Tag: matt damon

Ford v Ferrari


Ford v Ferrari (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

I don’t care for cars. I can admire one, if I try, for how it looks or how fast it is. But why does a brand, or make, or model matter when the point of the thing is to get you somewhere? I knew nothing about Ford or Ferrari, even less about their rivalry in the 1960s, but director James Mangold has helmed a sports drama involving race cars in a way that is human, entertaining, and accessible. It is not about cars but the people behind them: drivers, designers, businessmen who finance the endeavor of creating the greatest race car the world has ever known.

There is an excitement in Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller’s screenplay. It is quick to establish why Ferrari must be crushed: These Italians are conniving, stuffy, up themselves. Reductive but an effective way establish a bar that must be met and then surpassed. The irony: The more we get to know the American executives working at Ford, we realize many of them are not unlike the Italians they are attempting to defeat. Quicker still is its skill in communicating who the central players are and why we should care for their stories, within and outside of the company they work under.

Christian Bale plays Ken Miles, a World War II veteran who fixes cars for a living. Miles’ other half is not his wife (Caitriona Balfe) but a friend, former race car driver, and current car designer Carroll Shelby portrayed by Matt Damon. Notice the way these characters are introduced. They are more stubborn than two mules. Because of this, Miles and Shelby clash but they remain friends because they have learned to respect one another. So, it is critical that when we see them together on screen for the first time we feel there is already history there.

I certainly did and everything else after that, when it comes to the duo, is convincing. Sure, their partnership is challenged at times, which is expected from a drama, but the trials never feel so big as to be insurmountable. More often than not, their interactions are played for laughs; this approach works because Bale and Damon choose to play their characters with a certain cool. “I am this way, take it or leave it.” One is less stubborn than the other. But only because this person has a better strategy in playing the long game.

Less impressive are fake Hollywood moments designed to stir up emotions. Particularly memorable is when Mollie, Miles’ wife, decides to drive so recklessly, as if she were on a race track, because she knows her husband is not being honest with her about his desire for wanting to race cars again. This, and a few others like it (will the Ford executives allow the unwieldy Miles to race and represent their company in the 24 Hours of Le Mans?—we know the answer to this, so just get on with it), is not a convincing exchange because the attention is on the busy aspect of the action instead of the content of what is being discussed. (Will they hit a fence? A mailbox? A person crossing the street?) It would have been a different scene altogether had these two adults been talking in their living room or kitchen and there is only silence and disappointment between words. I did appreciate, however, that Mollie is written to be an understanding wife who knows her husband inside and out instead of a shrew who serves only to get in the way of her partner’s professional goals or desires.

The centerpiece of the picture is, of course, the showdown between Ford and Ferrari. The 24-hour race at Le Mans could have been so tedious—how many times can two vehicles pass one another over the course of a day without getting… tiring (it’s easy picking)?—but the filmmakers are correct to underscore the drama of what happens outside of the race cars. The title may be “Ford v Ferrari,” but the juice is the in-fighting between company men and the outsiders they hired in order to lift these company men and their image so products can be sold and their bank accounts get fattened even further. That is what this movie is really about.

Suburbicon


Suburbicon (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is an excellent example of how incredibly difficult it is to pull off a great dark comedy. Get the tone wrong in the slightest and nearly everything becomes displaced in such a way that the entire work trips on its own feet eventually and falls to the ground with a deafening thud. There is potential in this twisty 1950s tale that takes place in an all-white community that is jolted by a black family moving into the neighborhood, but it does not possess the requisite balance of subtlety and obvious—as well as when to shatter such a state of equilibrium and perform truly shocking tonal acrobatics.

The material is written by the Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, and it requires a perspicuous eye and sound judgment considering that it tackles an enchilada of subjects, from the consequences of a home invasion seen through the eyes of a child, a scam gone horribly awry, and the prejudice of a supposedly warm and loving community. The strategy is almost always to hammer the audience with the obvious, afraid that the point will be missed by those who cannot be bothered to pause and think.

What results is an overwhelming feeling that the director can do so much more to tell an enthralling story but choosing the laziest option instead just so the work can be digested much more easily. By doing so, it sacrifices or dilutes what the story is about: the complexity of human motivations and the role of coincidence and irony when we are convinced we are in complete control of a situation. About halfway through the picture, a list of directors made its way on my mind like a marquee: the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé—all uncompromising filmmakers who would rather assume their viewers are intelligent and so they create specific stories without worry that such tales would come across as inaccessible or obscure. In addition, they have a knack for creating images that seep into the mind and their impact is felt days or weeks later.

I enjoyed some of the performances. Noah Jupe is quite wonderful as Nick who becomes suspicious that his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (Julianne Moore) might be up to something sinister right after his mother (also played by Moore) had died. Observe as he holds is own against veteran performers who are more than capable of changing the tone and mood of conversations at a drop of a hat. His terror, never one-dimensional because he adjusts the dial depending on the rhythm of impressions and disclosures, brings to mind a forgotten gem called “Parents,” a story, also set in the 1950s, about a boy who becomes convinced that mom and dad are serving human meat on the dinner table and so he decides to stop eating. With the excellent comedy-drama “Wonder” under his belt and a solid performance here, Jupe is absolutely one to watch.

Another combustible performance is delivered by Oscar Isaac. To describe his role is to spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that he brings a level of humor and wit at a point when the story desperately needs rationality. The character is designed to pester and I wished the character had been introduced much earlier on in the film because the mystery is not really a mystery for those that have seen a handful of mid- to late-1940s thrillers. I grew a bit bored because the material takes its time to dance around the obvious.

Despite numerous symbolisms and foreshadowings, somehow we see right through “Suburbicon” as if it were air—the material being so thin of intrigue, it fails to excite us, intellectually or emotionally, despite some incendiary and relevant topics it dares to tackle. Clooney’s playfulness with tone—and at times his lack of control of it—is an incorrect approach when the story demands that what we see, feel, and think about cut like a scalpel across the throat.

The Talented Mr. Ripley


The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person. — Tom Ripley

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a visually alluring, thematically complex, and airtight thriller that dares to put a heart inside of a monster—or at least an impression of a warm, beating thing that resembles an organ, a representation of what separates us from savages. It tells the story of a young man named Tom Ripley, a part-time pianist whose talent lies in impersonating people, preferably those born into money because he covets a luxurious lifestyle. Mistaken for a Princeton alumnus after a performance, a shipping tycoon (James Rebhorn) requests for Tom to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from Italy. Considering that all expenses are paid for, in addition to monetary reward if he were to complete the assignment, Tom quickly seizes the opportunity.

It is admirable that the screenplay does not rely on merely showing Tom as a killer. Doing so prevents the material from being reduced to another suspense-thriller or horror cliché. Instead, it pushes the envelope a bit further by daring to pull the viewer into considering the way Tom perceives himself as a poor, working-class nobody forcing himself to walk in the shoes of someone else, at times literally, that he perceives to be somebody, one who is loved, regarded, important. What results is an electrifying character study with tragic elements, mainly from the perspective of our antihero, until we realize that we have grown to care for a person whose very gift is deception. Tom has played us in addition to those around him. I applaud its courageous ending.

Casting Matt Damon to wear the skin of the charming and manipulative title character is a fruitful decision. Relying on boyish good looks is not enough for this role. Notice the performer’s control of varying levels of magnetism which is almost always directly tethered to how another person might be exploited for Tom’s benefit despite a veil of camaraderie or friendship. The screenplay supports the performer by being smart enough to blur the line between these ideas. It makes us question whether a sociopath like Tom is actually capable of forming genuine social contracts with others or whether people exist simply to either aid or prevent him from reaching his goals. And because Damon is excels at projecting minute emotions, especially feelings of hurt and betrayal, when the camera is up close, we end up empathizing with him even though we know that the character isn’t capable of empathy.

Supporting characters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, Sergio Rubini) are not mere lambs lining up to be slaughtered. They have distinct personalities, points of view, and lives to live. As they move in and out of the story, something about them is always changed the next time we encounter them. This creates an exciting experience because not only do we need to evaluate Tom whose motivations are consistently elusive, we, too, need to assess those around him based on what knowledges or suspicions they’ve acquired off-screen considering the fact that these characters share social circles. Making the characters intelligent, vivid, and life-like not only breathes a freshness to the film. It also provides genuine challenges for the main character. Tom must adapt. And sometimes it is actually amusing to see him squirm and trip over the details of his deceit. We wonder at which point his lies are going to catch up to him.

Tense at the right moments and surprisingly clever just when we are convinced the jig is up, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” offers a fascinating look at how a specific mind functions. While there is beauty and decadence behind exotic locales the characters see and experience, there is a darkness here that the material is willing to explore without relying on mere violence in order to induce dread or horror. Sometimes a friendly smile held too long is most telling.

Downsizing


Downsizing (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Alexander Payne is known for his deeply humanist films (“The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “Sideways”) and even when his work contains characters with extreme personalities (“About Schmidt,” “Election”), there is almost always a warm and realistic center that is defined and deeply fascinating. It goes without saying that “Downsizing” is the filmmaker’s weakest film to date, but it cannot be denied that it contains many interesting ideas—so many, in fact, that the screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor does not spend enough time to explore every one of them despite a hefty running time of one hundred thirty minutes. It’s a mixed bag.

Those expecting a riotous fantasy-comedy are likely to be disappointed. Worthy of small chuckles throughout, the material is more inclined to establish a certain laidback mood, to give us time to ponder and ask ourselves questions like whether we would decide to downsize ourselves, a procedure in which a person’s body is reduced to less than a tenth of a percent of its original size, given the technology is available. The first half is strong because it is involved with details such as what the procedure entails before and after the fact, the sorts of questionnaires given to volunteers, how their assets would be translated, down to who made the discovery and under which circumstances.

But when it begins to tackle the subject of global warming and how it affects the sustainability of the planet, therefore impacting the human population negatively, it is neither that intriguing nor focused. It does not do or say anything that we have not heard of or read about before, assuming, of course, that the viewer is convinced of the fact that global warming is real. A strange juxtaposition is created between light comedy and a subject that is serious, increasingly relevant, and urgent. The contrast can work but it requires writing so sharp that the comedy is not at all safe.

Matt Damon’s ordinary Joe character named Paul is bland. I go as far as to say he is a bore. While it is possible that this is intentional because he is supposed to be a common man’s conduit into an alternate universe which contains technology capable of cellular reduction, the writers fail to give a great reason, or several good reasons, why he is worth following when he is akin to a leaf being blown by the wind. I think a more interesting avenue might have been to follow a character with a strong personality, like the party-loving neighbor (Christoph Waltz) or the Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau), because then we would have a compass by which to find ourselves in the constantly changing story.

A viewer might be wise or adjust his or her expectations because “Downsizing” is certainly not within the vicinity of quirkiness or bravado as Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” or Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” Perhaps this is the kind of story that might have translated better had it been pushed to such extremes as the aforementioned movies. With its original premise alone, it could have been a modern classic because the rift between the 1% and 99% is greater than ever. Perhaps on an alternate universe.

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.

The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.

In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.

The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.

The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.

What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.

Elysium


Elysium (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while at work, Max (Matt Damon) is informed that he has about five days to live. Although his condition can be cured, it is available only to the wealthiest and they reside not on Earth—since it has become overpopulated, polluted, and diseased—but on a space station called Elysium led by President Patel (Faran Tahir) and run by Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). People on Earth know that the panacea comes in a form of a med bay and it is available to every home in Elysium. However, every time non-Elysium citizens try to breach the space station, they are killed without a moment’s hesitation.

I am not convinced that the concepts tackled by “Elysium”—the division between developed and developing countries, illegal immigration, the gap when it comes to healthcare between the rich and the poor—are fully developed. However, writer-director Neill Blomkamp sure knows how to construct a thrilling action sequence. As a social critique, it did not inspire me to think much but as a sci-fi action, I was entertained.

The look of the picture is quite beautiful. The slums of Los Angeles in 2154 look very lived-in but not so much that they look like an utter wasteland. Though Damon’s physicality, especially when his character is eventually fused with an exo-suit designed to enhance Max’ strength, dominates just about every frame, there is always something worth noticing in the background: children playing, vendors selling fruit, the way the heat rests on men hanging out under the sun. We can almost feel the dust being inhaled and tasted.

Conversely, the interiors and exteriors of Elysium look very polished. The trees look almost like plastic or genetically engineered to perfection. The floors are so white, one wonders if there is such a thing as mud or grime in the sheltered world. The extras are mostly white, happy, and wearing clothing that seem to come right off Ralph Lauren ads. The availability of space between them are also noticeable. There is room to move around and breathe air without dust. On Earth, just about everyone is only an arm’s length away.

The film excels in showcasing adrenaline-fueled action. I liked the build-up between characters using mostly guns initially and then eventually utilizing knives, swords, and fists to render or pummel an opponent into submission. Sharlto Copley, playing a psychopathic sleeper agent named Kruger who takes orders from the cold and calculating Delacourt, exudes a gruff menace so potent, I believed him as a formidable villain seconds after he first appears on screen. Kruger and Max are well-matched. Though the former has more experience and considers the hunt as a game, the other is fueled by desperation.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of “Elysium” is its less than subtle commentary on what is wrong with America today. Images involving the system imposing its power on those with little or without means made me look back on real-life footages shown in the news or documentaries. By comparison, it is a level of irony because even though what is shown here is more dramatized, it is less powerful than actuality. If the approach has been less forceful, maybe a challenge for comparison would not have been as recurrent.

The Great Wall


The Great Wall (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

With no intention whatsoever to deliver historical accuracy, “The Great Wall,” directed by Yimou Zhang, manages to entertain on the level of superficial action-fantasy. Clearly, the target audience is one who craves chases and battles right from the get-go with minimal exposition. For this type of film, it is the correct decision to make the length relatively short, the pacing fast, and the special and visual effects eye-catching enough for us to want to keep looking at it. Although not a strong action picture, it is interesting enough, I think, to become a favorite on late-night cable networks.

It is apparent that the filmmakers wish to have fun with the material. For instance, there are numerous amusing banters between the two non-Chinese men, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), making their way through ancient China in search of black powder, perceived to be the next generation of weaponry in war. Even a potential romance between William and one of the Nameless Order commanders, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), protector of The Great Wall, is dealt with a certain level of silliness.

Movies of this type tend to take the material so seriously that usually they end up suffocating the audiences with their seemingly deep aspirations. Worse, they inspire us to roll our eyes both in disbelief and frustration. Here, I got the impression that the filmmakers, especially the writers, are aware of the painful contrivances so they, instead, attempt to amplify the more important elements in an action picture.

There is creativity in a handful of battle scenes. Particularly impressive is the first encounter against the so-called Tao Tei, massive lizard-like creatures with shark-like teeth and eyes adjacent to their forelimbs. According to the myth, a meteor crashed on a nearby mountain two thousand years prior and these creatures are to remind humanity of their greed. It is most exciting to observe the defenders of the wall taking position, getting their armaments ready, and observing the leaders’ faces anticipate a gory battle. Despite the fact that the monsters look computerized from a bird’s-eye view, there are instances when we get a chance to look closely at the creature and appreciate the finer details.

A shortcoming is a lack of characterization, even a superficial one, of the commanding officers. Sure, we get to learn most about Lin Mae of the Crane Troop. But also of potential interest are commanders of the Tiger Troop (Eddie Peng), Eagle Troop (Gengxin Lin), Deer Troop (Xuan Huang), and Bear Troop/General of the Nameless Order (Hanyu Zhang)—each specializing in an area of battle. Their fates would have had a stronger impact if we had gotten a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. One of the most beautiful moments of the film involves a funeral. But it fails to grab us emotionally.

“The Great Wall” is likely to be forgotten a few minutes after it is over, but this does not mean it doesn’t have strengths. As an on-the-spot experience, it engages enough to keep us wondering what might happen next—even while on our way to acquire the laundry.

Jason Bourne


Jason Bourne (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Jason Bourne,” written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is like a mediocre greatest hits collection in that it plucks a few of the best elements from the excellent first three films and repackages them in a less inspiring way. While a smile was drawn on my face upon seeing Matt Damon playing the enigmatic title character after ten years, the writing does not offer enough good reasons to get viewers to invest once again in the bone-crunching journey of the amnesiac assassin.

The plot is propelled by an ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into U.S. government files and discovering that Bourne’s father was involved in establishing Operation Treadstone, CIA’s black ops program where recruits are trained to become highly effective assassins. Although Bourne has learned that he signed up for the program voluntarily, there is new evidence that perhaps Bourne, previously named David Webb, was in fact manipulated to join. Meanwhile, the CIA director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is preparing to launch a similar hitman program named Iron Hand and requires the help of a young entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) in order to spy on the users who use his technology.

There is only one standout action sequence and it is shown early in the picture. It takes place during a night riot in Athens, Greece where Parsons and Bourne decide to meet so the former can inform the latter what she has found. Great tension is eventually established because director Greengrass’ handheld technique is married with the increasingly violent protest while Bourne and company weave themselves in and out of tricky situations. We get the impression we are participants in, not merely viewers of, the action. The sequence reaches its peak when Parsons and Bourne, on a motorcycle, are chased by an assassin (Vincent Cassel) in a car. Extremely sharp turns, teeth-chattering stairs, and pedestrians appear to be everywhere.

I enjoyed that the hitman this time around is relevant from the beginning till the end of the picture. In previous films, they are disposed of during the second or right before the third act—and so we expect the same to happen here. Cassel has always had a knack for playing cold, lethal men—and he is rock solid here—but an argument can be made that the asset could have been a more effective and memorable villain given his role in the new information Parson has come upon. The duel between Bourne and the asset is appropriately brutal but expected.

The final action sequence in Las Vegas becomes more disappointing the longer one thinks about it because such lack of realism has no place in the Bourne movies where less is often more. The vehicular chase down the Strip is similar to that of the later “Fast and the Furious” films in terms of its excessiveness to the point of disbelief. While such an approach works for that franchise, it does not work here. Compare the Vegas chase to the Moscow chase in Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy.” It is clear that latter is much better in framing the action and translating the balance between suspense and thrills.

While still classier than many action-thrillers to come out of Hollywood, being passably entertaining is not good enough for this franchise because the bar is set so high. The acting and technical elements like camerawork, use of score, and editing are in a good place, but the writing is a big disappointment, failing to inspire itself and despite itself.

The Martian


The Martian (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After an accident during a severe storm on Mars, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) of the Ares III mission makes an executive decision for her team (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) to leave the planet without botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead because he had been hit by debris and his body was nowhere to be found. As it turns out, however, Mark is not dead. Having only about thirty days worth of food, he must somehow keep himself alive until the next manned mission to Mars… which is four years away.

Based on the screenplay by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” is intelligent, entertaining and highly watchable at times, but it falls short of becoming a great film, one to be remembered for many years to come. It is a solid, crowd-pleasing picture that will likely hold up upon multiple viewings but beyond that is exaggeration.

One of the reasons is its unjustified bloated running time—about a third of it is repetitive fluff. The film is at the peak of its power when it focuses on the protagonist simply trying to think of ways to prevent death within a month. The first third is fascinating, amusing, and quite educational. Eventually, however, the screenplay introduces characters on Earth, various individuals who have a role at NASA and its affiliates (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean), who wrestle with the politics, the media, and what should or must be done in order to get the man home. I found the charade quite dull.

By taking away a significant amount of time and focus on the main character, we are not put into his mindset thoroughly and completely. This is why when problems compound on top of one another and Mark feels there is nothing left to do but to let out a small tantrum, I felt more amused of the display than feeling empathy. In another instance that occurs late in the picture, a would-be soul-stirring moment involving the abandoned cosmonaut in a confined space left me wondering when the film would be over rather than being in the moment and continuing to be invested in Mark’s plight.

The special and visual effects are quite eye-catching. Aerial shots of Mars never fail to grab the attention, from the seemingly red-hot sand to the beautiful hills and jagged rocks near the mission’s base. There is a line in the film where Mark expresses the humility he feels in being the first man to ever see or step on a particular area of the planet. These specific thoughts and musings make the story supremely engaging. After all, this is his story, not of those men and women back home who try their hardest at providing rescue.

“The Martian,” based on the novel by Andy Weir, offers enough individual moments to make this specific story worth telling and seeing, but it is limited by its apparent desperation to be liked by the mainstream. Coming from a science background, I enjoyed that the material champions not only book knowledge but also its practical application—the latter, I think, is not emphasized enough. But the many acts of heroism feel too Hollywood, hollow, and forced—simply there to appeal to as many people as possible.

Interstellar


Interstellar (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days, when a Christopher Nolan film comes out, it is an event. The reason is largely because he is willing to set the bar quite high for himself as a filmmaker and storyteller that sheer ambition and verve usually tend to inspire or impress many. But those willing to inspect closely will notice a chink in the armor: Like his weaker pictures, “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar” is beautifully shot and photographed, even exciting superficially, but it is overlong and overblown.

Most problematic is the so-called revelation during the final quarter which delves into a perceived supernatural presence acknowledged early on. It is entirely predictable. At that point, I felt my body sinking into my seat, almost embarrassed but certainly in disbelief that Nolan, despite his admirable quality of constantly striving for boldness or originality, has actually utilized one of the oldest tricks in the book. Worse, it is employed for the sake of sentimentality. I did not buy it and neither should any intelligent viewer. It is important that we know we deserve more.

What should have been done instead is to leave a bit of mystery for audience. Clearly, the film is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s challenging “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is disappointing that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan has chosen to traverse a more accessible path, easily digestible, some might argue spoon-fed, providing all the answers by the time the screen fades to black. The final thirty minutes comes across messy, amateurish, and not fully realized.

The basic premise is this: Earth’s atmosphere is now largely composed of nitrogen, rather than oxygen, and so the planet is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. As a result, a shortage of food spans the globe. It is without a doubt that mankind is facing extinction. When ten-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) begins to receive strange messages in her room, she and her father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are led to a hidden facility where scientists (led by a character played by Michael Caine) have come up with a plan to save the species. Cooper, currently a farmer but formerly a test pilot and engineer for NASA, is asked to participate on a mission which involves visiting potentially habitable planets outside of our known solar system.

Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence takes place on a bizarre planet where it appears to be composed of only water. The sequence demands attention because of two factors: we do not know what to expect from the seemingly calm environment and we are not yet aware if Cooper and the team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) will be able to work together effectively. On top of these, spending time on this particular planet carries a special risk. Cooper has promised to return to his daughter.

One of the picture’s limitations is its tendency to jump back and forth between the intergalactic mission and the happenings at home. While it is important we are consistently reminded that time is of the essence, both on a personal and a global level, we need not observe the drama between Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck) because it all seems so insignificant compared to the decisions their father must face. Video transmissions aboard the ship would have sufficed. Sometimes showing less communicates great sophistication while more is just overindulgent.

“Interstellar” is well-acted by the performers across the board; they deliver what is expected of the roles they must play. A few images are a marvel, particularly those of icy mountains that seem to go on for miles and a spacecraft set against the darkness of space—with no sound. But the picture fails to drill completely into Cooper’s roles as a father and a potential savior of the human species. It goes to show that although a filmmaker is provided a sizable budget to employ talent that will grace the screen and hire technicians to make images look just right, when the screenplay is not sculpted to near perfection, an otherwise ambitious project that can potentially set a standard may end up just satisfying rather than transcending.

School Ties


School Ties (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a Jewish high school senior in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is invited to attend St. Matthew’s, a renowned school in New England, because the academy needs a talented quarterback who can win them games. Despite some of the faculty’s knowledge that David is from a Jewish family, an uncommon recruitment given the prejudices in the ’50s, they are desperate to have him. When David meets his fellow athletes, readily spewing words of bigotry in the locker room, he figures that his life in the prep school will be easier if he makes an attempt to hide his background.

“School Ties,” based on the screenplay by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan, looks at the ugliness of intolerance with fastidiousness. While it is very unpleasant to hear phrases like “Christ killer,” “dirty Jew,” “Hebe,” and the like, it is also challenging, sometimes more so, to try to relate and sympathize with a person whose lips utter these words, especially when he stands like a proud giant after making the room laugh for being “daring” enough to use such unnecessary slurs. The film allows us to observe the close-minded individuals, think about some of the reasons why they might be the way they are, and be open to the possibility that they can learn to be more open-minded over time.

One them is Charlie (Matt Damon). He is under a lot of pressure from his family to get into Harvard. He sees himself as mediocre and having David enter the picture being surrounded by all sorts of adoration makes him jealous and angry. The screenplay makes a good move in allowing Charlie and David to connect before they are torn by circumstances, one of the reasons involving a girl (Amy Locane), and become enemies. Charlie’s confession to David at the jetty is moving because Charlie is able to lay out his insecurities to someone who feels more like a stranger than a friend. He is not yet aware that David is Jewish.

I felt Reece (Chris O’Donnell) needs more screen time given that he is David’s roommate and one of the students who is prejudiced. There is something surprising about him and it is a shame that the screenplay chooses not to take full advantage of it.

Despite the power of the film’s message, it meanders from time to time. The scenes with the tough French teacher (Zeljko Ivanek), for instance, has a wonderful build-up but weak resolution. Much of these scenes are played for laughs but there is nothing amusing about the ominous halls where one person with the wrong intentions might discover David’s secret.

Directed by Robert Mandel, “School Ties” is appropriately titled because of its multiple meanings. Ties are designed to make people look formal or appear to have a high status. It is a tool that allows David to keep a front in order to belong. The other type of ties involves the camaraderie among the students. There is a bond among the seniors that David can never be a part of, no matter how hard he tries, and it has nothing to do with being Jewish. Their bond is made strong by the accumulation of experiences that the students shared in the institution. Lastly, it is about family connections–knowing the right people to get ahead in life, a concept that the boys rely on as a fallback every time they feel insecure or if things do not work out. David has very little connections. He has a lot to lose.

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.

Teenage Paparazzo


Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.

Contagion


Contagion (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.