★★ / ★★★★
Wolfgang Petersen’s medical thriller “Outbreak” is composed of two movies that do not mesh well. The first one, established during the former half, is a drama that tracks the origin of a new virus and how it comes to make its way to a small California town. The second, which dominates the latter half, is an action picture composed of helicopter chases, men in uniform yelling at each other over radio, and a bomb about to be dropped on the infected. The differences between the two halves are day and night and I wished screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool had chosen one path—the former which is vastly superior than its counterpart—and explored it without fear or shame that the material may not appeal enough to the mainstream audience.
Petersen commands a solid sense of pacing—very necessary because his all-star cast deserve to shine on their own, from Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo as divorced virologists who work for the United States government, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland as generals involved in a cover-up which cost innocent lives decades ago, to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey as a new recruit and veteran field scientist, respectively. Patrick Dempsey even makes an appearance as a young man directly responsible, albeit inadvertently, for allowing the host animal to infect even more people. The powerhouse cast is juggled with seeming ease and there is genuine chemistry among them, particularly Hoffman and Russo even though I did not care much about the whole subplot regarding the former couple finding that special connection again.
Notice the dialogue. These are strong and forceful, almost always to the point—appropriate given the urgency of the plot. For instance, when the Hoffman and Freeman characters are at odds, there is a convincing push and pull between the two figures. We believe that these men have experienced major medical emergencies prior to this one, an Ebola-like virus from Zaire called Motaba, and so they are willing to fight what they believe is the right thing to do given a set of specific circumstances. At the same time, Drs. Daniels and Ford share a friendship just underneath their professional rapport. It is a joy to watch Hoffman and Freeman clash.
However, as the picture unfolds, the looming threat of politics and power play getting in the way of correctly (and morally) dealing with a public health emergency begins to take over. And as it does, the story, while somewhat sizable in scope, also starts to feel less personal or intimate and more like a standard action-thriller. Uncontrollable virus infection movies are scary precisely because we tend to relate to the confused and terrorized characters on screen who fear for their lives. The fear lies in something unknown but natural, not because of a missile or bomb threat.
And so it is ironic that by introducing two things that could kill—a virus and a bomb—the film is rendered less effective. It is far more unsettling to fear the unknown, something we cannot see or imagine. Bombs, on the other hand, are found in every other action flick. Still, even then the more action-packed chases are not all that impressive because they neither offer nothing new in terms of visuals nor is the action being told from a different or fresh perspective. Thus, the generic action comes across like an awkward appendage in otherwise watchable disaster film.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and other African slaves, taken from their land, kill their Spanish captors while the ship, La Amistad, is on its way to Northeast America. The slaves are eventually captured and find themselves in trial for murder. Meanwhile, Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) attempt to search for the right lawyer for the case in order to gain the Africans’ freedom. Enter Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), aware that winning is close to zilch if he approaches the case from a typical angle, wishes to argue that the men are “stolen goods” and therefore bound by specific rules already set by the courts.
“Amistad,” written by David Franzoni and directed by Steven Spielberg, thrives on stunning visuals and attention-grabbing performances. The first scene shows how the slaves take control of the ship. While the action occurs in the dark but there is something beautiful, almost poetic, about the way the darkness complements the mutiny and murder.
The recurring theme that the slaves are treated essentially animals makes a powerful statement. For instance, the way a man holds a chair like a lion tamer because he is afraid of being attacked by a colored man, the manner in which kids poke at the chained Africans with sticks as if they were street dogs, and the lack of scenes in which the prosecution attempt to communicate, even through gestures given the language barrier, with the men and women on trial. The aforementioned images are important because they communicate to us that people with dark skin are less than the white man. These images are found either on the side or in the background so it never feels as though Spielberg is hammering us over the head in order to get his point across.
The courtroom scenes are shot with an orange-yellow glow. The color palate remains hopeful despite the fact that gaining the Africans’ freedom is a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle. We all know what will eventually happen because the Supreme Court’s decision has a direct connection to the American Civil War, but my attention is piqued nonetheless.
Anthony Hopkins’ performance as former President John Quincy Adams is sublime. His ten-minute speech toward the end touched me personally. It made me want to learn more about American history especially in terms of what our founding fathers went through in order to establish the building blocks of this country. Hopkins, despite looking like his character is about to fall over every time he takes a step forward, manages to highlight Adams’ strengths: the cunningness of a fox and the heart of a lion.
However, I wasn’t convinced that “Amistad” has reached its full potential. While it is moving and the case is revolutionary, for a film with a running time of about two hours and thirty minutes, it should have had more complexity. We spend most of the time with the defense but barely any time with the prosecution (the lawyer played by Pete Postlethwaite). At most, we see the latter looking shocked or angry or confused. Their emotional outbursts might have been more interesting if the audience is provided some more in-depth background information on how they approach the case. But perhaps its one-sidedness is on purpose, like image of the Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin), a child, jumping up and down her bed instead of governing her country.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, swore he would never train a girl. But after his main boxer left for a manager who could book him to have a shot at a title, Frankie just might change his mind. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s longtime friend and partner in running the gym, insisted that Frankie should take a second look at the determined Maggie (Hilary Swank). Despite his initial reluctance, Frankie decided to train her. In a way, he saw it as a chance to forgive himself for the decision he made many years ago that led to Scrap losing half his sight. Written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” was a moving story about people who used their body as instruments. I was impressed with its clear vision of what it wanted to tell us about each character and at what point they were in their lives. Maggie was a nobody, just a waitress who took home her customers’ uneaten food, but she turned into a rising star in a matter of months. She craved to be in the ring. She was proud of every beating–if her opponents were lucky enough to land a punch. On the other hand, Scrap had accepted that his turn in the ring was over. He felt the need to pass on his knowledge in regards to both the techniques in boxing and the business side of the dangerous career. Meanwhile, Frankie was somewhere in between. Not really knowing his place hardened him. He couldn’t quite let go of the mistakes he made and he was almost blind to how he made others’ lives better. Perhaps it had something to do with the daughter who wouldn’t communicate with him. The three were connected by their passion for the sport and their own definitions about what it meant to be a true fighter. The actors’ performances were equally strong which elevated an already sublime screenplay. Swank was a natural. I was astounded by her ability to make determination look glamorous and ugliness almost effortless. Freeman had quieter moments but he made each scene he was given memorable. I especially enjoyed the way he balanced his character’s playfulness and solemnity, never settling in being predictable. As for Eastwood, with that soft but ferocious growl, I believed his character’s life being all about boxing. However, one small problem I had with the film was its occasional use of music. I noticed it especially when the movie would cut to scenes of Maggie being a waitress. Cue the sad melody, a sign that we should feel sorry for her. I didn’t need the music for me to realize that she had to work extremely hard to scrape by. I could see it in her eyes and the way she held her pride when she felt like someone was doing her a favor. “Million Dollar Baby” was fearless in reaching into the souls of its characters. As a testament to the film’s power, we eventually find ourselves needing to reach for the box of tissues. Indeed, the events toward the end were sad but it was more than that. I think it’s a wise reminder that even the most ordinary can have the potential to have magic in them.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.
★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Retired agent of the CIA, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) began to flirt with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) over the phone. The pair seemed to make a genuine connection. But when assassins came sneaking into Frank’s home, after disarming them with relative ease, he had no choice but to meet Sarah in person because he believed that they were after her, too. Reluctant at first, she eventually realized that maybe this was the kind of excitement and danger she needed–feelings she only encountered in books she so often enjoyed reading. “Red,” which was actually an acronymn for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” was a slick action picture that made the smart decision to not reveal its aces too early in the game. Frank and Sarah traveled across America but we, like the dynamic duo, didn’t exactly know why they were being hunted by the CIA which was led by a young agent with a blind ambition and a nice haircut (Karl Urban). The action sequences offered nothing particularly new but they were inspired because the filmmakers and the actors injected a certain hyperkinetic energy to such scenes. I noticed that during the intense violence, the film would often cut to Parker’s brilliantly executed bewildered and sometimes utterly confused expressions. She may not be able to fight but she was charming and we always knew why she was perfect for Frank. We were supposed to relate to her because she represented ordinary folks plucked from the mundane and thrown into extraordinary events. The film benefited from strong and very colorful, to say the least, supporting characters. John Malkovich was excellent as the paranoid former agent with a penchant for hilarious sneak attacks. Morgan Freeman was sublime as the gentle aging man but could easily kill men half his age when pushed to a corner. Helen Mirren was fantastic as the British lady who enjoyed overkill. I’m used to seeing her play roles where she had to be soft and elegant so it was refreshing to see her wield gigantic machine guns. They had individual spark but the real magic was in their interactions. However, the weakest part of the film was how the revelation of the mystery was handled in the end. Questions involving the hit list and the cover-up were answered, but it wasn’t perfectly clear how that was related to a certain politician. The last-minute twist about the identity of the real “big bad” felt forced and unnecessary. Nevertheless, “Red,” directed by Robert Schwentke, was highly enjoyable because it had a balance of suspense, action, comedy, and wit. Similar movies with a younger cast fall on the wayside because the actors either lacked chemistry or the filmmmakers attempted to do too much. Those movies could learn a thing or two from here.
10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.