All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.
Broken Sky (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Julián Hernández, “El cielo dividido” or “Broken Sky” bides its time (two hours and twenty minutes to be exact) to tell the story of a couple (Miguel Ángel Hoppe and Fernando Arroyo) who started off as loving and eventually ended up cold and distant. One of the main reasons for such a schism was Arroyo fell in love with another man. Although this led Hoppe to seek attention from Alejandro Rojo, does his new partner have the same qualities as his former lover? This movie was painful for me to watch because of the fact that there were extended scenes of lack of dialogue for no reason whatsoever. It would have been fine if the narration was consistent because then the audiences would know what was going on in the characters heads. When we are left to watch the grieving characters doing whatever they choose to do, it’s not a good thing especially when the characters themselves do not know what they should do next. The whole movie was supposed to be poetic because of the music, the passionate sex and the absence of dialogue. But the way I saw it was the director got a bit too lazy. Instead of painting us a picture of the emotional turmoil that the characters were going through, he decided to sit back and “let it all unfold” when, really, there’s absolutely nothing to drive the story forward. Instead, we get redundant scenes of guys being in bed, going to clubs and stalking each other. It wasn’t an insightful or relatable experience when it should have been because most of us are familiar with heartbreak and rejection. This monolith of a movie could have easy been just above an hour long. Now, I can handle movies that are different and have an art-house kind of feel to them. But for me to ultimately enjoy movies that are “different” (or any movie in general), I look for an emotional core–whether such a core is droll, depressing, childlike, suspenseful or simply a slice-of-life–but “Broken Sky” didn’t have that basic quality. We see characters who are sad and angry but if they (and the filmmakers) don’t let us make a connection with them, why should we care what would happen to them? I’ve seen other self-obsessed characters portrayed on screen having an easier time to let me in. If you have insomnia, this soporific picture is your cure.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I can understand why most people would dismiss this film due to its disorganized way of telling the story and featuring a lifestyle that was not (and still is not) fully accepted in society. “Velvet Goldmine” was about a journalist (Christian Bale) who was assigned to write an article about a glam rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose stardom quickly plunged because he faked his own death. Incidentally, Bale was a fan of Slade when he was younger so the assignment was a lot more personal to him than any other projects he had before to the point where he rekindled some of that obsession he used to have for the rock star. In order to get the full picture regarding Slade’s life, Bale interviewed the people that knew Slade most: the one who discovered him (Michael Feast), his wife (Toni Collette), his manager (Eddie Izzard), and his competition/partner/lover (Ewan McGregor). I must give kudos to Todd Haynes, the director, for featuring strong performances from the four leads (Rhys-Meyers, Bale, Collette and McGregor). He told the story in such a way that each of the four had an equal share of the spotlight and really gave scintillating performances. I also liked the fact that Haynes’ message about music was different. Most pictures that tackle the meaning of music tend to argue that music is a meaningful entity. In here, the message is the antithesis: music is meaningless; music is driven by the artists’ ego and thirst for taking over or changing the world; lastly, music–or real music–should not and does not contain anything personal from the artist because its purpose is to simply entertain; to put something personal in it is to contaminate it and thus defying itself. Well, at least that’s how I interpreted the film. I found this film to be particularly cold: It did not make an effort to convince its audiences why they should care for the characters. Interestingly enough, I loved it because it embraced the feeling of the 1970’s glam rock era which consisted of revolting against the norm, being apathetic to things that should matter, and embracing the dirtiness and griminess of atypicality. For an independent film, I thought it was particularly powerful, especially when it used techniques from the film “Citizen Kane”–fusing past and present in order to truly understand the characters that have been so wrapped up in the darkness they’ve created for themselves. I also appreciated the fact that it featured the fluidity of sexuality, emotions and ideas. This is a rich film with fascinating images and ideas but it’s not particularly accessible so one should be wary on whether he or she should watch it. But if one has an open mind, this should be a pleasant surprise. This reminded me of a weaker “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (though the two are very different films); a little bit more focus would have made this an instant favorite of mine.
City of Ember (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of film that would’ve benefited if it had a longer running time and a bit less family-friendly so it could explore its darker undertones. Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway star as Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, respectively, who try to find a way out of Ember, a city illuminated by artificial light. After two hundred years, the generator was beginning to fail so the two must find a way out or everyone in Ember will perish in darkness. Although the premise sounds adventurous, I don’t think Jeanne Duprau’s book was fully realized on screen. I felt like Gil Kenan, the director, held back a lot of the time in order for younger kids to enjoy the film as much as the adults. As a result, we get a motion that looks grimy, menacing and depressing but when one takes a look at the big picture, it’s ultimately safe and empty. Although I did like the partnership between Ronan and Treadaway, it’s hard for me to like the movie as a whole because it doesn’t have much heart since it’s afraid to take risks when it comes to tackling certain emotions. Even the presence of Bill Murray (as the corrupt mayor) and Tim Robbins (as Doon’s father) did not make up for the movie’s shortcomings. I felt like there were a lot of details in the book about these two characters that didn’t quite make it or translate on film. With a longer running time, I felt like the two characters would’ve been established stronger, such as their motivations and their roles when it comes to knowing (or not knowing) information about Ember. Overall, this is a disjointed fantasy adventure that could’ve been so much better if more details were incorporated from the book. This is a prime example of a money-driven movie studio having more influence in the project than people (such as the book’s author) who actually care about the story being accurately executed from the primary source.