Is Anybody There? (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Edward (Bill Milner) lives in a hospice run by his parents (Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey) and he’s just about had it because his room is given to a dying old man. When the gentleman died of natural causes, Edward has reason to be excited because it means he gets to have his room back, but Clarence (Michael Caine), a retired magician whose wife has recently passed away, arrives with his decrepit vehicle as he is assigned to live in their home by social services. Their situation isn’t helped by the fact that Edward and Clarence get off on the wrong foot.
The concept of a lonely young person meeting an elderly who unexpectedly changes his life isn’t particularly new, but the film, written by Peter Harness, has enough small oddities and deviations to allow a standard premise to shine in surprising ways.
Being able to hold one’s own against Caine is no easy feat and Milner does exactly that. While he is given an interesting character on paper, having a fascination with paranormal happenings and trying to communicate with the spirits of the deceased residents, he doesn’t rely on the his character’s idiosyncrasies to appear interesting. Instead, his characterization exudes a certain level of intelligence and maturity, coupled with a youthful zeal to want to be taken seriously, and so the inevitable changes that he goes through feel genuine.
The look of the picture reflects the many emotions that the characters force to mute. They almost seem cold to one another because they’re reluctant to say what scurries in their minds. The skies are always smudged with cumulonimbus clouds, the ground soaked by heavy night rain, and the close-up of faces, shot outdoors, have a blurry, dull-yellowish tint that it almost feels like we’re looking inside a memory. It gives the impression that although we see a person in front of us, a lot about them remains a mystery. Further, because of the picture’s purposefully gloomy ambiance, the small glimmers of hope and happiness that sprout coruscate that much more luminously.
What the script requires a bit of revision is the decaying relationship between Edward’s parents. Because both are very busy, some might say overworked, with the goings-on around the home, the husband and wife barely have the time and energy for one another. A much younger employee has gotten the attention of Edward’s father. The moment they share a flirtatious look, there’s nothing especially surprising about the way it turns out. Naturally, his wife has to find out eventually. I did like, however, how the fallout is handled. The filmmakers use the passage of time in a way that it lessens the bitterness and sweetness of what is broken which complements the material’s tone.
Written by Peter Harness and directed by John Crowley, “Is Anybody There?” may be small in scope but it takes advantage of its limitations by turning inwards and being selective of what it chooses to present as truth from the world of the elderly. With its intimate setting, we are given a chance to appreciate the nuances of the narrative.
Mona Lisa (1986)
★★ / ★★★★
Fresh out of prison, George (Bob Hoskins), with a white rabbit in his arms, goes to see his boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), with the hopes of continuing to work for him. Though Mortwell is not there to welcome him, the ex-convict is assigned a job as a driver for a call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) who visits rich clients all over the city. Soon, George finds himself falling for Simone because he feels that she considers him as more than a doormat, more than somebody who served seven years in jail.
“Mona Lisa,” based on the screenplay by Neil Jordan and David Leland, is not a successful fusion of the drama and crime genres. The approach is to welcome us into George and Simone’s disreputable worlds through their personal interactions, but it sacrifices the complexity of their relationships. As a result, the big picture is a blur for the most part. This is problematic because the third act, including the climax, involves life or death situations. I found myself indifferent toward who lives or dies.
The picture excels in dialogue and acting. Exchanges between the ex-con and the prostitute are never boring because they can be amusing, spicy, tender, and romantic. There is contrast not only in terms of the physicality of the characters but also in the way they come off to one another. George says what he means and means what he says while Simone is immersed in mystery. It makes sense that the two characters are the way they are because of what they have gone through or are continuing to go through. Their occupations might be very different on the surface but they relate to each other eventually because of the front that must be upheld in order to perform the job.
Hoskins and Tyson share wonderful chemistry not necessarily in terms of sexual tension but through George and Simone’s tenuous alliance—a sort of friendship. Hoskins is able to straddle the line between someone who can seriously incapacitate with his fists and rage while attempting to hide a delicate core. On the other hand, Tyson plays Simone with elegance and tenderness. Still, we suspect she knows a thing or two about manipulation though it is not often clear how she is playing the game exactly. She has to be smart and careful to reveal just enough.
An undercooked subplot involves George’s relationship with his daughter. The two share a few secret meetings—since George and his ex-wife do not get along—but there is nothing more to their newly ignited connection other than the fact that George feels uneasy when he sees young prostitutes, some as young as fifteen years old, trying to snag clients in King’s Cross. There is no freshness in the words and sentiments they share.
Perhaps most problematic is our lack of understanding of Mortwell. I suppose we are supposed to assume that he is an influential man, given his position, but the screenplay does not explore him enough. Even though Caine is very good, especially during the first scene we see him—acting with his eyes closed but still delivering the requisite intensity, the majority of the character’s menace fails to translate in later scenes. Mortwell ought to have been equally complex.
Directed by Neil Jordan, “Mona Lisa” gets away with some logic being thrown out the window but rarely does a film, especially when it is a character-driven piece, gets away unscathed without underscoring necessary foils and subplots which make the protagonists’ world go ‘round. Also, since the picture is also part-mystery, discerning eyes cannot help but notice the missing jigsaw puzzles from a distance.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Spy action-thriller nowadays default on looking gloomy and dark in order to be taken seriously. Who would have known that one that is bright, funny, and vivacious proves to be a breath of fresh air in a sub-genre that is increasingly becoming one-note?
“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, is a highly entertaining, creative, and good-looking picture that takes inspiration from early Bond films—eccentric villains included—and runs with it till the finish line. Couple such qualities with good performances and pacing that can keep up with The Flash, what results is a mindless good fun for those who are not easily offended and willing (or craving) to embrace the unexpected.
With Lancelot (Jack Davenport) dead after being cut in half, there is an open position in a top secret government intelligence agency. Arthur (Michael Caine), the leader, requires his fellow agents to recruit potential candidates who have the potential to replace Lancelot. Once gathered, a challenging and thorough training process will take place. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who feels indebted to a man who saved his life seventeen years prior, chooses a Royal Marines dropout named Eggsy (Taron Egerton)—the only son of that same man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and fellowmen.
Its level of violence is very high and so although at times it comes across light or high-spirited, somewhere along the veins of Robert Rodriguez’ “Spy Kids,” it is absolutely not for children. Having said that, the violence is never meant to be taken seriously or offensive—including the church massacre that a surprising number of viewers point out as unnecessary or just plain sick. I believe that it is meant to be over-the-top in order to demonstrate the evil that the villain is willing to execute. I found the scene to be well-choreographed, well-edited because we can actually observe the action unfold instead of attempting to make sense of random cuts, as well as exciting and amusing.
The villain, Valentine, is played by Samuel L. Jackson who sports a thick lisp and a strong dégoûté, ironically enough, for blood. His crazy plan involves saving the human race from extinction due to global warming. However, in order to save the species, he is willing to initiate a mass genocide. The details of his plan has to be seen to be believed. I have not seen a villain like this in years and he is a true throwback from classic Bond pictures. His lethal assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), reminded me of those kick-ass women from Quentin Taratino’s “Kill Bill.”
Egerton is a breakout star partly because of his performance but mostly because of his looks. I bought him completely in terms of playing a character who has been raised in a rough neighborhood, very tough and street-smart. The actor has the kind of face of a big movie star in the making. Given the right role in the right project, if it did not happen to be this one, his career, in my opinion, will skyrocket. Furthermore, anybody with an accent Egerton employs can come off rather threatening but the performer draws us in by maintaining a level of sensitivity or vulnerability even when he looks like he is ready to fight. That is key because it makes us root for him.
Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is the kind of movie I am happy to revisit once every year or two because of its infectious energy, willingness to be fun, and creativity. If a sequel were to happen, consider my seat booked.
Dark Knight, The (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when Gotham City seemed able to completely delouse itself of its gangster and crooks, a makeup-wearing man with green hair and scars around his lips, known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), emerged and threatened to send the city back into its original state: crime-ridden, a general lack of hope for the future, and citizens living in fear. “The Dark Knight,” based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, was a menudo of complex ideas, from what it meant to be a symbol of justice to what could happen if that symbol was driven to an extreme and then derailed, coupled with thrilling action sequences with enough tricks up its sleeve, to describe the experience of watching it in one word would be “transportive.” What I loved about the screenplay was its treatment of Batman (Christian Bale) in terms of his relationship with Gotham City. While the earlier scenes showed him capturing crooks of all levels, there was a certain level of detachment between he and us. Scant information was given about his personal life; he was defined by his actions as a man with a mask and as Bruce Wayne when he expressed his intentions to Alfred (Michael Caine) and what he felt he could do better for the city. Despite sporting a cape and a mask, it was made clear to us that he was a civil servant first and that felt refreshing. Other civic servants in the film included Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a police lieutenant, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney who felt equal passion as Batman and his comrades to overturn the Gotham underworld and to rid the streets of crime. I enjoyed that much of the attention was on Dent and how he responded to the stresses incited by The Joker. While there was a clear character arc in Dent, it was an unpredictable course because, like a real person, although he valued many things, not all of them were of equal importance. As more of his buttons were pushed, the pressure increased until the inevitable breaking point. Eckhart had to be lauded because we had to be with his character every step of the way. As Gotham’s white knight, Dent didn’t prowl the streets at night to capture bad guys but the actor found a way to communicate to us why he was a heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. Another performance worth nothing included Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s friend since childhood and Dent’s romantic interest. Gyllenhaal found a balance between intelligence and spunk so I cared about Rachel when she eventually had to confront The Joker and was threatened to have her face carved with a permanent smile. Lastly, Ledger gave a performance so magnetic, I relished every sound that came out of his mouth and obsessed over the subtle body movements he embedded within his deranged character. While the script was very sharp to the point where just about anyone could read it and sound evil, Ledger made it his own, techniques ranging from strange ticks to awkward pauses, allowing The Joker to be evil and fun without being silly or cartoonish. The film was a rousing entertainment partly because it had an excellent villain. I likened The Joker to a super-bacterium, a microorganism resistant to antibiotics. Batman, government officials like Dent, and the police were the drugs meant to cure its host, Gotham City, of an affliction. While they were able to get rid of regular bacteria like Falcone and his successors (Eric Roberts), The Joker was immune because his mind functioned differently as a super-bacterium’s wall composed of various unexpected defenses which made it impervious to the effects of drugs. This made The Joker a real threat, mirrored by his realistic-looking terrorist attacks in the city. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight,” though slightly longwinded toward the end, gave us credit by not just being about right or wrong or which side would win ultimately. It was about the process of reaching a goal which meant taking a magnifying glass on victories, big and small, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, failures. There’s a chance for growth in failure and unfortunately, in our society plagued with cynicism, that isn’t emphasized enough.
Batman Begins (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was sent to solitary confinement for fighting six fellow prisoners, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), invited the richest man in Gotham City, currently on the other side of the world and anonymous, to train and join the League of Shadows. Still angry from the murder of his parents (Linus Roache, Sara Stewart) in the hands of a desperate man (Richard Brake), Bruce accepted. “Batman Begins,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, had a gravitational pull so potent, its more sensitive moments actually managed to rival its most thrilling action pieces: it offered us a believable story that we could sink our teeth into instead of simply expecting us to lick a plate full of sugar and fluff that would inevitably leave us unsatisfied. The level of screenplay was impressive because it focused on the story of Bruce the man through first exploring his formative years prior to delving into Bruce the Batman, a symbol meant to inspire and nudge citizens of Gotham out of their apathy involving the city being ruled by criminals and the corrupt. While Bale was convincing as a man full of rage and thirst of vengeance, his character arc was even more involving despite the fact that the material jumped forward in time several times, especially toward the beginning when one detail after another regarding Bruce’s past were thrown on our laps. By keeping its dramatic momentum intact, it caught and maintained our attention; since we could follow its strands almost every step of the way without too much strain, the rewards were fulfilling. The film had a dark atmosphere, especially with its talk of the undetected depression serving as a catalyst for the common people’s desperation, it managed to have fun without being cartoonish and breaking the mood. For instance, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne’s longtime butler, caretaker, and Bruce’s remaining father figure, was given amusing comments regarding his master’s nightly extracurricular activities. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), formerly a member of the board in Wayne Enterprises but exiled to the basement after new power took control of the company, also had his share of the spotlight when Bruce paid him a visit for nifty and very expensive gadgets. This gave way to questions I’ve always wondered about such as how the Batcave was discovered, how the Batsuit was assembled, and how the Batmobile looked in its early stages. It even featured one of the most beloved treasures in my toy box when I was a kid: the batarang. The picture was also notable for its intelligent use of its antagonists. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), one of the biggest crime bosses in the city, was not an ostentatious figure that craved attention. He actually preferred to operate in the shadows but he wasn’t afraid to make threats in public if necessary. Still, he was notorious for his reputation. Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, zealously creepy behind those glasses), the eventual Scarecrow, was actually more interesting divorced from his mask. No DNA mutation here, just a regular human so willing to push his experiments to the extreme, he was no better than the criminals he surrounded himself with. The topic of fear ran in the veins of “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and it was handled with profound insight. The screenplay explored the various meanings of the word and how it changed contingent upon the stakes on the table. The film showed respect by treating the audience as thinkers.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Sean (Josh Hutcherson) had broken into a satellite facility which got him in trouble with the authorities. Naturally, Mom (Kristin Davis) was upset but Sean resented his stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson), for caring because the teen believed it wasn’t Hank’s place to act as a parent. However, Sean’s animosity toward his stepdad seemed to dissipate considerably when the former Navy broke the code which mentioned that “The Mysterious Island” in Jules Verne’s novel existed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Sean felt compelled to visit the island because he was convinced that his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine), was the one who sent the code. Based on the screenplay by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, listening to the dialogue of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” was like enduring nails scraping on a chalkboard for an hour and a half. While it was understandable that some of the jokes were cheesy because the bulk of the material was intended for young children, there weren’t enough witticisms for adults to remain interested divorced from the impressive chase sequences, full of vibrant colors and striptease of danger, between the gargantuan animals on the island and our protagonists. The sequence which involved the characters jumping from one giant but fragile lizard egg to another managed to balance comedy and suspense. Although the balancing act wasn’t quite consistent, it was fun because we knew that it was only a matter of time until the maternal lizard woke up and attacked. The same applied to the scene where the characters rode bees and hungry birds hunted for their lunch. Sometimes it was quite easy to tell which stunts were performed in front of a green screen, but I imagine children wouldn’t be as discerning. For me, what mattered was the energy of the scene and the risks the filmmakers were willing to take for the sake of entertainment. There were some risks that were taken here. Some paid off but others did not. Speaking of the latter, Sean and Hank hired Gabato (Luis Guzmán), a pilot, and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), to take them to the island of interest. While Guzmán provided some laughs on the level of physical humor, Hudgens was not given anything special. Hudgens, in my opinion, is not a very expressive actor in the first place and not giving her something to work with only highlighted her lack of versatility. While it made sense that Sean became immediately attracted to Kailani because she looked pretty in her figure-hugging shirt and short shorts, it didn’t make sense that he continued to yearn for her affections because she acted like a brat, a nicer word that starts with a letter B, toward him, a feeling almost similar to how a stereotypical popular girl treated a stereotypical brainiac. Their so-called romance was one of the most insufferable aspects of the film. Every time Kailani battered her eyelashes, Sean stopped thinking with his brain and proceeded to think with his other head. Meanwhile, my level of exasperation intensified. As a movie designed for kids, I didn’t think it sent a very good message about self-reliance and self-esteem. Would it have been too much of a creative leap for the writers to make Kailani and Sean equally smart so that they were able to bounce ideas off each other and then, when or if it felt right, perhaps explore their underlying romantic feelings? Directed by Brad Peyton, considering that half of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” involved walking and the characters talking, it was a bore. It might have been better as a short film with nothing but epinephrine-fueled stunts.
Cars 2 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was tracking a group of vehicular criminals, seemingly led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), conspiring to persuade the public that Allinol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, was bad. When his identity was compromised, he had no choice but to send the inexperienced but charming Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) out in the field. Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was invited to participate in the first World Grand Prix and he decided to take Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his best friend, with him. While in Japan, Mater was mistaken as an American spy by Holley. Based on the screenplay by Ben Queen, “Cars 2” was an improvement from John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s “Cars” in terms of pacing. Still, it left much to be desired. From the first scene, I felt myself detached. Watching a car fling itself from one side of the ship to another like Spider-man had a certain bubbly creative energy, but it didn’t draw me into getting to know that character. The animation, as usual, was well-done. Vibrant colors were abound and it made my eyes want to linger on certain images even if the images were moving so quickly. The vroom-vroom sounds in the foreground and the background chatter and screams of fans complemented each other so they created an exciting mood prior to the race. The colors and sounds matched the country the cars were in. For example, while in Japan, indoor neon lights were prevalent, but while in Italy, outdoor natural light took center stage. I wish the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen was taken on a new level. They essentially learned the same lesson in the first film which made the entire oeuvre a bit déjà vu, stale, lacking genuine tension. When the duo got into a disagreement in Japan, it was too early in the picture and it didn’t help that they spent most of the time apart before and after that point. The decision of making Mater the center of the story was not entirely a good one. He was amusing to watch because he was a clown, a stereotypical hillbilly American who hadn’t experienced city life. I loved the scene where he thought that the wasabi was free ice cream. The server put a little dot on his plate. Mater, unimpressed, insisted that the server added more because it was free anyway. Things didn’t go well for the tow truck when he put a plateful of wasabi in his mouth. But the same type of joke was recycled over and over: Mater put himself in an awkward situation and he made a complete fool of himself. I wanted different types and more sources of comedy. What about Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with the vain Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), both on and off the race track? It would have been great if Sally (Bonnie Hunt) was forced to choose between the two celebrities. After all, there was a theme about home life versus life in the fast lane. “Cars 2,” directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, was an unnecessary sequel to a barely mediocre first outing. In the middle of all the car crashes and gasoline versus alternative fuel debates, I started to wonder about the money it took to create the sequel and how that money could’ve been used to make an entirely new Pixar movie with a genuinely moving story and lovable characters.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershley) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) often met and discussed their lives over lunch or dinner in Manhattan. They talked about all sorts of happenings from their career prospects to pecuniary matters, but the main driving force of the film were the topics that they would rather keep a secret from each other. For instance, Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) had told Lee that he had fallen in love with her (should Lee tell Hannah about it?), while Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (Woody Allen) dated Holly (Was it appropriate for Holly to discuss it with Hannah?). What I loved about “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a quality almost always present in Allen’s more renowned pictures, was not a scene was wasted. It was all about character development as each character was given the chance to narrate a scene and share his or her thoughts about someone else or his increasingly complicated and desperate predicament. The first scene stood out to me because Caine’s character essentially had made the confession that he wanted to leave his wife for his wife’s sister. Allen immediately placed us in the husband’s shoes. When he moved toward the woman he was interested in, the camera moved with a sense of urgency, and we had no choice but to move with the husband and anticipate a potential train wreck. With marriage dramas, the tone could quickly become too depressing and suffocating. Allen was aware of this so he injected comedic scenes of the hypochondriac Jewish TV producer discovering that he might have had a tumor in his brain. Obviously, the situation he was in was quite grim but his reactions to certain revelations spearheaded the comedy. The person dealing with the situation was funny, not the situation itself. However, one major weakness I found in the film was the fact that I still did not know who Hannah was. She was overshadowed by her sisters, her philandering husband, and neurotic ex-husband. She was there when they needed help or someone to talk to, but in terms of her relationship with the audiences, I felt as though there was a disconnect. Toward the end, everyone admitted that she was the strong one and that she never needed help from anybody, but it was not the idea of Hannah I had in my mind. To be succinct and completely honest, I thought she was a bit boring–she was a nice woman but she was unexciting. Despite its flaws, “Hannah and Her Sisters” had a deep sophistication in its characterization of people constantly wrestling with their desires and needs. Best of all, I enjoyed its honesty in terms of people sometimes being unrelentingly awful, sometimes being beyond wonderful.
★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) had a dark ideation. Once a successful playwright but now struggling to keep up with his reputation due to his recent flops, he came across a manuscript written by one of his former students named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Sidney invited unsuspecting Clifford to visit his home in order to offer some advice to make the play better, murder him, and pass Clifford’s work as his own. Sidney’s wife (Dyan Cannon) had heart problems in the past but she reluctantly went along with her husband’s devious plan. It took a bit of time for me to get into this film. At first I thought the plot didn’t quite know how to move forward. I also had some problems with its tone. Did it want to be funny or thrilling or both? I wondered, could it have its cake and eat it, too? I also found the acting a bit amateurish, especially Cannon. I was aware that the picture was based on a play written by Ira Levin but her acting felt stuck in that medium. I thought she was annoying, whiny and needy–a damsel-in-distress who stuck by her husband for no good reason. However, after about forty minutes, it gained its footing and the material showed me it had intelligence. Very unexpected twists upon twists were abound but what I liked best about it was it felt like a play but it gained enough power to work in a cinematic medium. The tension became so high to the point where the exaggerations almost felt necessary. Caine impressed me because I’m used to watching him play quieter characters that are almost grandfather-like and humble. It was a breath of fresh air to see him so bitter, so angry, so flawed. His character caught my attention because it was the kind of character that valued his reputation more than anything else. He talked of sociopaths which made me wonder if he was projecting his own characteristics onto someone else. Sidney Lumet, the director, astutely used mood as a weapon to surprise the audiences. At times watching the film was like reading a novel. Just when I thought the picture was over because the mood was reaching a serene plateau, it suddenly came to life and delivered shocking punches. In less experienced hands, it might have felt too contrived or forced. Lumet’s direction certainly helped the sudden shifts in mood to feel as natural as possible. “Deathtrap” did not start off with flying colors but it is difficult to deny that it was a sublime murder mystery once it found a connection with its core. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow but compelling thrillers should eat this one up like candy.