Underworld: Awakening (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After humans discovered that vampires and werewolves walked the planet, they performed a mass cleansing of the abnormal. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire, was eventually captured by a drug company called Antigen, led by Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea), and experimented on her, while frozen, for twelve years. Their goal was to create a drug that could help authorities recognize the so-called infected. When she woke up, vampires and werewolves, though still at war with each other, were forced underground and had depleted in number. Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, the way in which “Underworld: Awakening” began felt cheap. The narration and synopsis of what happened in its predecessors felt completely unnecessary. Instead of a movie, I felt like I was watching an introduction to a video game: you want to fast forward but it’s part of the whole package so you sit there and take it. My problem was it didn’t really try to make me care about the war among humans, lycans, and vampires. However, I found the action sequences very entertaining because they had a sense of humor. When Selene tried to escape from Antigen, she had complete disregard for the humans. She shot limbs, sliced throats, and cracked bones like it was nobody’s business. She didn’t crack a smile. I didn’t even notice her blink. What mattered was getting out and finding her boyfriend, Michael (Scott Speedman), the only vampire-werewolf hybrid in existence. Or so she thought. Eventually, Selene found a girl named Eve (India Eisley) who was supposedly her daughter. I began to have more questions and not all of them were answered or even addressed. For instance, though it was obvious, through snarling and looking morose, that the vampire and werewolf communities were against commingling of race, if Selene finally found Michael, what would it mean for the two camps? Did the plan involve Selene and Michael making a lot of babies so that, when the time came, werewolves and vampires would have no choice but to accept one another? Or did the plan simply involve the couple and their daughter, once reunited, hiding from the world and living happily ever after? Admittedly, I gave up trying to figure out motivations which wasn’t difficult to do when action scenes were thrown at the audience’s faces every ten minutes or so. I was very entertained by the scene where Selene, David (Theo James), a vampire with great bone structure, and Eve drove a van in the middle of a city while trying to escape from three lower-level–but still scary–werewolves. I found it amusing that although the werewolves jumped on top of one vehicle to another, the human drivers didn’t seem at all perturbed that a hairy beast was on the roof and, at times, blocked their vision. One would expect more car crashes considering how stupid people really are while behind the wheel. I was also tickled by watching Selene being thrown like a rag doll by a giant werewolf (Kris Holden-Reid). “Underworld: Awakening” was like eating popcorn: it’s salty, buttery goodness on the outside but the inside is all air. That doesn’t make it any less delicious.
Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.
★★ / ★★★★
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) was born with a heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face. It turned him into a self-conscious person because people did not want anything to do with him and his teratoid appearance. After his mom (Ruth Sheen) was killed by hooligans who wore monster masks, Jamie was intent on taking revenge. But when Papa B (Joseph Mawle), possibly the devil himself, offered Jamie to live a life without his birthmark, Jamie reluctantly accepted. If he was beautiful, he figured he could finally ask an aspiring model (Clémence Poésy) out on a date. But his newfound beauty didn’t come without a price. Written and directed by Philip Ridley, “Heartless” started with a heavy-handed premise about true beauty being found within but it got stronger over time because it wasn’t afraid to take us to many surprising directions. I must admit that I had a difficult time believing that Sturgess was ugly just because he had a birthmark on his face. It was almost laughable because his character’s shyness was reflected by his habit of wearing hoodies and always looking down on his feet. And, just to top it all off, he spoke ever so softly. It didn’t require much effort to see that he was still handsome. However, once Jamie made a deal with the devil, the movie became much more interesting. We had a chance to observe what he was willing to go through in order to keep his face unblemished. When asked to kill, a part of his payment, there was something darkly comic about the whole ordeal. I particularly relished the Weapons Man’s (Eddie Marsan) visitation of Jamie’s flat as he explained what kind of weapon our protagonist had to use to murder, the type of target he must get his hands on, and the ridiculous rules he had to abide by. Even more amusing was the potential victim Jamie had actually chosen. I liked that there were vast shifts in tone because the Faustian fable was something we’ve already seen many times. However, I wished the filmmakers held back on using shrieks when something scary would appear on screen. It felt too Horror Movie 101, more distracting than horrific, and it took away some of the originality it worked hard to reach. Lastly, the picture would have benefited if Timothy Spall, who played Jamie’s deceased father, was in it more. Jamie obviously missed his dad not just because he was family but because Jamie saw his father as a role model, someone he’d always aspired to be. “Heartless” may not have reached its ambition by tackling the deeper angles of broad issues like religion, physical beauty and social decay, but I appreciated its well-meaning attempt and solid performances by Marsan, Spall, and Sturgess.
In Time (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the near future, humans were genetically engineered not to live past the age of 25. Once a person turned of age, a green countdown of one year appeared on one’s arm. When it reached zero, death was a certainty. Will (Justin Timberlake) was twenty-seven years old which meant he’d been scavenging for minutes for two years. In world where time was used as currency, as one would use money to buy a bottle of pop or pay toll to be allowed to pass a certain area, a couple of years, let alone hours, wouldn’t get an individual very far, especially if one lived in the ghetto, as did Will and his mom (Olivia Wilde), a place known as a Time Zone, where the rich limited the circulation of time. “In Time” began like a great science fiction film: it left us in middle of a curious era, handed us the rules of the game, and allowed us to navigate through the necessary exceptions and recognize why they were justified. We observed what people did in the Will’s time zone which ranged from people trying to make an honest living to earn time (but were often short-changed) to thugs (Alex Pettyfer) who harassed others and stole their time via arm-to-arm contact. One of the most compelling early scenes involved a woman who had only an hour and a half on her arm but a bus ride required a fee of two hours. After much begging to no avail, despite explaining that her destination was approximately two hours away by bus, the driver coldly suggested that she ran as fast as she could to get to her destination on time. I liked that the director allowed the woman to have only one look at the people sitting on the bus where not one volunteered to give minutes. It wasn’t that they were required to but it was a decent thing to do. That scene gave me strong feelings anger and sadness because I had been in that situation before. A person couldn’t pay for the the fare and I just sat there, impatient as to when the driver would finally step on the gas. Unfortunately, I felt like the film’s grand ambitions were thrown out the window in the latter half in order to make room for romance and chase sequences. While there was undeniable chemistry between Will and Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of an influential and rich man (Vincent Kartheiser) who could live for thousands of years if he so chooses, their differences were not explored beyond the set-up of poor guy wanting more and rich girl wanting to be less suffocated by parental controls. Since the roots of the partnership was executed superficially and lackadaisically, when they decided to rob banks and give time to he impoverished à la Robin Hood alloyed with Bonnie and Clyde, there wasn’t much tension or excitement. We wanted to them to get away from Timekeepers Leon (Cillian Murphy), Korsqq (Toby Hemingway, sporting a runway-ready haircut), and Jaeger (Collins Pennie), assigned by the government to capture the duo, because they strived to do good for the downtrodden but it was a passive rather than an urgent experience. Finally, I yearned to see more scenes of Sylvia’s father do more than looking glamorous and serious. There could have been complexity in him because we saw that he, too, worked for higher, possibly more sinister, echelons. It was a slight disappointment that “In Time,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, circumvented daring intricacies for the sake of digestible answers. If it had maintained its initial promise–heavy on the concept, light on the adrenaline–and had been more careful about clunky details, it could have been a paragon of modern science fiction.
The Way Back (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
★★★ / ★★★★
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) was hired to be Adolf Hitler’s (Bruno Ganz) secretary in 1942. The real Traudl Junge, in the opening shot of the film, confessed that she wasn’t really aware of what Nazism was about when she ignored her family’s warnings against joining the growing political movement. Cut to 1945, she still worked for Hitler as the Russians inched closer to Berlin. The majority of the picture focused on the growing sense of dread Hitler and those close to him as they foolishly decided to stay in the secret bunker instead of fleeing for their lives. I saw this film a month before I started the university and about five years later, its impact on me remained the same. While Ganz’ performance was absolutely tremendous, especially when he expressed explosive rage, I spent more time observing his quieter moments as he questioned where his leadership had gone awry. While I did not feel sorry for the monster in him, the actor and the filmmakers successfully revealed a more human side to Hitler by highlighting our fears. Specifically, our fear of death, abandonment, and our accomplishments ultimately amounting to nothing. I thought it was a brave and risky move because no one can deny the evil that cost over fifty million lives. The supporting characters were just as fascinating. There SS Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) who attempted to talk his comrades into leaving the bunker but they were too deeply embedded in their illusions of last-minute victory. There was a boy with a talent for destroying tanks. He loved the recognition and was willing to put his young life in the line for praise. However, he wasn’t even sure what he was fighting for. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) found horror when he stumbled upon areas where the elderly were left to die and unsanitary surgeries were performed. And then there was Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler’s right-hand man, who foolishly and selfishly brought her six innocent children to the bunker just to be with her Führer. She claimed that she couldn’t imagine a life for her kids without National Socialism. The movie was able grab ahold of the various story strands and weaved them into a coherent and meaningful product despite the chaos and confusion. Lastly, while the film managed to put Hitler under a more humanistic angle, I’m glad it never lost track of the crimes he committed–crimes that no amount of jail time or community service can off-set. While he led the murder of over two million Jews, he killed his countrymen as well. Those who he considered weak, like the elderly and people with disability, were left to perish. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall,” taken out of its historical context, was ultimately a story of responsibility. Our leaders are responsible for us, but we mustn’t forget that we have a responsibility toward ourselves. Questioning or usurping our ineffective leaders is not tantamount to betraying our country.
How Do You Know (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) was so passionate about softball, she made a career out of it. But when she was unexpectedly cut from the team, her life became turbulent as she questioned what she should do next. Coincidentally, one of Lisa’s friends gave George (Paul Rudd) Lisa’s phone number because Lisa, during a drunken night, confessed that she was curious about dating a non-athlete for once. George was as normal as they come other than the fact that he was being wrongly implicated in a federal crime. Will Lisa choose Matty (Owen Wilson), a successful baseball player, over currently unemployed George? One of the problems with “How Do You Know” was all of the characters were painfully needy and nice. When they got angry, they would express it but they apologized almost always immediately, like being angry was a sign of immaturity or that it was something to be ashamed of. I understood why the characters were that way because the material was desperate to be different from other romantic comedies where the characters typically would compartmentalize their negative emotions until the very end. But, without the right execution, as it was the case here, the opposite side of the spectrum was just as toxic as the cliché. Furthermore, the script was just not funny. An hour into it, I laughed probably once and chuckled a maximum of three times. When something funny was about to happen, I felt it coming ten seconds before. Casting Jack Nicholson, who played George’s father, was a letdown because he wasn’t given much to do. He was the distant father with a secret but there was nothing else to him. The majority of the picture’s attempt at comedy consisted of George being awkward around the girl he was in love with. As usual, Rudd was his usual charming, somewhat geeky, harmless persona but his character was also one-dimensional. The film contrasted George and Matty in a heavy-handed way. Aside from the obvious that one was a blonde and the other was a brunette, when Lisa would tell a story about how her day went or what was bothering her, Matty would avoid making eye contact. He would do things like ask her if she was hungry or he would start to talk about himself. On the other hand, when Lisa was with George, the hopeless romantic’s eyes were transfixed on her and when he would ask questions, it was directly related to her problems. Naturally, Matty was someone we would enjoy hanging out with and George was someone one we would marry. It was incredibly transparent who Lisa should choose that tension among the trio wasn’t generated. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, “How Do You Know” was not only predictable but it was also two hours long. How do you know when you’re stuck with a bad movie? When you keep checking the clock and asking yourself how many more bad jokes you have yet to sit through.
Puss in Boots (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was word going around that Jack (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), outlaws and lovers, had three magical beans in their possession. If planted in the right spot at the right time, they were to grow for miles and lead to a giant’s castle where a giant goose laid golden eggs. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) figured that if he were to purloin the eggs and donate them to the small town where he was raised in an orphanage, he would no longer be a wanted cat. Despite his reluctance, Puss eventually teamed up with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), the sword, the skill, and the brain of the mission, respectively. “Puss in Boots,” directed by Chris Miller, was a thoroughly enjoyable animated film because the fairy tales in question were incorporated in such a way that the filmmakers were able to add their unique spin yet keep the essence of what made them such memorable fables. For example, instead of Jack and Jill being portrayed as cute kids, they were shown as corpulent, greedy adults with pigs as children. Despite their unexpected appearance, there were some funny bits taken from the nursery rhyme which were convincing enough for us to believe that the two of them were the Jack and Jill who tumbled down the hill. The picture had a lot of energy especially in executing its action sequences. The battle between Jack and Jill and Puss, Kitty, and Humpty in the desert was intense and exciting. Although the road was extremely windy, the battle sequence was flawlessly edited. We knew exactly what was happening and why; the crafty twists and jokes that surrounded that chase made the experience all the more fun. Although I enjoyed the animation in general, with its variegation in style that consistently complemented specific environs, I feel that I have to single out Humpty Dumpty. I never thought an egg could amuse me so much. Although the character had wicked sense of humor (he was deathly unable to jump off small steps), I was regaled by his movements: the way he walked, wobbled, and rolled down a hill. His facial expressions were, at times, slightly creepy, but I can’t imagine anyone not being tickled at the sight of Humpty being caught up in all sorts of trouble balancing while in the middle of high-stakes chases. I wished, however, the movie had less scenes of Puss and Kitty dancing. I understood that the two cats had to flirt for the sake of cute puns, but whenever they had to dance, whether it was for fun or competition, it felt like filler. A twenty-second dance sequence would have more than sufficed. A total of five- to ten-minute montage tested my patience. I rather would have watched a longer flashback of Puss and Humpty’s experiences as children in the orphanage led by Imelda (Constance Marie), their mother figure. Based on the screenplay by Tom Wheeler, “Puss in Boots,” despite its inconsistencies, like the golden eggs’ density, very difficult to move from one scene, easily lifted the next, was entertaining because it prevented shoving pop culture references in our faces. It simply told a story where most of its jokes worked due to right timing combined with contagious, effervescent energy.
★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
30 Minutes or Less (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) was a pizza delivery guy who consistently failed at getting to the doorstep on time that we were left to wonder why he was still hired. When he wasn’t at work, he hung out with his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), a recently hired full-time teacher, played video games, and other things typical single guys did on their spare time. Meanwhile, Dwayne (Danny McBride) could no longer stand being treated by his father (Fred Ward), an ex-Marine and a lotto winner, with disdain for being a thirty- or forty-something slacker. When an exotic dancer (Bianca Kajlich) proposed that Dwayne should find a way to kill his dad so he could get the inheritance, Dwayne thought this was a brilliant idea. Based on the screenplay by Michael Diliberti and directed by Ruben Fleischer, “30 Minutes or Less” should really have lived up to its title because stretching its pia mater-thin premise to eighty minutes felt interminable. All the characters were either stupid or vile or stupid and vile; not one was worth rooting for. Nick was eventually strapped to a code-activated homemade bomb which incited a lot of yelling and screaming out of panic. It would have been different if all the commotion soon led to practical solutions once the characters had enough time to absorb the predicament. However, the situation simply reached various levels of absurdity and not once did I feel danger or fear for the people I saw on screen. Were some lines uttered funny? Undoubtedly, yes. I laughed at the part when the cashier suggested that Nick and Chet buy a condom because the items they bought, which included ski masks and tape, made them look like sexual predators. I also enjoyed some of the banters between Nick and Chet prior to the former’s life being threatened by a bomb. There was something about their geeky friendship that would make a nice sitcom aimed toward guys. Did the movie work as a comedy? It did not. The laughs came few and far between. For instance, after one amusing racist joke, five unfunny ones would come right after. It seemed like the writers managed to brainstorm a lot of jokes but they didn’t bother to be selective enough so that the best ones could make it onto the screen. It felt lazy and with such a low hit rate, it wasn’t worth sitting through. Furthermore, the romance between Nick and Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), Chet’s twin sister, felt completely unnecessary. Why did the writers even bother to have Nick fall for someone if they weren’t willing to spend enough time to convince us why they were or were not a good fit? To make Nick more sensitive and relatable? Surely there were other ways. I detected more laziness. Not only did “30 Minutes of Less” feel shallow and undercooked, it tried too hard to impress in terms of violence while actually achieving nothing. A thirteen-year-old came up to me and said that he and his friends watched the funniest movie they’ve seen in a while. When I asked what it was, he gleefully announced it was “30 Minutes of Less.” If this passes as comedy for them, I think we’re in deep trouble.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four astronauts were sent to outer space to explore what was out there in the universe. They left their family and their very lives behind in hopes of furthering humans’ knowledge about the unknown. But when their ship crash landed on an unknown planet, only three made it out alive. One of them was Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) who held a pessimistic, or realistic, depending on how one saw humanity, view on other people. Perhaps he would begin to appreciate humans more because it turned out that the planet was ruled by apes. Humans were treated like animals, hunted, and exterminated. When caught, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an ape but an animal psychologist, found Taylor fascinating because he was able to write and talk, qualities no human on their planet possessed. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, when the apes started to speak in English, I admit that I laughed. The possibility that the English language transgressed lightyears worth of distance was amusing and downright silly. But it was supposed to be campy yet it had its own rules with much bigger roles later on. What made my eyes transfixed on the screen were its big ideas. Watching it was like looking at a mirror on how humans treated animals for the sake of scientific experiments. The subject of science, led by Dr. Zira and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), her husband-to-be, versus religion, led by Dr. Zaius, who’s position in the hierarchical ape society, ironically enough, was the Minister of Science, was explored and developed in a mature and often insightful way. Initially, I believed Dr. Zaius was just a villain, a big, hairy block that hindered in the way of progress for the sake of protecting what was written on the sacred texts he so deeply coveted. But when his motivations we fleshed out, I began to sympathize with him. The picture showed that he was not incapable of showing humanity. When the big revelation at the very end arrived, I didn’t feel cheated. In fact, I felt as though it answered many of my questions in one giant sweep. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, “Planet of the Apes” was surprisingly effective. The cinematography always changed. We started in the ship where it looked futuristic. It felt cold and safe. Fifteen minutes in, we were left to marvel at the barren desert where the astronauts saw that the only sign of life was a dried up plant. The characters looked so small and exposed to attack. When Taylor was captured, the look and feeling was a combination of both. I was convinced that the filmmakers had control over their project. Most importantly, they had a specific vision they wanted to convey and the motifs they implemented were multidimensional. A film that forces us to think outside of ourselves yet allows us to go back in our minds and reevaluate is, in my opinion, a quintessential science fiction story.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.
The American President (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), president of the United States, was up for a possible re-election within a year’s time. His team (Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox) believed that by passing a bill, vaguely designed to reduce crime, there was a great chance that he could win another term. But when he met Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), hired to get the president’s attention toward a bill aimed to protect the environment, he was swept by her radiance, intelligence, and fearlessness to speak what was on her mind. Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), the leading conservative figure who had shown interest in running for presidency, took advantage of the budding romance and started to question the president’s character and accused Sydney of being a radical because of a picture taken thirteen years ago. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, “The American President” was a romantic comedy for adults. While the material milked the obvious, like the first few scenes designed to paint the president as not only an amiable person in the work place but also an active figure in his daughter’s life, it was highly entertaining because of the smart dialogue and wonderful performances. In romance pictures, I always look the moment when one or both persons realize that they just might be falling for each other. There was a wonderful scene in the Oval Office when Bening scrambled to find the words to express how embarrassed she was for insulting the president. As she attempted to clean up her verbal vomit, Douglas gave her a specific look, which lasted for about half a second, that meant she was the one for him. As for Bening, I’m used to seeing her in intense performances so it was nice to watch her let her hair down and smile from ear to ear. She was completely captivating as a smart and strong woman who was rendered defenseless by the president’s charm. She could have played her character as a typical ditz throughout the film but as the couple got more comfortable with each other, we saw how passionate and serious she was about her work. As the events turned for the worse, reflected by rainy weather, scenes shot at night and bad poll results, the issue of public versus private space came into focus. While Andrew and Sydney were a great match romantically, there was growing tension between them politically. We even start to think that maybe it was good idea for them to not be together for a while. It gives me great annoyance when I read reviews claiming that the movie was terrible because it was nothing but liberal propaganda. They completely missed the point. The romance was supposed to be the foreground and the politics the background. It might have been Capra-esque in scope of how the government really worked, but there was confidence in its execution and we invested in the couple to make it through the end. Sometimes that’s just exactly what we need.