★★★★ / ★★★★
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew of treasure hunters found a safe under the wreckage of RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that perished, along with about 1,500 people, on April 15, 1912 while on its way to America. They expected the safe contain a diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean, but what they found instead was a drawing of a topless woman wearing the jewel of interest. Rose (Gloria Stuart) saw the drawing on television and called Lovett to inquire about the artifacts. Rose, as it turned out, was one of the survivors of the doomed voyage. Written and directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” was a great achievement because it was able to transport its audience to a time that was and allowed us to experience what could have happened on that ship as the ocean slowly, then quickly, swallowed it whole. One of the most engaging scenes, perhaps only about minute long, was when one of Lovett’s crew explained the physics in terms of how, after hitting an iceberg, the iron giant began to sink and why it broke the way it did. By giving us a picture using images on a computer, we had an idea of what to expect. Yet when it actually started to happen, the suspense and thrill reached an apogee and wouldn’t let go. The manner in which the picture switched from silence, to musicians playing joyful music in order to distract the passengers from reaching total panic, to the angelic hymns of the score made the images of people falling and jumping off the ship, out of fear and desperation, haunting and exhausting. It’s difficult to forget, once the ship was completely submerged, the sounds of people crying, screaming, splashing, and begging the lifeboats, most having plenty of space, to come back turn into complete silence. Cut to sea of corpses floating on freezing water. The heart of the picture was the romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet). Jack won his tickets to Titanic on a last-minute poker game. Along with a friend (Danny Nucci), the two were ecstatic for the epic journey. Rose, on the other hand, was incredibly unhappy because she was to marry Cal (Billy Zane), a pompous, boring, and self-important son of a steel tycoon. While most people tend to blame the romance for being the picture’s Achilles’ heel, I thought DiCaprio and Winslet had a winsome chemistry, benefiting from classic stories of a young man and woman torn by a demarcation of class and disapproving authorities. The dinner scene when Jack was invited to sit with Rose’s rich and snobbish company was a turning point for the two lovers. Despite pointed comments by Rose’s fiancé and mother (Frances Fisher), Jack proved that was comfortable with who he was and what he could offer. Rose looked at him like he was the richest and most desirable man in the room, the way we perhaps tend to do when we’re convinced that a person is exactly right for us. The script needed less cornball lines but they weren’t egregious enough to distract from the collective experience. “Titanic” was very extravagant. From Rose’s stylish clothes to the intricate designs of the ships’ doors and spacious private rooms, one could argue that the lavishness was necessary, even required, in order to highlight the horrors of destruction and lives being taken.
Angel Heart (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a private detective from Brooklyn, was hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a man named Johnny Favorite. For $5,000, Harry took the job. All clues pointed to Louisiana where some people were believed to practice witchcraft. However, every person who divulged information about Johnny’s whereabouts were eventually murdered in a gruesome fashion. Some of the dead bodies included a doctor (Michael Higgins), a psychic (Charlotte Rampling), and a musician (Brownie McGhee). Based on a novel by William Hjortsberg, “Angel Heart” was like watching a confused animal move from one side of the room to another. It was interesting because of the dark atmosphere that surrounded the mystery but it didn’t have enough rewards to keep us guessing. While murders consisted of bucket-loads of blood on the floor and on the walls, we felt no attachment to any of the characters because Harry didn’t spend enough time with them. The theme of the picture was a man suddenly forced into a world that was, to say the least, strange to him. He wasn’t aware of less popular religions so he feared people who practiced them. He claimed he was just a man from Brooklyn. We also learned his quirks which included an oral fixation and the wave of anxiety he felt when he was around chickens. He was an enigma because he had kind eyes but he kept himself from a distance. Even the girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) with whom he eventually fell for was kept at arm’s length. The picture’s strongest asset was the performances. Rourke was charismatic but he possessed a quiet danger. When chased by thugs and questioned by cops, he had a certain way of defending himself and answering questions without giving much away. There was chemistry between Rourke and Bonet. Their sex scene, though graphic, was magnetic. I would say it was the highlight of the film. De Niro wasn’t given many scenes but he made the most of it. His character was one-dimensional, a snide leer here and there, but he relished every word and emotion to the point where we believed that maybe he was up to something devious. Directed by Alan Parker, I wish “Angel Heart” wasn’t so predictable. I correctly guessed who the evasive Johnny Favorite was and where he was located about half-way through the film. I’m afraid audiences with a keen eye for mystery would most likely pick up the red herrings too quickly, come to a conclusion, and then lose interest. Unfortunately, a multi-layered mood and consistently solid acting weren’t enough to keep it afloat.
Tower Heist (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street kingpin and the owner of a posh high-rise condominium, was arrested for fraud which left Josh (Ben Stiller), the building manager, and the rest of his staff shocked and angry. It turned out that Shaw invested their pensions in various schemes and lost it all. Eventually, though, an idea scurried into Josh’s head. There was a safe in Shaw’s penthouse which contained about twenty million dollars. With the help of Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’ brother-in-law, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), one of the residents who was recently bankrupt, Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), the establishment’s recent hire, and Slide (Eddie Murphy), one of Josh’ neighbor with a criminal background, they could purloin the money and distribute it to the staff. “Tower Heist,” directed by Brett Ratner, was uneven in tone and pacing with strong but often inconsistent laughs. The exposition was slow but necessary because it allowed us to see Josh’ pride in his work. As a building manager, he was more than a guy in a suit who bossed people around. He was determined to perform his job well. In order to be successful in his occupation, he needed to be liked which meant that he was required to get to know the residents beyond their superficial needs and to have a certain insight in terms of his co-workers’ personal lives. Since he was familiar to details and habits, when he did eventually decide to plot the heist, we were able to believe that he could succeed. The funniest parts of the picture were found in the middle prior to the actual break-in. In one of the scenes, Slide was not convinced that Josh and his friends would be able to go through with the heist. In order to be convinced, he assigned the tyro thieves to shoplift fifty dollars worth of items at the mall. There was joy and energy in the way each of the characters had to summon the courage to take something without paying for it. I just lost it when the store attendant walked away to get a catalogue and Charlie tried to pick up a pair of earrings with his mouth. I’ve never stolen anything from a store so I think that if I was dared to do it, I’d make a mess of things out of anxiety. Another very funny scene was a discussion about lesbians and why their breasts were better than heterosexual women’s. Just when I expected that the screenplay by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson might turn mean-spirited, I was surprised that there was always a light-heartedness in the material. What didn’t work for me were the more serious scenes. In a more solemn movie about a person losing his entire savings, Lester (Stephen Henderson), the hotel’s doorkeeper, walking toward a moving train and trying to jump in front of it would have had more emotional impact. When the picture attempted to be more serious, it felt rather cheap. Like the most engaging heist movies, getting to the object of interest was the easy part. There was a running theme about playing chess. When Josh and company broke into the building, I thought it was more like watching people playing checkers–while some strategy was involved, it was straightforward. I was underwhelmed. The nearly impossible task was getting away with it. It was the point where, finally, I felt like I was watching a chess game. There were always unforeseen forces that threatened to destroy the operation. I wish there were more scenes of Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), one of the hotel’s cleaning ladies, being sassy and having her way with men. “Tower Heist” gave a few laugh-out-loud moments but it could have been more snarky, therefore funnier. Poke fun of the more improbable physics employed, for instance. By being a step ahead of the audience who think they know better, the picture can appear smarter and get the last laugh.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of American bombers, led by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), received a false transmission that they were to obliterate Moscow, leaders from the Strategic Air Command, like General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a scientist (Walter Matthau), and the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) struggled to come up with ways to avoid World War III with the Soviet Union. Based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail-Safe” was a gripping exercise in what soldiers and politicians were forced to do to delay a war when they could no longer stop it. Under Sidney Lumet’s focused and assured direction, the film successfully highlighted the fears of three groups of men confined in one place. All three were fascinating but I found the room where the president, with the help of his interpreter (Larry Hagman), tried to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union to be most sublime. The conversation occurred via telephone but from the minute the president picked up the telephone and a voice from the other line answered, it felt like watching two leaders looking intensely into each other’s eyes and weighing whether to trust the words they heard through a machine. After all, the president warned his translator to be very wary of certain intonations of the Premier’s voice. He could be saying one thing with words but the fluctuations in his voice could mean something else entirely. So I inched toward the screen and listened closely. I had a laugh at myself for realizing a couple of seconds later that I didn’t speak or understand Russian. Fonda was excellent in the role because the air of confidence he carried around with him, combined with his character’s intelligence, made us hope and believe that the mistake’s repercussions had a chance to be circumvented. I also admired Matthau’s turn as the scientist with extreme ideas. I didn’t always agree with his negative vision of society, applicable just to Americans or otherwise, but his sharp insight was undeniable. The film asked a lot of questions about responsibility in terms of human or mechanical error. If the transmission was a simple mechanical error with disastrous consequences, in technical terms, wasn’t it still considered human error because we were the ones who designed (and ultimately relied on) the machines? What I loved was the material didn’t get stuck on who or what to blame. Tragedy was embedded in the images of planes falling from the sky and the fear reflected in the soldiers’ eyes as they obeyed commands that they knew would lead to their deaths. “Fail-Safe,” purposefully claustrophobic so we were forced to look inwards, is more relevant than ever with our reliance in technology and the seeming lack of accountability just because we can hide behind clever inventions and foolish notions of anonymity.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.
Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★
It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager, was about to lose three of its most high-profile players to other teams. Instead of wallowing in pessimism, Beane decided that it was a great opportunity to reinvent the team and win games. Given that the Oakland A’s did not have the budget to pay players millions of dollars, Beane focused on statistics to form his new team. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who majored in Economics, the duo challenged the system and figureheads set on thinking a certain way about baseball. Given that baseball is a sport that I never learned to love or be remotely interested in, I expected to be very confused when the characters in the film used baseball jargon to explain why certain decisions were practical or downright negligent. Surprisingly, I had no trouble catching on because the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin was first and foremost a story of a man who was both passionate and tired of the sport. That contradiction in Beane was highlighted by Pitt so convincingly and so lovingly, there were times when I wanted to scream for the GM because no one seemed to understand what he was trying to achieve. With the exception of Brand, everyone was convinced that he was bitter about losing and had decided to sabotage the team. Since the material allowed us to construct an attachment to Beane, we are ineluctably reminded by our own experiences when we tried to make a difference or accomplish something unexpected, but everyone just seemed intent on getting in the way. With every losing battle against his peers (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we had a chance to see a glimpse of Beane’s younger years as a promising baseball sensation. One important conversation was when he had to choose between playing in Major Leagues versus accepting to go to school in Stanford. Obviously, he chose the former given the money involved. But it didn’t work out; he wasn’t the shining star that everyone predicted him to be. Slowly, the audience was given an increasingly complex and interesting portrait of the protagonist and why he was so driven to choose players that were considered out of their primes. Furthermore, the dialogue was easy on the ears because there was a consistent flow in the delivery of the lines. When the flow was interrupted by a silence or a character stopping mid-sentence in order to look at another character a certain way, dramatic beats were appropriately used to maintain dramatic momentum. However, there were about two or three scenes that felt out of place, notably Beane’s interactions with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). While they shared a sweet chemistry, one was more than enough. Scenes like Beane serving ice cream to his daughter felt like an obvious montage of “Daddy Still Cares Even If He’s Busy at Work.” We knew he loved his daughter from their first scene together. We could see it in the way Beane looked at her while she played guitar in public. Directed by Bennett Miller, “Moneyball,” based on the nonfiction novel by Michael Lewis, was a well-made underdog story about the business side of baseball, yet that isn’t to suggest that it was without nifty surprises clandestine enough to appeal to our soft spots.
★ / ★★★★
Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) opted to spend ten days in the remote Blackholme Island in hopes of curing whatever was vitiating their marriage from the inside. With the help of Doug (Jimmy Yuill), the owner of the island and Martin’s longtime friend, the couple was able to settle in. A couple of days later, bloodied Jack (Jamie Bell) was spotted collapsing in the field across their cottage. Martin and Kate took him inside with reservations. When Jack woke up, he informed Martin that there was an airborne virus that originated from South America which had infected the rest of the planet. Not only was it extremely contagious, it was also lethal for it aggressively attacked people’s respiratory systems. They had to do whatever it took to seal themselves from inside the cottage. “Retreat,” written by Janice Hallett and Carl Tibbetts, drew many wrinkles on my forehead. While I had no qualm in accepting its premise, Martin and Kate’s decisions forced me to mutter many frustrations under my breath. If you were told by someone that everyone was dead or dying in a specific part of the world, would you readily accept such a statement? Martin did. For an architect, requiring to have a certain level of logic for a living, there was something odd about the way he allowed Jack to take over, physically and psychologically, the household. In the least, I expected him to perform a bit of investigation. Given that cellphones, the internet, and the CB radio didn’t work, why didn’t Martin or his wife take it upon themselves to be more creative in asking the same questions in a different way to in order to coax out the wrinkles in Jack’s claims? Instead, much of the picture was dedicated to characters yelling at each other, pointing the gun at one another, and, yes, fighting for weapons that slid across the floor. It just wasn’t interesting. The scenes that were supposed to be thrilling were greatly lacking in tension. For instance, when Kate and Martin finally decided to work together, they made their way to the kitchen to prepare a hearty breakfast. Martin boiled water in a pan while Kate prepared the bread. Jack sat on a chair in a vulnerable angle. We knew exactly was going to happen, but with the right direction, it could have been effective. But it wasn’t. The scene–and many that adopted a similar approach–wasn’t given enough time to simmer. When the husband and wife entered the kitchen, they went directly for the necessary tools-turned-weapons. Two seconds later, Martin took the pan, the water magically hot after being put on the stove just a second before, and splashed it all over the stranger. As a result, it became more about the violence than the suspense when it shouldn’t have been because they didn’t have proof that Jack was lying to them. With a more focused screenplay in terms of delivering thrills and a true understanding of human psychology and behavior, “Retreat,” directed by Carl Tibbets, could have been far more engaging. Although Martin and Kate were supposedly so desperate to get out of the house, the plot was cemented in its increasingly thick contrivances. We sit in our chairs passively, wishing it offered so much more.
Making Love (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Zach (Michael Ontkean) and Claire (Kate Jackson) had been married ever since they were twenty-two. Zach, a physician, and Claire, a television producer, shared a lot of things in common: they enjoyed listening to the same music, watching the same classic movies, and discussing things that bothered them whether it be about work or each other. But Zach had a secret which eventually led Claire to suspect that he was having an affair with another woman. As it turned out, Zach was seeing another man named Bart (Harry Hamlin), a novelist whose hobby consisted of picking up nightly tricks. “Making Love,” written by Barry Sandler and A. Scott Berg, treated its characters with respect. Zach and Claire’s very close bond could easily have been syrupy and annoying, but we slowly learned not only how much they valued each other but why. Since the picture took the time to examine both sides, I felt that their relationship was real. The stakes were high for these two people because their relationship was rooted in deep friendship. We all knew that there had to be a point in which Zach would finally gather up the courage to tell his wife that he was a homosexual. However, the drama did not rest on that one significant scene. The rising action provided the necessary details and different angles so we were able to see ourselves, regardless of our own sexual orientation, in Zach, Claire, and Bart. Furthermore, it was unexpected that Zach’s affair with Bart wasn’t shot in a romantic way. Instead, their scenes together felt more like a rite of passage, something that had to be done in order to explore the picture’s more important themes. We observed the way the two men met, flirted with one another, shared drinks, had sex, and separated. Even though the two saw each other multiple times, there was nothing romantic about their secret meetings because it was established early on that Bart, despite his best efforts, just wasn’t the kind of man who loved the idea of settling down. Being a novelist, he felt the constant need to have his own space. Zach was the exact opposite; he almost wanted a male version of Claire. With each scene where Bart treated Zach dismissively, I was more convinced that it wasn’t going to work out between them. However, the impressive thing was, it was difficult to detest Bart and his actions because I was able to sympathize with his issues as a child, especially his relationship with his father, and I respected, as well as shared, his pride in being single. I was glad no one was treated as a villain–that the material was honest in portraying the three characters as people who were capable of insightful thoughts, smartly dealing with negative emotions, finding a way to move on, and thrive. “Making Love,” directed by Arthur Hiller, was, at its worst, melodramatic at times but, at its best, quite moving and raw, especially when Claire tried so badly to understand why she didn’t see that her husband harbored feelings for other men. Most coming out movies almost always show the pain solely from the perspective of the gay person. I admired the film because, in real life, there is also pain and initial feelings of betrayal felt by those who heard the news.
The Goonies (1985)
★★ / ★★★★
In Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” a group of kids found a map containing the location of a pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) had a week before their family were forced to move because their parents could no longer afford their home. But when Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) agreed with Mikey to search for the mythical treasure for one last adventure, they stumbled upon the hiding place of three Italian criminals (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, Robert David) on the run from the cops. Their hiding place contained a secret passageway that led to an underground cave that housed the legendary pirate ship. “The Goonies” would appeal to kids because they would most likely be able relate to the characters’ silliness and quirkiness, the soundtrack was energetic, and it played upon the universal idea of children’s penchant for treasure hunting. Despite being a kid at heart, I wasn’t that entertained. There were far too many people in the cave. The two girls, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), were completely unnecessary. The romance between Andy and Brand dragged the picture’s momentum. How could we root for their romance if they weren’t fully realized characters? The fact that the picture kept suggesting that there could be something between Andy, around sixteen years old, and Mikey, who was still in elementary school, was more awkward than funny, creepy than cute. I felt like the girls in the movie were added simply to appeal to the same sex. I wish they made their exit when they stumbled upon a well where three guys above could have taken them home. I grew tired of their whining. I enjoyed the film most when the guys accidentally triggered booby traps. It was like watching a light version of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” exciting but we never truly felt that the characters were in any real danger. We were simply curious to see how the protagonists would adapt to the quickly changing environment. I did wish, however, that the criminals were more dangerous. Most of the time, they acted more like cartoon characters. I didn’t buy for one second that they were smart enough to pull off breaking someone out of jail as they did in the first scene. “The Goonies” wasn’t rich with subtlety. The child actors’ lines often felt forced and it was obvious when some of their lines were dubbed. They probably ran out of takes. Still, the movie was entertaining and charming in its own way. Based on Spielberg’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how sharper and stronger it might have been under his direction.
★★ / ★★★★
In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.
The Prestige (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.
The Muppets (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) were supposed to go to Hollywood to celebrate their tenth anniversary of being in a serious relationship, but considering that Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) was very close to Gary, leaving his brother–who happened to be a puppet–just wouldn’t seem right. The trio headed to Los Angeles by bus, leaving Smalltown for a bit of adventure. During a tour in the derelict Muppet Studio, Walter overheard Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil baron, discussing of his excitement about finally getting his hands on the property, demolishing it, and extracting valuable oil from underneath. Within two weeks, if the Muppets could not come up with ten million dollars to buy back the building, their legacy would literally be a pile of dust. While I didn’t grow up watching Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and the rest of the gang, I found “The Muppets,” written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, to be very funny because the jokes’ punchlines had a self-awareness and there was always something new to poke fun of whether it was a Muppet’s quirk or a commentary about us and how we, unlike the beloved puppets some of us grew up watching, tend to take ourselves too seriously. While the film was equipped with easy slapstick humor and bathroom jokes for the little ones, most teens and adults would find that the script was unexpectedly witty and charming. For example, have you ever wondered if the really energetic back-up dancers in big musical numbers ever got tired performing and putting on silly grins just in case the camera went for a dire close-up? What had the Muppets been up to ever since they lost popularity? Were people and Muppets at all suspicious that Gary and Walter were actually biological brothers? The film provided a range of answers while, in some cases, it simply asked, “Why not?” The picture was at its most creative when the gang was back together to do a televised fundraiser. From musical numbers, incidental jokes, and downright weird performances, it was impossible to resist the Muppets’ charm. I wished, however, that there were more scenes dedicated to Kermit, Walter, Gary, and Mary attempting to persuade the former Muppets to get together and raise money. As it turned out, the Muppets didn’t do a very good job with keeping in touch with one another for many years. Kermit’s sudden appearance in their lives, some of them actually leading successful ones, being enough to be fully convinced that a reunion was an excellent idea felt, at times, too superficial. The only one who really had to think about it, given her hilarious flair for the dramatic, was Miss Piggy, sporting an Anna Wintour haircut and ‘tude. Nevertheless, “The Muppets,” based on the characters by Jim Henson and directed by James Bobin, moved at an enthusiastic pace, leaving us no time to think about its inconsistencies. But then again why focus on the imperfections when it was there was a storm of positivity outside? According to the similarly addictive and adorable “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,” the fool looks at a finger that points at the sky.
Apollo 13 (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) were supposed to make a trip to the moon. But when Mattingly’s blood work came back, it turned out that his blood had signs of the measles. Mattingly was replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) despite Lovell’s insistence to NASA executives that his team, who trained in the simulator together, should not be broken up. But that was the least of their problems. Prior to landing on the moon, due to bad wiring, an explosion affected the crew’s oxygen storage and other critical elements required for their survival. Without much power to spare, would the trio be able to make it back on Earth safely? Based on a true story and directed by Ron Howard, “Apollo 13” was an exciting adventure about success stemming from failure. From the moment Lovell, Haise and Swigert left Earth, I couldn’t look away from the screen. I enjoyed the fact that it may have been a film set in outer space but it was no science fiction. Howard was careful in showing us just enough special and visual effects to suspend us in awe. It was magical and I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it would be if one day, all of us could easily take a trip to the moon. I do have to say that there were scenes that I wish could have ran longer. For instance, when Lovell’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) confessed to her husband that she didn’t want to see his launch because it wasn’t his first time going into space anyway, the director cut the scene right before it captured her husband’s reaction. There was a split second when Hanks had tears in his eyes but he held himself back from saying something that could potentially cause anger between them. If the scene had an extra ten to fifteen seconds to assess the situation, it would have made a grand statement about the relationship between the astronaut and his wife. A similar awkward cut was made when the Lovell’s wife had to explain to her young son that his father had been in an accident in space. Howard should have spent more time with the child’s reaction. In doing so, the film would have had the opportunity to communicate with the child within each of us. Instead, much of the reactions were focused on the adults. I wouldn’t have minded as much if most of their reactions weren’t such hyperboles. As the astronauts became increasingly desperate, there was an increasing number of one- or two-second shots of the wives looking miserable. They distracted us from the astronauts’ plight. It didn’t need to try so hard to tell us that the situation was dire when we could see it for ourselves. Nevertheless, “Apollo 13” had a smörgåsbord of thrills and drama. When we catch ourselves holding our breath, that’s an indication the movie is doing something right.