Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.
Paths of Glory (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In World War I, a French general (Adolphe Menjou) ordered his men to make their way through German fires and seize the Ant Hill from the enemy. General Broulard thought such an action would be the key to victory and his glory. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) rebelled against the idea because he knew it would be a suicide mission, but since he was lower in the ranks, he had no choice but to lead his men in the attempt. In the thick of battle, some of the troops refused to leave their trenches and in doing so resulted to the failure in capturing the coveted Ant Hill. General Broulard, in blind fury, decided to make an example of the troops, a lesson in the repercussion of cowardice, by selecting three random men (Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Richard Anderson) to be assassinated through a firing squad. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” surprised me in many ways. It was a moving story because it dealt with humanity’s place in the chaos of war and the powers that controlled or motivated them. There was a divide between the good and the bad. The good were the troops miserably placed in those trenches as they endured the flying bullets and the explosions of the grenades. They saw their friends meet their demise in one incorrect move or a major miscalculation by their officers. The officers were the bad. They enjoyed parties, dancing, and eating succulent meals in elegantly decorated rooms. They discussed about their triumphs in the battlefield despite the fact that they observed from a distance. When they did visit the trenches, they exuded an air of confidence; when a soldier expressed his fear about the war, he deserved to be slapped around like a child or an animal. Kubrick knew the importance of images and he used such contrasting elements to make a powerful anti-war statement. As we plunged into the battlefield, all we could distinctly hear were the firing of the guns, men’s bodies hitting the ground, and yells to improve morale or perhaps to mask their fear of death. The extended scene in which the troops made their way toward enemy lines was especially memorable. The director framed the scene in such a way that it felt like we were there with the dispensable men. One way I could describe it was like being stuck in the middle of two big waves in the ocean. There was anticipation mixed with a sense of panic and dread amidst the heavy confusion. I would most likely have stayed in the trenches as well if I was one of those soldiers. The last scene with the German woman singing and the soldiers joined in was a very touching moment and it was a perfect way to end an ultimately tragic reflected reality. “Paths of Glory” is a great example of how powerful war pictures can be. Indeed, a great leader is defined by the way he treats his inferiors, not his equals.
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Garfield stars as Eddie Dunford, a journalist on a quest to solve Britain’s infamous Yorkshire Ripper case. When a girl was found dead with wings stitched onto her back to make it seem like she was a fallen angel, everyone knew that the murder wasn’t a typical one. Everyone talked about it but no one was willing to come forward to the authorities or members of the media because they feared for their lives. I expected this film to be a procedural because it was such a popular case so I was a bit underwhelmed when it turned out to be otherwise. While I did enjoy the way the picture was shot and the dark undertones just boiling above the surface, it could have used a laser-like focus on the case at hand while exploring important questions such as why Eddie’s friend and fellow journalist (Anthony Flanagan) was killed. Instead, our protagonist became entangled in an unethical affair with the murdered child’s mother (Rebecca Hall), who may or may not know more than she lets on. I could have been more invested in the material if it had taken the time to explore and demonstrate how strong the bond was between Eddie and his friend. While Hall was strong as usual, the romantic angle grew stale pretty quickly because their relationship didn’t evolve. The script hinted at something insidious the more passionate the couple became but there were far too many scenes in the bedroom when the two would get intimate. Knowing that Eddie was keen at solving the mystery surrounding her daughter’s gruesome murder, I would think that she would encourage him to go deeper into the case and not into her. The film also consistently touched upon the corruption of the cops, journalists, and businessmen. Were they protecting each other because everybody wanted money or was it because something about the murder was mishandled in some way? There is no definite answer because the movie was too busy asking questions. The more questions were asked, the more frustrated I became because a lot of information thrown at us just did not make a lot of sense when I applied it to the big picture. Since this is the first of the trilogy, I am hoping that more of my questions will be answered the deeper I get into its mythology. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by Julian Jarrold, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” left a lot to be desired. The performances were engaging and the look of the movie reflected the times. It just needed more editing so it focused more on the actual case and less about our protagonist’s secondary adventures.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by David Yates, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was essentially the calm before the storm. Despite a dead boy and Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) claims that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) had returned, the Ministry of Magic and the Daily Prophet, the newspaper the ministry controlled, insisted that it was all a lie. Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) had instructed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to act as Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, evil dressed in pink, who ignored the fine line between punishment and torture. Meanwhile, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) made an effort to avoid Harry for certain reasons, but our protagonist could not help but take it personally. The fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s highly successful series was my favorite because it was all about the preparation for the upcoming war that the first four books built upon. It was so rich in detail about corruption of power, the role of the media, and finding one’s place in the world. The first mistake the filmmakers made was condensing the longest book to just about over two hours, making it the shortest film. The book had an excellent reason to be the longest. As a result, the movie felt very rushed, particularly the very important scene when Harry and his friends (Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright, Evanna Lynch, and Matthew Lewis) had an exciting, but ultimately tragic, showdown against the Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries. It should have taken its time because it was at the point where the main character finally learned of his probable fate if he was to finally defeat Voldermort. I loved the book because it showed Harry as not only an emerging leader but, above all, a great teacher and a friend, too. I was not convinced that Yates paid enough attention to the importance of developing Harry as a strong person on his own but who was able to perform at his best when he had the full support of his friends. Character development is all about subtlety. Subtlety is not achieved with quickly edited scenes that do not add up to anything substantial. Lastly, I was greatly disappointed that the movie only had about two scenes of Snape (Alan Rickman) training Harry to control of his mind, the art of Occlumency, against Voldermort. It would have been fantastic if the script spent more time exploring their very complicated relationship. I found it strange that the film spent so little time with the subject of Occlumency because a big part of the fifth installment was Harry’s struggle against Voldermort taking over his mind and body. I was left with the impression that Yates did not understand what the book really about. I will not even get started with the lack of scenes involving the Ordinary Wizarding Level exams and the stresses the students had to deal with. Sadly, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is perhaps the weakest entry in the series when it should have been the best because the elements for greatness were provided by the original material.
The Book of Eli (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.
The Young Victoria (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Future Queen Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) mother (Miranda Richardson) and stepfather (Mark Strong) desperately tried to convince their daughter to sign away her power until she was 25 years old before she turned 18. However, Victoria wanted to run her empire despite her age and inexperience. Meanwhile, she also had to deal with Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) who craved more power and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) who was sent to court Victoria in order to gain political advantage. I am somewhat torn about this film because while I did admire its consistently strong acting (particularly from Blunt) and it had an unconventional feel in terms of telling a period picture, I felt like it did not have enough gravity to really get me to be interested in its history. Perhaps period movies are just not my cup of tea. However, I really did try to get into the conflicted characters and the difficult circumstances that plagued them. For instance, I empathized with Victoria’s mother but at the same time I wanted to shake her because she chose her current husband over her daughter time and time again. I understood her fears of not being wanted in a society where aging women were dispensable so she clung onto people that could protect her. I related to her because wanting to be valued is a universal feeling. Furthermore, I had a feeling that the film had a hard time balancing Queen Victoria’s political decisions and the repercussions of her actions (and inaction) alongside her romance with Prince Albert. Just when one of the two became interesting, it switched gears and I was left frustrated because I wanted to feel more involved. Since I did not know much about England’s history, a lot of the plot was a surprise to me. The scenes were elegantly shot particularly the scenes during and after Victoria was finally crowned, the dinner scene in King William’s court (Jim Broadbent) when everybody had to try to be polite even though not everybody liked each other, and the extreme close-ups when Victoria and Albert were face-to-face after not seeing each other for extended periods of time. “The Young Victoria,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, needed more focus in terms of Queen Victoria’s role in politics. In the end, I did not feel much growth from her in terms of managing her empire; the feeling I got was she needed a man to help her run her empire. If it were not for the title cards in the last two minutes, I would have came to a conclusion that Queen Victoria was not an effective leader of her people.