★★ / ★★★★
During her father’s burial, India (Mia Wasikowska) sees a man observing their mourning from afar. This turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), believed to have been traveling the world for many years. Charles is very charming and cultured so India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), invites him to stay with them for a while. India does not think this is a good idea given that they know almost nothing about him.
Daubed with a mysterious atmosphere and directed with a keen eye that allows images to come alive, it is a shame that the final quarter of “Stoker” is wimpy and standard. For a movie that is very careful about creating a well-paced build-up of bizarre events, there is something cheap about relying on guns and bloodshed instead of finding another way, one that feels right, to end the story.
The distance between the grieving mother and daughter is just right. Wasikowska and Kidman are nicely cast because they have a tendency of portraying cold personalities with just enough fire to keep their characters interesting. The screenplay does not give their relationship much depth, but there are enough oddities in their interactions that we cannot help but ask questions. Losing the man of the house is difficult for both of them. When Charlie enters the equation, it is almost as if there is a competition among the women.
When it comes to India and Uncle Charlie, about thirty to forty minutes in, I predicted exactly what is going to happen. However, I enjoyed the images enough that I was able to overlook its lack of excitement. I relished how a lamp in the basement moves back and forth when touched, how the camera lingers on the fingers dancing on the piano as the hand guides them to play beautiful melodies, and how images of past and present are placed on top of one another to draw parallels. It is an understated thriller with a taste bud for poetry and lyricism.
The supporting characters are not given enough time on screen in order to make a difference where the story will veer toward. Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) appears to be knowledgeable about the family’s dark history and Auntie Jen (Jacki Weaver) seems to be deathly afraid Charlie. Meanwhile, India’s classmates, cruel Pitts (Lucas Till) and kind Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), enter and exit the picture for the sake of showing the fact that India is not very popular at school. Their scenes could have been taken out completely and it would not have made much difference; we can tell that India is a loner by just looking at the way she dresses and the manner in which she interacts with people closest to her.
In the beginning, India admits through narration that she has an ability of seeing and hearing things that many people tend to overlook. I wished the writer, Wentworth Miller, had been more willing to play with the possibility that there is something paranormal about our protagonist. The house is palatial and prime for an old-fashioned ghost story. In other words, the material lacks the necessary red herrings so that people like myself will be distracted enough that we are inevitably swept up in the fun of its revelations.
Directed by Chan-wook Park, “Stoker” is visually splendid but it lacks a level of danger that many effective mystery-thrillers possess. It remains in a state of muffled restraint for so long that when it is time to conclude the story, it feels like it is simply trying too hard.
Leap Year (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A woman (Amy Adams) in a relationship with a cardiologist (Adam Scott) for four years thought that he was finally going to propose to her to get married. But since that wasn’t the case, she decided to fly to Ireland on a whim to surprise her husband-to-be and propose to him on a Leap Day–which she was lead to believe to be an old Irish tradition. But things didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had planned because even though she didn’t get along with a charming man (Matthew Goode) who agreed to take her Dublin, she started falling for him (and vice-versa) because he was everything her boyfriend was not: simple, didn’t let her get away with being a brat and someone who had her back when it mattered most. Directed by Anand Tucker, “Leap Year” was pretty much the same kind of romantic comedy released every month (more like every week) but I ended up somewhat liking it because I love Adams and Goode in just about every movie they star in. They both had this strange chemistry even though all they did was bicker and ended up in the most unfortunate situations. In a way, they were perfect for each other because she was too controlled and she had a list on what she wanted in life, while he was a person who was fine with wherever the wind took him. It also helped that he was a bit brooding but that darkness I felt wasn’t really explored. My main problem with this film was its script. I thought the dialogue lacked another dimension–it was too simple and there were times when I felt like I was watching an episode of a television show than a movie. While it did have some cute touches such as Scott playing a cardiologist but he had no idea what was in his girlfriend’s heart, those weren’t strong enough to make this a superior romantic comedy. It didn’t have gravity so I wasn’t at all emotionally invested. The middle portion was a bit too much and it dragged on in what felt like an eternity. I wish the movie explored the Irish tradition a lot more instead of just showing Adams in the most embarrassing situations. By the tenth time things didn’t go her way because of the black cat that crossed her path, I pretty much got the picture and I wanted it to move on. Without its leading stars, I could easily have hated “Leap Year” because it didn’t strive to be something more. It was safe, sometimes sweet and often clichéd. I couldn’t help but think Adams and Goode were too good for the roles they’ve chosen to play.
A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I really wanted to like this film more than I did because it has elements that instantly grabbed my interest: a period story with a love triangle that happens to comment about the limitations of religion. But for film that runs for about a hundred and thirty minutes, it should’ve been stronger. I thought the first half was very good because it has a mystery regarding why Matthew Goode’s character claims that he doesn’t know himself or what he wants in life. We are then taken back a couple of years when Goode meets the rebellious Ben Whishaw and the elegant Hayley Atwell–two siblings that he fell in love with. We also got to see Emma Thompson as their extremely religious mother and how the way she raised her children had negative consequences. But somewhere in the middle, the story got too cluttered: some characters leave without some sort of closure; then we are suddenly propelled to the present as we try to figure out each character all over again. It was an exhausting experience because I was so invested with the three leads during the first half of the film. I wanted to know more about their lives in the past than I did in the present. Another fatal mistake that the filmmakers had was near the ending. I’m not sure if I should blame Julian Jarrold, the director, or the actual novel itself (I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know) but there was a scene where we’re supposed to question Goode’s true intentions. After watching that scene, I felt like a rug was pulled from under me and I didn’t know whether I should still care for the character or not. Maybe if the director had done it in a much more subtle manner, it would’ve worked but I was really taken aback. This film offers gorgeous architectures, paintings, and clothing but the story didn’t make much sense because of the way it unravelled in the second half. The best part of the film was watching the chemistry among Goode, Whishaw, and Atwell; how their youth got the best of them even though they had all the potential in the world to become gods of their own destinies.
★★★★ / ★★★★
We all know the fact that people complain whenever a film doesn’t stick closely to its source material. Well, “Watchmen” remains very loyal to its graphic novel–with a few tweaks here and there so the audiences will be able to relate more with the politics it tries to tackle. I never thought I would ever read a review (like the one from Entertainment Weekly) that complains about a picture sticking too closely to its source. It seems like some critics just find a way to complain about something (no matter how ridiculous it sounds) to sound insightful so it’s hard for me to take that specific review seriously.
“Watchmen” may be about two hours and forty minutes long but Zack Snyder (who directed the 2004 version of the cult classic “Dawn of the Dead” and the highly overrated “300”) directs the movie so astutely, it doesn’t feel like it’s that long. I was particularly impressed with the way the film started: it goes over the Minutemen of the 1940’s in about ten minutes during the opening credits and then it takes us to its current setting which tells the audiences how different their successors have become. The death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in the hands of an unknown murderer sets up a series of events that results upon the reunion of five other superheroes: Rorschach (played brilliantly and hilariously by Jackie Earle Haley), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Unlike most superhero movies, the six of them are atypical in such a way that they are nihilistic, not afraid to hurt or kill, and each of them can be placed in various areas of the moral spectrum. They do not necessarily have a common goal initially but their beliefs and methods of acquiring information are often at odds with each other. A typical villain is not necessary because their own selves are ultimately their worst enemies. Though some can argue that there is a “big bad” in the film, to me, nuclear weapons and politicians’ hunger for power are the driving forces that force the characters to choose the morally gray path.
Each superhero is featured in one way or another so the audiences get an idea on what makes the characters tick (pun intended). In a way, we eventually learn to see them as regular human beings with real problems instead of gods that can jump in at any time and save the world. In fact, I can only remember one or two scenes when the characters decided to do a good dead just because they are superheroes. Although at times, the dialogue may sound a bit cheesy, especially the romantic scenes between Wilson and Akerman, the film provides a great balance between seriousness and humor. I also liked the fact that the sex scenes look realistic (as opposed to other superhero flicks) and the filmmakers weren’t afraid to show certain body parts from both genders. Usually, films like this tend to objectify women’s bodies but I didn’t get that feeling here. In my opinion, this is lightyears better than “300” because of its rich moral ambiguity and ability to genuinely entertain. Those who expect a typical superhero film may be disappointed but those who want to see something different should be impressed. “Watchmen” is a breath of fresh air from the likes of “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Spider-man.” Along with “Coraline” and “The International,” this is one of those few movies of early 2009 that is worth watching in the cinema; it also should be remembered as the year progresses.