Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)
Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.
Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.
The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.
Great Gatsby, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Young and ambitious Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who studied in Yale University with hopes of becoming a writer, moves to New York in the 1922 and snags a job in Wall Street selling bonds. He lives in West Egg, right next to a mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), known for throwing a lavish party every weekend—one that is open to the public, attended by who’s who of the city. And yet although people clamor to the estate by the end of the week, no one really knows Gatsby: his background, how he really looks like, why he hosts a party every weekend, not even where his money comes from.
“The Great Gatsby,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is easy on the eyes and it offers real emotions on screen. Despite this, however, the movie is not a compelling watch, only superficially entertaining because there is always something to look at and the performers are good in their roles. One cannot help but feel like there is a disconnect between the source material and the way it is being translated on screen.
Others might find the anachronistic music to be quite off-putting. I liked it. The contrast between the Roaring Twenties and modern hip-hop and R&B creates a sentiment that while the parties are grand and everybody appears to be having a wonderful time, the charade remains temporary and superficial. The images and music function as a mask just like how Gatsby feels that he must put on a front in order to be equal to what he thinks a respectable man is like.
I found the romantic angle to be forced and, for the most part, tedious and unconvincing. While the screenwriters, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, can only divert so much from the novel, I felt as though the conflict involving married people having or thinking about having affairs is not modern enough to be intriguing. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan play Tom and Daisy Buchanan, respectively, the latter being Gatsby’s former lover, and both deliver what is necessary for the role, but there is no spice or much flavor in the twists and turns in their romantic entanglements.
Things get back on track, however, when the picture turns its attention somewhat on Nick and Gatsby’s friendship. It is interesting because when I read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, I was convinced that Nick was a closet homosexual. (But it is not really the kind of thing one brings up in class… at least at the time.) The little nuggets are found in the way he describes Gatsby, almost glorifying him at times, versus the manner in which he is almost apathetic toward women. Elements of one-sided admiration, possibly romantic in nature, are present but neither prolific nor defined enough to establish a theme.
The film might have been more intriguing if it had embraced extremes. The middle portion is a slog at times and the latter section quite dull despite the supposed dramatic events that transpire. In the end, I found myself detached from the emotions and circumstances that the characters are going through.
I think people who are likely to enjoy “The Great Gatsby” most are those who have an eye for exquisite clothing. Certainly I noticed how the characters’ attires are inspired by the 1920s but there is almost always a modern to twist to them, whether it be certain patterns on a man’s tie or the sorts of accessories a woman wears to a party. It is predominantly a visual film. It is not for those who hope to be moved emotionally or be inspired to think critically.
Revenant, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Revenant,” directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is so headstrong in maintaining its high level of realism that at times it feels like we are watching a most captivating nature documentary about a man attempting to survive in the harshest wilderness. In many ways, it is a brave picture, too, because it is unrelenting when it comes to taking its time to follow a character getting from one point to another, how he relates to his environment, and how the thirst for revenge keeps him alive. And yet while the plot is driven by one man’s vengeance, it is not what the movie is about.
Following a most gruesome bear attack, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a trapper, is unable to move, bloodied, verging on death. Although his team tries to take him home, carrying him creates limitations that prevent the group from moving forward. Convinced that there is no other option, the captain of their party (Domhnall Gleeson) asks three to volunteer and stay behind until Glass is dead. In addition, Glass must receive a proper burial. Two boys—Jim (Will Poulter) and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the latter Glass’ half-Native American son—and a man named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agree to take on the responsibility. However, a misunderstanding occurs which leads to Hawk’s murder and Glass being left for dead.
A scene that will be seared in my brain for a while is the aforementioned bear attack. Already impressive is it appears as though the scene is shot in one smooth take. On top of it is the actual bear used in the scene. Through the way it moves from the back of the frame to the front, we get a real impression of its size. The sound effects of distinct thuds give us an idea of its weight relative to its prey. I watched in complete horror as the protagonist is mauled, thrown around, and bit. The screams of the man, the deep angry growls of the animal, and the silence that settles in between the savage attacks create an unforgettable experience.
DiCaprio offers a strong performance. Because he does not have very many lines, most of the time he is required to communicate using only his body, face, and eyes. Even more impressive are moments when his entire body is covered and what can be seen is only his face. His character does not undergo an expected arc—and in a film of such high caliber as this, such a predictability is a hindrance.
I argue that more important is the fact that the performer almost takes on the spirit of the animal that tried to kill Glass. Notice the way he moves following the attack. He crawls, limps, grunts, and is consistently covered in grime. Look at his item of clothing, the way he eats raw fish, and the manner in which he is hunted by the Indians. DiCaprio captures the barbaric animalism that is required of his character to survive in the deep forest.
Based in part on Michael Punke’s novel and screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant,” dreary and devoid of humor but not little ironies, may not appeal to the general public because it leans toward creating a realistic experience rather than easily digestible entertainment, but it is a piece of work that packs undeniable beauty and power. It is, however, for audiences who like to be challenged and to see the medium expand into a territory outside the traditional.
Wolf of Wall Street, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Black Monday sends Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spinning back to square one. Having been hired in a Wall Street firm, he thought he had it made. And just like that—it appears as though his dream of making it rich has been squashed. But Jordan does not give up easily. He accepts a job working with penny stocks and it ends up being a success. Though his occupation involves taking money away of the investors, mostly people who do not have a lot of experience when it comes to stocks, an addiction needs to be fed and money is a great motivator. Soon, Jordan has his own company and he earns more than enough money than he knows what to do with.
Confession: I know next to nothing about stocks, investments, and Wall Street. Going into the film, I was not even aware that Jordan Belfort was a real person. Based on the subject’s memoir and adapted to the screen by Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining dark comedy that benefits most from high energy direction by Martin Scorsese and a powerhouse performance by DiCaprio. Still, it is about an hour too long.
The picture is at its strongest when it traces Belfort’s humble beginnings. Seeing him without the drugs, the mansion, the yacht, and the prostitutes reminds us that although he will turn into a most unprincipled scam artist eventually, there is a recognizable person there. Here is a young man who is tired of being poor and who has dared to dream big. He is only an arm’s length away from what he has always wanted and nothing—not even the basic idea of right and wrong—can stop him.
The FBI subplot, the investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), takes too long to get into full gear. About an hour in, we see a glimpse of the FBI agent and then he is never seen again for what it feels like another hour. As a result, suspense does not build. In the meantime, repetitive images of excess parade the screen. While I admired the nice watches and jewelry, beautiful interiors of the house, the Ferrari, and the like, I began to wonder when the film was finally going to move forward. This is a strange Scorsese picture in that it is highly energetic but it is not efficient. There is a difference between providing specifics and being mired in them.
I found the supporting performances to be quite bland. With the exception of Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man and McConaughey as Belfort’s short-lived boss, everyone else either relies on a quirk to stand out or does not bother to be memorable at all. The members of the latter group appear, say some lines and are forgotten until they are once again required to speak. Is a statement being made? Are the exciting characters exciting only because they are up to their eyeballs on drugs? Or is it that the performances are not carefully modulated?
There are certainly some elements to be enjoyed in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—mainly a few scenes depicting excess and debauchery, seeing DiCaprio having a ball with his character—but the film lacks dramatic depth. It feels too much like a music video at times. With a running time of three hours, rising just a bit above mediocrity is inexcusable.
Marvin’s Room (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bessie (Diane Keaton) and Lee (Meryl Streep) are sisters who have not seen each other in twenty years. Lee lives in Ohio with her two sons, Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino), and about to get her Cosmetology degree. Hank recently burned the house down and is commanded by the state to seek help in a mental institution. Meanwhile, Bessie lives in Florida with Marvin (Hume Cronyn), her bedridden father, and Ruth (Gwen Verdon), her aunt who is obsessed with a soap opera.
The estranged sisters are going to meet for the first time in two decades because Bessie is informed by her doctor (Robert De Niro) that she has leukemia. She needs one of her close relatives as a possible donor for bone marrow transplant. Bessie might be a candidate.
Directed by Jerry Zacks, “Marvin’s Room” is a melodrama that does not shy away from realities of being with family–the good, the bad, and the not-so-pretty. While the cancer is a scary, sad, and grim diagnosis, the screenplay ensures that the material is first and foremost about the people who must deal with the cards they have been handed. The choices they will have to make is not always going to be easy or clean.
I admired the mother-son dynamic because it does not let anybody off the hook. Lee is not exactly a mother who likes to cuddle with her kids and throw compliments for big or small accomplishments so maybe Hank has reasons to be defiant as a way to get any kind of attention. On the other hand, it is unfair of Hank, despite being only seventeen, to assume that his mother is able read his mind. He wants to know more about his biological father but he has too much pride to bother when to ask the right questions. Over time, we are made to see that the mother and son clash because they are so alike.
The relationships are dealt with proper dosages of honesty and awkwardness, resentment and pain. When the sisters lay eyes on each other for the first time in years, they seem happy, energetic, and even excited. While there is a semblance of truth in their initial reactions, we suspect they will not last. There is a reason, or reasons, they stayed away from each other for so long. It is only a matter of time until they are reminded of it.
At times, however, the picture, based on the play and screenplay by Scott McPherson, comes off a bit overwritten. Symbolisms on top of big revelations are a bit much. For instance, when Lee feels she has no choice but to tell her son the truth about his father, the confrontation happens in a Disney store in Disney World. Hank has constructed a fantasy of his father. His strong feelings for the man is similar to how most of us feel might feel about Disney and our childhood.
In general, tearjerkers have a negative reputation. Too many are not above resulting to manipulation in order to get a point across. But when done right, as the case here, the human element precedes the machinations of the plot. We are reminded of comparable situations that happened in our lives and how we treated those closest to us.
Django Unchained (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist, approaches a group of slave traders and expresses his intention of possibly purchasing one of the chained men in line. Since he is greeted with animosity, what could have been a peaceful transaction turns deadly. But Dr. Schultz, a man of his word, does not neglect to pay the seller, on the ground and under excruciating pain for being shot in the leg, for the black man he just bought. Later, he tells Django (Jamie Foxx) that he is a bounty hunter. They make a deal: if Django helps Dr. Schultz track down three men, believed to be hiding in one of the plantations in the south, and help to kill them, Dr. Schultz will not only give Django his freedom, he will also earn twenty-five dollars for each corpse.
Perhaps the most notable quality of “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is its generosity when it comes to weaving subplots into its bones. This creates a narrative that inspires us to wonder how they will unspool and reconnect.
There are many elements in the screenplay that may be worth a second look in order to further appreciate its craft, like hybridizing the western and blaxploitation genres to create a farce out of the racism in mid-nineteenth century America, but what I am sure about is that the film would have been better if it had been shorter. This is because not all of the subplots unwind in consistently interesting or surprising ways. Most start off exciting but almost all eventually lose vigor. For instance, the scenes that comprise about half the picture often have one premise: the stupidity of a white person who ardently supports slavery. The scene with the Klu Klux Klan quickly comes to mind. Although the humor underneath the punches, some blood-soaked in irony, is present, I could not help but wonder when or if the material would change gears. I grew increasingly tired of the setup and as the film went on, some of the jokes that have been used are recycled.
I enjoyed that the dialogue is not as ostentatious as one would come to expect from Tarantino. Instead of the sentences demanding us to pay attention to a carefully chosen word and how it is used as, say, a double entendre, the actors’ performances outshine the script. If this had not been the case, the exchanges between Dr. Schultz and Django might not have communicated a friendship that we could believe and invest in despite the most unlikely circumstances that surround them. Times when the two main characters–a white man and a black man–are quiet or making a real connection by telling each other more about themselves are, surprisingly, the most memorable moments because the material taps into the simmering sadness and outrage of the scar that continues to define America.
The hyper-stylized violence also works but maybe not in a way one would come to expect. Sadly, a lot of people have the tendency to relate to violence on screen more than scenes of two people connecting to one another through simple conversations. The gun battles are dispersed and I think the writer-director is very smart to have employed such a technique to get people to care more deeply about what is happening. While I would have preferred that the violence be saved at end of the picture to serve as a catharsis, it is understandable why the bloodshed may feel to occur very randomly at times.
I did not find “Django Unchained” especially entertaining but I appreciated its visual artistry and carefully measured yet outwardly wild performances. Although it can be interpreted as a straight arrow revenge story, we can look at it another way and think about issues it wishes to address underneath the amalgamation of anachronisms.
J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew of treasure hunters found a safe under the wreckage of RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that perished, along with about 1,500 people, on April 15, 1912 while on its way to America. They expected the safe contain a diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean, but what they found instead was a drawing of a topless woman wearing the jewel of interest. Rose (Gloria Stuart) saw the drawing on television and called Lovett to inquire about the artifacts. Rose, as it turned out, was one of the survivors of the doomed voyage. Written and directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” was a great achievement because it was able to transport its audience to a time that was and allowed us to experience what could have happened on that ship as the ocean slowly, then quickly, swallowed it whole. One of the most engaging scenes, perhaps only about minute long, was when one of Lovett’s crew explained the physics in terms of how, after hitting an iceberg, the iron giant began to sink and why it broke the way it did. By giving us a picture using images on a computer, we had an idea of what to expect. Yet when it actually started to happen, the suspense and thrill reached an apogee and wouldn’t let go. The manner in which the picture switched from silence, to musicians playing joyful music in order to distract the passengers from reaching total panic, to the angelic hymns of the score made the images of people falling and jumping off the ship, out of fear and desperation, haunting and exhausting. It’s difficult to forget, once the ship was completely submerged, the sounds of people crying, screaming, splashing, and begging the lifeboats, most having plenty of space, to come back turn into complete silence. Cut to sea of corpses floating on freezing water. The heart of the picture was the romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet). Jack won his tickets to Titanic on a last-minute poker game. Along with a friend (Danny Nucci), the two were ecstatic for the epic journey. Rose, on the other hand, was incredibly unhappy because she was to marry Cal (Billy Zane), a pompous, boring, and self-important son of a steel tycoon. While most people tend to blame the romance for being the picture’s Achilles’ heel, I thought DiCaprio and Winslet had a winsome chemistry, benefiting from classic stories of a young man and woman torn by a demarcation of class and disapproving authorities. The dinner scene when Jack was invited to sit with Rose’s rich and snobbish company was a turning point for the two lovers. Despite pointed comments by Rose’s fiancé and mother (Frances Fisher), Jack proved that was comfortable with who he was and what he could offer. Rose looked at him like he was the richest and most desirable man in the room, the way we perhaps tend to do when we’re convinced that a person is exactly right for us. The script needed less cornball lines but they weren’t egregious enough to distract from the collective experience. “Titanic” was very extravagant. From Rose’s stylish clothes to the intricate designs of the ships’ doors and spacious private rooms, one could argue that the lavishness was necessary, even required, in order to highlight the horrors of destruction and lives being taken.
★★ / ★★★★
A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tetro” was about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his short stop in Buenos Aires to visit his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The two have been apart for a very long time because Tetro decided to cut himself off from his family since their father hated the fact that his son wanted to be a writer instead of pursuing a career in medicine. I tried to really love this movie because all of the elements were there to make a really great picture. In the end, although it more than satisfied me, it didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I thought it would. I loved the two lead actors because they had contrasting styles in terms of approaching their characters. Gallo was rough around the edges and it was difficult to relate with his character. However, he eventually opened his character to us and even though we didn’t always agree with his choices, we came realize why he decided to take certain paths. Ehrenreich was more sweet and relatable. He instilled a certain hunger within his character–a hunger to get to know his brother more despite the fact that his brother always kept him at arm’s length. Deep inside, he knew that it was his brother’s destiny to live a tortured life of unfulfilled genius. Still, he hoped that he could bring his brother home and attempt at a life of normalcy. Since the brothers were so different, there was often tension between them and I was riveted because I saw myself and my own brother in the two characters. Written and directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the emotional gravity matched the film’s artistic flourishes. I loved that the film’s present time was in stunning black and white and the past was in color. The way Coppola played with the shadows complemented certain secrets and unsaid thoughts of the characters. The scenes in color highlighted important events in Tetro’s life that made him the way he is. The majority of this film was carefully planned and executed with such flow and beauty. But in the end, it left me wanting more. It’s strange because I’m not quite sure how else it could have been done better. Perhaps a longer running time would have taken the movie to a next level so the characters had more time to absorb certain truths about each other. On the other hand, I thought it ended in such an elegant manner and it didn’t need to explore further because the rest of the film was about the evolution of the brothers’ strained relationship. Maybe I’m just being way too critical because, as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to love the movie. “Tetro” is definitely worth watching because of its insight, nice balance of naturalistic and stylized tones, and strong acting. I’ve read some reviews comparing Ehrenreich to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. At first I didn’t quite see it but the more I observed his style of acting–especially body movements and intonations–the more apparent the resemblance. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him because he has potential to be a great actor.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Far from Heaven (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” was set in the 1950s somewhere in the suburbs of Connecticut. Julianne Moore played a housewife who had to deal with two big problems: her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) affair with another man and the community’s distaste in relation to her friendship with an African-American (Dennis Haysbert). Moore played her character with some composure yet remain very complex which was reflected on how she acted when society was peering over her shoulder and when she was with someone who she truly trusted. For me, Moore carried this film all the way through and if I did not feel as connected with her, I probably would have been more unforgiving with this picture because it did at times borderline the Lifetime route. I loved the way the film highlighted the vibrant colors of the houses, the decorations and the clothing yet the script was about the hatred of one’s self and most of society’s passive agreement to inequality. I also loved the fact that even though Quaid was a homosexual struggling to come out of the closet, I didn’t sympathize with him because of the way he used his wife as a crutch time and again and dismissed his children when they enthusiastically greeted him from a long day’s work. There was something about him that I thought was just ugly and selfish. Despite his hardship, the way he treated others was uncalled for. Violas Davis played the housekeeper and I wished they used her more because she really made the best of the scenes she was in. There was something very warm about her and I wanted to get to know her character more. The same goes for Patricia Clarkson as Moore’s best friend and confidante. The element that prevented me from loving this picture was its inconsistent pacing. The first and last twenty minutes were fascinating but the story somewhat dragged on in the middle. Deep in the film, the moments I enjoyed most were when Moore and Quaid really showed their range in acting by arguing not in an in-your-face manner like in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” but in a quiet, almost maddeningly suffocating way to the point where you just wanted to scream for the characters. After all, it was the 1950s and everybody had this idea of perfection regarding how to be a “proper” family in the judging eyes of others, how to act like a “proper” wife, and how to act like a “proper” friend. Half-way through the film, I started realizing that I would never have survived in the 1950s because everything was just so repressed. That’s why I think this film ultimately succeeded: it managed to capture that era not just in terms of clothing and set design but, most importantly, the varying mindsets of its characters.
Shutter Island (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the ominous trailer for “Shutter Island” for the first time back in early to mid 2009, I immediately knew I had to see it. But even I have to admit that I lost a little bit of confidence in the movie because its release kept getting pushed back. Usually, that is a sign that the studios are not very confident about the project so they pick a month where there is not a lot of competition. Well, I should have followed my original instincts because the legendary Martin Scorcese (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “GoodFellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets”) delivered yet again. Leonardo DiCaprio stars Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), was assigned to investigate an island which harbored a sinister mental hospital because a patient recently escaped from the facility. The two head doctors (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow) seemed to be compliant initially but the lead character knew that they were hiding something terrible and it had something to do with maltreatment of the mental patients.
Since I have seen most of Scorcese’s pictures, I knew that this was not going to be a typical mystery-thriller. Right from the get-go, Scorcese established one of his themes. That is, DiCaprio’s fear of the water (perhaps a symbolism for life or rebirth) while he and his partner were on a boat on the way to the mysterious island. On the boat, Teddy stated that his family was gone and what killed his wife (Michelle Williams) and child was the smoke and not the fire. I thought that was a particularly important line because there was a lot of smoke–deception–happening in this film but it is not the kind of deception that cheats because in the end it offers us a logical explanation–the fire–yet at the same time it is ultimately up to us to determine what is real and what isn’t. In other words, Scorcese successfully blurred the line between fantasy and actuality, which could have been a total mess if the material had been steered by a less capable director. One of the many things I loved about this film was its confidence in switching back and forth among the present (the investigation), the past (Teddy’s traumatizing experiences in World War II) and the fantasy (having visions and dreams of his family). The quick cuts to horrific images (which sometimes lingered both on screen and in our minds) and the menacing mental facility reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining.” And like that particular film, I think “Shutter Island” can be a difficult to swallow in one sitting because there was a plethora of information presented to us often in one scene. The twists within a twist were fun but they can get confusing if one tries to analyze every single detail in order to find that “one” flaw. But I think that’s the beauty of this film: it is about a man who is in place where the fractured mind is king and none of it has to make sense (but it does and that’s why I’m very impressed).
I also admired the supporting actors such as Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine and Jackie Earle Haley. Even though they did not have much screen time, each of them injected something unique to their characters and it elevated the film. One of my many favorite scenes (and I think one of the most important) was with Clarkson after DiCaprio stumbled upon a terrible incident. I think the picture as a whole reeks of intelligence but I thought that scene was particularly astute because it managed to touch upon specific areas of the history of psychological practices that many people might not know about. I love disorders of the mind (the reason why I took a second concentration along with Biological Sciences) and that is why I love watching psychological thrillers. I feel so much joy applying the things I’ve learned in the university to films and getting a chance evaluate whether the scripts match what my professors had taught me. What’s more impressive to me is that this movie even captured that stigma that we easily put on mental patients: that they’re really scary because of the way they look, that they’re always going to be crazy even if they’re supposedly cured, and the lack of realization on our part that, when it comes to people with mental problems, the irrational behavior is separate from the person.
With all of that said, “Shutter Island” is my pick as the first great film of 2010. After the rollercoaster of emotions and mind-bending situations that the film put me through, I’m very interested in reading Dennis Lehane’s (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) book of the same name. The movie is approximately two and hours and twenty minutes long but it’s two hours and twenty minutes rich of a complex storytelling, a haunting soundtrack and an exploration of what can or should be trusted. Most importantly, it is an exercise in how powerful one’s vision can be if one approaches it with a balance of intellect and confidence.
Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.