Waiting for Forever (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) didn’t have a home. He wandered from place to place, often hitchhiking because he didn’t have a car, because he was set on following Emma Twist (Rachel Bilson), an actress and a childhood friend, like a love-sick puppy. People were often touched of his stories about how much he loved Emma and how he planned on marrying her. The fact was the two haven’t spoken to each other since they were kids. Written by Steve Adams and directed by James Keach, if I could describe “Waiting for Forever” in one word, it would be “misguided.” I wasn’t convinced that it was a love story even though it tried desperately to be one because the sentiments were heavily one-sided. Emma, like myself, was creeped out by Will because his rationalizations involving why they should be together felt completely detached from reality. The screenplay begged us to feel sorry for him instead of identifying with him. His parents died when he was little, his brother (Scott Mechlowicz) looked down on his nomadic lifestyle, and he always wore the same pajamas. I guess he didn’t have any other clothes. His excuse was the pajamas felt comfortable. I found it insulting that the majority of the women melted after hearing Will’s stories. I agreed with the men: Will needed some help, possibly a one-on-one session with a counselor or a psychiatrist. It was difficult to judge him this way because the filmmakers confused child-like and childish. An adult’s child-like quality tends to momentarily sprout from its hiding shell. It happens without a person being aware of it. An adult is childish when he jumps on chairs, tables, and counters just to be “cute.” Will was certainly the latter. Sturridge was partly to blame. He needed to tone down his character’s ticks so we could focus more on his personal struggles instead of how hyper he was or how well he could juggle. The only believable people on screen were Emma’s parents, Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Miranda (Blythe Danner). Richard had terminal illness and Miranda hid her sadness by overcompensating with happiness. There was dramatic weight in the way they interacted with each other. Some words were ugly, some looks were undeserved but I felt like there was history between them. There was a memorable scene in which Miranda finally exploded at the man she no longer thought was the man she married. The way the camera was so close to their aging bodies and the way the purging of emotions was handled, it felt like I was intruding in their very personal moment. I wished the movie had been about them. I liked the last line in the movie because the joke had a punchline. That and the painful experience of constantly wondering why the characters chose to do what they did was finally over.
The Devil Inside (2012)
★ / ★★★★
When Isabella was a child, three members of the church attempted to perform an exorcism on her mother, Maria (Suzan Crowley), which led to a tragedy. Maria telephoned for help and confessed to killing two priests and a nun. Years later, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) now in her mid-twenties, felt that she needed to understand what really happened to her mother. Along with Michael (Ionut Grama), the cameraman, the duo decided to make a documentary of their entire trip to Italy. Their first assignment was to visit Maria who’d been transferred to Centrino Mental Hospital. The biggest problem with “The Devil Inside,” written by William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman, was not its utter unoriginality when it came to presenting the basics of demonic possession and exorcism, but its slothful execution and poor control of the camera. The filmmakers strived to create a realistic mood in the most elementary and lazy manner: by shaking the camera so vigorously and aimlessly, I began to get very angry because the images that were supposed to inspire audience reaction were reluctantly shown. Keep in mind that this is coming from a person who can withstand a decent amount of camera convulsions. Because certain images were so evasive, perhaps the intention was to tease us into looking closer at the screen. It would have worked if the tension was established in varying rates and actually allowed horrific scenes to reach several zeniths punctuated by creative freedom by means of a sense of humor or false alarm. The picture was deathly one-note and I sat in my chair unmoved, possessed by boredom. Furthermore, since the material spent much of its time with distractions, like whether or not Fathers Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth), priests who performed exorcisms without permission from the church, ought to continue to support Isabella’s project. Suddenly, the picture became more about Father Ben’s ego of wanting to capture every moment on film–evidence, he called them–and Father David’s concern for losing his job. Isabella was relegated to a typical one-dimensional character who had nothing to do but scream at the right moments, only there was nothing worth screaming over due to a drought of genuinely scary scenes. The material touched upon the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession, so I was surprised that there weren’t more scenes between mother and daughter. Some psychological disorders like schizophrenia are known to be genetically linked which means it can be passed on from parent to offspring. Why not explore that connection between science and religion? Should we trust our protagonist completely? The picture could have been more interesting if had been a little more ambitious. Personally, I’m not scared of demonic possessions. What I am a little bit more apprehensive about, however, is the possibility that it’s real. As a person of science, I am willing to believe that science doesn’t hold all the answers. If it did, the universe, in my eyes, would be less captivating. “The Devil Inside,” directed by William Brent Bell, could have used a little bit of mystery, an edge that would allow it to stand out from the rest of the exorcism movies. But since it lacked inspiration, it’s just another nondescript writing on the wall created by a madman.
Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sent C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to collect Han Solo (Harrison Ford), encased in carbonite, from the gangster Jabba the Hutt (voiced by Larry Ward), but the droids were unsuccessful in their mission. Later, they discovered that Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) had also been captured. It was up to young Skywalker, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to rescue their friends. Meanwhile, the rebel groups found out that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) were building a new Death Star. Word went around that it was still non-functional so it was best to attack as soon as possible in order to end the rule of the evil Empire. Based on George Lucas’ original story and directed by Richard Marquand, “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” had some serious problems in terms of pacing. The first third of the picture was exciting. Although it ended in violence, Han Solo’s debt to Jabba the Hutt had finally been settled. Luke facing a truly ugly Rancor, strong but not very smart, was a joy to watch as well as the battle on the flying ships that hovered over a desert monster. Everyone who fell off the ship was eaten in a gruesome fashion. The ships rocked back and forth and crashed into each other which sent our lovable protagonists up in the air and near the mouth of the hungry creature. But when our heroes reached the forest moon of Endor, the story became painfully stagnant and, at its worst, cloyingly cheesy. I had difficulty believing that the cute Ewoks could be menacing. The most critical misstep was allowing the Ewoks to be front and center while Han Solo and company were brushed to the side. What I found highly enjoyable about “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” and “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” was the fact that the rebel groups were constantly outnumbered. Using sheer creativity and determination, they somehow disentangled themselves, while making some key sacrifices, from sticky situations. In this installment, the Ewoks did most of the work in defeating the Stormtroopers while Luke faced Vader and the Emperor in the new Death Star. In the latter, there was a lot of talk about going to the Dark Side but I felt no tension among the three powerful characters. Without tension, the one-dimensionality of the dialogue became apparent. The director failed to take advantage of the relationship between Luke and Vader, the push and pull of the way they felt toward each other versus their loyalty for their cause, and what being a Jedi meant to them. Still imaginative and exciting but noticeably less effective, “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” needed less of the Ewoks’ cuddly warmth and more epic adventures designed to tie together the series’ overarching themes.
★★★ / ★★★★
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) thought she was safe in a diner, at least for a while, until she looked outside and saw Aaron (Channing Tatum) approaching. He took a seat in front of her and commanded her to get inside the car. Mallory was not to be persuaded this way. After she mentioned Barcelona, Dublin, and the name Paul, Aaron realized he had no choice but to force her, through extreme violence, despite customers watching. We needn’t worry, though, because Mallory Kane was a former Marine. As a private contractor, she was more than capable of defending herself against colleagues about twice her size. “Haywire,” written by Lem Dobbs, had a simple plot yet quite labyrinthine at the same time because we were dropped in the middle of whatever was going on and we didn’t have a clear understanding of the characters’ motivations. Two-thirds of the picture focused on a flashback sequence involving two assignments in Barcelona and Dublin, respectively: the extraction of a kidnapped Chinese man (Anthony Brandon Wong), in which Mallory was the leader of the on-site operation, and Mallory serving as an escort of a British agent (Michael Fassbender). As pieces fell into place and the plot made more sense, the film was still able to keep a high level of excitement and mystery. Perhaps it was because the fight and flight scenes were equally compelling. Whenever Mallory faced an enemy and both had to inflict incredible amount of pain to each other, there was a lack of score. The sounds–heavy blows delivered to the body, furnitures cracking due to uneven distribution of forces, posh glass breaking–were magnified and they made the visual experience much more visceral. At one point, I found myself wanting to get up and engage in a one-sided fight against a punching bag. It was a great decision to allow the one-on-one matches to play out. Most of the time, Mallory’s enemies were experienced fighters so I found it believable that it would take time for one of them to make a critical error or reach exhaustion. The escape scenes were quite impressive, too. Mallory’s stint in attempting to evade a tracker in the streets of Dublin was almost suspenseful on a Hitchcockian level: a beautiful woman in a foreign country suspecting that a stranger was observing her from afar and following wherever she went. The chaos that Mallory experienced was complemented against the chaos happening under the jurisdiction of Coblenz (Michael Douglas), an influential United States official for various discrete operations. Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) were the puppeteers of the game, the reason why Mallory seemed to have gone rogue. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Haywire” was at times weighed down by desultory technical artistry. Most of the scenes were in color but select scenes were in black and white. I found it inconsistent and I got the impression that the director was trying too hard. Nevertheless, the film was fun due to its energy and well-choreographed duels. It doesn’t require much brain power to sit there and watch it all unfold.
The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.
Daydream Nation (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Caroline (Kat Dennings) and her father (Ted Whittall) moved from the city to the middle-of-nowhere suburbs and Caroline was far from happy about it. In order to feel some sort of excitement, she began to flirt with her English teacher, Barry (Josh Lucas), and the two began to share a sexual relationship. Thurston (Reece Thompson), a good kid with a nice family (led by Andie MacDowell as his mother) but stupid enough to hang around stoners, was hopelessly in love with Caroline. With a serial killer roaming the streets and dangerous chemicals began to take over the sleepy suburbs, Caroline had to choose which guy was right for her. Written and directed by Michael Goldbach, “Daydream Nation” tried to be edgy in tackling teenage angst but everything about it felt forced. For a supposedly smart character (she was in the gifted program), Caroline made decisions that no normal teenager would possibly make. Experimenting with sex and drugs was one thing but having an illicit affair with a teacher was a completely different breed of stupidity. She was the one who made the first move. The teacher, already a bit messed up in the head, obliged. Both of them were wrong. I understood Caroline wanted to feel some sort of excitement but couldn’t she have gone bungee jumping or skydiving instead? She was completely unlikable. Caroline reminded me of those girls in high school so desperate to be different that they were willing to hurt others for the sake of entertaining their delusions. She craved attention and she would go in whichever direction that offered her a bigger spotlight. The symbolisms were heavy-handed. For instance, a factory nearby expelled toxic smoke and the wind carried the chemicals to town. People were forced to use masks. The literal masks were supposed to show us that nobody really knew each other. That was probably the reason why the killer had been out and about for so long. I wish the picture had been more stripped down. I wanted to know more about Thurston and his friends. One of them had a seizure in class because his body could no longer deal with the drugs. They were so uninformed and addicted that they were stupid enough to take cleaning supplies from the kitchen and get high off them. That was far more realistic than some girl who wanted to have sex with her teacher just because she was bored. Lastly, the picture had some glaring inconsistencies. In the beginning, Caroline claimed that her father, in a span of a year, would eventually find out that he had cancer. A year had gone by and it was never mentioned again. “Daydream Nation” was cluttered, unfocused and depressing. There was not one teenager who was genuinely happy. Why is that? Its cynicism was bloated and pretentious.
★★★ / ★★★★
Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) was a successful actor who lived in a posh hotel. He spent his days playing video games, sometimes attending interviews to promote his upcoming film, but there were times when he just sat around and stared into nothingness. His nights consisted of partying, drinking, watching two blonde exotic dancers work a pole, and sleeping with women he barely knew. In his case, a successful career did not equal happiness. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, I feared that “Somewhere” began on the verge of insularity. Johnny driving around in circles in his fancy car was a heavy metaphor of his life going nowhere and fast, supported by unnecessary and more symbolic extended scenes. For example, the two women dancing on and around a pole which finally ended when Johnny fell asleep. I get it–he was apathetic even to things that excited most men. The director was so desperate to show us that Johnny was a lonely person when she didn’t need to. The moment Cleo (Elle Fanning), the actor’s eleven-year-old daughter, arrived, the story picked up because of her young, vibrant energy. The scene that stood out to me most was when the father, in such a simple way, looked at his daughter dancing on ice. It was one of the very few scenes when Johnny wasn’t the one being watched. When he was at the hotel, women gave him seductive looks. Sometimes a fan would recognize him and he or she would try to make banal conversations. When Johnny drove around Hollywood, he felt like he was being followed by someone in a black SUV. Many of the scenes centered around people looking for or looking at him. When nobody was looking at him, it was refreshing for him. He felt like he could breathe, like he was as normal as he once was. It felt like freedom. Furthermore, watching his daughter was the moment when I believed Johnny made an active decision to strive to be a better man–not necessarily the best father, but a better person who could be there for his daughter regardless of the reason. His personal promise was tested when Cleo’s mother, presumably divorced from Johnny, suddenly decided that she needed a break from life. Johnny had to go to Italy for the premiere of his movie so he took Cleo along. Cleo didn’t always agree with her father’s lifestyle, especially sleeping with random women and allowing them to stay until morning, but she wasn’t a brat. She internalized yet her eyes said everything what simple words couldn’t express. I was able to relate with her because I tend to do the same thing when I’m upset with someone who caused a negative situation. I believe “Somewhere” had a wonderful lesson about parenting. Sometimes a parent being there is just what a child needs. I stared into Johnny’s eyes and I couldn’t help but feel moved. It was like looking into the eyes of parents who think they’ve failed or that they’ve achieved nothing, not realizing that, in their children eyes, they mean absolutely everything.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Death Star was destroyed but the war between the Empire and the rebels was far from over. The rebels aggregated in Hoth, a planet covered in ice, and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) had just found them. There was a full-on attack on our heroes and they lost. Upon their retreat, they were divided into two groups. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) traveled to Dagobah to find a master Jedi called Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) upon the request the ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Meanwhile, their ship unable to go into hyperdrive, with some amusing consequences, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) attempted navigate their way through an asteroid field in order to evade Vader and his pesky minions. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kershner and from the original mind of George Lucas, was a quintessential sequel: it proved that just because the special and visual effects were grander and the action-sequences were more heart-pounding, the story and character need not be sacrificed. Although the picture didn’t mention how many months or years had passed since we last saw our beloved characters, we didn’t need to. Luke was more mature and more confident in the way he approached problems, the robots were more useful and wise-cracking, Chewbacca was more lovable, and the arguments between Han Solo and Princess Leia felt more like necessary friendly bantering/flirtation instead a hindrance to the story’s mood and momentum. The sequel challenged itself by constantly offering us something new. Let’s take the environment. In its predecessor, the characters spent a third of its time navigating their way through a barren desert. In here, we were immersed in a chilly tundra. Instead of going straight to the action of Vader’s troops demolishing the rebel base, it wasn’t afraid to take some risks like Luke being kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman-looking creature. It had a sense of fun. We never truly believed that Luke was in real danger. However, it was a necessary scene because it reminded us of Luke’s increasing connection to The Force, a key element in eventually defeating the evil Empire, and that he was no longer just a farmer trying too hard to be a Jedi. There was also an interesting contrast between scenes of the swampy Dagobah where Luke trained and the futuristic floating city where Han Solo and company took refuge. Despite the differences in images, the alternating scenes didn’t feel forced because the characters were consistently working toward a common goal. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” unafraid to explore its darker themes regarding loyalty and betrayal, unexpectedly romantic and chock full of surprises, was an adventure in the highest order.
The Sitter (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Noah (Jonah Hill), a college dropout with nothing much to do except hang out, decided to babysit the three children of his mom’s friend (Erin Daniels) because he figured his mom (Jessica Hecht) could use a fun night out. Who knows? Being a single parent, she might even meet a man who could make her happy. The three youngsters, Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) were, to say the least, a handful of troublemakers. It didn’t help that Noah was far from a responsible adult, accepting to pick up cocaine for his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) in exchange for sex in the middle of his babysitting. Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, as “The Sitter” unfolded, the gnawing question of who it was aimed for could no longer be ignored. Even though it contained kids, it certainly wasn’t for children given their mean-spirited natures, especially Rodrigo’s predilection for putting homemade bombs in public restrooms. And yet it wasn’t for adults either. At least not those who preferred their comedy distilled of sentimentality. The screenplay couldn’t help but make Noah into a brother figure for the kids, so unconvincing that in select scenes where the mood was supposed to be serious, like when Noah confronted Slater of the young teen’s homosexuality and self-hatred, though a great topic of conversation in a mainstream lens, I was relatively unmoved because I couldn’t see past the hokum. Since the sensitive moments didn’t feel earned, I was offended that the film so willingly crossed the line. I wish that the writers acknowledged the reality that some people, even babysitters, are just not good with kids. They certainly wouldn’t change their deeply-rooted tendencies overnight. However, the picture did have one very funny scene that took place in a store. Blithe had a bodily accident in the car so Noah had to take her underwear shopping because she had no change of clothes. Observing from a couple of feet away, a Kid City employee (Alysia Joy Powell) had mistakenly believed that Noah was a pedophile and Noah’s nervous explanation about what he was doing in the little girls’ underwear section didn’t help the situation. Hill and Powell mirrored each other’s energy so strongly, their exchange had crackle and pop. I wish other confrontations between Noah and another character were just as effective. In contrast, the scenes between Noah and Karl (Sam Rockwell), a drug dealer, were so lackadaisical and nonsensical. At times it was downright offensive. Karl was supposed to be gay. His sexuality was strictly utilized as a source of comedy. If the drug dealer had been straight, he’d just be another unfunny, incompetent thug. Would it have been too much to ask for the writers to make their villain a little bit more interesting without relying solely on the character’s sexual orientation? To me, mean-spirited gay jokes are just as offensive as gay jokes that insidiously try to pass as progressive thinking. “The Sitter,” directed by David Gordon Green, needed a writing overhaul in order to make room for adventurous and funny moments that have range. There was no sense of adventure here, just a series of poorly executed sketches.
Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
My Uncle Antoine (1971)
★★ / ★★★★
Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), an elderly couple without kids of their own, raised orphans Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) and Carmen (Lyne Champagne) in a snowy small town in Quebec. Uncle Antoine and Aunt Cecile made a living with their undertaking business and a general store which proved to be a popular place to hang out around Christmastime. “Mon oncle Antoine,” directed by Claude Jutra, celebrated life and mourned death but the movement from one side of the spectrum to another was only somewhat successful. The comedy sprouted from the ordinariness of daily life. We saw the story through Benoit’s eyes. We followed him as he spied on a beautiful woman (Monique Mercure) as she tried on a new corset, took up new responsibilities around the store, threw snowballs at a horse whose owner (Georges Alexander) felt obligated to give gifts to the poor, and his coming to terms with the growing attraction he had toward Carmen. The laughs weren’t especially big but what mattered was the aforementioned events held importance from Benoit’s childhood. Through Benoit’s experiences, we learned about the close-knit community and the unhappiness simmering just above the surface. However, I found it strange that the relationship between Benoit and his uncle wasn’t at the focus of the picture up until the last thirty minutes. They mostly spent time apart and when they did occupy the same room, they shared no meaningful conversation. When the uncle finally opened up to Benoit while in a drunken state, it felt forced. I wasn’t moved. I was more concerned about the beautiful chilly cinematography and the way the shadows were brilliantly placed on the characters’ faces. That detachment I felt was a signal that the relationship remained between uncle and nephew. There was no transition that highlighted the idea that the story may have very well had been about father and son. What the director did best was placing us in Benoit’s shoes as he experienced intense emotions. When Uncle Antoine took him along to pick up a boy’s dead body, we felt his anxiety in the way he looked at a door that was slightly ajar. It was an ordinary door but the way Benoit looked at it with fear made the door seem like a division between the land of the living, the kitchen where the family members gathered, and the land of the dead, the bedroom where the body waited under the covers. “Mon oncle Antoine” requires great patience. There were, without a doubt, rewarding scenes but the lack of key transitions between relationships left me off-guard in a negative way.