Tag: mark ruffalo

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

Thanks for Sharing


Thanks for Sharing (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adam (Mark Ruffalo) has been a recovering sex addict for five years. To maintain his sobriety, he frequents a support group. There, we meet his sponsor, Mike (Tim Robbins), whose son (Patrick Fugit) has returned home after disappearing for years, and a young doctor, Neil (Josh Gad), who is required by the court to attend due to public indecency. When Adam crosses paths with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) at a party, there is immediate spark. Although fostering a healthy romantic relationship is encouraged by Mike, Adam worries that the sexual aspect of being with someone will send him back to engaging in self-destructive behavior.

“Thanks for Sharing,” based on the screenplay by Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston, gets enough things right to overcome some pacing problems in the middle. Movies about addiction are difficult to pull off because balance is required as to not dip into sentimentality or making light of the matter. This film manages to be funny but at the same time it does not forget the every day struggle of someone who hopes to overcome a disease.

“Is that even a thing?” asks Phoebe right after Adam informs her about his private shame. The fact that Adam and Phoebe can be so open to one another is one of the shining aspects of the picture. They can be silly toward one another—a standout scene takes place in a restaurant—but they are never treated as less than adults which is refreshing. It is easy to want them to be together till the end but at one point we consider if it is the right time. And will there ever be a right time? I admired that the material takes itself a step further.

A subplot involves a friendship between Neil and Dede (Alecia Moore), a new member of the group. Unlike the romantic relationship which takes on some dark corners, their strand is more light-hearted. It is interesting that both of them are obviously a good fit but the screenplay is smart enough not to take it any further. If it had done so, it probably would have explored some similar elements that the central story was already dealing with.

I was lukewarm about Mike and his problems at home. The conflict between father and son should have been more moving. Perhaps the reason why is because the tension grows stale over time. There is bonding over a creation of a pond, meditation, and remembering the past. It is all very passive. There is even a cliché involving a playful wrestle between men with unresolved issues. Meanwhile, Adam and Neil’s stories have gone in interesting directions.

Directed by Stuart Blumberg, “Thanks for Sharing” is a comedy-drama with enough light entertainment and moments of difficult truths as well as nice moments that connect them. It offers no easy solutions. By the end, we are presented with one or two milestones but the effort and hard work continue.

Spotlight


Spotlight (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A long-term investigative group consisting of four journalists, known as the Spotlight Team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James), in The Boston Globe are assigned by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Barton (Liev Schreiber), to focus their efforts on finding out more about a Catholic priest who has molested children in six different parishes since the 1970s, about eighty kids in total, but no one—not the law, not the media, not the Church—did anything about it. Although the investigation starts off with one priest, discoveries are made suggesting that perhaps more people within the Boston Archdiocese knew about the sexual abuse.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight,” written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, is a powerful piece of work that does not rely on sensationalism to enrage its audience. Instead, it focuses on how journalists do their job as they attempt to expose an institution that tolerates and protects pedophiles. The drama is in how their crucial story evolves, the dead ends the investigators encounter, the people they meet and clash against along the way, and what the story means to them not as journalists but as people who, in some way or another, has or has had connection with the Roman Catholic Church.

I am most intrigued with films that show how people do their jobs. Here, the camera has a habit of simply sitting back and observing how its characters work. Parallel scenes are often run together and we are given the chance to take notice of similarities and differences between how one journalist versus another approaches a task. For instance, does the interviewer prefer to write notes? If so, does he place his notepad on the desk? On his lap? How is her posture like when she is asking a victim difficult and probing questions concerning a traumatic event? How are the questions asked: straight to the point or are extra details toyed with first in order to lessen the blow?

There is a consistent sense of urgency in the story being tackled even though we already know how it will turn out. This is accomplished through the performances. For example, when characters are speaking on the phone, even when their backs are turned away from the camera, they look almost as if they want to reach into the phone itself and grab the information right away so they can have more time to work on the other parts of their assignment. We get a sense that every piece and every minute that passes matter.

Outside of their jobs, there are two or three scenes which depict the journalists taking the story personally. The conversation between Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Pfeiffer (McAdams) about why they stopped going to church commands power. We realize then that taking their work personally makes a lot of sense because they have invested too much time and effort to expose the injustice. More importantly, they hope that by exposing such a disgusting, immoral system, people would pay more attention and demand or take action.

“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, makes a profession that seems non-exciting (at least to me) and makes it relevant, digestible, and even suspenseful at times. It relishes details rather than avoiding them, and I stared at the screen in complete fascination.

Foxcatcher


Foxcatcher (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a strange crime-drama, one that is based on a true story, in that it chooses to tell its story in a muted manner rather than through an expected, hyperbolic lens. Though credit must be given for having taken a risk, what results is a movie that is the opposite of interesting or entertaining. Its languorous pacing does not help to jolt us into paying more attention. Halfway through, I found myself at the edge of boredom despite a curious performance by Steve Carell.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gets a call from John du Pont (Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and heir of one of the wealthiest families in the nation. Mark, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, hopes to participate in the event once again in 1988 and the plan is to be trained by his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), also a renowned wrestler. du Pont offers to get him where he needs to be and the ambitious athlete, tired of standing in his brother’s shadow, seizes the opportunity. A bizarre symbiosis is created as Mark becomes estranged from David.

I found Carell’s makeup so distracting, it took away from an otherwise near magnetic performance. It is clear that the actor can deliver dramatically, even though many of us regard him as a comedian, so why is it necessary to make him look like the real person he tries to portray? The gimmick does not work because if one were to look closely, one would conclude that the makeup looks different from one scene to other. When it comes to dramas, I tend to focus on the characters’ faces in order to capture their essence and understand who they are underneath their behaviors. Here, we are constantly confronted by the makeup. It is not like we ever forget that Carell is in there somewhere.

Based on the first twenty minutes, the relationship between Mark and David is worth looking into. While understandable that they must spend time apart during a significant chunk of the picture’s running time, when they do get back together, the fascination is no longer there. Their relationship is reduced to a sibling rivalry, at least from Mark’s point of view, and I never felt their closeness, who they are outside of the sport.

The cinematography’s muted colors prove soporific. Combine this with a script commanding a silent, muffled energy and characters who mumble a lot, it becomes a real challenge to sit through its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. By the final act, I felt unmoved by its life-or-death event. In fact, I just felt glad that it finally happened because it indicates that the film is coming to a close.

Halfway through the movie, I wondered if the story of “Foxcatcher” is one even worth telling. With so many movies about scarred but ambitious men who have issues with their mother easily available out there, what makes this one so special? For some, I suppose, it may be considered as an achievement to create one of the most tonally flat works to come out in recent memory.

Safe Men


Safe Men (1998)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) fancy themselves as singer-songwriters, but they are unable to entertain a bar packed with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. When Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), the right hand man of one of the Jewish gangsters in Rhode Island, has mistaken them for legendary safe crackers, they find themselves in a quandary: perform the job that Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) wants done or get swim with the fishes.

“Safe Men,” written and directed by John Hamburg, is a farce that uses the lead actors’ chemistry as a crutch whenever the jokes miss the mark. And, boy, does it miss quite often. When the jokes work, however, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. Still, the ratio between unfunny to funny bits is far too large.

A standout is a scene involving the first safe that the hapless duo attempts to break into which happens to belong to another Jewish gangster, Leo (Harvey Fierstein), who runs a fencing operation behind a barbershop. Completely inept and constantly at each other’s throats about how certain things ought to be done, Sam and Eddie are caught by Hannah (Christina Kirk), Leo’s daughter. The funny thing is since she has a history of dating thieves, she does a surprising thing.

When the screenplay plays with our expectations combined with providing us a skeletal understanding of the motivations of characters who are about to commit bizarre actions, watching the interplay among the characters is fun and entertaining.

There are too many recycled ideas that distract from the plot. Frank (Mark Ruffalo) and Mitchell (Josh Pais), the real safe men, drop in and out of the story whenever it seems convenient. When they do show up, they act like baboons half the time and the script never bothers to convince us that they are smart and stealthy, two basic requirements, I would imagine, in being successful thieves. Maybe it would have been funnier if Frank and Mitchell had been completely different from Sam and Eddie instead of just playing a diluted version of them.

More frustrating is Giamatti not given a lot to do. I actually felt him wanting to be more challenged. The screenplay touches upon his character wanting to be treated like his boss valued him more. Once or twice there is a funny line or two about his line of work but there is not a time when we are given a chance to actually consider Veal Chop as more than a henchman. One serious moment might have given the character a semblance of dimension. If we were to ultimately believe his insecurities, we had to see him as a person.

Finally, the romance between Sam and Hannah is is not at all convincing. The way material likes to remind us they are a couple is showing a sloppy make-out session. It’s supposed to be funny. Why not just allow us to continually observe the sexual tension between Sam and Eddie grow until it is unbearable?

It is a shame that the writing is so bland and unfocused because Rockwell and Zahn seem willing to go to the extremes. For all the risks that “Safe Men” appears to take on the surface, what results is still a flavorless concoction of inanities.

Begin Again


Begin Again (2014)
★ / ★★★★

John Carney’s “Begin Again” needs to go back to basics and simply tell its story straight without the unnecessary gimmicks such as flashbacks that comprise of about fifty percent of the first half and showcasing overproduced songs that are supposedly performed live. I found it exhausting because it tries so hard to be authentic but it comes across very superficial and often in the doldrums with respect to pacing and overall mood.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is approached by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former head of a record company, after singing in front of an audience whose reaction is lukewarm at best. Dan sees potential in her; he thinks she just needs to change her image a bit so people will find it easier to relate to her and her music. But Gretta is not interested in being signed because she wishes to be recognized for her talent, not the image she is selling. Eventually, however, the two find a common ground and decide to make a record.

Knightley and Ruffalo share absolutely no chemistry. Over the course of the two characters working together, there is supposed to be a whiff of friendship and possible romance blossoming between them, but neither connect in such a way that we feel, deep down, they are kindred spirits. The scenes that do work somewhat are short exchanges where Gretta and Dan disagree and create friction. However, these are supposed to be “mature” people and so an argument ends just before the scene ends.

A subplot involving Dan’s wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is a minefield of boredom. Keener’s character is written to be as dull as possible. Meanwhile, Steinfeld’s character is not given anything to do other than to look sort of moody and hormonal—a stereotypical movie teenager—while wearing skimpy clothing. Surely Keener could have signed up for a project that is equal to her talent. I was more disappointed, however, that Steinfeld chose this role because she is usually pretty good at selecting characters with substance to them.

I will not even begin to describe the contrivance of Adam Levine’s character who starts off as a humble artist and becomes a complete jerk—all within a span of a month. As with Ruffalo, Knightley shares no genuine connection with Levine and so when their characters are supposed to be bonding, sharing things with one another, or having fun, it appears completely disingenuous. To me, their relationship is one that exists only in the movies.

I did not enjoy the songs—with the exception of “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” the first track featured in the film. The rest of the soundtrack is nothing special, most of them sound exactly like other female singer-songwriters on MySpace trying to break into the music industry. Because of this, we are never on board that Gretta is truly an undiscovered diamond who should become the next big thing.

“Begin Again” is largely unfocused and quite depressing in spots—not because of the content but because the work should have been more alive, executed with a sense of urgency, capturing that excitement of introducing an artist that the world should know about. Instead, what we are given is sub-mediocrity packaged in a dull box with the writer-director’s name written on the tag.

The Normal Heart


The Normal Heart (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. — Lawrence K. Altman, “The New York Times” (1981)

Before acronyms HIV and AIDS came into the picture, there is only “the gay cancer,” formerly believed to be a plague that affected only gay men. Thus, the government, instead of acting with utmost urgency, chose to turn a blind eye and go on as if the problem would just go away on its own. “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), partly based on the activist and playwright Larry Kramer, in his very personal war to force the American government and its people to pay attention, look past discrimination, and offer some kind of help for a minority but a part of the American society nonetheless against an unknown epidemic.

The picture is at its best when showing desperate individuals trying to deal with the hand they’ve been given. Dr. Brookner (Julia Roberts) starts to notice that many of the patients she sees are immunocompromised, most of them ending up dead within weeks, sometimes months, due to diseases that normally do not kill people. Roberts injects a most necessary intensity into the role. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair, she turns the character into a fighter, someone who wants to understand the new epidemic and genuinely help the men who come to see her. Roberts has a chilling scene with government officials who are convinced that the disease is far from a priority.

Of course, the story’s focal point is Weeks’ perspective and the hoops he goes through so that everyone would be on the same page. I admired that the screenplay makes the character so unpleasant at times that we understand why he is not chosen by his friends to become the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that provides services from counseling the afflicted to executing fundraisers for research. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing Ruffalo to play Weeks because although he looks very accessible, the actor can deliver dagger-like fury in an instant. The contradiction makes the character more interesting because there is an unpredictability to the performer.

But the film is not only strong when someone is having an outburst. There is great sadness when it depicts the gay community in 1981 not taking the disease seriously even though their acquaintances and friends are ending up dead. It makes a case that sometimes a tragedy is allowed to continue because people are not willing to stop for a second, consider, and listen.

Admittedly, it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that people still choose to engage in sexual activities, often with random partners, when there is already suspicion that the disease might be sexually transmitted. It is expressed that the community feels that the whole thing might merely be a ruse so that the government can take away the freedoms that the queer community have long fought for. The screenplay ought to have provided a better, clearer context for those who were not aware or alive during that time.

Conversely, we see Weeks’ softer side when he is around Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a writer for The New York Times and Weeks’ eventual lover. We learn details about the protagonist and consider possible reasons why he is so uptight and ready to fight all the time. Bomer is another good casting choice because he knows how to downplay his character just enough—playing him more reserved, a bit quiet, and sensitive—as to not overshadow his co-star’s role in the story being told.

“The Normal Heart” ought to have featured more shots of bodies infected with AIDS. Although we see a few, from skeletal frames to skin lesions, we need to see many, almost on an overwhelming level. I wanted that camera to be as close as possible, almost functioning as a magnifying glass, to the bodies and really force the audience to see what the disease can do. Would that have disgusted or repelled audiences? Yes. And that is good. AIDS is neither a pretty disease nor is it easy to understand. Otherwise, we would have a cure by now. Thus, its ugliness and complications should have been shown through and through.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

With the help of a friend, Joel (Jim Carrey) discovers that Clementine (Kate Winslet), his ex-girlfriend, has decided to delete him from her memory after they broke up the night before. Thunderstruck that such a procedure is even possible, he nonetheless decides to pay Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) a visit and ask if he can undergo the same treatment. Although Joel sleeps during the memory-destruction process, he is able to revisit the times he spent with Clementine and experience exactly which events are being plucked from his brain. Eventually, Joel comes to the conclusion that forgetting what they had is not worth it and wishes to stop the process. Although he screams as loudly as he can in his mind, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) continue to erase.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” succeeds because the myriad risks it takes are deeply-rooted in two factors: our curiosity in discovering the precise point in which Joel and Clementine’s relationship had gone sour and, after having seen and felt the dynamics of their relationship, our yearning for them to reconnect again, obtain proper closure that both of them deserve, and hopefully move on.

The ambitious screenplay by Charlie Kaufman is supported by Michel Gondry’s calculated and astute direction. The filmmakers do a great job masking the formula during the memory-destruction process: Joel and Clementine jump into a seemingly ordinary scene and the more they speak to each other, colors and images slowly begin to erode until the environment ceases to exist. Even though it repeats, it does not feel like a painfully hackneyed cycle because we consistently learn something in terms of how Joel evaluates himself and his partner and how the two of them, as a couple, measure against what society expect a boyfriend-girlfriend should be. Through the procedure, despite Joel’s increasingly rapid rate of forgetting, it becomes clearer to us why he and Clementine have broken up… and why it might be worth giving it another shot.

Although the most visually stimulating scenes involve the audience being thrusted into Joel’s mind as he desperately tries to hide Clementine from deletion, I also enjoyed the conflict outside Joel’s body. That is, the moral and ethical responsibility Dr. Mierzwiak and his colleagues have—or should have—toward their patients especially considering that the procedure is still at an experimental stage. The material also suggests that even though the nature of the service they perform is strange, the space they inhabit remains to be a place of work. The fantastic elements are rooted in something real.

First, we learn that Patrick manages to worm his way into Clementine’s life, only a day after her procedure, and uses Joel’s words to lure the woman into falling for him. Secondly, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the practice’s receptionist, feels the need to express her romantic feelings toward Dr. Mierzwiak even though she knows that he has a wife and children. The subplots are handled with elegance and each leads up to an emotional punch that comments on good and bad relationships alike.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” supports that romantic films of all sorts—yes, even romantic comedies—can inspire given that the writing manages to capture a creative spark and actually does something with it. Many movies are not worth repeated viewings. This is an exception.

Margaret


Margaret (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

To prepare for going horseback riding with her father in New Mexico, Lisa (Anna Paquin) went to shop for a cowboy hat in downtown Manhattan. To her disappointment, though, the hat proved very difficult to find. That is, until she turned around and saw a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one. Out of desperation, although the doors of the bus had closed and the driver had stepped on the gas, she ran alongside it and attempted to ask where he bought his cowboy hat. Distracted from the girl on his right, the bus driver ran a red light and a woman (Allison Janney) stepped onto the crosswalk. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, “Margaret” could easily be misconstrued as a simple story of a girl facing a moral dilemma since its emotions, or at least a semblance of emotions, were the centerpiece. The picture was most powerful when the writer-director allowed his scenes to play out and gave us time to absorb droplets of emotions even if some of them were not particularly significant. For instance, when Lisa held the dying woman who got ran over by the bus, it was equally devastating and horrific. Their verbal exchange, as fleeting as it was, remained the most engaging despite the blood and severed body parts. By allowing the camera to focus very closely faces with minimal interruption, a dramatic gravity was established for us to immerse ourselves in the situation. Given this technique coupled with its extended running time, the little emotions that had gone uncut accumulated and, in a way, gave the material another dimension in terms of the real motivations of the characters as opposed to what we’d like to see the characters get motivated by. Furthermore, the aftermath of the tragedy focused on Lisa’s guilt. She knowingly gave the police false information in order to save the bus driver’s job. In exchange, however, her secret affected her in ways she would never have imagined. The screenplay did a wonderful job in communicating to us that although Lisa was not a bad person, her youth, naïveté, and proclivity for hyperbole did not excuse her from taking responsibility. Lisa was aware of this and that self-awareness was what made her a sympathetic character even though at times we disagreed with her opinions and actions. There was a subplot which involved Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a stage actress, meant to highlight the growing disconnect between mother and daughter. It also opened up a possible explanation as to why Lisa ended up making the decisions she did. Although not one-dimensional, their relationship could have been so much more enthralling if there had been less verbal sparring. I actually was more moved during scenes where they just looked at each other, very tired and defeated because it somehow occurred to them that exchanging words led to more strife. We’ve all been in a situation where we nor our opponent was willing to surrender an inch for the sake of pride. The writing understood how to handle its acerbic characters and how their personalities shaped their realities. “Margaret” felt long but, to its credit, it wasn’t without purpose. I admired that the third half deconstructed what we knew and felt toward the characters instead of relying on a typical falling action where winkles were simply ironed out. It gave the impression that although you’ve known someone for a really long time, sometimes you don’t really know them. The scary thing is, people think that having an idea of how they are is tantamount to knowing who they really are. For Lisa, the accident she witnessed was a rude awakening that there really is a difference between how a person perceives herself versus how she acts around other people.

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.

13 Going on 30


13 Going on 30 (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jenna was a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately wanted to belong in a clique led by a typical mean girl, unaware that her best friend had a crush on her. During Jenna’s ruined birthday party, she desperately wished that she was thirty and thriving; she woke up the next morning in a completely different body (Jennifer Garner) and had no memory of what happened in her life since her terrible 13th birthday party. She had to learn a lot of things such as her best friend being no longer the guy who truly cared for her (Mark Ruffalo) but the mean girl (Judy Greer) she wanted to impress in middle school. This is the kind of movie where we can clearly see how it would all end right from the beginning but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was well-aware of its predictability so it made the journey to the finish line so much fun by throwing us good and bad 80s references. It was as light as cotton candy and as sweet as bubblegum but it had wit, intelligence and charm. It was willing to wear its heart on its sleeves, which sometimes made me cringe because it didn’t know when to stop (for instance, Garner joining her parents in bed), but I thought it worked most of the time. Garner was perfectly casted because she was so good at being wide-eyed and innocent. I thought she was so adorable dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and when everybody joined in, I couldn’t help but laugh and tap my feet. As for the romance, Ruffalo and Garner had perfect chemistry. Watching them together had its syrupy moments but I always felt a certain tension or awkwardness between them because their characters hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. I think they captured the essence bumping into someone you knew from high school and you had no choice but to make small conversation in order to not seem rude. However, I think the picture could have worked more on the cold-hearted Jenna. The script kept bringing up the fact that everybody was scared of her because she was conniving and had no problem abusing her power. I was curious about her darker side. By exploring that angle, I think the movie could have delved into Greer’s character a lot deeper. After all, there is often pain and jealousy between two friends having to compete against other. Directed by Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30” is a bit too safe in its approach but it’s still a highly enjoyable romantic comedy. It could have easily have overdosed with twists and turns because of the magical element that helped to drive the story forward but it refrained. It wasn’t as good as Penny Marshall’s “Big” but it was able to acquire some magic unique to its own.

The Kids Are All Right


The Kids Are All Right (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.

Date Night


Date Night (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as a married couple who decided to go to the city on their date night to get away from the ennui of their busy schedules which mostly revolved around work and their kids. To spice things up a bit, they decided to go to an exclusive fancy restaurant which required reservations months in advance. Since they didn’t make one, Carell and Fey decided to pretend to be another couple–a couple involved in theft and currently being pursued by corrupt cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who seemed to work for the mob of some sort. When I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I had to watch it because casting arguably the funniest people in Hollywood right now is genius. What I loved about this movie most was not because of the story–mistaken identities, a couple feeling like their marriage lacked spark; I’ve seen it all before–but because of the chemistry between Fey and Carell. They matched each other’s awkwardness and both had great comedic timing. The two actors managed to pull off genuinely tender moments between them where I couldn’t help but feel touched. They were a believable couple and that’s why I cared about their characters. Written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, the script and the filmmakers allowed the two leads to play on their strengths and let the awkwardness linger to the point of saturation. But “Date Night” was as funny as it was exciting. The scene when the two cars (one owned by constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a conceit I was glad that the actor embraced) couldn’t uncouple from one another was a definite standout. It was so much fun to watch, I wished that I was in that car with them. However, I did wish that the side characters had more screen time. For instance, Leighton Meester as the babysitter, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as the couple about to get a divorce, Taraji P. Henson (who I love in those “Tyler Perry” movies) as the honest detective, and James Franco (doing his “sparkly eyes” thing that I’m always impressed with) and Mila Kunis as the weird but hilarious couple involved in blackmail. Nevertheless, the movie was so much fun and the adventures all over New York City reminded me of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Those who are in the mood for good-natured comedy with a spice of action will definitely enjoy this movie, while fans of Fey and Carell will undoubtedly be happy with it.

Shutter Island


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.