★★ / ★★★★
When their daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato), snuck out to attend a posh teen party, Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and Kyle’s (Nicolas Cage) home was invaded by four thugs (Cam Gigandet, Ben Mendelsohn, Dash Mihok, Jordana Spiro). They knew Kyle’s business involved selling diamonds and they hoped that by forcing the husband to open a money vault, they would be that much richer by the end of the night. But Kyle wouldn’t open the depository even if his wife’s life was threatened. Written by Karl Gajdusek and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Trespass” could have been a lot of fun if it hadn’t taken itself too seriously. Once Sarah and Kyle were on the floor, screaming, begging, and arguing for their lives, they weren’t given very much to do. With such a high caliber actors, one would think that the filmmakers would take advantage of it, take some risks, even unnecessary ones, and really challenge its audiences in terms of what was normally expected in home invasion movies. Instead, the film was too safe. Aside from the shot when Sarah realized that one of the men wearing masks was someone she knew, there was no other scene that moved me, good or bad. The rest were just there as I passively watched the formula: the hostages waiting for an opportunity to run, finding a chance to get away for a couple of minutes because the thugs ended up on each other’s throats, and eventually getting caught because the backyard was so big, it was like running a marathon from Point A to Point B. Back to square one, nothing changed. To its credit, the formula wasn’t boring, per se. It was repetitive but I wanted the family to find an escape so badly to the point where I didn’t mind. I just wasn’t as involved as I felt I should have been. The characterization was obvious especially concerning the head of the family: Kyle was like a diamond. Despite the heat and pressure applied by the criminals, he just wouldn’t break. But there was nothing else to his character. Aside from Cage doing his crazy yelling in an outstanding (and borderline comical) manner, his character wasn’t very interesting. He was smart and sarcastic but he held so many secrets that, by the end, we ended up not really getting to know him. And then there was the criminals’ laughable decision to bring a druggie, Petal, the only woman in their group, as a helping hand. I thought it was unintentionally funny. She pranced around the house wearing other people’s clothes, admiring shoes, jewelry, purses and taking drugs. When she wasn’t doing the aforementioned activities, she went downstairs to whine about what was taking so long and wanting to slap around Sarah out of jealousy. It was like bringing an already ticking bomb to a supposedly controlled situation. For a group who went out of their way to gather so much information about Kyle and his family, stringing a loose cannon along just didn’t feel right. With all the things that happened, “Trespass” probably would have worked as a farce or a satire instead of a straight-faced suspense picture if the writing had been exaggerated and ironic. Since it settled with typicalities, it ended up blending in a haystack of mediocrity.
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) was magnetized toward the arts so when the opportunity of working with Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) production of “Julius Caesar” had presented itself, Richard just had to be in the play despite lacking theater experience. Through a week of rigorous rehearsals, Richard fell for a secretary named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) who everyone admired but earned the nickname of being an Ice Queen. Little did Richard know that he had to compete with Welles for Sonja’s affections. I understand that this movie must have been a big deal for Efron because it gave him the chance to finally be considered as a serious actor. In a way, the actor had parallels with his character because Richard wanted to be taken seriously despite his age and lack of connection in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, the movie barely kept my attention. I could not connect at all with Richard because there did not come a point where he had a clear vision between wanting to have the girl or wanting to achieve his dreams. Obviously, he could not have both. To an extent, his lack of understanding about what was more important was understandable because he was young, but I think the writing should have presented a key moment when the audiences would realize that Richard was worth rooting for even though he did not know exactly what he wanted. There were two characters who overshadowed the protagonist. One was Danes as an elegant woman who knew what she wanted and would do anything to go where she wanted to go. Unlike the main character, she had experience and was wise despite the fact that I did not always agree with her actions. The other character that fascinated me was Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring young writer who liked to visit museums for inspiration and when she felt down. Kazan was absolutely charming and, more importantly, the zeal she embedded in her character did not feel forced. Generally, Efron was satisfactory as Richard, albeit too safe, but his lack of intensity was magnified when he had to interact with Danes and Kazan. Furthermore, I do have to say that his optimistic one-liners made me cringe. “Me and Orson Welles” was surprisingly weak especially since Richard Linklater was the director. In most of his films, he has such a great ear for dialogue and sharp vision in terms of capturing actors in their most natural state to the point where it almost looks effortless without sacrificing the characters’ multi-dimensional personalities. “Me and Orson Welles” was very uneven, especially in its first half, and ultimately disappointing.
★★ / ★★★★
The main actress for an upcoming play for “Macbeth” was hit by a car. Betty (Cristina Marsillach), much to her surprise, was offered and almost immediately accepted the role despite her reluctance due to the popular curse that surrounded the production of the play. It wasn’t long until a sadistic killer emerged and started murdering members of the crew. Dario Argento, the writer and director, had a strange fixation for the bizarre. For instance, he would constantly move his camera to achieve an extreme close-up to revel every drop of emotion from his actors and animals, in this case, crows. I also noticed that he had a penchant for playing soothing music directly after a scene in which someone was killed in the most gruesome way. The way he used opera and heavy metal music reflected the contrasting elements between opera and horror. Without a doubt, the film was stylish but I’m afraid, when I look underneath its technical achievements, it was just another slasher flick. Finding out the identity of the killer was the main purpose. Was it the play’s director (Ian Charleson)? The detective (Urbano Barberini) in charge of solving the killing spree? Betty’s fiesty publicist (Daria Nicolodi)? Betty’s harmless romantic interest (William McNamara)? It was also mentioned that Betty had dreamed of the killer’s activities ever since she was a child. However, the identity of the killer, his or her motives, and the childhood nightmares did not come together in way that made sense, let alone in a meaningful and rewarding way. When the characters struggled for their lives, their common sense were out the window as they tried to weigh the pros and cons between, for instance, trying to get the telephone sitting in a dark corner and getting out of the apartment. The obvious answer would be to get out of the apartment and run like one was competing in a 100-meter dash in the Olympics. No one in their right mind, when pushed in a corner to be gutted, would waste time thinking about the “smarter” decision. It’s all about instincts. However, I did enjoy some moments of creativity. I thought it was creepy how the killer forced Betty to watch the murders by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes to “motivate” her not to blink (if she does, her eyelids would touch the needles) and the way the crew found out the killer’s identity. Still, I can’t quite recommend “Opera” because its lack of cohesion in terms of its story made it painfully average.
Scream 3 (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Post-college life was tough for Sidney (Neve Campbell) as she moved away from her friends and family to live in a house deep in the woods with her dog. Who could blame her for being traumatized after a masked killer, or killers, exhibited a fixation for murdering those she was closest to? “Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro,” a successful horror franchise, was in production in Los Angeles but the actors were attacked and killed by Ghost Face. It seemed like the killer’s plan was to murder the actors in which they died in the movie in order to attract Sidney’s attention and come out of hiding. The two obviously had issues to resolve. There was only one problem: Sidney, Gale (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) had no idea which script Ghostface had in hand because three versions were written. It meant there were three different order of kills and three different endings. Still directed by Wes Craven but the screenplay helmed by Ehren Kruger instead of Kevin Williamson, “Scream 3” had potential for excellence but the execution was too weak to generate enough tension to keep me interested. What I enjoyed was Sidney, Gale, and Dewey’s doubles (Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey and Matt Keeslar, respectively) because they were exaggerated versions of the real ones. What I didn’t enjoy as much was they weren’t given very much to do other than waiting to die in a gruesome fashion. And while the material played upon the actors’ self-centeredness despite being second- or third-rate celebrities, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What made the first two movies so enjoyable was the fact that the comedy and horror were connected in a smart way. In here, the material relied on spoiled celebrities as a source of comedy and Ghostface’s hunt for Sidney as a source of horror. Since the two failed to connect, the script felt painfully stagnant. I wondered where the story was ultimately heading. Furthermore, the chase-and-stab formula became less exciting over time. It was awkward how the film would stop in the middle of the suspense and cut into a less exciting scene. In doing so, the scares lost considerable amount of momentum. And when it finally decided to return to the murder scene, it just looked silly and gruesome. It began to feel like a standard slasher flick. “Scream 3” still winked at itself, like the villain in a trilogy becoming seemingly superhuman, but it lacked the edginess combined with other necessary elements to bring the movie to the next level. It just didn’t feel fresh anymore. When the unmasking arrived, I just felt apathetic. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the clock every other scene to check the remaining minutes you have to sit through.
Love and Other Drugs (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charming sales representative Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) was fired from his job because his manager caught him having sex with a woman, who happened to be the manager’s girlfriend, at their work place. Belonging in a family with connections, Jamie didn’t stay unemployed for long. Jamie’s brother (Josh Gad) almost immediately snagged him a job as a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer. While Jamie was busy handing out drug samples to various clinics, he met Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a woman inflicted with Parkinson’s disease. At first, it seemed like what Jamie and Maggie had was like any other one-night stand both of them were accustomed to. Eventually, they had to face the fact that maybe their relationship was heading somewhere deeper than they had expected. Based on a book by Jamie Reidy and directed by Edward Zwick, “Love and Other Drugs” was borderline unlikable because I almost found it pretentious yet eager to please. Let’s take the scenes that involved nudity. First and foremost, it felt nothing but a gimmick to attract younger people to go see the movie. The movie showed breasts and buttocks. Everything else was strategically hidden either by another body part or a nicely placed camera angle. It was distracting. Instead of being in the moment, I ended up thinking about its techniques’ false progressiveness. I have no problem with nudity, so if the filmmakers were to have a dozen scenes that ranged from meaningless sex to making love, they should be fearless in going all the way and leaving commercial reservations out the door. Instead, there was an awkward feel to the film. I had a feeling that it wanted to be a mix of an art house drama and a very commercial romantic comedy and it was neither. To a lesser degree, there were some scenes that I thought needed to be reshot because there were times when the acting felt disingenuous, especially by Hathaway. I’m not sure if she felt uncomfortable or she was just trying too hard. Either way, it didn’t feel natural. But the picture had bright spots. I appreciated the smaller and quieter moments like when Maggie asked Jamie to name four positive things about him. He couldn’t do it and there was a sadness that permeated from the screen. Some people just don’t know what they offer the world and that’s unfortunate. Another standout was when the film showed us how Maggie was really like without the drugs that masked her condition. It was a true turning point for the two lovers. “Love and Other Drugs” was like all pills: It had positive qualities but it also had pesky side effects. If it had trimmed its running time by getting rid of most scenes that involved the annoying brother and Jamie sweet-talking his way into women’s panties (we get it–he’s a stud), its heart would have been more defined.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Roald Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” directed by Wes Anderson, told the story of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who promised his wife (Meryl Streep) that he would stop stealing food from farmers when she told him that she was carrying a child. Twelve years later, right around the visit of Mrs. Fox’ nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), Mr. Fox felt the need to return to his schemes and eventually got his entire animal community into trouble. The first thiry minutes of this animated film was strong. I was amused with the scenes involving Mr. Fox sneaking into the farmers’ respective lands and facing different and fun challenges. I also liked the scenes that highlighted the insecurities of Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. and Mrs. Fox’ son, when he would often compare himself to his cousin, especially in terms of physicality and athleticism. Those were enjoyable because it had a certain energy and excitement so I couldn’t help but look forward to what would happen next. Unfortunately, like in most of Anderson’s work, the movie began to run out of fuel past the forty-minute mark. When the animals were forced to live underground, the picture felt like it didn’t know where it was going and random references to other films started popping up like the plague. The attempts for dry humor were unoriginal and I could feel the material’s desperation to get any kind of laugh. Despite many things happening at the same, unlike the first third of the film, the material no longer felt fresh. It lost intelligence, tenderness and spark. In fact, the characters started to blend amongst one another. As a result, I merely saw the animals as pests instead of creatures that supposed to reflect us humans. While I thought the animation was interesting to look at (and I did embrace its flaws), the way the story unfolded wasn’t strong enough to get me to care for the characters. Quirkiness could only get a movie so far and unfortunately, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” relied too much on the superficial. Other actors who contributed their voices include Bill Murray, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. However, I didn’t recognize their voices because the picture was too busy trying to deal with the conflict between the animals and humans to the point where it didn’t have enough time to take a minute and convince us why we should care. For all I care, the big names’ voices could have been played by unknowns and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” received a lot of comparisons with Pixar movies. However, I think Pixar films are much more effective because they are aware of the fact that since we’re not seeing human faces, they highlight the animated characters’ human characteristics to lure us and, more importantly, keep our attention. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” managed to lure me but it didn’t keep me interested.
★★ / ★★★★
A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.