American Assassin (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Action-thriller “American Assassin” is for the modern American audience: it moves swiftly, action sequences are violent and at times beautifully choreographed, and the screenplay commands a level of intrigue when it comes to the shadowy world of spies and espionage. But what makes it stand out among its contemporaries is a lack of handholding when it comes to the execution of the plot. We simply watch the pieces move across the board as the race to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated unfolds.
The casting for the lead role is inspired and surprising. Dylan O’Brien does not have the physicality of a typical action star nor does he have a face that screams “Movie Star.” Even though O’Brien looks fit, there are many instances in which his character, Mitch Rapp, whose fiancée was murdered in a terrorist attack, appears as though he would be unable to handle his own against much taller, wider, seemingly stronger enemies. And so there is almost always tension before and during hand-to-hand combat.
The contrast proves refreshing and interesting. It highlights the fact that the character is driven by so much anger and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that threat of bruises and broken bones would not stop him from accomplishing a mission. The character is fascinating because he likens that of a rabid dog but one that must be controlled by his superiors or risk years of surveillance and undercover work among terrorist groups.
One portion of the film that could have been explored further is the training under a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Keaton, as expected, is able to hit different, sometimes unexpected, notes within a stock character who trains promising young talents. These training sessions not only provide curious details a potential agent might undergo before being deemed ready for the field but they also underline our protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. We wonder about his weaknesses, specifically, and how it could be exploited later on—more importantly, at what cost.
I admired that an atmosphere is created in that action sequences are not all that important—and yet when it does present these adrenaline-fueled scenes, it excels. The screenplay creates a consistently high level of urgency and so we care about what would happen not only to the characters but whose hands the rogue nuclear weapon might end up. Because director Michael Cuesta has a habit of playing it small, when he changes his approach, viewers are rendered off-balanced in the best way possible.
“American Assassin,” based on the novel by Vince Flynn, has potential to become a profitable film series because a few elements are present that made the “Bourne” pictures highly watchable. The aggressive CIA operative has more layers to him than anger, as O’Brien’s solid performance suggests—especially during scenes between Rapp and Hurley. Here’s to hoping that if there is a next installment, the material expands the picture’s universe, makes its style more specific, and retains the ability to surprise.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
The decision not to tell yet another origins story benefits Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming” immensely because it takes away significant portions of what we expect from a typical arc involving Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and having to discover his powers. Instead, the plot revolves around a tyro superhero so willing to be a part of The Avengers that he forgets he is still a kid just making his way through high school. Thus, an intriguing portrait of Spider-Man is created, one that is grounded in reality yet without sacrificing the required highly energetic and entertaining action pieces.
Two performers are cast perfectly in their respective roles. The first is Michael Keaton, playing a man named Adrian Toomes, owner of a salvage company who chooses to create weapons out of alien technology. Because Toomes is in fact the antagonist to our friendly neighborhood superhero, it is easy and convenient to label him as a villain. I believe he is more than that. I think Toomes represents the Average Joe, a businessman who is willing to do what it takes to provide for his family. So, to me, he is not a villain. And that is what makes the character fascinating. Keaton plays Toomes smart and with such humanity that when one looks into those eyes, one realizes he can be anybody’s uncle simply leading a business operation.
The second is Tom Holland, portraying a fifteen-year-old boy from Queens, New York who just so happens to be Spider-Man. I enjoyed and admired Holland’s decision to play the character as Peter Parker first and Spider-Man second—even though the plot revolves around an obsession to prove to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he should be a part of the Avengers. Casting a performer who excels most in dramatic roles is the correct decision because pulling off both comedy and drama, sometimes simultaneously, can be very tricky. Notice how he sells the more serious scenes during the latter half, particularly one that unfolds in a tension-filled car on the way to the Homecoming dance. Holland fits the role like a glove. It will be difficult to imagine someone else in this role for years to come.
It offers memorable action scenes, whether it be atop great metropolitan heights in broad daylight or a night chase around the suburban New York neighborhood. These sequences not only command energy but also range. In action pictures, it is so important for each confrontation to look and feel different from one another. It prevents us from feeling bored. Superior actions films tend to have a commonality: the audience feeling the need to catch up to it rather than it struggling to catch up to our expectations. Clearly, this film falls in the former group with occasional surprises to spare.
Its weakness comes in the form of writing when it comes to Peter’s peers, with the exception of Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter’s best friend and partner in crime. The romantic angle between Peter and Liz (Laura Harrier) is not as effective as it should have been since there is rarely opportunity for us to get to know Peter’s crush. In fact, I found Liz to be quite nondescript. Although it is obvious that Michelle (Zendaya) really likes Peter, even though she is pretty much invisible to him, aside from a few sarcastic one-liners, the screenplay fails to create at least a marginally well-rounded character, especially when it hints that Michelle will have a bigger role in the sequel.
Regardless, there is plenty to be enjoyed in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is paced well, the central characters are worth exploring, the action sequences are impressive with the ability to surprise, and it knows how to have fun with (and make fun of) our protagonist with or without the Spidey suit. Imagine if it had taken more time and effort to iron out details regarding how different teenagers can be complex, difficult, and fascinating. I’d wager this installment could have been among the best in the series.
Mr. Mom (1983)
★★ / ★★★★
Furloughed from his job as a car engineer, Jack (Michael Keaton) must now stay home with his three young children (Fred Koehler, Taliesin Jaffe, Courtney and Brittany White) while his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), works for an ad agency. Completely unfamiliar with housework and his kids’ routine, Jack struggles while his wife flourishes in her new job.
Written by John Hughes and directed by Stan Dragoti, “Mr. Mom” is a time capsule, a look in an ancient time where men bring home the bacon and women stayed at home to raise the children. While the picture is amusing from time to time, there is little dramatic core. As a result, when the more sensitive moments come around, it is difficult to completely buy into the pain and frustrations of its characters.
The writing is safe and by-the-numbers. Of course we must see Jack being out of his comfort zone as a stay-at-home-dad and of course we must see him become very good in his new role. There are one or two very funny sequences—like the scene involving a vacuum, a stove, and a washing machine—but the writing seems stuck on showing behavior rather than a subtle shift of mindset. For instance, I wanted to see more scenes of the father connecting with his kids, having a genuine conversation with them, rather than yet another slapstick involving paint, cooking, and the house ending up a mess.
Keaton does a lot with how little he is given. Even trite scenes like his character talking to a mirror as he weighs the pros and cons of possibly being involved in an affair have a sense of whimsy to it because the actor finds a way to make the situation fun even though not once do we believe something like that can happen in real life. It is in the way he plays with the delivery and the inflections he employs with certain lines, compounded with a body language that is often unassuming. Thus, when the character tries to play extremes—like trying to come off very masculine toward his wife’s boss (Martin Mull)—the humor works effectively.
Scenes involving Joan (Ann Jillian), a neighbor who hopes to seduce Jack, are borderline dead. The seduction is not only forced, it is also inappropriate in a movie like this. Because of its generally playful tone, one cannot be blamed for thinking that it is all right for children to see the picture. Joan wanting to bed Jack is uncomfortable and out of place. I expected more from Hughes—he is the writer, after all—especially since the film is supposed to be for the entire family.
“Mr. Mom” is a product of the eighties but it manages to retain a level of amusement, especially because of Keaton’s ability to make fresh choices. If the script had focused more on complex emotions rather than superficial emotions and behavior, it might have had more staying power. More importantly, it would have been a better movie.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A long-term investigative group consisting of four journalists, known as the Spotlight Team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James), in The Boston Globe are assigned by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Barton (Liev Schreiber), to focus their efforts on finding out more about a Catholic priest who has molested children in six different parishes since the 1970s, about eighty kids in total, but no one—not the law, not the media, not the Church—did anything about it. Although the investigation starts off with one priest, discoveries are made suggesting that perhaps more people within the Boston Archdiocese knew about the sexual abuse.
Based on actual events, “Spotlight,” written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, is a powerful piece of work that does not rely on sensationalism to enrage its audience. Instead, it focuses on how journalists do their job as they attempt to expose an institution that tolerates and protects pedophiles. The drama is in how their crucial story evolves, the dead ends the investigators encounter, the people they meet and clash against along the way, and what the story means to them not as journalists but as people who, in some way or another, has or has had connection with the Roman Catholic Church.
I am most intrigued with films that show how people do their jobs. Here, the camera has a habit of simply sitting back and observing how its characters work. Parallel scenes are often run together and we are given the chance to take notice of similarities and differences between how one journalist versus another approaches a task. For instance, does the interviewer prefer to write notes? If so, does he place his notepad on the desk? On his lap? How is her posture like when she is asking a victim difficult and probing questions concerning a traumatic event? How are the questions asked: straight to the point or are extra details toyed with first in order to lessen the blow?
There is a consistent sense of urgency in the story being tackled even though we already know how it will turn out. This is accomplished through the performances. For example, when characters are speaking on the phone, even when their backs are turned away from the camera, they look almost as if they want to reach into the phone itself and grab the information right away so they can have more time to work on the other parts of their assignment. We get a sense that every piece and every minute that passes matter.
Outside of their jobs, there are two or three scenes which depict the journalists taking the story personally. The conversation between Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Pfeiffer (McAdams) about why they stopped going to church commands power. We realize then that taking their work personally makes a lot of sense because they have invested too much time and effort to expose the injustice. More importantly, they hope that by exposing such a disgusting, immoral system, people would pay more attention and demand or take action.
“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, makes a profession that seems non-exciting (at least to me) and makes it relevant, digestible, and even suspenseful at times. It relishes details rather than avoiding them, and I stared at the screen in complete fascination.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Although technically proficient because it is able to create an illusion that the film is shot via one long take, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” does not command an absorbing story. It reminded me of a typical Wes Anderson work: all style, no substance; all glamour, no soul. For that, I claim that this film will not stand the test of time.
Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play in order to be taken more seriously—both as an actor and as a person. His most recognizable role was playing a superhero back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been on a downward spiral of being forgotten since—at least in his mind. As the play gets closer to opening night, problems arise, starting with the lead actor needing to be replaced because of an “accident” involving a stage light falling on his head during rehearsal.
I always felt like I was watching actors performing rather than getting to know their characters as people first and then as thespians. I get it: It is supposed to be a self-aware comedy that lampoons the business. Thus, a certain level of hyperbole is expected. Still, there is a way to write the screenplay in such a way that we are drawn in, a part of the joke, instead of being kept at an arm’s length. Its charm, on the level of technique from behind and performance in front of the camera, proves evanescent. Around the thirty-minute mark, I found myself bored stiff. Ninety more minutes to go.
Perhaps the problem lies in having so many co-writers (the director, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó) having worked on the material. Because it wants so badly to introduce multiple subplots, many scenes come off extremely forced. Sam (Emma Stone) is having daddy issues and may or may not be back to doing drugs, Lesley (Naomi Watts) does not feel fulfilled even though she has reached her dream of being a part of a Broadway play, and Mike (Edward Norton) touches just about everybody’s nerves because he is too much into method acting that to describe him as “obnoxious” is putting it lightly.
The problem is that even though we learn information about the characters, it does not mean that depth comes naturally. This limitation is magnified by the fact that these characters are juggled like clockwork and I could tell three or four scenes away when the camera will return to them. One of the most frustrating things about sitting through a movie is having an exact idea what will happen and when. If our imagination is ahead of what is in front of us, that is a sign that maybe what we are seeing is a waste of time.
I did, however, find Keaton’s portrayal as a washed-up actor to be somewhat interesting. While the schizophrenic/“hearing voices” sort of mumbo jumbo is irritating, observe Keaton closely as he manipulates his face into portraying subtle emotions like fear and panic—that the play will not reach liftoff despite the amount of time, money, and effort he and his crew has put into it. Conversely, Keaton has a way of communicating exhaustion in fresh and exciting ways. Notice how he walks when he is by himself and compare that walk when he is around people. It is like putting on a mask around his entire body. Because Riggan wants the play to work so badly, he tries to communicate that everything is fine even though he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a complete performance which helps to elevate the film.
“Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” caters to the in-crowd of theatre and fails to get the rest of the population who may not be as knowledgeable about the business, to care. To me, sitting through this film is like attending a therapy session where privileged people, who are not all that interesting to begin with, whine a lot for no good reason. There is a scene in which a character claims that there are real people out there with real struggles and real stories. I wanted to know about those people instead.
★★ / ★★★★
With four degree burns all over his body and a spine that is severed from the waist down, the possibility of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) surviving the ordeal is, according to the specialists, highly unlikely. It is most fortunate that the CEO of OmniCorp, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is scouting for a man to enroll in a program led by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). The hypothesis: Putting a man inside a machine will give the company a chance to ease the minds of a mostly robophobic American public and eventually annul a bill that bans crime-fighting robots domestically.
One of the key problems with “RoboCop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is a lack of dramatic focus. What kind of story does it wish to tell? A man who one day wakes up and realizes that he is part-machine? The complications that arise when business and science form a collaboration? The role of the media in politics and vice-versa? A family ripped apart by greed and corruption? Although these questions can be very interesting to explore, such are only worth sitting through with a high level of writing. This film excels in showcasing expected action scenes but suffers severely when it attempts to shed some insight.
When bullets are involved, my attention was transfixed on the screen and my ears relished every sound when somebody pulls the trigger. The pop of the firearms are alive and coupled with camera movements with a sense of urgency, it is exciting to a point. The robotic suit of the protagonist is sleek and easy on the eyes despite never convincing us fully that with such a bulky exterior—not to mention the mass of the thing—aerial acrobatics is possible. Yes, there are a few moments when it feels cartoonish.
I enjoyed that the villain is not really bad, per se. Sellars is a businessman and wants to make a lot of money. What kind of CEO of a billion-dollar company is not driven by capital? His justifications to reach his goal, one can argue, are the elements that make him villainous. Keaton plays his character like a real person. And in an action picture with shades of science fiction, it is critical that we get a taste of something that is grounded. Oldman playing the scientist, on the other hand, makes a mistake by embodying too likable a character. Doesn’t he want to make money, too? Funding is important.
What does not work entirely is Alex/RoboCop’s relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son. Pick any of their scenes and it feels tacked on and forced—as if the only way for us to root for the good guy would be to reminded again and again that he has a family to leave behind. Cornish’s dramatic scenes are awkward. I could feel her trying to push the tears out. I felt her thinking about the lines rather than just letting go and communicate the anguish of a woman who is being denied to visit her husband. It is not entirely the performer’s fault. The women characters in the film are not given depth.
“RoboCop,” directed by José Padilha, is good-looking but empty. It is neither cerebral nor brawny enough—which makes it somewhere in between. And that is boring. When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching the original “RoboCop” on HBO before going to bed. A handful of its images made an impression on me. I may not remember the details but the fact that I could remember something about it two decades later proves that there is something extreme about it, an element that is dangerous, not safe.
The filmmakers should have taken inspiration from the original and strived to push the envelope beyond what is expected, to prove to the naysayers when it was announced that a remake was in works that they were wrong to have doubted. Wouldn’t that have been icing on the cake?
Batman Returns (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A rich couple had a baby boy but due to the child’s birth anomaly, they decided to throw him in a canal that led to the sewers. Thirty-three years later, Penguin (Danny DeVito), with the help of a businessman named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), decided to ascend from the depths of Gotham City, find his parents, and assimilate. If Shreck refused, Penguin would reveal to Gotham citizens the toxic byproducts produced by his factory which would surely compromise Shreck’s bid to open a power plant. Although “Batman Returns,” based on the screenplay by Daniel Waters, did not quite allow the audience into the mind of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) beyond the surface level, it gave appropriate gravity to the motivations of its antagonists so the story was engaging. Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck’s lowly assistant and eventual Catwoman, was the most interesting character because Pfeiffer injected her with the right dosage of fragility and danger. Whenever Selina was on screen, my attention focused on her like a laser: the way she slinked her body from one point to the next while delivering one memorable line after another, so full of attitude and guile. Although Selina’s alter ego was swathed in leather sass and wielded a whip, there was a constant sadness in her eyes. The motif involving “freaks” being misunderstood provided the film’s center. When I was around five or six years old and watched the film several times over a span of a week, although the “freaks” were creepy, they didn’t scare me. I was curious about them. For instance, as monstrous as Penguin was at times, I found it difficult to consider him as a true villain. Any child who had been abandoned and left to die but somehow survived could end up not quite right in the head. The screenplay acknowledged the similarities between Penguin and Batman as well as Catwoman and Batman so I was very curious as to why it didn’t delve into their relationships as outcasts in a more meaningful way. One of the main weaknesses of the picture was it had two or three unnecessary action sequences especially toward the beginning. The pacing would have been much smoother if the screenplay took its time to build its characters’ intentions before finally releasing the pressure. I did, however, love the scene where Penguin’s henchmen, the Red Triangle Circus Gang, hijacked the Batmobile which led to Batman being unable to control his car during an escape from the Gotham police. It was fun and funky but it didn’t lose the darkness it accumulated prior to that entertaining chase. Another element that proved impressive was the relationship between Selina and Bruce. It wasn’t boring not because we knew that she was Catwoman and he was Batman but they weren’t aware of each other’s secret identities, but because Bruce was turned on by Selina’s in-your-face kinkiness. What they had wasn’t some hackneyed romance but a partnership of needs in a purely sexual nature. “Batman Returns,” directed by Tim Burton and wonderfully scored by Danny Elfman, was ominous, darkly funny, and uncompromising with its vision. I argue that the true villain was Shreck and it was smart to relegate him as an ordinary man instead of making him an obvious megalomaniac. After all, the greatest evils and evildoers tend to go undetected.
★★ / ★★★★
Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), right-hand man of Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), a powerful but aging gangster in Gotham City, was ordered to acquire money from a safe hidden inside Axis Chemical. Jack was unaware that the assignment was actually a trap meant for him because Grissom found out about the affair between his girl, Alicia (Jerry Hall), and Jack. While Gotham police handled the henchmen, Batman (Michael Keaton) managed to corner Jack. However, just when Napier was about to be apprehended, he fell into a giant cauldron of green chemical which discolored his body. “Batman,” directed by Tim Burton, had an excellent grip when it came to its art direction but everything else left much to be desired. The majority of the action sequences held no special excitement for me yet I found myself admiring the background. For instance, when the cops and criminals chased each other around the factory, I noticed how the steam rose from their sources, how the green liquid poured out of their containers, and how grimy the floors looked. I imagined how it must’ve been like to be there since the inside of the factory looked as repulsive as a sewer that had been placed above ground. However, the way a film looks rarely saves a picture and this was no exception. Based on the screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, we weren’t given much information about Batman’s motivations and, perhaps more importantly, who Bruce Wayne was as a humanitarian, a friend, and a lover. Keaton was quite good in looking solemn and he showed that he was very capable of instilling depth into his character when the material seldom touched upon the story of the man behind the mask. Unfortunately, the writing seemed more interested in what was constantly in front of the protagonist which happened to be a girl. Bruce’s love interest was Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photojournalist whose most recent work was published on Time Magazine, but she might as well have been any other girl taken off the streets. From the way her character was introduced, I expected her to be smart and plucky, someone who experienced the world outside of Gotham. Instead, she easily turned into a damsel-in-distress, an object terrorized by The Joker, rescued by Batman, and romanced by Bruce Wayne. More painfully, it seemed as though she never learned from her mistakes which made the experience of watching her, as beautiful as Basinger was, tedious and almost unbearable. Moreover, I wished that two potentially interesting characters were given more to do: Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), an agent against the war on crime in the city, and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), a reporter for the Gotham Globe. Since their appearances were aimless, they could have not been in the film at all and it would not have made much of a difference in the dynamics of the story. “Batman” was stolen by Nicholson’s performance as The Joker, more amusing than truly menacing. I almost felt bad for him that he had to overact in order to hide the thinness of the material. Meanwhile, I looked at Batman not out of intrigue in terms of what made him tick but curiosity if it was scorching hot underneath all that leather.
Other Guys, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.
★★ / ★★★★
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) was a bubbly couple on “vacation” in their beloved big house. Sadly, they died via drowning when their car plunged into a river. A couple of months later, initially unaware that the former owners tragically passed away, the Deetz family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder) moved into the Maitlands’ former home. After a few failed attempts to scare away the new family, the dead couple recruited the nasty Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” with a talent for verbal double entendres. Directed by Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” was quirky, fast-paced and had a solid grasp of dark and sometimes macabre humor. I enjoyed watching it as a kid because even though it had elements of horror, the scary scenes were light and the irony embedded in the images (such as a skeleton that obviously died from severe burns claimed that he wanted to quit smoking) overshadowed the grotesque. However, seeing the film from an adult’s perspective, it crossed the line between cute and cheesy too many times. I cringed at the scenes when the characters broke into songs. Once was enough because I understood that the characters were being possessed by ghosts but after several times it happened, the joke became stale. I felt like the material was desperate to entertain but it did not need to because it was at its best when the jokes flowed naturally. Small twists regarding our archetype of haunted houses elevated the picture. For instance, I loved the scene when Baldwin and Davis decided to scare the family by putting designer blankets over their heads. I would have expected their strategy to work because if I was the one that saw two figures with blankets over their heads in an empty hallway, I would have ran out the house in record time. Instead, Burton injected a small twist by having Ryder’s character be weird but friendly and open to paranormal happenings in order to show us that there were other dimensions to her gothic high school stereotype. There was one scene that I found touching which I thought could have been explored further. That is, when Ryder’s character decided that she wanted to die at such a young age. It was a shame the material shied away from the sadness in order to deliver more comedy that did not work half of the time. Nevertheless, I believe “Beetlejuice” is worth watching because it had a spectrum of humor that ranged from deadpan, slapstick to slightly disturbing.
Jackie Brown (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) was a flight attendant caught by two detectives (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) when she tried to smuggle money into the country. However, she was not arrested because they knew that she worked for an arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and they wanted him more than they wanted her. Realizing that she nothing else to lose considering her age and her prior conviction, she constructed a plan that might lead to her freedom from the police and her cruel boss. “Jackie Brown,” adapted from the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard, was an intelligent film which was highly unpredictable because of its constantly scheming characters. I admired the way Quentin Tarantino put his stamp on the project in terms of building tension and delivering truly rewarding pay-offs. Despite the violence and rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, it was ultimately a human story. I loved the way it took moments of silences and allowed us to guess what the characters were thinking and the manner in which they strategically reevaluated their priorities. With these specific characters, as sad as it was accept, sometimes money was more valuable to them than their lives. Tarantino juggled the characters with elegance. He was smart enough to make a film that was longer than two-and-half hours but not wasting a single minute. I thought it was pleasure to watch because I learned something new about each character in each scene. The most complex of them, except for the lead, was Max Cherry (Robert Forster). He was the most difficult for me to read and I did not find out until the very end what his real intentions were toward Jackie. Was he just pretending to be a friend because he wanted the money for himself or did he genuinely care about the woman he bailed out of jail? And even if it was the former, I can understand why he might choose to do it because I saw him as this lonely person who, despite the thousands of people he bailed out of jail, no one really cared for. He was a person defined by his occupation and not those who loved him for just who he was. “Jackie Brown” is one of Tarantino’s lesser-known works but I think it is one of his best. I loved that the picture was uncompromising, suspenseful, and surprisingly warm in the smallest dosage. I was engaged throughout its running time because in Tarantino’s world, the heroes (or anti-heroes) do not necessarily have to survive. And I was desperate to see the brave Jackie Brown make it through the tricky spider webs she weaved for herself.
Post Grad (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Kelly Fremon, Alexis Bledel stars as Ryden Malby, a recent college graduate who planned out her entire future well before high school. (Which isn’t really a stretch from her very lovable character Rory Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”) Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned when she found herself being unable to get a job because of the fierce competition in the job market. This movie had the potential to be really good because of its modern way of approaching one of the most common questions of recent college graduates: Will I be able to immediately get a job after college? I thought the first twenty minutes was strong because it dealt with that particular issue head-on. It may not be incredibly realistic but at least it tried to be relevant. However, the deeper we got into the picture, the movie suffered because of bad writing and the material easily succumbed to eyeroll-worthy typicalities. Ryden had to choose between her kind-of boyfriend (Zach Gilford) who was torn between law school and music and the exotic guy next door (Rodrigo Santoro) who seemed to have his life together, deal with her eccentric and sometimes funny family (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett), and question where her future was heading. All those distractions certainly did not distract me from the fact that the writer ran out of creative and meaningful ideas to really tackle the issue of unemployment after college. I liked the movie best when it focused on Bledel’s struggle in trying to define her career and encountering her rival (Catherine Reitman) from time to time. It’s a classic case of having emotional intelligence (Ryden) versus lacking one (her rival); it was so frustrating to me because the elements of making a smart movie were there but the writers didn’t take full advantage of putting them together in an insightful manner. I felt insulted that the film threw clichés right at me. I couldn’t care less about the kinda-sorta boyfriend and the sexy guy next door because if I wanted to watch a movie about that, I’d probably go see a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I couldn’t care less about the family either because their side stories didn’t add up to anything. The performances were mediocre at best but I didn’t mind much because I was more concerned about how it was going to approach the main issue. For a character who was supposed to be prepared to face the world (with enthusiasm to spare), the movie felt unprepared to discuss the real issues. The writer and director should’ve assumed that smart people would see this film. Maybe then they would’ve challenged themselves not only to challenge us but also inspire.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Eleven years after the fantastic adventure that was “Toy Story 2,” Pixar returns with “Toy Story 3” in which Andy (voiced by John Morris) was about to head to college and had to decide what to do with his toys: put them in the attic, throw them in the trash, donate them or take them to college with him. After a series of misunderstandings, Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang–Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris, respectively), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)–arrived in a day care center in which the toys were led by a deceptively nice teddy bear who smelled like strawberries named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Andy’s toys had to then map out their escape from the day care center and back to Andy’s home.
Despite my highest expectations, “Toy Story 3” impressed me with its creativity, intelligence, heart and bona fide sense of humor. Even though our protagonists were inanimate objects, we couldn’t help but empathize with them because, like human beings, they feared being abandoned by someone who loved them and losing their purpose. That fear manifested in often hilarious ways reflected by the distinct personalities of Andy’s eccentric but lovable toys. The flashback scenes were effective because the first two “Toy Story” films were so embedded in pop culture and in our minds that it was very difficult to cut the bond between Andy and his toys. Although there were many scenes that moved me (especially toward the end when the gang accepted their fate and Andy’s final decision about what he was going to do with his toys), the one that almost moved me to tears was when Woody desperately tried to convince his friends that they should return to Andy’s home because them ending up in the day care center was all a big misunderstanding. That particular scene got it exactly right because the loyalty that Woody had for Andy was one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. Even though fifteen years had passed since the first installment, it was nice that Pixar and its writers did not lose track of the essence of friendship, its heart, despite having better means of animation due to recent advances technology at their disposal. Ultimately, the “Toy Story” franchise was consistent in comparison to other animated film series like the “Shrek” movies because the characters often had a clear and unified goal, the jokes were bound in its own universe, the script didn’t try too hard to be amusing and it proudly wore its heart on its sleeves.
For those who haven’t seen “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” I believe they can still enjoy the movie because there were enough new characters to keep everything fresh. I loved the “relationship” between Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton) and its implications about the latter character. Another character that stood out to me was Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton) because he talked like those detectives in the 1940s noir pictures. Extra details like him appearing in the shadows and the timing in which he was introduced was icing on the cake for me. Lastly, with the way the story ended, there was a consensus between my friends that “Toy Story 3” was sad. I disagree; the events that transpired throughout the picture celebrated the idea of renewal, growth and unconditional acceptance. It was a poignant feeling–it made me think about my childhood when my biggest problem was my toys running out of batteries, my remaining days at home before leaving for college, and my friends who have been with me despite the challenges that tested our bonds (and our tempers). Just like the epic adventures of the first “Toy Story” films, “Toy Story 3” effortlessly delivered tension, laughter, tears and warmth. If Pixar decides to make “Toy Story 4,” I’m willing to wait another ten years as long as the quality remains strong, which I’m sure will be the case.
Out of Sight (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
I just had to see this movie because pretty much all the film critics I respect gave it a really enthusiastic recommendation. I don’t know if it’s because I was anticipating something more serious instead of a caper film with comedy that brings the “Ocean” franchise to mind, or if it’s just one of those movies that critics adored but I never got into. George Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a bank robber who one day escapes from prison. Right off the bat, he’s put into a room (well, more like the trunk of a getaway car) with the splendid Jennifer Lopez as a federal marshall. Eventually, the two realize the chemistry that they have and I thought it went downhill from there. Steven Soderbergh is an undeniably talented director but the way the story unfolded made me not care. While there was complexity in its non-linear storytelling, I felt like a lot of the characters were just running around without some sort of ultimate purpose. They were so blase to the point where I thought the only ingredient that was missing was for them to wink directly at the camera. Actors like Catherine Keener, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and others seem to go in and out of the story and I was left confused because I thought that it would all come together at some point. Unfortunately, it never did and by the time the credits started rolling, the picture left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, I do admit that there were some pretty clever and funny lines from the script. Still, those bits and pieces weren’t enough to save the overall product. I wish that “Out of Sight” would’ve been a straight-up thriller. Perhaps then I would’ve liked it a lot more since it would have found a better footing when it comes to its tone. And while people remain to praise this film’s technical achievements, such as its freeze frame techniques for emotional purposes, I’m going to side with the minority and say that “Out of Sight” is not worth the two hours.