Tag: martin scorsese

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

The King of Comedy


The King of Comedy (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an unemployed aspiring stand-up comedian with a dream of headlining his own late-night talk show. Rupert is convinced that the way to achieve this goal is to persuade the successful Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to get him coast-to-coast airtime for ten to fifteen minutes so that the country can discover his talent. But when Jerry avoids Rupert’s requests for appointments one too many times, the latter executes a drastic method to get exactly what he wants.

Written by Paul D. Zimmerman and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” is sharp when it comes to its critique of celebrity obsession, so uncomfortable to sit through at times that I did not know whether to laugh or groan, and the themes it touches upon have become more relevant over the years especially now that we can follow our favorite celebrities in various social media. De Niro’s performance is one to be remembered.

It requires a bit of practice to be able to tell whether a scene is happening in actuality or only in Rupert’s mind. This is appropriate because we see the story through his eyes and he himself is not even aware between real and fantasy. There are even instances when he is so out of touch with reality, it fails to occur to him that certain courses of action he takes are considered criminal offenses. What matters to him is what he hopes to get out of a situation—to hell with consequences. And that is scary. We laugh at him and yet on some level we feel sorry for him. The screenplay is to be admired because it does not treat its subject like a caricature even though the picture is a satire.

There is one memorable scene right after another. One that stood out to me is the dinner between Rupert and a barkeeper named Rita (Diahnne Abbott). One is caught off-guard and assumes it is going to go smoothly… until Rupert steers the conversation into his dream of achieving fame and pulling out a book filled with his favorite stars’ autographs. While the scene is comedic, there is a sadness to it, too. Observe Abbott’s character very carefully. Rita just wants to have a nice, simple time with a man she sort of likes and yet instead of talking about one another, they are talking about other people. Instead of looking at each other, they are looking at pen marks on a white page.

Later, there is a fantasy wedding scene in which we get a chance to understand Rupert a bit more. There is an apology made about people in Rupert’s life not believing or not regarding him as important. It might explain his abnormal psychology, the irrationality of his fame-driven existence. Maybe being on television is proof that he is important. But then again perhaps it is all biology: brain circuitry gone awry or developmental problems when Rupert was a boy. There is a scene later on where Rupert makes jokes about his alcoholic parents. Perhaps there is truth there somewhere.

If I were to describe “The King of Comedy” in one word, it would be “relentless”—just like the main character. There is one awkward but telling scene right after another. Although Rupert Pupkin is obviously an extreme case of someone obsessed with attaining recognition, one still has to wonder: Why is it that many of us revere people just because they appear on television or the movies? Why are we not a society that shows the same level of enthusiasm for NASA engineers, scientists, mathematicians—those who make extraordinary contributions to society in order to make this world a better place to be in?

The Age of Innocence


The Age of Innocence (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but their wedding date is not yet picked out. Both come from what is considered to be good families in nineteenth century New York. On the other hand, May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), is considered a pariah because she divorced her husband in Europe. Archer is convinced by those who still care for Ellen that he should be around her more often to make people feel less uneasy about being around her. As the two engage in conversations, Newland realizes that he is engaged to the wrong woman. While May offers stability, Ellen is exciting because deep down, like Newland, she considers formalities as mere trifles.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The love story between Newland and May and Newland and Ellen has resonance because there is an absence of a traditional villain where one character actively tries to steal’s someone’s heart with vindictiveness. Instead, the enemy is the times, the rules that define an era, and the social conducts that connect the leading players. Because traditionalism must be strictly upheld, there is little room for deviation from the norm. Even the characters who consider the New York society as a joke must to keep their opinions behind closed doors. No one wants to be like Ellen, the subject of toxic gossip.

When the camera moves, it does so with purpose. For example, as rules for behaving and important figures are introduced by the narrator, the camera scans the lavish walls and points our attention to things that range from paintings as they are, the implications of hanging up certain artwork for friends and family to see, to the paint’s color that serve as a background for the works of art. It feels as though the material is forcing us to be as critical as the men and women who inhabit such a world. By allowing us to think about how they think, we are able to navigate ourselves through their own games.

When the camera finally stops to observe a group of conversing people, we look at them with a more critical eye. For instance, we are able to evaluate how they rank compared to one another through their body language, gender, and the way they are dressed. The director’s decision to take his time in pocketing us into this era is critical because the eventual happenings in the story, especially toward the end, involve a deception through the mundane customary social gatherings.

The heart of the picture is Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love. With each secret meeting and delayed gratification of the flesh, the more we want them to be together even though they are having was an affair. By rooting for them to consummate their feelings, it is, in a way, an indirect act of rebellion against the conventions of those times.

Based on the screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, “The Age of Innocence” is pregnant with implications and excellent performances, even from supporting ones, particularly Miriam Margolyes as the influential but couch-ridden Mrs. Mingott. Good manners and warm smiles have never looked so poisonous.

The Wolf of Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street (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.

The Last Temptation of Christ


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe), a carpenter, journeys to Jerusalem, along with his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), to be crucified and die for the sins of all people.

Though the premise is familiar, this is not the version of Jesus polished by religious groups and popular culture. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” directed by Martin Scorsese, portrays Jesus Christ as both a divine being and, more interestingly, a man full of crippling self-doubt and contradictions.

What fascinated me was the qualities that made the title character human. Raised by Catholic parents and forced to attend school that requires religious studies for several years, I am somewhat familiar with Jesus’ journey to the cross including the key figures he encounters along the way. It is refreshing to see a different interpretation of the events compared to what is on traditional inscriptions and teachings. Scorsese approaches the material with confidence and tunnel vision focus. He honors the filmmaking by being true to what kind of story he wishes to make.

The relationship between Jesus and Judas is not exactly a friendship, even though the word is mustered once or twice, but a symbiosis between men of faith. Jesus’ decision to manipulate Judas, who desperately wants to believe that the son of God is completely devoted to what he is instructed to do, holds intrigue because the material tends to underline both characters’ flaws and fears. Their partnership unfolds in a logical way.

The film is shot beautifully. When the camera pulls back to absorb the beauty of the barren desert or quiescent lake as Jesus walks on the foreground, it is breathtaking. The experience is similar to looking at a postcard and on it is an inviting world. When the intense gust of wind dances around the unseen microphones, I felt transported.

However, the acting from some of the supporting actors is distracting. Keitel’s decision to maintain his Brooklyn accent is a constant reminder that he is an actor playing Judas. During his most serious scenes, I caught myself feeling detached because of the way he enunciates of certain words. Furthermore, Jesus’ angel (Juliette Caton), a little girl, is so doe-eyed and delivers her lines so heavily pure, I wondered why the director did not feel the urge to do more reshoots until her performance did not come across so forced. Either that or she should have been recast. It is necessary that Dafoe gives the most convincing performance. And he does.

“The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the screenplay by Paul Schrader, is unjustly mired in controversy. I found it daring and, yes, even iconoclastic. But let us not forget that the movie is based on a novel. If your faith is as strong as you claim, you will not allow an interpretation to shake the foundation of your beliefs. If anything, you should keep an open-mind–which shows strength. What is deserving of fear are those people who think that what they believe in is completely, unwaveringly correct. There is a fine distinction between faith and zealotry.

New York, New York


New York, New York (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It was 1945 and the Japanese had surrendered the war. During a party, charismatic Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a saxophonist, tried to get the attention of various women to no avail. The third woman he talked to, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a USO singer, didn’t want to speak to him either but he insisted that he was worth her time. He figured that if they talked long enough, she would end up liking him. And she did. The two eventually got married, but being together for the rest of their lives didn’t seem like it was meant to be. “New York, New York,” based on the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and directed by Martin Scorsese, was a sincere portrayal of marriage that was about to hit the rocks. Instead of using its musical numbers to sugarcoat the realities of Jimmy and Francine’s time together, it used song and dance to reveal the inadequacies that they felt but didn’t have the courage to confront. Francine enjoyed her independence but when she found out that she was pregnant, there was a sudden shift in her priorities. Her love for the child took precedence and her love of music was relegated to second place. But for Jimmy, it wasn’t the case. When they met, he said that he loved three things, respectively: music, money, and women. When he found out he was going to be a father, his priorities didn’t shift and wasn’t willing to compromise. Their fights were ugly and heartbreaking, especially the scene in which Jimmy called the very pregnant Francine “disgusting,” the camera unblinking toward the seething anger and sadness that permeated between the two. De Niro and Minnelli’s performances had range and depth so their characters felt like real people. Since the characters had a complexity to them, it felt like we were a part of their lives and responding to the ups and downs of their relationship felt natural. Scorsese’s direction elevated the picture because it seemed like he allowed certain accidents–a blurb in the dialogue or an item that seemed out of place–to make the final cut. Also, I appreciated the small gestures like Francine playing with the buttons of Jimmy’s shirt as he was telling her something important. It was an image that we could easily see out in the world if we stopped and observed. There are criticisms involving the fifteen-minute musical montage called “Happy Endings.” Personally, though I agree to some extent that it disrupted the tone of the marriage drama, I appreciated the risk it had undertaken. While somewhat out of place, it remained focused on its overarching themes. The songs were not only incredibly catchy, they commented on the hardship of marriage. It wanted to communicate to us that a constant reevaluation of a relationship is not only healthy, it is necessary because it keeps us receptive of our as well as our partner’s wants and needs. “New York, New York” offered another layer by exploring contrasting elements: femininity and masculinity, independence and security, successes and failures, and love and friendship. Though not considered to be a success upon its release, it proved how audacious Scorsese could be as a filmmaker.

Quiz Show


Quiz Show (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) had a great memory for the most minute facts. It served him well while participating in a game show called “Twenty-One,” but the businessmen behind the show wanted to get rid of him because ratings have plateaued. They attributed the trend to Herbie’s unlikable personality and plain looks. The show was in dire need of new blood and the current champion was to be replaced by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a university professor with classic American good looks and a charming personality. But the two men with record-breaking winning streaks were not as they seemed: behind the scenes, they were given the answers to the questions prior to appearing on live television. Based on Richard N. Goodwin’s novel and adapted to the screen by Paul Attanasio, “Quiz Show” was an unflattering but highly effective look at the relationship between television and advertising in the 1950s. It was also about the integrity of man and the popular saying, “Everyone has a price.” Stempel and Van Doren, merely pawns in the grand scheme of things, got more than they bargained for and the picture positioned us to experience their rise and fall along with the irrevocable shame born from their trials. The moment they decided to prostitute their intelligence was also the moment they put themselves in harm’s way, being paid significant amount of money for a reason. For a price, they became the most visible figures of a lie. Millions of audiences across the country were witnesses of that lie. Visibility meant responsibility. We observed, in careful direction and fascination by Robert Redford, these two men standing on their tiptoes in increasingly deep dark waters. But what I loved about the film was we learned about and identified with the two men’s circumstances. Stempel was a working class and he thought he could use the money for his family. But he also loved fame and being in front of the camera. He desperately sought for attention and those around him perceived him as unstable. On the other hand, Van Doren decided to join the show because he hoped that he could inspire kids to take part in active learning. In a way, he also did it to make his father (Paul Scofield), a man whose name didn’t go unrecognized in posh parties and gatherings, proud. Next to his father (or his reputation), he felt small. Both Stempel and Van Doren were good men but, like us, they had flaws. Instead of providing us easy answers, Redford painted the two men as both victims and accomplices instead of villains. I must also highlight Rob Morrow’s performance as Dick Goodwin, a shrewd lawyer who gathered the facts and exposed the treachery. I was transfixed on his swagger mixed with a New York accent and powers of deduction. “Quiz Show” made me think about popular game shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy.” Martin Scorsese’s character wisely pointed out that the reason people watched game shows was not due to great feats of intelligence. People watched because of the money. Somehow, I couldn’t disagree.

Hugo


Hugo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.

The Fighter


The Fighter (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) were half-brothers who had a talent and heart for boxing. Dicky was the older one who spent his time reliving his former days of glory. His family, led by Melissa Leo as the matriarch and manager, believed Dicky could make a comeback as they turned a blind eye toward his drug addiction. Mickey, after his family guilt-tripped him into fighting a boxer much bigger than him and being beaten to a pulp, began to think about accepting an offer for a year-round training, with pay, in Las Vagas. This didn’t rest well with the rest of the family except Mickey’s father (Jack McGee) and new girlfriend (Amy Adams) who offered full support. Directed by David O. Russell, “The Fighter” had all the elements to make a truly inspiring film about a man eventually overcoming all odds, but it fell short because Mickey was overshadowed by those who surrounded him. With such spicy personalities offered by Bale, Leo, and Adams, Wahlberg’s character was simply there instead of shining above the rest. He played the mediator, someone who held his tongue just in case someone would get offended by what he had to say, so he ended up boring. He was a bland wall; everyone else were colorful spots on it. I wasn’t convinced that Wahlberg had found a way to make Mickey’s silent suffering relatable or endearing. Some critics’ comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of the intensity and realism of the boxing matches were hyperboles. I suggest the same critics watch Manny Pacquiao’s boxing matches if they want to experience first-rate edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The boxing sequences in this film were commercial and the emotional impact was diluted by quick cuts and obnoxious soundtrack when it should have been primal. I kept waiting for the many distracting elements to subside, especially during the key final match, but the director opted to assault our senses. Sometimes less really is more. I thought the drama behind the scenes, particularly the mother’s increasing awareness that she could no longer manage (or control) her son’s career, were far more interesting. Furthermore, I found Adams’ performance magnetic as she tried to stand up for herself and Mickey against the family matriarch and sisters who had a pack mentality. I’ve never seen her so edgy, so stripped down. Lastly, Bale was excellent as someone who was torn between his addiction and complete adoration for his brother. He was perhaps the most complicated character because there was no doubt in our mind that he wanted the best for Mickey, yet the decisions he made were not always smart. It’s too bad his addiction was more often played for laughs. “The Fighter” was very good in terms of acting but it desperately needed to find focus on the themes it wanted to tackle. It didn’t feel like a complete work.

The Town


The Town (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore


Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★

A mother and son (Ellen Burstyn and Alfred Lutter III) decided to go on a roadtrip to Monterey after the head of the family (who was emotionally abusive) unexpectedly passed away. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie because I’m used to Martin Scorsese’s other projects which usually involved tough men drowning in dangerous situations. In here, it was more about a woman’s sense of self-worth and the way she kept picking herself up for her son after numerous heartbreaks. I think the picture had a great balance between drama and comedy but at the same time Scorsese wasn’t afraid to experiment with certain shots such as his homage to “The Wizard of Oz” in the first scene. It surprised me how amusing moments came off sad situations and vice-versa. The movie really embodied that 1970s feel; even though it was released thirty years ago, oddly enough, I thought it was fresh and I was fascinated with how it was all going to unravel. Two of my favorite scenes were when Burstyn said goodbye to her best friend and when the son tried telling his mother an unfunny and endless joke. Instead of going for the easy laughs and melodrama, it felt more like a slice-of-life picture that happened to work as a road trip film. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character was dependent on men and although she knew it, it was sometimes difficult for her to put her son first when she had a boyfriend. Even though that specific trait of hers bothered me, I still couldn’t help but root for her because she was essentially a good person. Even though her life was full of disappointments (such as her dream of becoming a singer not being realized), those things didn’t get her down. I also enjoyed watching the side characters such as the plucky waitress (Diane Ladd), the weird waitress (Valerie Curtin), and the kind but sometimes unpredictable farmer who the main character eventually fell in love with (Kris Kristofferson). All of them brought something special to the table that gave the movie a certain edge. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a great film with strong acting (especially from Burstyn) and an interesting script. I’ve read reviews saying that since this was one of Scorsese’s first movies, it didn’t quite have Scorsese’s style that could be found in his other works such as “Casino,” “GoodFellas” and “Raging Bull.” I disagree. One of the things that made those movies so great was a fantastic ear for dialogue and I think “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” had that quality. The dialogue just didn’t have that “tough guy” feel to it but it certainly had strength.

Inception


Inception (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

Bringing Out the Dead


Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on Joe Connelly’s memoir, “Bringing Out the Dead” was about a paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) who increasingly became out of touch with reality after several sleepless nights and increasing guilt involving a girl he failed to rescue. I liked the film’s first half but I was very put off by the second half. What I thought the first hour of the picture was strong because it captured the reality of how it was like to be a paramedic in the city. I liked the way Martin Scorsese, the director, highlighted the grittiness and ugliness of city life and putting his characters in the middle of a sea of negative emotions. The way the paramedics dealt with their patients were sometimes very sad, sometimes amusing, and sometimes maddening because the ethical codes were not always followed. The way they numbed themselves by means of making jokes out of serious situations were interesting defense mechanisms to observe. Unfortunately, the second half consisted of way too many scenes in which Cage’s character experienced hallucinations. I understood that he was guilt-ridden but I felt like the hallucinations were very distracting and it took away the picture’s sense of momentum. Maybe Scorsese wanted to contrast those fantastic elements with realism but I did not think it worked to the movie’s advantage. Those scenes went by so slowly and I became very frustrated. I also did not like the romantic angle between Cage and Patricia Arquette. It felt forced because they did not have any sort of chemistry. “Bringing Out the Dead” features a main character who is very flawed and at times unlikable but those are the qualities that made me interested in him. He took his job seriously so he was very hard on himself, which were most prominent when he drove around in an ambulance with another paramedic (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore). This film is definitely not for everyone because it doesn’t really have a defined plot. It’s more of a peek on a man’s life and how he swallowed the elements of the job he hated such as the deaths and dying people. Set mostly at night, Cage’s narration while patrolling the streets reminded me of “Taxi Driver.” Unfortunately, “Bring Out the Dead” isn’t as strong and isn’t as focused. At least it had good performances.