Beyond the Lights (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
With three number one singles and fresh off her win from the Billboard Award’s Top Song—even before her first album was released—Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) goes back to her hotel room and decides to jump off the balcony. Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer in charge of guarding her room, manages to talk her out committing suicide, but a slip on the railing and a few paparazzi are all it takes to sensationalize a story. Noni, who dreamed of becoming a singer since she was young, is just another pop star whose life, according to the press, is spiraling out of control. Not surprisingly, the truth is almost always more complicated than a few pictures.
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “Beyond the Lights” surprised me with its willingness to dive into various depths when it comes to how it may be like for a person whose profession involves receiving constant scrutiny while being under the spotlight. Based off the trailer, I came to expect a silly love story where a man rescues a woman from her unhappiness. On the contrary, the picture is about self-empowerment, learning to find the strength from within oneself to step out of another person’s shadow—in this case, parental expectations from Kaz’ father and Noni’s mother—and lead a life that is healthy, maybe imperfect, but one that feels right for herself.
The scenes between Noni and her mother, Macy (Minnie Driver), are dramatic but moving nonetheless. Not once is the screenplay shy about criticizing parents who treat their children like a product to be sold instead of a loved one to be protected. Driver embodies a manic intensity in portraying a scary parent that one would not want to disappoint or cross. With the film having a running time of two hours, which is a bit overlong in parts, I liked that the material provides a bit of her backstory, why she treats her own flesh and blood like a piece of five-cent meat.
Although less powerful, the scenes between Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a freshness to them, too. The two performers share chemistry physically but they do not rely on looking pretty or handsome to get us through their relationship. There is fluctuation in what they think and know about one another and so as they get to know each other, in turn, we feel like we are getting to know them.
Mbatha-Raw has the makings of an excellent, respectable, classy performer. To me, she delivered two performances: one with a purple weave on and one with her natural hair. Every time she is in front of a microphone and sings, it is magic. Not once does she forget that she is an actress playing a singer—not the other way around. Notice that when she sings, her facial expressions are more pronounced; though words are coming out of her mouth in a form of a song, her expressions command power because they highlight the emotions behind the words.
“Beyond the Lights” is an entertaining drama that makes some fresh choices. It is elevated by good performances, especially by Mbatha-Raw, and solid writing, at its best when not pushing too hard to be romantic. While watching the film, I thought about the female pop and R&B artists of today. I wondered if any of them could shine much brighter if image did not count as much and if the glitz and glamour were scrubbed off completely.
Owning Mahowny (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gambling problem—and that is an understatement. Promoted by his superiors to assistant branch manager of the bank for excellent record and judgment, little do they know that Mahowny owes over ten thousand dollars and has been using money from clients to sustain his addiction to gambling. Meanwhile, the police begin to suspect that Mahowny, a man who earns just about twenty-two thousand Canadian dollars annually, might be involved with selling drugs. After all, where does he get all the money to frequent casinos?
Based on a true story that happened between 1980 and 1982, “Owning Mahowny,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski, takes a magnifying glass onto the life of a man who has no control over his need to gamble. Although a dramatic picture, it reaches a balance of humor and suspense, from the characters who are convinced they understand what the man is all about to the authorities about to discover that a seemingly ordinary man is committing all sorts of crimes behind their backs. Hoffman plays his character with magnetic intensity.
We feel the gravity of the scene when Mahowny is sitting at the casino table. A person may know nothing about card games and the like, but the picture remains engaging because the camera focuses on Hoffman’s determined and desperate facial expressions as well as dejected body languages—without relying on showing the cards of a given play. The scene unfolds, camera still sticking to the character, and we feel that once Mahowny starts losing thousands of dollars, there is little hope of getting them back.
Less effective are scenes between Mahowny and his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). There are many expected scenes in the latter first not being aware of the former’s gambling addiction and then discovering it. Although Driver does the best she can with a predictable role, there is little excitement or intrigue in the relationship. One might argue that perhaps that is the point—that Mahowny is seeking thrills somewhere else. But it would have been nice to get an idea as to why Belinda, after everything she learns eventually, chooses to remain in a relationship with Mahowny.
More compelling is Victor Foss, a casino manager (John Hurt) in Atlantic City, a place that Mahowny visits quite often. Foss’ greed is highlighted by the way Hurt engineers to look at Mahowny, like a vulture setting its sight on a dying prey. Scenes that take place in the casino could have been straight forward, but there is humor because of the performances as well as the variation of characters that choose to come along with the main character—often under false pretenses.
The detective subplot goes nowhere even though it is a necessary ingredient which inevitably leads to an arrest. Ian Tracey plays Detective Lock with a level of intensity but there is very little convincing and impressive investigation. It gives the impression that things are falling into place for the cops quite randomly and I found that the subplot obstructs the pacing at times that it becomes frustrating to sit through.
Still, “Owning Mahowny,” based on a book by Gary Stephen Ross and screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, is worth seeing because although the film offers humor and suspense, there is always an underlying sadness just below the surface. Although Mahowny is a liar and thief, we feel bad for him because Hoffman successfully communicates that his character has a disease and is in need of serious help. Before getting therapy, however, he needs to get caught. It might be the only way to turn his life around.
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin, had been invited for a 10th year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. He initially did not want to go for two main reasons: He did not want to talk about his career and he was reluctant to face his former flame (Minnie Driver) who he stood up during prom night. Coincidentally, Martin’s secretary (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) informed him of a job in Grosse Pointe so she advised him to attend anyway so that he could tie up some loose ends in his life. “Grosse Pointe Blank,” directed by George Armitage, is a comedy with an edge. While it did have its comedic scenes such as Martin’s interactions with his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) who was reluctant to have him as a patient and a fellow assassin (Dan Aykroyd) who wanted Martin to join his union, it also worked as an exploration of a man having a pre-midlife crisis and the regret of having to leave his youth so soon. There was conflict inside Martin and happiness was something that he couldn’t quite reach to matter how hard he tried to claim it. For instance, there was a spice of sadness when he found out that his former home was now a grocery store and his mother had lost touch with reality. It also worked as an entertaining action flick especially toward the second half of the picture. However, it was still cheeky because the characters never seemed to run out of bullets. The overkills were very amusing but I thought it was appropriate considering the assassins’ enthusiasm (or obsession) with their jobs. Although I must say I did wish Hank Azaria was used a lot more instead of him simply cracking obvious jokes in the car as he tried to stalk Martin around town. The best element about the film was the romantic relationship between Cusack and Driver. A guy coming back for his former lover could easily have been cliché but the writers came up with ways to keep the tension fresh between them. At first I did not feel the connection between the two characters but as the movie went on, I wanted them to be together because they complemented each other’s personalities. “Grosse Pointe Blank” was more than an 80s nostalgia flick. I loved the selection of songs. Even though I grew up in the 90s, it was the kind of songs I listened to while growing up because my parents were adolescents in the 80s. Watching enthusiastic and cooky characters and listening to music that was very catchy which reminded me of my childhood made me feel good inside. Fans of quirky action-comedies with a great script like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” will most likely enjoy this offbeat but highly likable film.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” was about a twenty-year-old janitor with a gift of photographic memory who spent his days hanging out and drinking with his friends (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) instead of actually using his gift to the fullest. But when he anonymously left a solution to a challenging math problem given by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård), the professor tried looking for Will to push him to reach his potential. I loved this picture because it felt more personal than other movies about people with a certain kind of genius. The script was impressive because it was insightful but at the same time wasn’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the characters, especially the relationship between Damon, Skarsgård and Robin Williams, as Will’s counselor who actually wanted to solve Will’s personal problems first before persuading Will to use his gift to help society. I found it fascinating how Will was so smart but he found it difficult to relate with others (except for his core group of friends) because most people were more drawn to his gift than what he had to offer personally. It made him bitter and trusting others became an issue for him, especially with what he had to go through in his childhood. Another source of tension, which I found was one of the weaker links in the film, was the relationship between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver). Even though they spent a lot of scenes together, I didn’t feel as though they loved one another as the film had suggested. However, I found Skylar interesting as a stand-alone character because she was carefree and independent. Perhaps it was just the lack of chemistry between the actors but I would rather watch the scenes when Damon and Williams helped to explore reach other’s inner demons and grow from their experiences. What impressed me most about “Good Will Hunting,” directed by Gus Van Sant, was how real the characters were. Van Sant’s direction was to be applauded because he wasn’t afraid to let his characters act stupid while adding many layers of dimension to them just like people in real life. For instance, the bar scenes with the friends seemed ordinary but they were actually standout scenes because listening in to their conversations made me feel like it was something I could hear in real life. Even though the topics of conversations seemed dull on the surface, the way the characters interacted and the intonations in their voices suggested how close they were as friends and what it meant for them to have someone have their backs no matter what happened. It’s difficult to sum up the story of “Good Will Hunting” in a couple of words because it was more about a crucial span of time in a character’s life. It was an intimate and powerful experience and it made me feel good because it inspired me to have more control to where I want to go in life.