★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★ / ★★★★
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.
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” stars Christopher Plummer as the title character who won a bet against the devil (Tom Waits) and gained immortality. About a thousand years later, Doctor Parnassus now with a daughter (Lily Cole), the devil came back to make another deal. That is, whoever seduced five souls into entering a magical mirror and making certain decisions would win and ultimately keep the girl. Quirky characters played by Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer and Heath Ledger (with a mysterious past) were a part of Dr. Parnassus’ traveling performers. I thought this was a particularly challenging film to watch because the fantastic elements mixed with playing around with time and malleable loyalties of characters were difficult to keep track in one sitting. Added on top of it all was Ledger’s untimely death so Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell had to come in and fill in his shoes whenever Ledger entered the cryptic mirror. While the three did a good job across the board, I thought none of them could match the intensity and fluidity that Ledger put on the table. The visuals were a sight to behold but sometimes the picture got too carried away with the images where it took some power away from the story. I thought the movie functioned best when the story was at the forefront and the visuals were used as an aid to make the players realize something within themselves. For instance, I thought one of the most effective scenes in the movie was when Depp lured a rich lady into stepping onto a boat to meet her fate. There was something about it that was so poetic–almost touching–but at the same time creepy because of the anticipation of what would happen to her next. When the story and the images worked together, the project had me in a vicegrip. Unfortunately, exemplary scenes like that came few and far between. Another problem I had was only toward the end did we get to see what lengths Dr. Parnassus would go through to save his daughter. Most of the time, he was just in the background drinking like there’s no tomorrow while the movie focused on Ledger’s past. I was less interested in the mysterious stranger’s past. I actually wanted to know more about the man who lived for a thousand years and the many things he had to go through and only to meet the devil again at the most inopportune time. In a nutshell, the lead character needed more dimension by means of a more focused writing. Imagination is something that “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam, did not lack. However, the execution was ultimately weak and I felt like it could have been so much darker. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake of this film twenty or thirty years from now because the elements of a great film were certainly there. It’s just that circumstances prevented it from reaching great heights.
★★ / ★★★★
James Woods stars as a journalist who went to El Salvador to acquire stories about the political turmoil that was unfolding in the country. Despite having a wife and a child in the United States, he made contact with old connections who all thought he was dead such as his girlfriend (Elpidia Carrillo) and a photographer (John Savage). This film was a mixed bag. What I enjoyed most about it was when it finally focused on the civil war at hand which culminated in the last thirty minutes. There was something so poetic with the way Oliver Stone, the director, dropped Woods and Savage in the middle of raining bullets; the soliders held their guns and shot their bullets and the two leads held their cameras and took photos. Another part of the picture that stood out to me was the scene when Savage and Woods decided to take pictures of mountains of dead bodies. The decaying bodies looked so real especially when the camera loomed over the image in a wide angle. The film performed best when it really honed in on the seriousness of war and the innocents that were caught in the crossfire. However, my main problem with this film was its sense of humor that pervaded the first half. James Belushi’s character did not work for me at all because whenever he was on screen, I felt like I was watching a teenage film from the 80’s–like he was that boisterous uncle in a frat party who never found the time to mature. His character was just so out of place that it was kind of painful to watch. I don’t know what Stone was thinking writing this character into the story but I found it a bit disrespectful. Was the character’s purpose to show the obliviousness of Americans regarding the situation in El Salvador? If so, that was not my initial reaction because his character did not show any range or growth. The romantic angle did not work for me either for the same reasons. In the end, I wanted to know more about Woods and why he loved being a journalist. The way he argued his opinions about the war (even though he sounded preachy) against Americans in power convinced me that he wasn’t just doing it for the fame or the money as other synopses suggested. Even though he was flawed, he cared about what was happening in El Salvador. To me, half of this film borderlined greatness because I could feel the passion in the images on screen while the other half was more blasé and somewhat offensive. It is unfortunate that it was just a mediocre experience for such a powerful subject.
★★ / ★★★★
“Bakjwi” or “Thirst,” directed by Chan-wook Park, was about a priest (Kang-ho Song) who knowingly participated in a fatal experiment in order to help other people who might be infected with the disease in the future. Surely enough, the experiment killed him but he later returned from the dead as a blood thirsty vampire. I couldn’t quite enjoy this movie as a whole because it was very odd which, frankly, I did not expect. I thought it was going to be a pretty standard horror film about a vampire. Others may like the fact that the movie tried to pull off some comedy here and there but I found it to be very distracting. Maybe the humor was lost in translation because I’m not Korean so I didn’t think it was funny at all. I found the scenes with the family (Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin) to be very dull and redundant. And the whole “romance” between Song and Ok-bin Kim did not persuade me at all that they were “in love.” There were far too many–from what it felt like–obligatory sex scenes that didn’t quite move the story forward. As realistic as they were, they didn’t do anything for me; I was more interested with the scares that it had to offer. I wanted to know more about what it meant for the lead character to be a vampire and the struggles he had to go through since he chose to live by certain codes. One of the most important of those codes included not killing people because God saw it as a mortal sin. Did he, when stripped with religion, inherently thought it was wrong? After all, he was no longer a “normal” human. I didn’t really get my questions answered because the movie insisted on spending time with that annoying family. The priest was a very interesting character because I don’t know a lot of vampire characters who remain loyal to his religion after death. However, I very much enjoyed the last forty minutes because I finally felt that I was watching a film that was edgy, suspenseful and mysterious. I don’t want to spoil anything because I did not see certain things coming but the events that happened in the last third of the movie really fascinated me. I felt like the movie finally came alive especially the beautiful outdoor scenes. It had this mesmerizing glow that glued me to the screen. If only the level of filmmaking was the same as the last third of the picture, I would have given “Thirst” a recommendation. With a running time of about two hours and ten minutes, it certainly felt that long or maybe even longer.
★★ / ★★★★
Clocking in under 80 minutes, “9” tells the story of ragdoll-like creatures in a postapocalyptic world who struggle to survive against the machines. When one of the creatures named 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) woke up, he started to ask questions like what had happened in the world, why they had to live in fear, and what they could do so that they would have a better existence. 1 (Christopher Plummer), the leader of the creatures, did not like 9’s questions and they often clashed on how to approach various situations. Other voices included Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly and Fred Tatasciore. Written and directed by Shane Acker, I did like the imagination and the high level of animation in “9” but I felt like the story could have used a lot of work. Only toward the end did it somewhat come together which was not a good thing because I was confused for more than half the picture. It brought up more questions than answers. For instance, it tried to tackle the war between humans and machines, the concept of having a soul, and immortality. Such complex and controversial subjects were merely glossed over when it should really have been discussed and explored. For a movie that was only 80 minutes long, that certainly did not help when it came to having more depth in the story. I admired the action sequences. They were undeniably exciting because I did care for the creatures. Even though they did not look remotely human, I quickly cared about them due to their ability to think like we do and feel like we do, especially 9 because he was capable of moral evaluation. With that said, I don’t think this film was made for children because it was violent, dark and sometimes the characters met a brutal death. I hate to say this because I know this film took a lot of effort to make but I believe that if the filmmakers spent more time adding scenes that could enhance the issues it tried to deal with, “9” would have been a superior animated feature. I do give it credit, however, for not trying to be another cute Pixar movie designed for children. I could easily tell that it was trying to be something more but unfortunately the missing pieces were just too jarring for me to ignore.