The Darkest Hour (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), Americans in their mid-twenties, took a trip to Moscow excited that their computer program connecting tourism and social networking would be picked up for millions of dollars. But when a Swedish competitor, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), presented their idea as his own to the Russians, Sean and Ben decided to go to a club and drink their disappointment away. While in the club, they met fellow young Americans, Anne (Rachael Taylor) and Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), wanting to have a good time. Their four-way flirtation, however, was interrupted by yellow-orange lights capable of turning humans and animals into ashes. “The Darkest Hour,” based on the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, lacked the menacing atmosphere and dark energy in order to be a successful alien invasion film. Since it didn’t aim for campiness either, I wasn’t sure what it was attempting to be. In any case, the action sequences it offered felt uninspired. Consider the club scene when the invisible alien went on a killing spree. A lot of people screamed and ran around like panicked sheep yet there I was wondering why the alien wouldn’t just keep eradicating whatever got in its way. The scene was supposed to convince us that the alien was seemingly indestructible. It was almost a requirement so that the later scenes in which the characters discovered its weaknesses would have an impact. Instead, I got the impression that the alien was slow and as confused as the humans it had to destroy. The forthcoming scene was just as egregious. Sean, Ben, Anne, Natalie, and Skyler spent several days hiding in the club’s storeroom. If it weren’t for the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I could swear we wouldn’t have any idea that they spent days in there. They didn’t look like they haven’t showered for days, the girls’ make-up remained perfect, and not a smudge of dirt could be found on their clothes. And there I was wondering how they used the toilet. One of the characters said something about urinating in a can. If none of them had to go number two for days, I’d say they had a bigger problem at hand. Forget looking for U.S. Embassy for extraction, go see a doctor as soon as possible. Fortunately, when they did decide to finally explore outside, there were some effective shots. Daytime was creepy because of the empty metropolitan. Nighttime was dangerous because whenever an alien was near, disabled lights would suddenly turn on. I liked the irony involving characters running away from the light. In horror movies or sci-fi pictures with horror elements in them, characters tend to run away from darkness, usually while in a tunnel, as it tried to engulf them. However, good, isolated shots do not make an entertaining movie. If “The Darkest Hour,” directed by Chris Gorak, had more fun with the material, it would have been a more bearable experience. Sean and his friends eventually made it to the mall. He suggested that they needed new clothes considering they hadn’t changed for days. I was so excited for them to go shopping since everything was for free. Instead, they glumly walked to different stores and tried on whatever looked the plainest. If I were in their shoes knowing that there was a big possibility that I might die, I would live to the fullest. If that meant taking my time to go shopping and leaving everyone annoyed, then so be it.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A young farmer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out that one of the two robots, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his uncle purchased contained a message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the rebels who wanted to bring down the evil Empire, seeking help from a former Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness). She was captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) and was ordered to reveal the location of other rebels. Failure to do so on her part meant termination. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two robots hired a mercenary named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), along with his friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to infiltrate the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, and save the princess. Written by directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was an ambitious and exciting picture, worthy of the reputation of being one of the most influential films ever made. I was impressed with the risks it took right from the beginning. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, we were asked to pay attention to the two robots. One of them could speak but other could only utter beeps and whistles. Somehow, the material was able to get away with it because, despite the two being non-living objects, they had chemistry. I’m doubtful if such a risk could be taken today and be as successful. I enjoyed that we were immediately taken in the middle of the warring members of the Empire and rebel groups. Background information were mostly revealed through conversations. Not only did it feel organic, it was efficient with its time. Although there was weakness in the dialogue at times like when Han Solo and Princess Leia would get into cheesy and sometimes cringe-inducing arguments, the tirades happened in the middle of action-packed sequences so it almost felt negligible. I especially liked the scene when the protagonists plunged into a garbage chute. We were led to believe that the threat was the creature that lived in there. It turned out that it was the least of their worries because the walls eventually started closing in. Lucas’ signature direction was always present. Every room revealed new surprises that ranged from soldiers of the Empire just waiting for a target to interesting- and tired-looking aliens just having a drink in the middle of the day in a hot desert town. The energy was palpable as if The Force, the spiritual energy in which the Jedi believed to bind everything in universe, compelled us to fixate our eyes on the screen. The first entry of the “Star Wars” saga was a prime example of the level of success a film could have when there was synergy among special and visual effects, an absorbing story, and adrenaline-fueled adventure of epic proportions.
Kings of Pastry (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sixteen pastry chefs were invited to compete in a three-day competition called “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (translated “Best Craftsmen in France”) in Lyon, France. The winner, or winners, of the contest would be rewarded instant recognition. When they entered a room, they would get noticed and treated as a master chef because their collars were the colors of the French flag. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, “Kings of Pastry” was very involving because it gave us an exclusive look inside a competition that occurred only once every four years. We followed three contenders: Philippe Rigollot, Jacquy Pfeiffer, and Regis Lazard. The competing chefs were obsessive, to say the least, in getting every detail just right so the judges would be impressed with their craft. I’m not a very talented cook (nor do I have the patience to cook) so I admired the determination and the amount of time the three put into preparing for the competition. Each of them had dreamt of becoming the best in their specialized trade. They were family men and I’m sure they wanted win for reasons other than reaching a lifelong dream. Half of the picture was dedicated to the three chef’s backgrounds. Rigollot was a chef in Maison Pic. He shared with us a cute story, involving a lollipop and his kids, about how he learned that being a pastry chef was something he would like to build a career from. Pfeiffer was a part of the French Pastry School in Chicago. His students respected him and held him in high regard. As for Lazard, this was his second time in the competition. It didn’t work out the first time because his sugar sculpture, an extremely fragile work of art, fell apart. The second half of the film focused on the intense competition. They were graded in three fronts: their work habits, the way the final product looked, and how it tasted. The chefs had to prepare a buffet of confections. I found being in that kitchen to be stressful. The manner in which the camera fixated on certain shots, I had the feeling that something would go wrong. And they did. When a sugar sculpture came crashing down like glass, my jaw dropped and my heart stopped. I think I stopped breathing for about three seconds. I wanted to look away from the disaster. It was so painful to watch a chef’s confidence go out the window when inevitable accidents happened. It was nobody’s fault. Sometimes, as we learned, the humidity had a negative effect in the way the sugars held together. The silence was deafening among whispers of consolations. It was literally watching someone’s dreams get crushed. However, we root for the chef to keep going, to make the best of the parts that weren’t ruined, because having no sculpture to present meant certain loss. Imagine submitting a three-part project and only sending two–an inch away from failure. As the picture went on, “Kings of Pastry” became packed with emotional moments because the standard was so high. Personally, the difference between “winners” and “losers” almost became negligible.
The Iron Lady (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) had always been interested in public service. Despite her accomplishments in the University of Oxford and keen interest in politics, she was never meant to be taken seriously. How could she when women were perceived to have no place in governing a country? And with a humble background while growing up, she would always be seen as a mere grocer’s daughter. Instead of wilting under the shadow of society’s expectations, the put-downs she brooked made her hungrier. After marrying Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, later played by Jim Broadbent), she ran in the election and was given the title of Great Britain’s Prime Minister. Margaret Tatcher (Meryl Streep) was more than willing to prove that she earned the people’s trust in her ability to govern. Based on the screenplay by Abi Morgan, as “The Iron Lady” unfolded, I began to feel like it was experiencing an identity crisis. I was very entertained and magnetized by Streep’s dual performance: As a frail aging woman on the verge of dementia and as a no-nonsense leader who was able to make the tough decisions for what she believed was right. However, as someone who didn’t know much about Thatcher, I felt like the picture was not only a very brief synopsis, but not a very good one because there were too many gaps left unmentioned and unexplored. One example involved Tatcher’s delusions that her husband was still alive. It was never mentioned how he died and, more importantly, the picture never showed, in a meaningful way, why Denis was such an important presence in his wife’s life independent of being a husband who insisted that she got some sleep instead of working until three o’clock in the morning. In relation to Thatcher being in power, after the war between the United Kingdom and Argentina had ended, I got the impression that the economic turmoil that plagued Great Britain prior to the Falklands War magically disappeared. How did winning the war help to solve the country’s economic troubles? While it was wonderful to watch Streep’s versatility in playing an old lady who snuck out of her home to buy butter, I wish we had more scenes of her in office. When the flashback scenes were front and center, I slowly began to feel the pressure that Tatcher was under. As everyone looked to her for answers, I felt uncomfortable for her. The trips to the past were the film’s highest points because they showed why she was a great and flawed leader. Her seemingly impenetrable armor did not come without a cost. One of the most memorable sequences was Thatcher’s breakdown during a meeting. Awkward cuts ran abound, the camera jumped from one area of the room to another, both of which reflected an ineluctable lack of inner focus in Thatcher’s mind. Because she was so frustrated that the change she expected to come out of her leadership didn’t come swiftly enough, she turned to her Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), and pointed out his mistakes and how unprepared he was during that meeting. We all knew that deep down, Howe’s shortcomings reflected her own. She was just too proud to admit it. The scene was shot with such a vibrant energy and not without a sense of humor, a reminder of how powerful “The Irony Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could have been if it had spent more time exploring the Prime Minister’s accomplishments and failures as a leader, a mother, and an individual who just wanted to make a difference.
Something Wild (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charles (Jeff Daniels) left a diner without paying for his lunch. Lulu (Melanie Griffith) ran after him and started asking him questions about his unpaid bill. Charles, guilt-ridden and insistent that it was an accident because he had a lot of things on his mind, assumed she worked in the diner. But she didn’t; she just happened to eat at the same place. She was attracted to his inner rebel so she invited him for a ride. Expecting that she would drop him off where he worked, Lulu took him to her hometown, the two posed as husband and wife, and attended a high school reunion. “Something Wild,” smartly written by E. Max Frye and skillfully directed by Jonathan Demme, was a fun and breezy romantic comedy with an edge. It started off like a typical screwball comedy with mistaken identities and an amusing trip to a cheap motel. Charles and Lulu were different but the same. Charles was bored of his life’s painful routine and more than welcomed Lulu’s exciting impulses. In bed, she liked to use handcuffs. Charles laughed with disbelief (and pleasure). I related with Charles more than I thought I would. Like him, I depend on routine because it’s safe and predictable. But then there are those moments when I crave to do something so out of character to remind myself that I’m alive and still in control. Half-way through, the tone turned darker when Ray (Ray Liotta), Lulu’s husband who recently got out of prison, bumped into the fake couple at the reunion. He wouldn’t believe that the two only met the day before. He was determined to show Charles and Lulu that despite being sent away, he still owned the girl like she was his convenient plaything. Demme’s direction was key. There was a critical transition between the light and dark tones. I find that most filmmakers, when handling pictures of hybrid genres, forget the importance of flow. Sometimes it makes or breaks the picture. Despite the thriller aspect in which Liotta was allowed to work his devilish magnetism, it stayed grounded in reality. Lulu wasn’t just a quirky girl prone to crazy antics. She knew when she crossed a line and wasn’t afraid to apologize for it. Charles was somewhat wimpy but he wasn’t promoted to vice president of the company he worked for if he didn’t know how to fight for what he wanted. As for Ray, despite his intense jealousy, there was complexity in his eyes. Jail hardened him, disappointed that life had moved on during his institutionalization, and he was desperate to find something that stayed the same. He expected Lulu would be that constant thing. She just wasn’t. We believed the growing affection between Charles and Lulu and we believed that their lives were in danger. Unpredictable, astute, and subtle, “Something Wild” had been unjustly forgotten. It reminds us that we should always be mindful of that rebel in us.
Four Friends (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Danilo (Craig Wasson), David (Michael Huddleston), Tom (Jim Metzler), and Georgia (Jodi Thelen) were best friends. All three guys wanted to win the girl’s affections but she had big dreams of making it as a star. We saw the story through Danilo’s eyes, a first-generation American from Yugoslavia, as the four graduated high school and things began to change drastically in the 1960s. Written by Steve Tesich and directed by Arthur Penn, “Four Friends” could have a great story about friendship and dreams, at times the two being mutually exclusive, but I wasn’t convinced it highlighted the parallels between the changing friendship and the changing politics with enough clarity. The weakness was we didn’t really know who David, Tom, and Georgia were. We knew David was afraid of becoming just like his mortician father, Tom was charming and athletic, and Georgia had a flair for the dramatic but such were surface characteristics. We learned most about Danilo and his feelings of wanting to become more than his working-class parents. The Yugoslavian father (Miklos Simon) was very old-fashioned and having such a strong paternal figure shaped Danilo’s many decisions between settling down and yearning to be free. It was interesting that he went off to college believing that he had dreams to pursue but he later realized that perhaps the main reason he went away was to avoid being with Georgia and the supposed friendly competition among his mates. Since the title suggested it was about a friendship of four, I was curious to know how the other three felt about Danilo when he went away. There were suggestions that he rarely visited. Danilo’s mother and his friends took great pleasure in watching Danilo on television when he appeared on academic game shows. Although shot in a somewhat distant manner, I noticed the way their eyes fixated on the screen. It was as if the screen reflected their own ambitions, once within the realm of possibility but they knew such dreams were now out of reach. Furthermore, in the amusing wedding scene, which was really sad in its core, Danilo wasn’t even aware which one of his friends were getting married. The scene was played for laughs, especially with Danilo’s very embarrassed roommate (Reed Birney), but it underlined how out-of-touch our protagonist was with people who he considered his best friends. It would have been interesting to know how the other three assessed the situation. But what I liked about “Four Friends” was, even though we didn’t know each of them fully, the dynamics of friendship among the four were always changing. I believed their evolution from idealistic teenagers who wanted to accomplish everything to more secure adults. If it had spent more time exploring the other three friends’ lives and if the political backdrop had been more pronounced, it would have had a much needed surge of energy.
J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.
The Illusionist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A French magician (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) made a living by playing in small pubs, basements, and coffee shops. If he was lucky enough, he was allowed to perform in a music hall after a big band with a whole lot of screaming and giggling admirers. He loved his craft but the magic of illusion was waning. It probably had something to do with the lack of variety in his tricks. But when he met a girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) who believed that the magician possessed real powers, he invited her on a trip to the capital of Scotland. They lived together and he gave her wonderful gifts. However, he knew that it was only a matter of time until he had to inform her that he was just an ordinary man. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, “The Illusionist” was a touching film because it captured the many complex emotions the magician felt as he went on stage and saw that not many people were interested in his art. It was personal for him because he defined himself as his art. If his art was forgotten or ignored, so was he. During his performances, the applause were very scattered; the awkwardness was so pronounced, I wished I heard no applause at all. I was impressed with the hand-drawn animation. It was easy to notice the attention to detail. When the magician was on stage, there were moments when the director showed us the audiences’ expressions. Some were hopelessly bored, others were slightly amused, and a few didn’t want to be there at all. I found it important that their expressions told me a story. For instance, those who didn’t enjoy the tricks probably felt obligated to stay because they paid a good sum of money to see a performance. Maybe some were simply too tired to get up from their seats because the last performance took a lot out of them. What I found fascinating was its lack of dialogue. Some French and English words were occasionally thrown under surreptitious whispers and exasperated groans but the recognizable words didn’t mean anything. The meaning was in the body language, the facial expressions, and the way a light of a certain color hit a character’s face. (Even the rabbit the magician used had a personality.) The insignificance of language was highlighted when we watched the characters converse behind windows. We heard no sound. The images didn’t have to mean anything. It was up to us to think and interpret what we thought the characters were feeling or thinking when they were admiring an article of clothing or just standing in the rain and not really looking at anything. The strength of “L’illusionniste” was its willingness to take risks. As a society, we’re so dependent on language to tell us what is that we often forget that sometimes the more important things are discreetly embedded in the unsaid. The careful musings supported by delicate music felt very zen. Despite the story’s medium being animation, it worked as a slice-of-life picture.
The Descendants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Matt King (George Clooney) had more problems than he had hands. Within the next several days, he had to decide which multi-million dollar deal to accept which involved selling an untouched piece of land in Hawaii. Since his cousins were in debt, going through with it would help them out immensely. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was recently involved in a boating accident that forced her into a coma. The doctors informed Matt that there was little to no possibility that she was ever going to wake up. Her will clearly stated that if such a thing happened to her, she was to be taken off life support. Meanwhile, Matt found out that Elizabeth had been cheating on him with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” excelled in shaping individual scenes where Matt had to face another person and the two were required to speak to each other with frankness and at times painful honesty. I found that such scenes were loyal to the theme regarding appearances and how deceiving they could be. A great example was Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Matt’s eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). At first, it seemed like he was a typical “Hey, Bro!” surfer dude who had a propensity toward saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune times, but the scene where Matt found himself so desperate to know what was really going on with rebellious Alexandra showed that Matt and Sid had more common than we were led to believe. Both, in a way, were quite easy to dismiss: Matt with his first-world problem of selling a portion of land and Sid’s easy-going personality. Because the characters, not restricted to the aforementioned scene, were eventually allowed to talk about things that were important to them, often sandwiched between the comedy embedded in the every day, we had reasons to keep watching even though we might expect that not everything would turn out alright. Furthermore, the relationship between a husband so unequipped to handle his household and a wife in a vegetative state was exquisitely executed. I found it a refreshing experience because the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash strived to be more than about a man being sad and wishing that his wife would magically wake up. There was an instance when Matt felt he just had to yell at his wife for her indiscretions. It wasn’t pretty and it was uncomfortable, but those were the qualities that made their one-sided relationship feel very real. Most of the time, when a married couple knew that their relationship was on the rocks, they could deal with their issues through words and body language. In other words, the picture found a way to circumvent the fact that a spouse was comatose. The pacing of the film, however, could have used a bit of fire. When Matt, his two daughters, and Sid attempted to track down the real estate agent, there were a number of comedic scenes that did not work and should have been excised to improve flow. “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne, was about how we shouldn’t expect closures that we believe we deserved to come to us passively. Like everything else in life, at least one that’s worth living, closure ultimately feels good because effort is put into it.
Another Year (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) were a happy couple surrounded by unhappy friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Tom was a geologist and Gerri was a counselor at a hospital. Both enjoyed tending their garden on their spare time. Mary (Lesley Manville) always felt welcome in Gerri and Tom’s home. She was free to talk about herself as much as she wanted: How her life would be so much better if she had a car, her regret over failed relationships, and her dependence on alcohol when things didn’t go her way. To say the least, she had a lot of issues. But, in a course of a year, things changed. Mary began to show a romantic interest in Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). When, to everyone’s surprise, he brought home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), Mary was less than welcoming. In fact, she was downright cold and dismissive. Suddenly there was a gaping chasm between Gerri and Mary. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” was full of people you and I know. I have friends who are just like Mary: somewhat self-centered but fun because of her firecracker of a personality. But then there were times when I felt like I was Mary. I could identify in the way she hid her sadness by pretending to be excited about everything. But what I loved was the director and the actress were careful in painting Mary’s character. They didn’t necessarily want us to feel sorry for her because she actively didn’t take responsibility for her actions. A crutch always seemed to be at her disposal. However, Leigh and Manville did want us to understand where she was coming from and perhaps even imagine ourselves in her shoes. Sheen also gave an excellent performance. What I loved most about her were her eye bags. I don’t mean to sound glib. To me, her eye bags symbolized wisdom and experience. I was fascinated in the way she was always supportive but at the same time she wasn’t afraid to let someone know when he or she had overstepped certain boundaries. Certain looks she gave were memorable because they were the same looks my mom gave me to express her disappointment when I had done something unpleasant back when I was younger. I relished the relationship between the two women, who happened to be good friends for about twenty years, and the awkwardness during and after the unpleasant dinner. Everyone knows the feeling of being caught in between two good friends having a row. We got to experience that in here and the answers were rarely easy. While watching “Another Year,” its story told in four seasons each embodying a different mood and tone, I caught myself inching toward the screen. I literally felt close to them. I wanted to read their smallest facial expressions and most subtle body movements. I found it compelling that Leigh posed big, elegant questions by focusing on a small regular family.
★ / ★★★★
It’s always depressing when you’re watching a movie and your eyes are seemed to be programmed to check the clock, hoping that about thirty minutes had passed since the last glance, only to find out, with much dismay, that barely five minutes has gone by. In “Immortals,” written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides, Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant whose mother (Anne Day-Jones) was regarded by the village as a whore, was chosen by Zeus (Luke Evans) to lead his people, the Hellenics, to fight against King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and stop his blood-thirsty quest of obtaining the Epirus Bow, so powerful a weapon that it could awaken the Titans and bring destruction to the world. While I have no problem conceding that some of the images it offered were awe-inspiring, like when the action would switch into slow motion and show Theseus fiercely plunging a spear into other men’s throats as if they were made out of butter, but there were instances when it was impossible to see a thing because it was so dark. For a movie with a healthy budget, I wondered why the filmmakers didn’t seem to have enough light on set. I wished that the characters constantly carried around a torch especially during the scenes set at night and they were required to actually speak and communicate ideas. If we couldn’t see the actors’ faces, then what chance did we have in absorbing certain subtleties, if any, so we could end up having a certain level of understanding of the men and women in the brewing war? The story was messy and confusing. Aside from the fact that I had no idea how the characters got from Point A to Point B, Phaedra (Freida Pinto) being a virgin oracle who knew the location of the much desired Epirus Bow was not handled properly. We saw the first scene through her eyes, a glimpse of what was to come. But since we knew what was going to happen, the journey toward future had to be executed a certain way, loyal to the goal yet packed with enough surprises, so that we wouldn’t be bored or feel cheated. I wasn’t convinced that the screenplay was strong enough so sustain such a promise because the visuals almost always took precedence. The characters lacked logic. There was a natural sexual tension between Cavill and Pinto, covered in grime and sweat, but not between Theseus and Phaedra. While the actors looked alluring, I reckoned that the writers interpreted the actors looking good while barely clothed as actively constructing genuine sexual friction between their characters. Given that Phaedra and the people that surrounded her knew that she would lose her gift of foresight the second she lost her virginity, to have the peasant and a holy figure engage in sex was not only careless with regards to story but a tired convenience for the sake of consummating something even if the romantic angle was barely established. Surely having the ability see the future could have game-changing effects in a time of war. It would have been more interesting to watch Theseus being very attracted to the oracle yet he had to maintain his distance because, during such a critical period, he valued his responsibility to his people more than his craving for flesh. At least for me, the most interesting heroes are those who are required to practice self-denial for the sake of the bigger picture. Directed by Tarsem Singh, watching “Immortals” was like looking at a painting that you can admire because it looks good on the outside. But when a person asks why you like it, your brain panics and you quickly realize that you can’t find anything concrete about it. In order not to come off as stupid, you feel that you have to say something–anything–and you end up saying, “Oh, because it’s shiny.”
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
The Karate Kid (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) was uprooted from New Jersey because his mother (Randee Heller) was hired by an up-and-coming company in California. When he started to have a crush on rich girl, Ali (Elisabeth Shue), who lived in a rich neighborhood, he found himself bullied by Ali’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny (William Zabka), and his meathead friends. We just knew they were a bunch of kids that were up to no good because they were only in high school yet they rode bikes–not the kid-friendly type but the kind with a motor and goes “Vroom!” Written by Robert Mark Kamen and directed by John G. Avildsen, “The Karate Kid” was deliciously 80’s. Everything about it screamed Southern California summer: The beach, the blondes, the soundtrack, and even the (outdated) slangs. It wasn’t difficult to root for Daniel because he was so scrawny and nice. Daniel being bullied by Johnny, who desperately needed anger management classes, was like watching an adorable puppy get thrown around for no reason. The polarized good versus evil worked because its target audience was the younger demographic. It had enough touching moments and it took the issue of bullying seriously. At times, however, the conflict involving the division of class felt forced. We needn’t be constantly reminded in conversations that Daniel was poor. We could see it from where he lived, his clothes, and his determination to prove himself. Although Daniel had a healthy self-esteem, Ali’s snobby friends constantly looked at him like he was dirt. So the new kid in the neighborhood began to feel like he wasn’t good enough for the girl next door. We all know how it feels to feel like we’re not be good enough because we think someone else having more is tantamount to superiority. Daniel initially wanted to learn karate from the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) because he wanted to fight his tormentors. Over time, in a non-heavy-handed way, Daniel’s motivations evolved. Fighting and winning meant a way for him to alter people’s perceptions and expectations. That was the reason why, I think, the film resonated to its audience. The screenplay was able to successfully tap into our insecurities and convince us that we are in control of our bodies and minds. I admired that the picture wasn’t just about the karate training disguised in household chores like scrubbing the floor and painting the house. It had a lot of surprising humor embedded in those scenes. I loved how Morita kept his constant poker face yet was able to deliver laugh-out-loud one-liners with precision. There was an air of authority about him but he remained lovable. The supporting scenes, such as when Daniel and Ali went on their first date, were cute but never syrupy. Its simplicity made us feel like we were watching a real date, awkwardness and all. “The Karate Kid,” despite its predictable plot, was a joy to watch because it managed to avoid hammering us over the head with the life lessons it had to impart. Most importantly, Daniel maturing just enough over one summer felt believable.
War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.