★★ / ★★★★
Dr. John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), Professor of Literature, was invited by the Nazis to write a paper for them about the ethics and humanity of euthanasia not because he had the proper medical background but because they were impressed with his novel which was based on fiction. Because he wanted to advance his career, he accepted an invitation to become an honorary member of the Nazi party despite the fact that he didn’t believe in their ideals. This caused great tension between the professor and his Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs) who became increasingly desperate to leave the country. Mortensen did a wonderful job portraying a complete coward of a man. He was a classic case of a weak boy so seduced by power, he was willing to change everything he stood for just so he could have a taste of it. I detested his choices. He abandoned his wife (Anastasia Hille) and children for one of his students (Jodie Whittaker), irresponsibly left his mother–who everyone thought was suffering from tuberculosis at the time because Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t yet understood–to live by herself, and lacked a sense of loyalty toward his closest friend. I didn’t necessarily detest the man but I wanted to shake some sense into him. However, I wish C.P. Taylor and John Wrathall, the writers, made a clearer case as to why this man’s story had to be told. Vicente Amorim, the director, wasn’t given much to work with; he certainly tried to paint a portrait of a very confused and misguided man, but his attempt didn’t quite capture the reason what made this man’s story so special. Yes, in crucial times of war, people were often driven to do things they wouldn’t normally do, but I couldn’t help but feel like that should only be the surface. There was a redemption arc toward the end but it felt forced and borderline preachy. As Halder became a bigger part of the Nazi party, he began to have auditory and visual hallucinations about people singing to him. It was a symbol of his guilt, maybe byproducts of the warring levels of his psyche. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the hallucinations didn’t arrive at the most inopportune times. They broke the tension instead of helping to increase its momentum. “Good” did not need to have a character we could necessarily root for because I knew the filmmakers wanted to create a cautionary tale. A character could be morally compromised yet we could still learn from his or her mistakes. But it needed to have a defined core as to what made Halder’s story unique. Good acting and direction is for naught if basic building blocks are missing. Taylor and Wrathall’s work may have worked as a play but its full power failed to translate on screen.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first five minutes of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” written and directed by J Blakeson, observed from a distance how two men prepared to kidnap an unsuspecting Alice (Gemma Arterton). I immediately thought there was something strange with how the kidnappers paid particular attention in preparing the woman’s bed. Did they want her to feel comfortable so they would feel less guilt? Did they personally know her? Were they doing it for the money or was it simply to hurt someone who was close to her? Vic (Eddie Marsan) was the more methodical of the two criminals. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve them. Danny (Martin Compston), on the other hand, seemed to follow orders without question. What I found most impressive about the film was I didn’t care much about Alice (or whether she would make it out alive) yet I was always fascinated with what was happening. For me, the driving force of the picture was Danny and Vic’s complicated and volatile relationship. When Danny’s loyalty began to stray, there was an unrelenting tension because we knew that Vic was very intelligent and much more dangerous. Vic was huge in stature, had a booming voice, and his calculating nature made him a predator. Danny was a bit lanky, inclined to whisper, and his transparent lies made me wince. He was under Vic’s control and I desperately wanted him to untangle himself. But how could he when he was stuck in the apartment as much as the victim? In a way, he was also a prisoner. There were a handful of twists that I didn’t see coming. However, the twists didn’t feel at all gimmicky. Since Vic and Danny had to be secretive while performing their job, keeping quiet as often as possible, I was able to learn a lot about them with the way they responded to situations that weren’t in their favor. Just when I thought they would react one way, they took a different route and surprised me. I wished that Alice was more likable because I wanted to root for all of them. When I’m torn in several directions, I find myself that much more emotionally involved. Instead, I thought she was devoid of charm, whiny, and spoiled. She needed to be more resourceful in her attempt to wriggle herself out of the two crooks’ plan. The majority of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” took place in an apartment, but it was as suspenseful as globetrotting adventures of the same breed because of the constantly evolving power play between the three characters. Unlike most movies about kidnapping, the film didn’t rely on the question of whether or not Alice would make it out alive. It challenged itself by observing who could handle the most pressure when the situation arrived at a tipping point.
★★★ / ★★★★
Pledges for Sigma Zeta Chi were about to be tested. Frank (Jon Foster), the fraternity leader, took his pledges for a ride around town and given them a task: to go into various convenience stores, hold the clerk at gunpoint, and steal $19.10. The pledges weren’t aware that the gun they held had no bullet and the clerks were in on the not-so-practical joke. When Frank dropped off Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) to a wrong location, Kevin held a gun to the man in front of the register named Mike (Arlen Escarpeta), who happened to be a high school classmate of Adam (Trevor Morgan), one of the senior of members of the fraternity. When Kevin’s defenses were down, Mike shot him in the shoulder. Directed by Will Canon, “Brotherhood” had a critical eye on groupthink and what certain people were willing to sacrifice in order to feel like they belonged. Despite its thriller aspects, I thought the picture’s dramatic core was defined. The person we were supposed to sympathize with was Adam. I liked the way he started off as unlikable but something inside his mind clicked and tried to make the right decisions, not for the sake of the fraternity’s reputation but for the survival of a person who was bleeding to death. There was a power struggle between Adam and Frank. Frank, in a myriad circumstances, tried to correct a wrong with another wrong. We all know how those work out. He was a scary figure because he had a certain sense of self-entitlement that took precedence over genuinely caring a person. He saw leadership as avoiding punishment and not taking full responsibility for his actions. He had many chances to save Kevin, like calling an ambulance right away or taking him to a hospital, but he chose to keep the situation hidden. It was like watching someone using glue to patch up a dam that was about to break. He grew comfortable in the illusion that someone would “just get better” from a gunshot wound. I thought he was fascinating to watch because he was a leader detached from reality and he didn’t have a clear vision between what was right and what was wrong. I mentioned belongingness. I confess that wanting to be in a fraternity or sorority doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe I was engaged in the film because I wanted to make sense of why so many young people do it. Providing proof that a bond between friends is strong, in my opinion, should come later in a relationship. It shouldn’t be forced. Otherwise, the so-called proof is superficial. Written by Canon and Doug Simon, “Brotherhood” was fast-paced, modern, and it made me think what I would have done given that I was in the same situation as its characters. I think it had a great message, too, especially for the youth. Sometimes it’s okay to accept that it’s not worth it, whatever it may be, and just walk away. It doesn’t mean you’re not brave. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of camaraderie. It just means you’re in control of your life.
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
Green Zone (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
U.S. Army officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) decided to go rogue when his team constantly stumbled upon inaccurate intelligence provided a U.S. Intelligence Agent (Greg Kinnear). Miller eventually found an ally (Brendan Gleeson) within the U.S. government and both aimed to expose the false reasons why the United States went to war with Iraq. I’ve read a lot of reviews comparing this movie, inspired by the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, to the actual war in Iraq. I chose not to see it from that perspective because at the end of the day the material was fictional. Instead, I saw it as an action picture with an emphasis on Miller’s struggle on three fronts: his loyalty to his country and the American people, his struggle to trust the powers that lead (or controlled) the U.S. government, and the role of the media (specifically Amy Ryan as a New York Times foreign correspondent) in and out of Iraq. As an action movie, I thought it worked. It was suspenseful because I cared about Miller’s dangerous mission to expose the big lie that led the United States to go to war. Paul Greengrass’ signature shaky camera that defined the second and third “Bourne” films worked especially in increasingly enclosed spaces as Miller’s character chased after targets in residential areas. I felt the danger and uncertainty that he and his men felt so my eyes were glued to the screen. I was also impressed with the way Greengrass’ shots shifted between indoors and outdoors. With each shift, the tone changed but it wasn’t jarring or distracting because the intensity regarding what was happening was consistent. But there were some scenes that fell completely flat. The ones that stood out to me in a negative way were the “Don’t be naive” admonitions accompanied by intense eye contact between Damon and Gleeson. I couldn’t help but laugh because it was so heavy-handed and obvious about the messages it wanted to convey to its audiences. I wanted the movie to let the images and the characters’ decisions to speak for themselves and tone down the obvious propaganda as much as possible. Lastly, I would have liked to see Ryan’s character to have done more instead of just standing around begging for a story. Nevertheless, “Green Zone” ultimately worked as a political (but fictional) action picture because of well-shot and involving action sequences. Others may have the usual complaints of, “The camera was so shaky and I got dizzy” but I suppose it’s an acquired taste. I think Greengrass chose that style because he wanted to us to feel like we were right there with the characters.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Eleven years after the fantastic adventure that was “Toy Story 2,” Pixar returns with “Toy Story 3” in which Andy (voiced by John Morris) was about to head to college and had to decide what to do with his toys: put them in the attic, throw them in the trash, donate them or take them to college with him. After a series of misunderstandings, Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang–Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris, respectively), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)–arrived in a day care center in which the toys were led by a deceptively nice teddy bear who smelled like strawberries named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Andy’s toys had to then map out their escape from the day care center and back to Andy’s home.
Despite my highest expectations, “Toy Story 3” impressed me with its creativity, intelligence, heart and bona fide sense of humor. Even though our protagonists were inanimate objects, we couldn’t help but empathize with them because, like human beings, they feared being abandoned by someone who loved them and losing their purpose. That fear manifested in often hilarious ways reflected by the distinct personalities of Andy’s eccentric but lovable toys. The flashback scenes were effective because the first two “Toy Story” films were so embedded in pop culture and in our minds that it was very difficult to cut the bond between Andy and his toys. Although there were many scenes that moved me (especially toward the end when the gang accepted their fate and Andy’s final decision about what he was going to do with his toys), the one that almost moved me to tears was when Woody desperately tried to convince his friends that they should return to Andy’s home because them ending up in the day care center was all a big misunderstanding. That particular scene got it exactly right because the loyalty that Woody had for Andy was one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. Even though fifteen years had passed since the first installment, it was nice that Pixar and its writers did not lose track of the essence of friendship, its heart, despite having better means of animation due to recent advances technology at their disposal. Ultimately, the “Toy Story” franchise was consistent in comparison to other animated film series like the “Shrek” movies because the characters often had a clear and unified goal, the jokes were bound in its own universe, the script didn’t try too hard to be amusing and it proudly wore its heart on its sleeves.
For those who haven’t seen “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” I believe they can still enjoy the movie because there were enough new characters to keep everything fresh. I loved the “relationship” between Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton) and its implications about the latter character. Another character that stood out to me was Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton) because he talked like those detectives in the 1940s noir pictures. Extra details like him appearing in the shadows and the timing in which he was introduced was icing on the cake for me. Lastly, with the way the story ended, there was a consensus between my friends that “Toy Story 3” was sad. I disagree; the events that transpired throughout the picture celebrated the idea of renewal, growth and unconditional acceptance. It was a poignant feeling–it made me think about my childhood when my biggest problem was my toys running out of batteries, my remaining days at home before leaving for college, and my friends who have been with me despite the challenges that tested our bonds (and our tempers). Just like the epic adventures of the first “Toy Story” films, “Toy Story 3” effortlessly delivered tension, laughter, tears and warmth. If Pixar decides to make “Toy Story 4,” I’m willing to wait another ten years as long as the quality remains strong, which I’m sure will be the case.
Body of Lies (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I expected a lot from this film because of three reaons: Ridley Scott’s direction, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe teaming up, and its storyline regarding spies. Even though Scott’s movies generally do not have riveting ideas, he manages to entertain by playing with the fluidity of his characters’ morals and motivations. In this picture, it’s no different because he constantly manipulates the dynamics between the characters–mainly their loyalties–to the point where at times I wondered about the characters’ true intentions. The side effect of certain twists, however, left me confused. At times I didn’t know why a character is doing whatever he is doing for about ten to fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a good feeling; I felt like I was on the outside instead of feeling involved. I wish DiCaprio and Crowe had more screen time together. The movie actually popped during the (too few) scenes when they were facing each other, measuring each other’s abilities. I got tired of the scenes when the two of them would argue over the phone. Why do all that if they can be on the field together? As for the spy storyline, I’m glad the setting was in the Middle East not that because it’s accurate but because it’s relevant to the war in some way. This film is based on the novel by David Ignatius but I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how often this movie followed that literature. I also have to commend Mark Strong as the head of the Jordanian intelligence. I think he’s one of the most interesting actors to watch because he has his own intentions and he’s not willing to sacrifice his reputation for the sake of giving and receiving favors to and from the CIA. I also liked Golshifteh Farahani as DiCaprio’s romantic interest. Even though that romance angle did not work for me, I liked watching her because she has subtlety. This is far from a perfect film but it could’ve been leaner and meaner with a few more revisions in the script and cutting it down to about an hour and forty minutes. For the sake of entertainment and old-fashioned thrillers, this gets a slight recommendation from me.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.