★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
The Ghost Writer (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, Ewan McGregor played a ghostwriter who was hired to help complete an ex-British prime minister’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoir. Suspecting that something wasn’t quite right in the former British prime minister’s stories compared to what was said by the media and those around him, The Ghost did an investigation of his own which led him to endanger his life. Directed by the controversial Roman Polanski, what I liked most about the film was the director’s ability to take material that we’ve seen before concerning the dangers of politics and inject just the right mood and pacing to create something quietly sinister. I must admit that I did not immediately understand what was going on because it felt as though the protagonist was thrusted onto an island where he had barely any idea what he was doing or why he was really there. He tried to convince himself that he was there for an assignment (with great pay) but his instincts made him question until he couldn’t bear his curiosity any longer. The characters such as the former prime minister’s lead assistant (Kim Cattrall, whom I would love to see more in serious roles), wife (Olivia Williams), and even the housekeeper made me feel uneasy so I could not help but suspect them of hiding something key that might lead to the big revelation. Another interesting layer was the question of whether The Ghost was really on an assignment involving politics, or personal revenge, or possibly both. The questions were difficult to answer and the answers were vague. But I liked the fact that the movie chose to challenge its audience by allowing us to read between the lines. Since the real answers were elusive, we couldn’t help but question whether our protagonist was truly on the right track in terms of solving the mystery or whether he was merely putting together random information and forcing himself to make sense of them. “The Ghost Writer” thrived on subtlety and often reminded me of the underrated “Breach” directed by Billy Ray. Like that film, what kept the film together was not the extended action scenes but the strong acting and constantly evolving atmosphere. Perhaps I am giving the movie too much credit but I did notice some references to noir pictures in the 1940s, the most obvious one being Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” My only minor complaint was I hoped Polanski used Tom Wilkinson a lot more. Wilkinson managed to do so much with how little he was given and it would have been interesting to see how much more he could have turned the main character’s life upside down if he had been given more material.
Broken Embraces (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Los abrazos rotos” or “Broken Embraces,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, was about a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who began to tell a story about a love affair he had in the 1990s with a beautiful actress (Penélope Cruz) to the son (Tamar Novas) of his agent/manager (Blanca Portillo). The affair was riddled with sneaking around, feigning emotions, and spying because the actress had a boyfriend (José Luis Gómez) who eventually became aware of the situation with the help of his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) who had a penchant for the videocamera. When I dive into an Almodóvar picture, I expect melodrama, complex storytelling, interesting use of camera angles, vibrant colors, and passionate characters. On that level, I strongly believe that the film delivered. However, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. I think this is the kind of film that requires multiple viewing on my part because there were times in the picture where I found myself confused with what was happening (notably the middle portion). Although it eventually started coming together toward the end because certain characters stopped holding onto their secrets, it didn’t change the fact that I had to take myself out of the experience for several seconds to figure out where everybody else stood. That lack of flow was the main reason why I didn’t quite love “Broken Embraces.” I admired that this film strived not to fit into one genre. Sometimes it was comedic, sometimes gloomy but there were times when it was thrilling; the director’s use of shadows and the way he used the build-up of tension were very noir-like (particularly the stairs scene–a definite stand-out) and almost Hitchcockian. “Broken Embraces” was teeming with ideas. If the director made a film from each genre he tackled, I’d be interested in watching them as well. I was fascinated with how the characters became so engulfed in their passions to the point where they weren’t even aware that they were ultimately hurting themselves. I couldn’t help but get into the lives of the characters because each of them had passion in their eyes and the way they expressed themselves via body movements. Each of them had a purpose and none of them was a simply caricature. I could feel Almodóvar’s passion for filmmaking in every frame. I just wished that he made sure that the audiences could follow his vision without a significant amount of mental acrobatics because there was already a lot going on.
The 39 Steps (1935)
★★★ / ★★★★
Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was about a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on the run to prove his innocence after a woman (Lucie Mannheim) who was staying with him told him bits of information about the 39 Steps and was then killed. I’ve read that this was Hitchcock’s first international success in the film industry and I believed it showed. Even though it wasn’t as strong as some of my personal favorites from Hitchcock (“North by Northwest,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Notorious”), this was where he introduced some of the elements that he used in his later films to produce such powerful force of human drama and adrenaline-fueled (yet astute) action sequences. In this picture, I loved how the story would evolve in a matter of minutes or by saying key lines or two. I also admired how the director chose to end a scene, despite it lasting only thirty seconds or so, right when he finished getting his point across. With thrillers (and movies in general) today, many scenes are dragged on which contributes to running times of two hours or more. In “The 39 Steps,” although the movie was under an hour and thirty minutes, it was efficient with its time so it was able to accomplish so much. It actually treats its audiences like intelligence people instead of simplifying everything; the depths and implications in the story allowed us to identify with the characters as we questioned ourselves what would we have done when placed in the same situations. Yet at the same time, this film achieved most thrillers could not: it was comedic. Don’t get me wrong, the comedy did not get in the way of its tone. It’s just that funny things happen when people panic and placed in very desperate situations. Such amusing scenes happened whenever Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) were on screen because they had such chemistry but they did not like each other from the moment they met on the train. It goes without saying that I’m giving “The 39 Steps” a solid recommendation because the way it explored its themes and characters was beyond its time. Another reason was it was downright entertaining. Don’t let the black and white fool you because it was actually able to use shadows to its advantage–like the best noir films in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Double Indemnity (1944)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This noir classic about a man (Fred MacMurray) who works for an insurance company who plots with a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband (Tom Powers) was impressive through and through. Unhappily married to her husband because she married him only for the money, Stanwyck suggested to MacMurray that they commit murder, collect her husband’s insurance money of $100,000 (assuming the husband dies on a train–a situation covered under the double indemnity clause) and be together forever. Only things started to go seriously wrong when an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) began to feel like the death was due to murder rather than accidental because everything was set-up so perfectly. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character (played by MacMurray) narrated the picture and told the audiences outright how everything was going to turn out. So then the focus turned to the journey of two conniving individuals so blinded by greed and passion, they failed to consider the ramifications of what could happen after the deed was done. Stanwyck’s character was an expert of hiding her true emotions and an excellent liar; MacMurray’s character was obsessed with details and had a natural ability to think ahead. But both of them needed each other and that was ultimately their downfall (in which a train became a perfect metaphor). I thought it was fascinating how we saw the story through the antagonists’ perspectives. With most noir films I’ve seen, the story is always through the good guys’ eyes so watching this movie was a refreshing change. “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder, being a noir film, I expected it to have a great ear when it comes to dialogue and a stunning use of black and white cinematography. What I didn’t expect was for the script to be very amusing, especially in the first half when MacMurray and Stanwyck conversed for the first time. It provided a nice contrast with the film’s darkness and cynicism. This movie kept me on my toes because just when I thought the characters were at the crest of the wave and were going to get away with everything, they hit a trough just as quickly and they started to figure out ways how they could survive even if it meant sacrificing one another.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot about Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a modern noir about a private detective (Jack Nicholson) who decided to investigate about water dealings in Los Angeles, only to discover later on that what he was onto was deeper than he could tread. I was impressed by this classic picture because even though it was set in the 1930s, there was something about it that was very aware of the noir films that came before. I thought that subtle self-awareness worked in its advantage because although it did follow some of the textbook rules of noir movies, it had the ability to flip some of those rules upside down and I was taken by surprise time and time again. I loved the acting especially by Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It’s an excellent collision of two great actors because Nicholson played a character who was always asking questions and snooping around no matter what the cost and Dunaway played a character who was a fortress. You never really know what she’s thinking or feeling because she’s so good at hiding certain bits of information that are crucial to her endgame. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to give away facts that could help Nicholson’s character but still keep her secrets. I also liked the recurring theme of a character thinking he or she knows everything but it turning out to be quite the opposite. In the hands of a less gifted director, I think the messages would have been obvious and less fun to think about. There were also certain metaphors in the film that I found to be fascinating. For instance, that scene between Dunaway and Nicholson regarding a flaw in the iris meant so much to me in ultimately determining whether I was in the right direction of guessing who was involved in what. And in this film, a whole array of things were happening all at once to the point where a less attentive viewer will almost certainly get lost in the maelstrom of intrigues, social commentaries and taboos. “Chinatown” was well ahead of its time because it was able to synthesize remnants of what made the noir films in the 1940s and 1950s so great yet still embrace the very modern moral and ethical conundrums that plagued the era of its release. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll love instead of like this movie. I recently found out that the more I think about certain movies and the more the events connect in my mind, the stronger my appreciation for them. Given the chance, I’ll be interested in watching “Chinatown’ again in the near future to see if its subtle ways had embedded themselves in my psyche. If it does, that is a sign of a great film.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.