senate on April 1864, the House of Representatives is an entirely new arena: twenty more votes from the democratic side are required to pass the amendment. With the American Civil War in its fourth year and everyone is growing weary, Lincoln believes it is of utmost importance, morally and politically, to douse slavery and its possible reemergence once and for all before the war comes to a close.

As someone who does not know much about Lincoln other than the fact that he had managed to abolish slavery prior to his assassination, I found “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, as an educational and moving portrait of a leader who has, in a theory, a lot of power but at the same time almost enslaved to it because his ambitions are not often in tune with a public that is either not ready for or not willing to face radical changes.

Choosing to focus on a specific time frame of Lincoln’s legacy is smart because it gives us ample time to get to know the man on a more personal angle. While we are given several chances to observe how he interacts with those closest to him professionally, fellow republicans, and democrats, it is interesting that much importance is placed on his internal personal struggles to make slavery illegal. This is when Day-Lewis’ sublime performance comes into play. Yes, he looks very eerily like the Lincoln we see in photographs but without the specific knowing and sparkle in his eyes, most of us might find it difficult to believe his character for wanting to push for the change that he thinks the country needs in order to move forward or at least be better than it was prior to the hundreds of thousands lives lost in the Civil War.

As a side note, this may sound strange because we often yearn for the opposite but because Day-Lewis’ performance feels so complete, I found myself wanting to see a glimpse of the actor playing Lincoln. Eventually, I felt like I was able to but it required considerable effort and patience. When the actor is quiet, it is like staring down a sphinx. And most of the time Lincoln keeps his feelings to himself. But when he shows the anger and frustration of his character, those very discerning can recognize the man behind the performance. I wish I can tell you why my gut needed a reminder that I was watching an actor playing Lincoln. Perhaps it is an uncommonly traversed avenue to connect with the material on a deeper level.

The look of the picture is also impressive. I like to look at faces, especially in profile, and so I could not help but notice the way light is utilized to create an additional angle on a face or shadow to reflect fears or doubts during one-on-one conversations. A similar observation can be applied when the camera pulls away from the faces. Since most of the deliberations occur indoors, when there is a special point to be made, most of the light is focused on the center of the room. And yet at the same time, the dark sides and corners of the room draw us in. It is a fascinating way to tie in to the picture’s overarching theme. A room can be interpreted as a reflection of the nation’s attitudes toward putting slavery to death. Although most of those under bright lights are informed and ready for change, there are those who remain in the dark, some will do anything to resist being in that light. Imagine if the rooms had been completely lit. The mystery painted on the people’s faces and the tension in the room might have been absent altogether.

“Lincoln,” based on the screenplay by Tony Kushner, is also peppered with memorable performances by Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife still in a state of grief over their son’s passing due to typhus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son who wishes to leave school and enlist in the army, and David Strathairn as the Secretary of State. Because the film is able to function as a character study, Lincoln the storyteller being the most revealing and entertaining, as well as detailing a specific time in history, it overcomes our awareness that the Thirteenth Amendment will inevitably pass.

Looper


Looper (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not mean for him, his future self, to get away, a momentary hesitation that allows Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sent from year 2074 by a criminal organization using a time machine to be executed and disposed of in 2044, to escape which prompts the boss (Jeff Daniels) to initiate a hunt to kill the two. It is the only way to minimize further changes in the future. The problem is Joe wishes to live a full life even though he already knows that being a looper, an assassin of the present assigned to murder people sent from the future, comes with an expiration date of age thirty. Meanwhile, Old Joe hopes to alter the past by killing a person called The Rainmaker in order to undo the death of his wife.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” explores a handful of interesting and intertwining ideas about the people affected by time travel, outlawed by the government upon its discovery, and avoids many details and technicalities of the concept itself. There is a difference and it is an important one because by focusing on the former, the writer-director constructs a story that we can, first and foremost, invest in or care about and, secondly, appreciate a fictionalized world of flying motorcycles and people with the ability to move objects using their minds due to a genetic mutation that affects ten percent of the population.

I enjoyed that the interactions between current and future Joe are kept to a minimum. Their one conversation set in a diner is imbued with an electric dialogue that is ironic and funny but serious and intelligent, too. This scene is not only a stand out because of the script. It is the point when we can observe how alike–or different–the actors are with respect to them playing, essentially, the same person. One is able to match the other not simply in terms of quirks but, for example, how one delivers a calculating gaze to a threatening or curious figure. The way in which they place stresses on particular words are also fun to pick up on.

Though it was easy for me to divorce between actor and makeup, I would have preferred that Gordon-Levitt was not given prosthetics so that he would look more like Willis. Since the picture functions on a relatively high level of imagination, it would have made sense for the filmmakers to assume that we had the initiative and the capacity to imagine the two actors, given that their performances complement each other well, playing a variation of one character.

What works less effectively is that the script does not give enough details about the organization led by Abe (Daniels). Is its goal more related to business like running a drug cartel and strip joints or is its objective more concerned about the bodies that come from the future? Furthermore, while Abe is nicely played by Daniels because he tends to choose quiet over hyperbolic menace, we do not see the character do much other than give orders. For someone who is supposed to be the leader, he does an awful lot of waiting for everyone else to do their jobs right. Ultimately, watching him does not feel like we are being engaged with a character who has much purpose underneath the archetype of a mob boss of some sort.

“Looper” may be and is faulted for its irregular pacing particularly when the story takes a detour on a farm. I respected this change of pace because it ties in to the idea that the picture is not just a sci-fi action film padded by chases and bullets flying. It takes a risk worth noting. It gives itself a chance to turn its attention toward one or two moral questions by setting aside almost half of its entertainment value. This approach is not common but it sure is admirable.

The Dark Knight Rises


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney and one of the leaders of the fight against war on crime, organized crime had been completely exorcised from Gotham City. Since Batman took the fall for the demise of the white knight and several police officers, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had been living as a recluse. This temporary peace in Gotham, however, was threatened by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a thewy mercenary who recently kidnapped an important scientist. But Bane was not a typical mercenary: he was a former member of the League of Shadows, the same group that trained Bruce before he created Batman, and personally exiled by its leader, Ra’s al Ghul. “The Dark Knight Rises,” directed by Christopher Nolan, delivered an absorbing exposition by allowing us to feel sympathy for the true hero that afforded Gotham citizens the kind of city they’ve always wanted. More than ever, Bale was allowed to shine in the way he meticulously but naturally portrayed a character who was no longer needed by his creators. There was drama not simply because Bruce felt lost and depressed, it was due to the fact that we knew that he deserved fulfillment, a life he could call his own, outside of the mask. No other person could understand the man behind the mask more than Alfred (Michael Cane), Bruce’s help, best friend, and father figure. The most emotionally moving sections of the film involved the two clashing in terms of what the city really needed versus how Bruce should go on with his life. Cane was so good with his line deliveries, I teared up a bit when Alfred mentioned his yearly vacation in Florence, Italy and what he hoped to see across from him while sitting in a restaurant. There was a much deserved complexity in Alfred and Bruce’s relationship which was more than I can say about Bane’s plot to so-called give the people exactly what they wanted. While the action scenes held an above average level of excitement, such as when the villain made his first public appearance, there were too many characters running all of the place–characters who were worth knowing more about. There was Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), conflicted in terms of whether he should reveal Dent’s true colors to the public; Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an ardent young man willing to fight to preserve the good in his city; and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who wished to wipe her criminal past clean. And then there was Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Bruce’s romantic interest that came so far out of left field, I found it completely unconvincing. There was already little chemistry between Cotillard and Bale and the writing didn’t help them in building something the audience could get behind. Each of the supporting characters was given the spotlight one way or another but the screenplay didn’t have enough time to really drill into what made them more than pawns in the people’s liberation against Bane’s grasp. And so when the denouement arrived, some of the revelations, one of which I found predictable in a fun way, did not feel entirely rewarding. Based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, while “The Dark Knight Rises” was undeniably entertaining, it could be observed that perhaps it attempted to take on too much. It wasn’t a breezy bat-glide to the finish line.

50/50


50/50 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seemed like a healthy twenty-seven year old who abstained from smoking and doing drugs. He even chose not to learn to drive a car because it is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. When a pain in his back began to bother him, he decided to see a doctor. The results weren’t good. It turned out that he had a rare cancer and an aggressive form of treatment was necessary. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, “50/50” successfully made the topic of cancer easier to digest by highlighting the comedy without losing track of the sadness and fear upon discovering the news and dealing with the reality. The filmmakers made a smart move by making human relationships the primary concern instead of the cancer. Kyle (Seth Rogen) was Adam’s best friend and rock throughout the ordeal. One of the best scenes between the two was in the way Kyle reacted to his friend’s grim diagnosis. Rogen balanced amusing allusions of famous people who had beaten cancer and tenderness without being obnoxious. I was glad that their relationship didn’t have a significant arc. It didn’t need to. There were still unexpected discoveries along the way, but their friendship was a good place. Another important support Adam had was Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young, perky counselor working on her doctorate. Their interactions were amusing because there was an awkwardness in their attempt to find a solid footing with something new: Katherine and her job; Adam and his cancer. Adam and Katherine shared wonderful chemistry but it wasn’t creepy, unethical, nor inappropriate. Through their conversations, they learned to form a special friendship. We rooted for them to take that next step without forgetting the fact that there should be a line between a professional and her client. However, there were some connections that weren’t as strongly established. Diane (Anjelica Huston), Adam’s mom, was always worried about her son. Adam felt suffocated by her ways of showing affection and he constantly felt the need to prove that he was strong and capable of being independent. I wanted to know more about that tension between mother and son, the mother’s specific feelings in no longer being needed. Huston was only given about half a dozen scenes and she made the best out of all of them. I think that if her character was closer to the center, the actress’ talent for balancing regal quiet power and in-your-face emotions would’ve made the project soar. Lastly, the conflict involving Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, sometimes felt forced. I understood that the point was some people are just not equipped enough to handle long-term sickness. I appreciated that the filmmakers acknowledged that reality. Unfortunately, it all boiled down to whether or not she would ultimately stay with Adam. It felt out of place, too shallow, for a movie about mortality. “50/50” is a reminder: When you do have that moment where you catch yourself staring miserably at your empty glass, people who love you in the best ways possible can fill it right up. Then it doesn’t seem so bad.

Uncertainty


Uncertainty (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Inception


Inception (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The film started off like a spy film: the glamorous and exotic locale, fashionable suits, femme fatales. But unlike typical espionage pictures, the first half of the characters’ goal was not to steal a valuable object but an idea located deep inside a target’s dreams. The second (and more difficult) half was to get away with it by allowing the target to wake and continue living his life as if nothing had been taken away from him. This simplified two-step process was known as “extraction,” in which Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a leading expert. Cobb was not allowed to return to the United States to see his children so Kaito (Ken Watanabe) made an offer that Cobb simply could not refuse: to plant an idea in a future corporate leader’s mind (Cillian Murphy), known as “inception,” which had rarely been done before. If this last massion was successful, it would lead to Cobb’s freedom. In order to accomplish the mission, Cobb had to assemble a team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao) with very special talents and they had to dive in the target’s subconscious while navigating their way through defenses set up by the mind and the secrets Cobb kept from his unsuspecting team.

When the movie started, I barely had any idea what was happening. I knew something exciting was happening on screen because of the intricate action sequences and splendid visuals but as far as the story went, it was still nondescript. However, that was not at all a problem because the film eventually established the elementary elements required so that we could have an understanding of what was about to happen. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, I was impressed with its pacing. There was an assigned time for getting to know the lead character in terms of his career, his past, and his inner demons. Once I had a somewhat clear idea of his motivations, I immediately felt that there was something wrong with the way he saw the world and the specifics were eventually revealed in an elegant, sometimes emotional, and often mind-bending manner. Their missions were often sabotaged by Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s projection of his wife who had passed away, due to an unsolved guilt that he constantly pushed away. Throughout the course of the film, that guilt, like Mal, became more powerful and became a hindrance that the main character and his team could no longer set aside. Anyone with a background in Psychology will truly appreciate the film’s level of intelligence in terms of Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary idea involving the subconscious manifesting in our every day lives and maintaining our mental homeostasis. But what impressed me even more was the minute details in the script such as the characters mentioning topics such as positive and negative emotions interacting and which side had more power over the other, one’s sense of reality while being in a dream… within a dream, and even questions like “If we die in our dreams, do we die in real life?” were acknowledged. That’s one of the things I loved about the film: it was able to present ideas we are aware of but it just had enough dark twist to create something original.

As with most movies with grand ambitions, I had some questions left unanswered. What about those instances when we are aware that we are dreaming and we can control what will happen in our dreams? I have experienced such a phenomenon time and again (and I’m sure others have as well) and I was curious if and how the movie could explain such a strange occurrence. And what about those moments when we sleep but we are not yet dreaming? What if our dreams are interrupted? Sure, the team injected chemicals in their bodies to stabilize the feeling of reality in dreams but, as the movie perfectly illustrated, nothing completely goes according to plan. Perhaps I’m just being more analytical than I should be thanks to the fascinating sleep studies I encountered in Neurobiology and Psychology courses. But I believe a mark of a great film is open to question, interpretation and debate. I say we question because we have embraced the material and we are hungry for more. That’s how I know I’m emotionally and intellectually invested in a film. That absolute killer final shot and the audiences’ collective sigh of anticipation for the clear-cut answer as the screen cut to black was simply icing on the cake.

“Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, was certainly worth over a year’s wait since it was still in pre-production. I remember trying look for more information about it during my midterm study breaks (and getting so caught up in it) so I am completely elated that it was finally released and it turned out to be one of the finest and most rewarding movies of 2010. It may not have been its goal but “Inception” certainly adds a much needed positive reputation to mainstream movies, especially in a season full of sequels and spoon-fed entertainment. I was optimistic early 2010 in terms of the quality of movies about to be released in theaters, especially when Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” came out, but now I am more than convinced that the film industry is experiencing a drought of refreshing and daring ideas. Some critics may compare “Inception” to “The Matrix” (both great movies) but I think “Inception” functions on a higher level overall and it has an identity of its own. Perhaps an injection of new blood that is “Inception” will inspire movie studios to take more risks in terms of which movies they green light. There is no doubt that mindless, swashbuckling popcorn adventures or even extremely diluted romantic comedies have their place in the market. But with the critical and mass success of “Inception,” it shows that audiences are always ready to be inspired by new ideas and to dream a little bigger.

Shadowboxer


Shadowboxer (2005)
★ / ★★★★

Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren were two assassins and lovers assigned to kill a mobster’s wife (Vanessa Ferlito) but instead decided to run away and hide her because she just had a baby. Written by William Lipz and directed by Lee Daniels, I was excited to see “Shadowboxer” because I love the lead actors and the supporting actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Dorff, Mo’Nique, Macy Gray). Unfortunately, the movie fell flat the moment Gooding and Mirren arrived in suburbia. Instead of really exploring what made the characters tick, especially when the sexual tension between the couple was apparent, the movie settled on the question of when Dorff would finally catch up with his wife and the two hired assassins that failed to kill her. I also didn’t like the fact that there was no sense of urgency and tension to drive the story forward. The audiences were supposed to buy that the characters were conflicted about the path they’ve chosen but without really focusing on their respective backgrounds (in the least), it’s ultimately hard to care let alone root for them. For a movie that runs in under an hour and thirty minutes, it felt longer than that because it didn’t have enough meat in its bones for us to delve into. I read a review that says this is far from a movie designed for the mainstream. I thought that review got that part exactly right. However, I disagree when he or she made a point about this film being about the characters’ path to redemption. If this was about redemption, they would realize the errors of their ways and try to change or stop hurting and killing other people. I argue that none of the characters wanted to change. In fact, there was barely any change at all. The movie showed us the reality in its universe without having to let the characters realize the errors of their ways. On the other side of the spectrum, they claim that the movie was so bad that it was good. Let’s not pretend; this movie was a failure and a great disappointment mostly because of its writing. You can cast the best actors in the world but if the backstory and dialoge are flat throughout, there is no way that the film will be successful. Stay away from this one because it suffers a bad case of a lack of substance.

Assassination of a High School President


Assassination of a High School President (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I’ve read reviews about this film and a number of people think that this will eventually be a cult classic. I highly doubt it. Directed by Brett Simon, “Assassination of a High School President” stars Reece Thompson as Bobby Funke, a high school sophomore journalist with dreams of getting a summer program at Northwestern. Assigned by Melonie Diaz to write about the school’s student body president (Patrick Taylor), Thompson stumbled upon secrets which involved stolen SAT exams. This movie reminded me a lot of the indie gem called “Brick” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It has a certain post-noir feel to it, but the difference between “Brick” and this film is that this one is less complex and not as exemplary when it comes to its style. At times I found myself wondering whether it wanted to be a true modern noir film set in a private Catholic high school or an edgy romantic comedy about a kinda-sorta loser who wanted to date the most popular girl in school (Mischa Barton). That indecision took some of the focus away from the story and so it became less intriguing. However, although the picture wasn’t as provocative as I thought it would be (I imagined “Election”-level snarkiness when it came to the dialogue and desperation of the characters), Thompson’s geek-chic charm made me want to keep watching. I saw him on the underrated “Rocket Science” and was highly impressed so I was interested to see if he could bring the same sort of neuroticism from there to this movie. I must admit that I guessed incorrectly on whoever was really involved in the whole SAT fiasco. But what I liked about it was that there wasn’t really a big twist in the end; there was actually a culmination of hints and evidence that eventually led to the final revelation so I ultimately didn’t feel cheated. If the whole romance angle between Thompson and Barton was completely taken out and Thompson was all business without taking any prisoner, this probably would have been a slam dunk for me. The movie definitely had pop during the investigation scenes but it became lazy and typical during the courtship scenes. This is a pretty decent rental on an uneventful Saturday night because there were some witty dialogue but watching it shouldn’t be a priority.

(500) Days of Summer


(500) Days of Summer (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I am more than happy to say that one of the most outstanding pictures of the year (so far) is a romantic comedy. However, it is far from a typical one. The always impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Latter Days,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Brick,” “The Lookout”) plays Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer who has a passion for architecture but never quite followed it due to some of life’s circumstances. The lovely Zooey Deschanel (“Almost Famous,” “Elf,” “Flakes,” “The Happening”) plays Summer Finn, a new secretary who does not believe in the concept of love and values independence to the fullest. The two are complete opposites, which serves as an ideal template for romance with genuinely awkward moments on the side. But as the film warns us during the first three minutes, it is not a love story, which can mean that a happy ending may not be on the horizon.

The movie was told in a non-linear sequence. It started with Tom confiding to his precocious sister (Chloe Moretz) and two best friends/apartment-mates (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) about his fear that his relationship with Summer might be over. I liked the fact that the film immediately jumped into getting to know the characters. That scene showed that Tom was not your typical macho guy who considered girls as mere conquests; he actually had a heart, a brain, and a soul, someone who was not afraid to cry and fall apart in front of people who mattered to him most. That sense of efficiency pervaded the 95-minute running time as it jumped from the 300th day to day 1 and back to 164th. As the audiences jumped back and forth in time, we get a fuller picture about the dynamics (and not always reciprocal feelings) between Tom and Summer. He slowly realized that Summer was someone who he could never have no matter how much effort he tried to put into the relationship because Summer simply did not feel the same way. But I liked the fact that the picture did not make Summer look like a bad person. Like Tom, she had her own values and ethics and varying capability to do good and bad things. Marc Webb, the director, always strived for complexity with regards to characterization and I appreciated his efforts because most romantic comedies of today are too sugary, one-dimensional, or the characters become more like caricatures instead of reflecting actual individuals in the world. In my opinion, Webb managed to capture how it was like for a twentysomething to feel lost in the world but still have that glimmer of hope that things would ultimately turn out for the better. Maturity is one of this film’s biggest strengths and it was always at the forefront.

There were some storytelling techniques that could either annoy audiences and think that the picture was being somewhat pretentious or impress audiences in every way. I was one of the latter group for several reasons. I absolutely loved the foreign language scene because I thought it represented the disconnect between Tom and Summer. I think it served as a metaphor when two people are constantly at odds to the point where they stop trying to understand each other because every sentence of justification feels like a foreign language. Another scene that stood out to me was when Tom attended Summer’s party. The split-screen between what Tom hoped would happen and what actually happened had a great balance of comedy and tragedy. And I think it painfully reflects real life. There were a lot of similarities between the two split-screens but there were also a plethora of glaring differences and others were quite subtle. Lastly, I admit that I am not a very big fan of dancing in movies but it worked here. It was amusing when Tom, because of extreme happiness that he cannot express with words, started dancing in the park and everyone else started joining him (including an animated bird!). Such scenes mentioned proved to me that this was an edgy picture with a purpose, which was different than an indie movie simply trying to be edgy for the sake of being different.

In a nutshell, “(500) Days of Summer” is a picture for movie lovers who love watching films showcasing real-life instead of films imitating real-life. There is a subtle but important difference between the two and this one is well aware of that line it daringly treads. By the end, others may be saddened by Tom’s journey from naiveté to awareness or be uplifted with the possibilities that face him. I belong with the latter because I believe in the necessity of sacrifices for the learning experience. This is the twenty-first century “Annie Hall” and it should definitely not be missed.

Terminator Salvation


Terminator Salvation (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

This fourth installment of “The Terminator” franchise may not have been as good as the first two films but it was a step above from the somewhat mediocre third outing. Initially, I was underwhelmed during the first few minutes of “Terminator Salvation” due to my high expectations. However, once the ball started rolling about fifteen minutes into the picture, I really got into it and I was curious what was going to happen next. (Not to mention I was at the edge of the seat during the more intense chase scenes.)

This sequel is set in year 2018 and it features a grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) and his struggle to lead humanity against Skynet and its fatal machines. It also tells the story of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a man that was sentenced to death back in year 2003, woke up fifteen years later and eventually found out that he was a hybrid between a human and a robot. Their paths later collided because Wright was saved by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) during his first encounter with a terminator; Connor, on the other hand, was on a mission to find his father, Kyle Reese, because if he dies on the hand of Skynet, Connor would not exist and therefore alter the future altogether. To prevent further confusion, it must be noted that it was not explicitly mentioned in this installment that Kyle Reese time traveled back to the past and conceived John Connor. (I dislike describing storylines that involve time travel. It’s always been my weakness so I apologize if it is in any way confusing or inaccurate.)

Being a summer blockbuster film or not, the visual and special effects are outstanding. In my head I kept thinking, “How did they even manage to shoot that?” and “Hey, that’s a neat stunt.” Throughout the entire picture, I really felt like I was watching the planet in ruins after Skynet took over. The post-apocalyptic feel reminded me of the best scenes from “Blade Runner” and “Children of Men.” As for the acting, I thought everyone did a really good job because they were convincing in their respective roles. However, Worthington was the one that stood out the most. I found it strange that I cared more about his character than Bale’s–the supposed main character. Even though Worthington was tough on the outside, there was a certain sensitivity in his eyes that reminded me of Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s style of acting in his most dramatic roles. Worthington embodied Marcus Wright so fully to the point where I was convinced that there was more to his story and that he’s not just a hybrid between a human and a robot. He almost made me wish that he was the focus of the story instead of John Connor. (And that’s probably not a good thing.) If he chooses to appear in films that are astute while at the same time able to feature his acting abilities, Worthington is definitely someone to look out for in the future.

For me, the main weakness of “Terminator Salvation” lies in its story. With such a big mythology set up by the first two films, this one felt considerably smaller in scope. The secondary problems that chip off from that primary issue include having too much action sequences, not having enough character development, not having enough comedic moments to let the film breathe, and sidelining John Connor’s importance. It’s nice to have exciting action scenes (and they undoubtedly do have that here) but it’s hard to care if there’s not enough moral conundrums facing characters who matter. It’s also suffocating if the tone of the picture is one-note–this one felt too serious for its own good, as if it was trying to be “The Dark Knight” when it was not even close to that level. What made the first two installment so great are the vibrant pockets of humor that were ultimately ingrained in the media consciousness. (Remember “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby”?) Lastly, John Connor did not feel as important as he should have been. Yes, I got that he was supposed to be leader and therefore supposed to be tough and commanding. And that’s the problem: I only saw him in that light and I wish McG, the director, established more scenes where we could ascertain another dimension of his personality.

There’s no doubt about it: I would recommend “Terminator Salvation.” However, I must urge people who have not yet seen the first three films (especially the first two) to catch up because there were references here and there that enhanced my viewing experience. If one had not seen the prior installments, one will most likely miss those or “not get it.” While I admit that this is far from a perfect post-apocalyptic adventure with subtle moral ambiguities, the positives outweigh the negatives as mentioned above. Perhaps if this series is to survive (and it most likely will), a more capable director and stronger writers could take over to truly blow die-hard fans and nondie-hard fans out of the water. In the meantime, “Terminator Salvation” will have to suffice.