Vox Lux (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those who take the film at face value would likely scratch their heads in confusion. Because, in a way, it is an exercise of extremes: the story opens with a terrifying school shooting in 1999, continues on as an intimate portrait of a fourteen-year-old who has no idea that she is about to become an international pop star, then it has the courage to jump seventeen years into the future and focus on a woman who is so broken, so commodified, we observe her concert performance and feel incredibly sad for her. We watch the main character first as a girl who could have gone on to become a respected—and respectable—artist, fully in control of her career and destiny, but instead she became a puppet in an industry that doesn’t really value her as a person or what she can offer. It values the money that she generates from her concerts, her album sales, her controversial image. In some ways, the picture is an unflinching look at modern celebrity. It made me thankful I am not under the scrutiny of the public eye. But “Vox Lux” is more than that.
Writer-director Brady Corbet creates a character study for the thoughtful viewer who appreciates irony. I enjoyed his approach of laying out pieces that may initially come across as too strange or awkward to be able to fit together (mass shootings, pop idols) and somehow, almost by sorcery, by the end of the tale these fragments make sense only when, or if, the audience manages to connect emotionally with each segment. Employing strong images, music—score and soundtrack—that demands attention, and pointed dialogue, it cannot be denied there is great confidence propelling the work. It is all the more impressive that it is only Corbet’s second feature; I very much look forward to what else he can offer. Even the presentation of the opening credits is inspired.
Natalie Portman plays the thirty-one-year-old Celeste. She is required to sing and dance, to be in control of ridiculous costumes, to wear heavy cosmetics and emote in every second of every frame. She must communicate that Celeste is a tragic figure and yet one who may not necessarily deserve our pity because, after all, she put herself in her current situation—drugs, booze, surrounding herself with toxic people but distancing herself from those who genuinely love and care for her—despite being a survivor of a school shooting. Without relying on obvious or tired tropes, I appreciated that the film is clear: One can be a victim of an event but the victim can choose not to feel victimized for the rest of her life.
At the same time, there is humor in the performance; Portman’s histrionics are best seen to be believed. As seasoned performers do, she milks every millisecond when the camera gets a glance of her face since each tiny opening is a chance to enrich the portrayal. I could tell she had put a lot of thought into the woman she is playing. Still, though, the melodrama fits the story being told and the character being explored. Celeste’s physical outer wounds may have healed, but in a way the real Celeste is suspended in time, in that particularly horrifying day. It is a wonderful performance, one Portman should be proud of, especially given the caliber or her already colorful filmography.
I admired the material’s willingness to take risks. First is in the casting of teen Celeste and Albertine, Celeste’s teenage daughter. Both are played by Raffey Cassidy which is genius because we get introduced to her version of Celeste first and then later as the protagonist’s daughter who is yearning for a true connection. By casting one actor for both roles, seeing the same face causes a ripple effect of implications, the sadness of the story all the more amplified. Second is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, particularly in how interiors of hotels, makeup stations, and backstages are captured so realistically. When it makes an uncommon pivot to images of landscapes, for example, it is like a slap in the face, a reminder of what’s important in truly being alive.
Captain Marvel (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
A third of the way through the picture, I couldn’t help but feel like an important ingredient is sorely lacking. The war between Kree and Skrulls is propelled with a high enough level of excitement, the special and visual effects are strong, and there is intrigue in how the events unfolding in 1995 may tie into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) eventually putting together Earth’s mightiest superheroes. The problem becomes tantalizingly clear when the picture hits its first important dramatic note. Given Brie Larson’s track record of independent dramas, she is most powerful as a performer when the scene is quiet and the camera is still—almost the polar opposite of an action film.
This does not mean Larson does not belong in the picture. In fact, I enjoyed her interpretation of Captain Marvel, who comes to know herself as Vers, a soldier of the Kree Empire, but has fragmented human memories as Carol Danvers. Despite a potentially confusing exposition, Larson has a way of making us care for our heroine not just as a superhero but also as a woman who feels incomplete due to being in the dark when it comes to her very own identity. Notice that for the first forty minutes or so, it is a challenge to invest emotionally into the material because there are far too many attempts at making jokes but not enough convincing dramatic gravity. It would have been such a breath of fresh air if “Captain Marvel,” written for the screen by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, had been a character drama first and an action picture second. Of course, this more inspired avenue would not rake in the big bucks.
Still, this Marvel outing is entertaining enough. I liked how chase scenes on Earth during the mid-90s are photographed and directed almost exactly as similar movies within the genre at the time—clichés included. There is a wonderful chemistry between Larson and Jackson which is necessary because their characters must forge a convincing friendship from the moment they meet at a payphone next to a Blockbuster video store until one of them must leave and travel to another galaxy. (The story’s timeline is about twenty to thirty five hours.) Danvers and Fury share a handful of amusing moments but not once do these come across as forced as bad buddy comedies.
Like many superhero films, this one, too, suffers from a lack of a strong villain with complex motivations. Observe that once Captain Marvel is able to reach her full potential, her enemies, including the main antagonist, are simply thrown about like rag dolls. Because they are no longer a threat, the bright colors, the bubbly soundtrack, and the acrobatics are reduced to an exercise of futility. I was bored by them and I was reminded of what I disliked immensely from “Wonder Woman”—we are handed action with not much context or purpose. It can feel like a waste of time.
Perhaps the most curious relationship is between Danvers and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Both were Air Force pilots and their few but valuable interactions suggest a deep history. The two sitting down and having a conversation can be more entertaining than the big, loud, and ostentatious action pieces. The reason is because, with the former, we know precisely what is at stake. There are times when it is easy to forget that we love or admire our superheroes not because of what they can do but rather who they are despite their powers or abilities, when they are unmasked, vulnerable, one of us.
Talented Mr. Ripley, The (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person. — Tom Ripley
Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a visually alluring, thematically complex, and airtight thriller that dares to put a heart inside of a monster—or at least an impression of a warm, beating thing that resembles an organ, a representation of what separates us from savages. It tells the story of a young man named Tom Ripley, a part-time pianist whose talent lies in impersonating people, preferably those born into money because he covets a luxurious lifestyle. Mistaken for a Princeton alumnus after a performance, a shipping tycoon (James Rebhorn) requests for Tom to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from Italy. Considering that all expenses are paid for, in addition to monetary reward if he were to complete the assignment, Tom quickly seizes the opportunity.
It is admirable that the screenplay does not rely on merely showing Tom as a killer. Doing so prevents the material from being reduced to another suspense-thriller or horror cliché. Instead, it pushes the envelope a bit further by daring to pull the viewer into considering the way Tom perceives himself as a poor, working-class nobody forcing himself to walk in the shoes of someone else, at times literally, that he perceives to be somebody, one who is loved, regarded, important. What results is an electrifying character study with tragic elements, mainly from the perspective of our antihero, until we realize that we have grown to care for a person whose very gift is deception. Tom has played us in addition to those around him. I applaud its courageous ending.
Casting Matt Damon to wear the skin of the charming and manipulative title character is a fruitful decision. Relying on boyish good looks is not enough for this role. Notice the performer’s control of varying levels of magnetism which is almost always directly tethered to how another person might be exploited for Tom’s benefit despite a veil of camaraderie or friendship. The screenplay supports the performer by being smart enough to blur the line between these ideas. It makes us question whether a sociopath like Tom is actually capable of forming genuine social contracts with others or whether people exist simply to either aid or prevent him from reaching his goals. And because Damon is excels at projecting minute emotions, especially feelings of hurt and betrayal, when the camera is up close, we end up empathizing with him even though we know that the character isn’t capable of empathy.
Supporting characters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, Sergio Rubini) are not mere lambs lining up to be slaughtered. They have distinct personalities, points of view, and lives to live. As they move in and out of the story, something about them is always changed the next time we encounter them. This creates an exciting experience because not only do we need to evaluate Tom whose motivations are consistently elusive, we, too, need to assess those around him based on what knowledges or suspicions they’ve acquired off-screen considering the fact that these characters share social circles. Making the characters intelligent, vivid, and life-like not only breathes a freshness to the film. It also provides genuine challenges for the main character. Tom must adapt. And sometimes it is actually amusing to see him squirm and trip over the details of his deceit. We wonder at which point his lies are going to catch up to him.
Tense at the right moments and surprisingly clever just when we are convinced the jig is up, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” offers a fascinating look at how a specific mind functions. While there is beauty and decadence behind exotic locales the characters see and experience, there is a darkness here that the material is willing to explore without relying on mere violence in order to induce dread or horror. Sometimes a friendly smile held too long is most telling.
Black Sea (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Robinson (Jude Law) is let go from his job despite having been with the company for more than a decade. Hoping to provide for his young son, Robinson accepts a job from a mysterious financial backer which involves searching for a German U-boat located ninety meters from the surface of the Black Sea, supposedly containing two tons of gold—worth at least eighty million dollars. Robinson’s condition: Half of the men in the submarine will be British and the other half Russian. Each one gets equal pay after the backer gets his share.
Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin Macdonald, “Black Sea” starts off promisingly because it is able to lay out its protagonist’s motivation leading up to his decision to take on a near-impossible task. However, once the characters are inside the submarine, the mystery and intrigue dissipate. Instead, there is a lot of arguing between the British and the Russians—which is not compelling because someone is either wrong or right. There is little gray and so the picture is reduced to a bore.
We learn close to nothing about the men in the submarine. Out of them all, I could name up to about three, if that, because the screenplay never gives each one a chance to say or do something important. I was reduced to assigning them names like “The One with the Beard” or “The Corpulent Russian Guy Who Grunts.” Although the material tries to tell a human story, especially when it tries to introduce the idea that the rich tend to prey upon the poor, the attempt is fleeting, marginal, and weak. The drama is not there to keep the film tense or at least superficially interesting.
The moments of danger lack a sense of urgency. Eventually, three characters end up in the dark waters with cliffs separating life and death. It is strange to watch because the camera seems stuck on having the camera about two to three feet away from the characters—five feet at most. Thus, we do not really get a sense of the danger and how insignificant the men are compared to the utter darkness surrounding them. The lack of perspective hinders the picture from becoming suspenseful or thrilling.
Although Law delivers a pretty good performance, so versatile when delivering strength and despair, the writing is so shallow and transparent that we can easily tell who will die or be killed next about two or three scenes prior to the fact. As a result, we go through the by-the-numbers dialogue and passively wait for an event that we know is going to happen soon. One gets the impression that this is a nervous filmmaker’s first-time foray into helming a dramatic suspense-thriller—not at all the case because this picture is from a filmmaker who made “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
“Black Sea” has very few redeeming qualities and so it is not worth sitting through two hours. The director’s cut of the excellent “Das Boot,” also taking place in a confined space, is three hours and thirty minutes long and that picture feels short compared to this one. Why? Because “Das Boot” commands what “Black Sea” lacks: a genuine sense of claustrophobia because every piece of item within the vessel looks and feels real, fascinating characters who are forced to make complicated choices, and their actions have such large rippling effects that we are exhausted—in a good way—by the trials they go through. My advice: Discover or revisit “Das Boot” instead.
Side Effects (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
A day after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison, Emily (Rooney Mara) decides to crash her car onto a brick wall. While at the hospital, she, relatively unscathed, is approached by a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law). Instead of hospitalizing Emily for an obvious suicide attempt, they make a deal: twice a week they are to meet and work on her depression. At first, she is prescribed SSRIs, an antidepressant, but it makes her physically sick. Word has it that a better, newer drug called Ablixa works wonders so she requests to be put on it. Initially, the drug works: she is happier, her sex drive is back, and it is easier for her to tackle every day tasks. However, the drug does not seem to be as miraculous as it is shown on the TV commercials.
At least the picture begins with a genuine air of intrigue. Events that leave up to Emily’s request to take the magical Ablixa are rooted in reality. There is something scary and true about people hearing about a certain pill from a friend of a friend’s and then deciding from there that she, too, wants to be on that drug without doing much research about it. I enjoyed that the director, Steven Soderbergh, not once shows us that Emily is capable of going to Google to learn more about the drug. This an important piece of the puzzle.
To complement Emily’s constant state of gloom, a foggy, yellow-orange color is largely utilized in the first half. It is so heavy, I noticed that its tone had an impact on me. I began to feel lethargic–but not bored–and anxious. Partner this technique with many close-ups of a woman who is suffering in the mind and body, it is easy to believe that the protagonist is depressed, that she really does need an antidepressant, a powerful one, to help her to function normally. If we do not believe in her state of affliction, the rest feels like playing dress up.
However, the events that transpire in the second half are less rooted in reality, a compilation of uninspired typical thriller elements. We are subjected to one twist after another. I suppose those who have not seen very many thrillers will find it “brilliant.” After all, not much time is given for us to digest a reversal prior to the next one. But to me, it is simply trying too hard to appear smarter than it really is. After the second or third twist, I did not care about the story any longer. Instead, I anticipated the next curveball, wondering if I could outsmart it. And I did. So I suppose it is, in a way, predictable.
The performances are solid all around. I especially enjoyed Law’s performance as a doctor who means well. There is an arrogance to Dr. Banks that the actor highlights only slightly, but it is there. Combined with his eventual state of desperation and fear of losing everything he has worked so hard to attain, we end up questioning his true motives. Meanwhile, Mara holds her own. At this point, I am used to seeing her playing mysterious characters so that spell she casts has become a product of diminishing returns. But it is Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily’s former psychiatrist, who piqued my interest most. She portrays her character like a wall, so cold and difficult to read.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, “Side Effects” might have been a better movie if its tone had adapted to its mood. The first half is serious and curious while the second half is devious and, in its core, silly. There is a heavy-handed self-seriousness throughout. As a result, only half of it works. We are not welcomed into taking pleasure from the delivery of the supposedly powerful left hooks.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law), also known as the Boogeyman, decides that it is time for children to start believing in him again. The last time his power had reached an unfathomable zenith was during the Dark Ages when everyone lived in fear. His resurgence, however, involves destroying children’s hopes and dreams which in turn fuel the powers of North (Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher), Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman. If children stop believing in them, the Guardians will cease to exist. To help them fight Pitch, the mysterious Man in the Moon appoints a new Guardian: Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the spirit of winter who hopes to recall the memory of his past life.
Based on the book series by William Joyce, “Rise of the Guardians” offers plenty of material to be enjoyed by both children and adults. Although the characters are based on fictional figures but are nonetheless a part of our cultures, the material is more child-like than childish, infusing a sense of wonder and genuine emotions in its story rather than resting on running evanescent and shallow gags.
Part of the fun is that our archetypes of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy are turned inside out. Because the way they look are so different from what we normally expect, the screenplay is one step ahead in engaging us. For example, we do not expect Santa Claus to have tattoos or the Easter Bunny to be a six-footer, tough-talking, boomerang-wielding warrior.
Their personalities, too, are turned upside down. Not all of them are immediately likable. Not all of them even get the chance to speak. I was impressed that the Sandman does not get a chance to utter a word and yet he is given so much personality. Throughout the course of the film, we learn to like some of the Guardians a little more since our first impression.
I found it difficult to find fault with its style of animation. Since it is has plenty of action sequences, the texture of the movements feel swift even if a character only walks from Point A to Point B. This fluidity allows the film to truly shine, for instance, when the Guardians use their superpowers to stop Pitch from executing his master plan.
But the picture is not only strong during the hyperkinetic action. The facial expressions of the characters perfectly match the emotions behind the voices. In terms of voice acting, Law excels in exuding real menace. The way Pitch slithers and goes on about his devious intentions correspond to the sliminess in Law’s voiceover.
There is a little boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) who is intent on holding onto the belief that the Guardians are real. Though cute, this is the weakest strand because the script at times verges on sentimentality. Perhaps the intention is to make the human element as simple as possible so that it will be more accessible to children. Either way, it did not work for me completely. The material is more enjoyable when it focuses on the dynamics among the Guardians and the clever little jokes aimed at them or each other.
Directed by Peter Ramsey, despite its sugary shortcomings, “Rise of the Guardians” is visually arresting and offers a story worth telling. Almost everything about it is delightful. It is difficult to imagine a child not dropping what he or she is doing and paying attention to it because there is so much energy behind the battles as well as during times when characters are required to speak.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Newspapers pegged anarchists as responsible for the recent bombings in Europe. Everyone was nervous that the bombings would eventually spin out of control and war among European nations would ensue. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) suspected foul play, believing that someone smarter and more cunning was behind the terrorist attacks. When not flirting with the beautiful Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a contract purloiner of all things important, Holmes served as a friendly thorn on Dr. John Watson’s (Jude Law) side, attempting to convince his friend that getting married was tantamount to a lifelong enslavement. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, was a movie so intent to impress, it almost won me over despite its clunky plot and distracting–although at times impressive–technical gadgetry. What prevented me from being fully immersed in the film was catching myself sitting passively waiting for something really interesting to happen. Although twists and turns were abound, each successive surprise suffered from diminishing returns. At one point I wondered what other type of tricks it had, if any, in its bag. There were two well-executed scenes that matched the material’s ambition. First, the train scene in which Holmes and Dr. Watson had to escape from assassins sent by Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) wielded a certain level of suspense mixed with glee. Of course, given that the train had a lot of small spaces, the script capitalized on the weird sexual chemistry between the duo–some angles taken from typical pornographic positions–which I found hilarious. Second, the chase scene through the woods as Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortuneteller, evaded bullets, cannonballs, and rockets was quite inspired. I found it a standout because the slow motion highlighted the artistry of the action scene instead of merely bombarding the audience with quick cuts. It was interesting to see certain images like how a bullet scraped a tree and how loamy soil fell onto the characters after a cannonball hit the ground with great force. The scene was a nice change from boring hand-to-hand combat where choppy editing met a vague semblance of martial arts. Why wasn’t uninterrupted physical combat shown more often? Furthermore, the flashback scenes were as ineffective as the sequences where Holmes weighed how a battle would play out. By allowing us to see what would or could happen next before it actually happened, the filmmakers left no tension for us to bathe in. Both the flashbacks and fast-forwards were not used as astutely–in this case, far from sparingly–it should have in order to increase the drama. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the biggest problem that “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” suffered from was although it had a lot of fun on the outside, it needed to work on real emotions so the audiences would be more invested in whatever was going on. Since it failed to inject gravity into more serious moments, when a key character died, for instance, it felt like a mere plot convenience than a genuine loss of a character some of us have grown to like.
★★★ / ★★★★
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.
★★★ / ★★★★
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Gattaca” took place in a time where designer babies were the norm (known as “Valids”) and were expected to live nothing short of their potential. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was a special case because even though he was not genetically engineered, he found a way to pass as one with the help of a recently crippled Valid named Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Vincent claimed Jerome’s identity so he could work for Gattaca and reach his dreams of exploring outer space. Meanwhile, a murder in the company led the cops (Loren Dean, Alan Arkin) to find Vincent because of an eyelash they found in the scene of the crime. Vincent, as Jerome, had to evade the authorities and balance his time with a co-worker (Uma Thurman) he fell in love with. I watched this movie for the first time when I was a freshman in high school Biology. I remember generally liking it but I did not love it because I was basically forced to sit down and watch it. Having grown up a bit and given it a second chance, I immediately fell in love with the film because the main character had so much conviction. I looked in his eyes and I saw pain–pain for not being conceived as “perfect” and for not being loved as much as his brother. I related to him because he felt like he had so much to prove to the point where it almost destroyed him. The picture could have been a typical science fiction project–too cerebral for its own good and almost insular in its approach. However, “Gattaca” was really more about the emotional struggle of a character so brought down by society (even his father told him the closest he would get to reaching his dreams was to become a custodian for Gattaca) that he would do asolutely anything to prove them wrong. One of the many things I loved about the movie was it boldly took its argument regarding nature versus nurture in relation to being successful a step further. It also was able to comment on the role of the kindness of other people and the right timing of events that could help to pave a new path for a person with a specific circumstance. I thought it was a powerful contrast against things that were very controlled such as aformentioned genetically engineered babies where parents could pick the physical attributes of their future child. If I were to nitpick on a weakness, there were times when the romance between Hawke and Thurman became borderline cheesy with the two of them giving each other a piece of their own hair as a test to determine if they trusted each other. Neverthless, those scenes were negated by a consistently beautiful cinematography with its use of color indoors and outdoors. “Gattaca,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is not only one of the most astute science fiction films but also one of the most moving. The film is set in the future and the issues are more relevant than ever but it’s quite timeless.
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” stars Christopher Plummer as the title character who won a bet against the devil (Tom Waits) and gained immortality. About a thousand years later, Doctor Parnassus now with a daughter (Lily Cole), the devil came back to make another deal. That is, whoever seduced five souls into entering a magical mirror and making certain decisions would win and ultimately keep the girl. Quirky characters played by Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer and Heath Ledger (with a mysterious past) were a part of Dr. Parnassus’ traveling performers. I thought this was a particularly challenging film to watch because the fantastic elements mixed with playing around with time and malleable loyalties of characters were difficult to keep track in one sitting. Added on top of it all was Ledger’s untimely death so Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell had to come in and fill in his shoes whenever Ledger entered the cryptic mirror. While the three did a good job across the board, I thought none of them could match the intensity and fluidity that Ledger put on the table. The visuals were a sight to behold but sometimes the picture got too carried away with the images where it took some power away from the story. I thought the movie functioned best when the story was at the forefront and the visuals were used as an aid to make the players realize something within themselves. For instance, I thought one of the most effective scenes in the movie was when Depp lured a rich lady into stepping onto a boat to meet her fate. There was something about it that was so poetic–almost touching–but at the same time creepy because of the anticipation of what would happen to her next. When the story and the images worked together, the project had me in a vicegrip. Unfortunately, exemplary scenes like that came few and far between. Another problem I had was only toward the end did we get to see what lengths Dr. Parnassus would go through to save his daughter. Most of the time, he was just in the background drinking like there’s no tomorrow while the movie focused on Ledger’s past. I was less interested in the mysterious stranger’s past. I actually wanted to know more about the man who lived for a thousand years and the many things he had to go through and only to meet the devil again at the most inopportune time. In a nutshell, the lead character needed more dimension by means of a more focused writing. Imagination is something that “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam, did not lack. However, the execution was ultimately weak and I felt like it could have been so much darker. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake of this film twenty or thirty years from now because the elements of a great film were certainly there. It’s just that circumstances prevented it from reaching great heights.
Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.
Repo Men (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star as former childhood enemies whose job was to extract vital organs from people’s bodies when they fell behind on their payment plans. But after Law was involved in an accident during a job, his boss (Liev Schreiber) didn’t waste a second to get Law to sign a document so he could get an artificial heart. Only then did Law began to sympathize with the people he decided to shock into temporary paralysis and cut open without remorse. I liked this movie in parts but not as a whole. I thought the second half of the movie was much stronger than the first because it eventually didn’t second-guess itself in delivering the action, blood and violence. The first part of the movie felt a little bit forced; not for one second did I believe Law and Whitaker as colleagues let alone friends. I also thought that the scenes with the Law’s wife and son were a bit redundant and if I were to disregard those scenes altogether, the overall product would have been the same. In other words, the director (Miguel Sapochnick) wasn’t quite efficient in terms of time, which scenes were really important and which others needed to be taken out. Although the movie had some nice ideas splattered throughout, none of them were fully realized because the characters were not fully developed. Since it lacked character development, it was difficult for me to read their beliefs despite what they portrayed on the outside and their specific motivations. Just when I thought it was about to dive deeper into its characters, the scene would have a drastic change of tone and it took me out of the moment. I wished that it had taken one route instead of trying to balance thoughtfulness (comparable to “Gattaca”) and pure escapism (comparable to “From Paris with Love” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”). Instead of me enjoying the picture as a whole, I liked specific scenes such as Law trying to sneak into his former workplace, scenes that involved bloody surgeries, the white room, the battle to the pink room, and the final scene that (admittedly) took me by surprise. Overall, it made me think whether I enjoyed the movie despite its flaws or whether I enjoyed it because of its potential to be great. It had a great setting because it looked futuristic but not so far off that it was completely unbelievable. In some ways, it reminded me of post-apocalyptic films like “Children of Men.” Perhaps with a better writing and more focused direction, “Repo Men” would have had more punch to match its ambition.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Lionel Wigram’s comic books, “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Guy Ritchie, was an underwhelming experience because it was very confusing at its worst and only somewhat exciting at its best. Unlike most people, I didn’t mind the “upgrade” from the traditional Sherlock Holmes. Holmes in this film was a sleuth who was extremely observant, logical and knew martial arts. In fact, I welcomed such a change because I like watching different interpretations of characters embedded in our pop culture. In “Sherlock Holmes,” the popular detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law) investigated the strange murders Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) promised would happen right before his death. Was something supernatural going on or was there a logical explanation to all of it? To make things more complicated, Holmes’ former love interest (Rachel McAdams) came into the picture with tricks up her sleeve and loyalties that were even harder to read. I didn’t like the fact that all the explanations were given to the audiences toward the end of the film. It would have been so much more engaging and less confusing if Holmes shared what he was thinking from time to time instead of just trying to be funny or getting under Watson’s nerves. After all, despite the modern interpretation, his core character should have been a detective first and perhaps a comedian second (or fifth). While Downey Jr. and Law did have good chemistry, it wasn’t enough for the movie to feel concrete as we headed toward the climax. I also didn’t feel like they had a really strong bond–like they complemented each other. The picture was too busy shaping the action sequences (which I found entertaining) that it neglected (or didn’t care about) character development. However, in a way, I kind of expected it because Ritchie’s films are usually heavy on style and light on substance (“RocknRolla,” “Snatch”). Still, I hoped that he would strive for something more as a filmmaker instead of resting on what he already knew. The picture also could have used another dimension by standing on the line between logic and magic throughout most of the film. When the answer is too obvious, it’s difficult to feel engaged. “Sherlock Holmes” isn’t a bad movie but it is a generic one. That’s my main problem with it. If you’re going to take a really popular character and change it drastically, you’re going to have to be willing to push the envelope all the way instead of just halfway through. Perhaps the sequel will do a better job with taking risks because the cast and crew will be more comfortable in their respective roles. (Or at least they should be because this installment was a success in the box office.) It needs to stop trying to be so amusing and focus on the detective work at hand without confusing and alienating their viewers.