Boy Erased (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The purpose of “Boy Erased” is straightforward: 1) To further expose the cruel and downright predatory practices of gay conversion programs, their pseudoscientific practices still legal, at the time of writing, across 36 states across the U.S.—all having the power to subject even minors through all sorts of humiliating and traumatizing situations, and 2) To inspire a change in us and also on a legislative level. Although it succeeds on this front, what I admired most about the film is that it is a specific story first and foremost. And so a topic that may sound or feel abstract to some is anchored to something concrete. A viewer need not know someone who has gone through such “therapy” to be able to empathize with the heartbreaking and maddening occurrences on screen.
Lucas Hedges shows once again why he is one of the best performers of his generation. He plays Jared Eamons, eighteen-year-old son of a preacher/car dealer (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser (Nicole Kidman), whose family is deeply religious. Standing toe-to-toe against veteran actors like Crowe and Kidman is not easy, but he makes it look effortless. For example, he makes the intelligent choice to adopt Crowe and Kidman’s approaches to their own characters, the former nearly inaccessible, quiet, his nose often buried in the Bible, and having the tendency to look down during moments of confrontations while the latter’s technique is almost the exact opposite.
Striking a balance between extreme characterizations, it helps on two fronts. First, it provides believability that Jared has in fact been raised in a particular household laden with many rules inspired by the word of God. Second, Hedges employs the opposite technique when facing either Crowe or Kidman, depending the scene, and so he does not get buried when an experienced performer sends wave after wave of powerful emotions, both subtle and dramatic.
The disadvantage, however, is most apparent when the three of them share a scene. Because Hedges is not as effective—yet—as his seasoned counterparts, there are times when he fades into the background just a little. And yet, thinking about it more thoroughly, perhaps this is the intent. Because Jared feels invisible when being around his parents, maybe the correct approach is to dial back, to blend into the surroundings. After all, the parents refuse, downright deny, a part of their son that is important.
Scenes at the Love in Action gay conversion therapy program, led by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton—who also writes and the directs the film), are most effective when shot in a matter-of-fact way. Interiors are so barren and impersonal, notice no one wears a hint of bright color—for bright shirt might as well have been a rainbow flag. Most of the staff appear robotic and cold. No one cracks a warm or friendly smile because doing so may come across as suggestive. Touching, other than quick handshakes (firm handshakes for males, soft for females), is not allowed. Conversations are encouraged to be brief. There are even strict rules when it comes to going to the restroom.
We observe the entire process, from the personal items that must be checked in, what is brought up and explored during the program, to the long-term psychological effects of brainwashing. I appreciated that the material bothers to make a point that every program’s “client”—I prefer the word “victim”—responds to “therapy” in different ways. Appropriately, these are meant to make the viewers angry. More importantly, it urges us to empathize, to see that, clearly, these programs are a sham and those who choose to run them are swindlers. There is no curing homosexuality because there is nothing to cure. It is not a disease or a choice. It just is.
There are numerous genuinely affecting moments in the picture, like the talk between a doctor (Cherry Jones) who is tasked to draw blood from her patient (Hedges), but one that elevates the film greatly is the final exchange between father and son. To reveal as little as possible is ideal, but what is at stake is how the Eamons family will move forward. There is so much to say and express, but Edgerton chooses to be concise and precise. Beautifully shot and the dialogue so well-written, somehow the confrontation comes across both grand and deeply personal. It is a terrific closer to a wonderful film that just so happens to be well-intentioned.
Sum of Us, The (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It is Friday night and Jeff (Russell Crowe) can barely contain his excitement and nervous energy. He feels it is time to approach the person he has had his eye on, a fellow named Greg (John Polson) who frequents the same pub as him. Jeff lives with his father, Harry (Jack Thompson), who is aware and has accepted his son’s homosexuality. Harry, too, a widower, is searching for love. With the help of a dating agency, he meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a clean and proper woman. With plans of taking their relationship further, Harry wonders if the new belle in his life could accept the truth about his only son.
Many LGBT-themed movies center around the idea of parents finding out the truth about their son or daughter, wrestling with the idea, and coming–or not coming–to terms with it, so it is most refreshing that “The Sum of Us,” based on the play and screenplay by David Stevens, is about a father and son who have gone through the coming out experience. The attention is now toward other people, who may or may not be accepting of lifestyles outside the sphere of heteronormativity, and the familiar fear of rejection.
Harry and Jeff address the audience directly about their thoughts that go unexpressed, equally effective as a comedic and dramatic tool. When one gets very annoyed from a barrage of ill-timed jokes, the other stops and turns toward the camera thereby having a chance to let go of the remaining quips. Conversely, when something is too painful or ought not be expressed to someone else at a particular moment in time, the asides force us to get closer to the sensitive situation by allowing us to absorb what a character is thinking fully. The temporary disruptions from the flow of the story is utilized with balance and control.
The most memorable portion of the screenplay involves Greg being invited by Jeff to his home. Although Harry serves as comic relief, often popping out of the blue and blabbering on about so-and-so, completely putting a halt on the romantic tempo between his son and the visitor, his presence is always welcome. I could not help but be touched by how good the father is to his son. They get on each other’s last nerves once in a while but their love for another is never doubtable. I wished more movies would show a father and his gay son or daughter interacting like a normal family. Notice that the essence of their conversations, if and when sexuality is brought up, is about feelings that are universal, not the stereotypes that conveniently fit under “gay,” “straight,” “masculine,” or “feminine.”
The flashbacks, shown in black and white, are designed to further our understanding of father and son. With Harry, most important is his first time experience going to a gay pub after he learns about his son being attracted to other men. With Jeff, he recollects spending fun times with his late grandmother (Mitch Mathews) and the implications behind Gran having a live-in partner named Mary (Julie Herbert). The common thread is curiosity and the past is used to weave a bridge to make sense of the present.
Directed by Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, “The Sum of Us” is ultimately about the love within a family, not “gay” love or “straight” love. It avoids easy solutions to complex circumstances, but at the same time it is brave enough to make us laugh when things take a serious turn. It is a way of coping, a slight nudge to remind the good that remains.
Mummy, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
In an attempt to establish roots of a potential franchise, those in charge of “The Mummy,” directed by Alex Kurtzman, neglected to create a picture that stands strong on its own first and foremost. What results, for the most part, is an underwritten near-disaster, devoid of entertainment value beyond marginally impressive special and visual effects. Mere CGI should not satiate anybody. Take a look at Stephen Sommers’ 1999 interpretation of “The Mummy.” At the time, it boasts striking use of computer graphic imagery but at the same time effort is put into its characters and storytelling. Sommers’ picture is entertaining in all ways that Kurtzman’s film is not.
I would even go as far as to say that the leads are miscast entirely. Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis play a former military officer turned treasure hunter who sells stolen artifacts on the Black Market and an archeologist working for a man named Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), respectively. While Cruise excels, as expected, during the more kinetic action pieces, notice a significant lack of magnetism and effusive energy when his character, Nick Morton, is required to make a romantic connection with his co-star. Wallis, on the other hand, might as well have been played by a plank with one facial expression drawn on it because she is deathly one-note. Whether it be discovering the find of the century or running away from ghouls, Wallis fails to emote as a regular person would in such situations. We fail to identify with these characters.
The attempts at humor are misguided and misplaced. Perhaps this is due to the the lack of ability to balance conflicting tones. Instead, it relies on a person yelling constantly during action sequences (I found Jake Johnson as the motormouth sidekick to be especially annoying) and employing awkward pauses after punchlines are supposedly delivered. But in order for something to be even mildly amusing, there must be convincing energy behind its efforts. Here, it comes across as though the would-be comical situations and so-called jokes have been plastered on as opposed to something that might occur naturally in this universe.
While the picture has an eye for how an action scene should unfold, dialogues that come before and after are mind-numbingly dull, one-dimensional, almost soporific. We are supposed to be watching characters who have travelled all over the world, who are educated, who have met all sorts of people, experienced or at least have been exposed to different lifestyles. And yet notice how they speak, exchange, and challenge ideas. It were as if they’ve never left the vanilla town they were born and raised in.
Perhaps the most important crime this “Mummy” commits is not showcasing exotic locales. Because Sommers’ films “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” are retroactively beloved, especially the former, people are likely to come in to this picture expecting to see deserts, camels, pyramids, outdoor markets, people from faraway lands, cultures entirely different compared to their own. Instead, the majority of the film takes place either at night, indoors, or underground. It has this dark studio look about it—as if it’s something to boast about. There is really little to no fun to be had here. Notice how I didn’t even provide a synopsis of the plot because it’s entirely trivial.
Nice Guys, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Action-comedy “The Nice Guys,” co-written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, is inspired by classic 1970s detective pictures but one that fails to provide inspiration. What results is a moderately watchable but occasionally predictable film spearheaded by charismatic co-stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling who have good fun in their roles.
At first it appears as though the plot revolves around a dead pornographic actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whose vehicle crashed into and through a house during the first scene, but those with extensive experience with detective films, especially the great noir works of the 1940s, are likely to recognize that is merely a misdirect. This is a common problem that plagues the picture: familiar elements are exactly as they are and so there is rarely, if ever, anything surprising. One of the main targets of the material is audiences who enjoy detective stories. It fails to satiate because it offers nothing new.
Crowe and Gosling do share some chemistry, but Healy and March are written as one-note. Although they are never boring because the experienced thespians are able to tap into different notes of an otherwise standard dialogue, it would have been electric if the script were as smart or as colorful as those portraying the detectives. Gosling plays the more volatile of the pair and is able to deliver a few laughs, but Crowe is equally strong as the straight man.
There are three action sequences and they are evenly dispersed throughout the film’s near two-hour running time. I enjoyed and appreciated that each one offers a distinct feel, energy, and pace. They are executed with vision and we feel the joy of those involved. Perhaps these are the best scenes in the movie, hands down the most thrilling. What it is missing, however, is a truly memorable and/or sinister villain. Matt Bomer plays one of the formidable assassins but the character is not written deeply enough to be compelling.
A breakout star of the film is Angourie Rice who plays Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter. Rice is a name and face to watch out for because she commands the charm, wit, and presence of Reese Witherspoon from Robert Mulligan’s “The Man in the Moon.” Just about every time Rice is on screen, she lights it up. She makes slower scenes come alive. A lesser performer might have turned the character into someone annoying but she grounds Holly in such a way that the audience would want to be her friend.
Directed by Shane Black, “The Nice Guys” offers a decent time but not a good time. If the script had been tweaked a little more in order to provide more surprising details regarding the underbelly of politics, world of pornography, and the sleuthing business, it might have turned into an example to be imitated in the future rather than simply resting on being a goofy imitation.
Man with the Iron Fists, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After Gold Lion is betrayed by Silver Lion (Byron Mann), the son of the deceased, Zen Yi (Rick Yune), vows to get vengeance. Word has it that Silver Lion and his crew are making their way to Jungle Village to intercept the emperor’s gold from the Gemini Twins. Meanwhile, an Englishman named Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) arrives at the village and spends the night in a whorehouse managed by the elegant Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).
“The Man with the Iron Fists,” based on the screenplay by RZA and Eli Roth, might have been a lot more fun if the writers had made a brave decision to excise the fat and amplify the gravity-defying action sequence ridiculousness. What could have been a seventy-minute film of non-stop adrenaline rush is consistently bogged down by a lame attempt of introducing background stories, particularly the title character (RZA)—who is not all that interesting in the first place.
At times the picture comes across as a dirtier, less elegant version of Yimou Zhang’s “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” This is a compliment because it strives to fuse eastern—kung fu—and western elements—typical editing and feel of hip-hop music videos—to create something rather original. The result is a mixed bag but I would rather watch something different that works only once in a while than something expected but offering nothing new. I felt the performers’ enthusiasm in playing their roles.
The standout is Crowe, playing a character who loves to have fun with women. On one level, I was surprised that Crowe actually signed up for this material. Many actors similar or equal to his caliber would likely have turned down the offer immediately or would not even have considered it. On another level, I admired how Crowe plays Jack without ever winking at the camera. His intensity is controlled, as if he were in a dramatic role, and so when the humor presented in the script takes center stage, it feels right.
I did not at all buy into RZA as neither a creator of deadly weapons nor as a man who wishes to start a new life with a prostitute (Jamie Chung). Unlike Crowe and Yune, he does not exude a high level of charisma. It is clear that he has to work harder to reach the same level of magnetism as his co-stars but he does not.
Some of the fight scenes are beautiful. I enjoyed the showdown in the brothel as well as the short-lived appearance of the Gemini Twins. Like the great kung fu films, the picture treats action sequences like a dance—here, a dirty and grimy dance. The pacing may be offbeat at times, but there is an undeniable energy to them so one cannot look away.
Directed by RZA, “The Man with the Iron Fists” offers a disappointing in story but is quite eye-catching. It would have benefited greatly if Roth and RZA played upon their strengths as visual storytellers and abstained from jamming down sentimental stories down our throats. This way, it might have spared us the occasional boredom.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Noah,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film with a core that should be regarded highly. That is, it takes inspiration from a source and stretches it to a point where it becomes an original vision—or at least one that is close to it. I was wary going into this film. Despite a highly respected filmmaker from behind the camera, I thought it was just going to be another one of those stories directly taken from the Bible without any bite, meat, or flavor—out of fear that a group might get offended. On the contrary, the picture has several layers of substance. Not all of them work, but those that do go beyond lessons or religion. It touches upon a more spiritual realm.
Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family are descendants of Seth, one of the sons of Adam and Eve. They live off the land while people who live in cities, Cain’s successors, nefarious and vile, spread wickedness all over the world. Noah begins to receive troublesome nightmares about drowning among countless dead people. He deems that The Creator has sent him a warning—that a great flood is coming for the cleansing of the land.
The visual effects are not the most convincing: the animals boarding the ark, plants sprouting from the ground, the inevitable flood all look rather fake—but I did not mind. Nor did I care that there are giants with boulders for bodies for half the picture. I found myself caring more about what is being attempted: a critique of Noah’s blind devotion to his creator. When the title character puts his family’s life second, anybody in their right mind, no matter what anyone’s creed, would and should question the man’s sanity.
This is why Crowe’s performance is key. The actor’s role is a challenge in that he must be loving and brutal at the same time. Being slightly off-key is not good enough. Crowe must embody a man torn by love—that of his own flesh and blood and that of his own creator. From the moment Crowe appears on screen, he is Noah: Noah the father, Noah the husband, Noah the believer, and Noah the fallen man.
A few of the supporting actors are miscast. Although Logan Lerman, who plays Ham, Noah’s middle-born son, and Emma Watson, the adoptive daughter, are able to have some moments where they do shine, their looks are too modern. I had too difficult a time believing that they are playing characters from an ancient time. In addition, Lerman’s accent comes and goes while Watson tends to overdramatize especially toward the end when it is time to wait for a sign of dry land.
In place of Lerman and Watson, I would have rather seen plain-looking but very good performers. When the weaknesses in their acting are front and center, I wondered if they were cast mainly to attract the younger audiences. Somebody needed to match Crowe’s intensity and they are not up to the job. Jennifer Connelly, playing Noah’s wife, has one wonderful scene where she has to beg. However, her character is not fully developed. Naameh should have been written to have a complex subplot, one that is comparable, if not parallel, to Noah’s consuming passion.
Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, “Noah” is difficult to swallow for many people mainly because of expectations. One group may find it too rogue from the original—and rather short—story. (I went to Sunday school.) Another group may find it not extreme enough especially given the director’s track record for focusing on characters driven by an obsession. Putting those aside and evaluating the picture as is, it is well-made and well-acted at times especially by the lead. It doesn’t quite touch the very depths of our soul but it does offer some food for thought.
Man of Steel (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During Krypton’s final convulsions due to the planet’s increasingly unstable core, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife (Antje Traue) rush to get their son, Kal-El, into a pod so he alone can escape the doomed planet and prevent the Kryptonian race from reaching extinction. This task is not made any easier by General Zod (Michael Shannon) as he and and his henchmen stage a coup d’état against the planet’s leaders. Zod wants the codex in his possession because it holds the genetic information of his people. Having it will allow him to recolonize another planet. But the codex is in the pod–located inside the infant to be exact–and Jor-El will not allow his son to be harmed.
To claim that “Man of Steel,” based on the screenplay by David S. Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder, is visually spectacular and consistently thrilling is not an understatement. Propelled by a confident execution and an above average script, when the film reaches emotional apices, especially in the first half, it makes for a compelling watch. It drags a bit toward the end, favoring ostentatiously grandiose action sequences over substance, but it is far from similar to the incomprehensible cling-clanging denouement of Michael Bay’s “Transformers.”
One of the wisest techniques employed is the non-linear storytelling. While this is not new to the superhero sub-genre, it is effective here. By choosing only the important moments of Kal-El, named Clark Kent (Cooper Timberline, Dylan Sprayberry in his younger years and Henry Cavill as an adult) by his adoptive family (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane), learning to control his powers, keeping a cool temper, and trying to keep his abilities and identity a secret, the small lessons are contained and to the point so they do not disrupt the rhythm of Clark’s journey toward discovering his origins.
I enjoyed the casting of Lois Lane. She is played by Amy Adams who, in my eyes, is not conventionally pretty. I think she is beautiful but her beauty comes with an edge. For me to be convinced that Lois is a serious journalist, one who can go toe-to-toe with the sharks in the Daily Planet and among its competitors, the actor playing her has to have the look as well as the capability to evoke conviction and intelligence. Adams is ace casting because she embodies these qualities.
However, the romance between Superman and Lois Lane is not handled with grace. There is a kiss that occurs near the end that felt like a knife to my stomach. Even when they stand from each other, silent, only a couple of inches apart, I cringed a little bit. The intimacy is not earned. Their relationship, one that is romantic in nature, is far from fully developed. And yet it is forced. A kiss between the two leads does not deserve a place in this movie. Perhaps a hug would have been acceptable–but only as a symbol of thanks.
The smashing of and crashing against buildings, helicopters, and alien ships are impressive. The first few big action pieces, especially the battle in Smallville between Superman against Faora (Antje Traue) and a robotic but very intimidating minion, offer genuine thrills. It is good that our hero is not made out to be invincible; he can feel pain and exhaustion–without being exposed to Kryptonite, an ore infamous for being Superman’s ultimate weakness. To circumvent the expected, the writer is forced to be a little more creative and I appreciated that.
Still, the explosions, skyscrapers crashing onto each other, and flying debris wear out their welcome eventually. Because it runs for longer than is necessary, I began to consider that perhaps the film might have been better off as having a hard R rating. Though it is implied, not one human death that includes all of its ugliness is shown. For example, when a structure is about to crash onto a group of panicking people desperate for escape, it quickly cuts onto another scene. If human casualty is shown once in a while, it might have made a stronger statement, one that is relevant to Superman’s journey of becoming a symbol of the human race. It would have shown that death of the innocent is a part of the story’s universe and that not even Superman can save everybody.
Despite a handful of missteps, “Man of Steel” is an action sci-fi fantasy that has more than enough gravitational pull in its marrow to keep us wondering about what will happen–within its story as well as a potential franchise. I want a sequel–one that is leaner, maybe laced with more humor, clever ones, but certainly one that does not flinch away from the uncomfortable.
Misérables, Les (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Having done imprisonment and hard labor for years, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) decides to break his parole and disposes of his old identity. With a new life comes a personal vow to lead an honest life and helping others along the way. Eight years later, 1823, Valjean, under a pseudonym, has become the mayor of Paris and a factory owner. A worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by the manager after she is discovered to have been sending money to an illegitimate daughter. Eventually, the desperate woman is driven to prostitution. While on her deathbed due to possible extreme exhaustion combined with famine, guilt-ridden Valjean promises to take care of her child.
Based on Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage musical, “Les Misérables” might have been a more immersing picture if it had been divided into two films. It has the scope of three or four movies and cramming the material into a two-and-a-half hour film means sacrificing depth of events and characterization. These two are very necessary if we are to plunge completely into a world of the past that is both full of blazing passion and dark realities. Without splendid work from three of the four central performances, the whole project might have collapsed under its own ambitions.
The picture proves expert in executing individual scenes. When it is only the camera and an actor in a frame, it captures the feeling of privacy beautifully. Most memorable is Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” so absent of vanity that although I did not fully buy into her character’s desperation due to glaring lack of details about Fantine, I was nonetheless very moved. Close-ups are utilized well, highlighting the most minuscule ticks on the performer’s face. I liked the way Hathaway is willing to be ugly–not superficially like having grime all over her or sporting a Mia Farrow haircut à la “Rosemary’s Baby”–by contorting her face in awkward angles in order to summon the right emotions and hitting the right notes. It is too bad that she is not in front of the camera the entire time.
Jackman is very capable as the conflicted protagonist. Like Hathaway, his talent is best showcased during the more personal scenes. He gets the most screen time, but at times I wondered about the other characters like Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s grown-up daughter, and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), one of the young people who is adamant about creating a revolution. Cosette is introduced and disappears for a big chunk of time so the romance between she and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras’ partner in the cause, is not entirely believable even though the actors look attractive together. Because of the lack of depth, Cosette comes off soft and beautiful but vapid, a critical misstep considering that she is a symbol of Valjean’s redemption. As Marius, Redmayne is very good in balancing the subtleties between two kinds of passion: the girl he loves and his duty to do what he thinks is right for his country. Since Marius is given more time to develop, he escapes being superficial. At least we understand half of the couple.
Though some may consider Russell Crowe’s voice to be the weakest link in the musical, I say it is the occasional mismanagement of the camera. This is a problem when there are five or six people in a frame. Tom Hooper, the director, is generous when it comes to going for the close-ups–which does not always work. When the technique is used in a group shot, I felt the camera inching toward a face. Sometimes Hooper flings the camera at them. It took me out of the experience. In such cases, it might have been better if the camera had allowed us to absorb the celebration or whatever is going on from afar.
I was won over by the ambition of “Les Misérables” even though about half of the songs are not my cup of tea. What saddens me is that movies like the last chapter of “The Twilight Saga” gets split in two when it is absolutely not necessary because the story is so thin. In here, you can really feel that there is so much more to discover about the characters and their experiences, but a lot of the details are sacrificed. This creates a feeling of an incomplete film due to the noticeable gaps in the screenplay.
Next Three Days, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Cops knocked on the Brennans’ door and claimed that Lara (Elizabeth Banks) was under arrest for the murder of her boss. Evidence was against her: a co-worker saw her leave the scene of the crime, the blood on her jacket matched the victim’s, and her fingerprints were on the murder weapon. But John (Russell Crowe), Lara’s husband, was convinced that she was innocent. In a span of three years, the community college professor did the best he could to get his wife out of prison. When the judge sentenced her to a life in prison, John turned to illicit means. His first move was to ask an ex-convict (Liam Neeson) how he managed to escape prison seven times. “The Next Three Days,” directed by Paul Haggis, was enjoyable for half of its running time. I liked it best when it focused on John’s increasing irrationality. There were times when I was convinced all the planning would ultimately amount to nothing because I figured by the time he was ready to execute his ambitious plans, he was already neck-deep in his obsession. When he made mistakes, the consequences were high. One particularly suspenseful scene was when he created a bump key, a key that could open most locks, and decided to test it on a prison elevator. It didn’t work and when he tried to force it out, it broke. An alarm went off a couple of seconds later. Worse, the room had a camera and it recorded every move. We were left to wonder how he was going to squiggle his way out of the complicated situation. However, the tension wasn’t consistent. If the tension isn’t consistent, the momentum doesn’t build. Worse, the movie ran for about thirty minutes too long. There were scenes between John and Nicole (Olivia Wilde), a single mother who was always at the park with her daughter, which suggested that there could be romance between the two. While Nicole was a key figure in John, Lara and their son’s (Ty Simpkins) eventual attempt to get out of the country, there wasn’t an effective moment between John and Nicole where we would be convinced that something was going to happen between them. Most of those scenes should have been edited out to make room for scenes from Detectives Quinn (Jason Beghe) and Collero’s (Aisha Hinds) point of view. Instead, we mostly saw the duo spying on John while in their car or just sitting at their desks. How were we supposed to take them seriously, to feel that they were a threat to John’s plans, if we didn’t know how their minds worked? Lastly, I wished that the picture kept some of its mysteries from us. In the end, it showed us whether or not Lara’s sentence was deserved. It didn’t matter. What mattered was we rooted for John’s plans to outsmart the system.
★★★ / ★★★★
When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.
Body of Lies (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I expected a lot from this film because of three reaons: Ridley Scott’s direction, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe teaming up, and its storyline regarding spies. Even though Scott’s movies generally do not have riveting ideas, he manages to entertain by playing with the fluidity of his characters’ morals and motivations. In this picture, it’s no different because he constantly manipulates the dynamics between the characters–mainly their loyalties–to the point where at times I wondered about the characters’ true intentions. The side effect of certain twists, however, left me confused. At times I didn’t know why a character is doing whatever he is doing for about ten to fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a good feeling; I felt like I was on the outside instead of feeling involved. I wish DiCaprio and Crowe had more screen time together. The movie actually popped during the (too few) scenes when they were facing each other, measuring each other’s abilities. I got tired of the scenes when the two of them would argue over the phone. Why do all that if they can be on the field together? As for the spy storyline, I’m glad the setting was in the Middle East not that because it’s accurate but because it’s relevant to the war in some way. This film is based on the novel by David Ignatius but I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how often this movie followed that literature. I also have to commend Mark Strong as the head of the Jordanian intelligence. I think he’s one of the most interesting actors to watch because he has his own intentions and he’s not willing to sacrifice his reputation for the sake of giving and receiving favors to and from the CIA. I also liked Golshifteh Farahani as DiCaprio’s romantic interest. Even though that romance angle did not work for me, I liked watching her because she has subtlety. This is far from a perfect film but it could’ve been leaner and meaner with a few more revisions in the script and cutting it down to about an hour and forty minutes. For the sake of entertainment and old-fashioned thrillers, this gets a slight recommendation from me.
Insider, The (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film is so intense from the moment it started and the plot only got more complex (not to mention more interesting) from there. This is based on a true story of a man who was interviewed on “60 Minutes” (played by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand) to expose the lies of a tabacco corporation, especifically Brown & Williamson, when they claimed that nicotine is not at all addictive and harmful to one’s well-being. Complexity ensues when the tabacco corporation threatens CBS with a lawsuit; CBS then decides not to show the public the interview because they thought that they would lose, which is truly heartbreaking because Dr. Wigand has sacrificed both his professional and personal life for that one (compelling) interview. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) approaches Dr. Wigand for a story and he shows the audiences what it means to have journalistic integrity. I find it very difficult to summarize the plot of the film because there are many layers to it. The only way to fully understand the picture is to watch it closely because each detail comments on how the media functions, how far corporations are willing to go to protect their money and those unfortunate people that get caught in the giant maelstrom of lies, confusion, and deceit (not to mention death threats and restraining orders). Yes, it’s a wordy film and it will definitely repel those that are not into watching pictures that are all about the technicalities in bureaucracies, but that’s what makes “The Insider” so rewarding: it’s not a common motion picture. There are a lot of highlights in the film but some of my favorites include: Bruce McGill’s anger during Dr. Wigand’s deposition, Pacino’s speech involving a “cat” being “out of the bag,” and Crowe’s scenes when he was alone as he reflects upon his past actions–questioning himself whether or not what everything he’s done is worth it. I felt so much for Crowe’s character because the blood-sucking Brown & Williamson fired him for no reason and then later took everything from him to the point where I felt like Crowe’s character was on the verge of suicide. I highly recommend this film, directed with such visual flair by Michael Mann, because it is able to tackle the idea of character assassination in a very scary but very realistic manner. I will remember this film for a very long time because pretty much everything about it works, especially the intense acting from all the actors involved.