Tag: samuel l. jackson

Spider-Man: Far from Home


Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

If there was a “Spider-Man” picture that befits an overwhelming amount of special and visual effects, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is it considering the fact that the main antagonist, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), specializes in creating the most convincing illusions. But those searching for a compelling and mature narrative should look elsewhere, especially since this chapter is right on the heels of a certain character’s death who was particularly close to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Instead, the material focuses on a more convenient route: Peter’s numerous struggles during a science trip across Europe to find the courage to tell MJ (Zendaya) he is interested in her romantically. An argument can be made that this installment, directed by Jon Watts, is a romantic comedy down to its marrow. Missed opportunities abound.

The school trip is forced and unfunny, interminable, a chore to sit through because the actors themselves look bored with what they’ve been handed. While Holland’s boyish charm is consistently on an eleven, matched by Zendaya’s effortless allure as the sarcastic romantic interest, even he is unable to save a tired screenplay from feeling fresh. There are two or three instances when Peter, finally, acknowledges the untimely death of the man he looked up to on several levels and these are the shining moments of the film because the emotions are raw, immediate. It feels right that the mourning must be purged somehow. On top of this, it shows that Holland is a dramatic performer first and foremost—that once he retires the Spider-Man suit, he can have a career with longevity. The writing is not equal to its lead’s obvious potential.

It is a shame, too, because the villain is still interesting this time around. In “Homecoming,” the audience is made to understand and empathize with the man behind the Vulture persona. Here, Mysterio has an excellent point when he claims that a person can be the smartest man or woman in the room but without flair or theatrics he or she is likely to be ignored. Qualifications and experience don’t matter next to someone else who is simply loud or obnoxious. If that isn’t a critique of our society in this day and age, I don’t know what is. This is a fascinating character because he desires what most people desire: to be seen, to be recognized, to be regarded as important. Gyllenhaal knows that he must ground a character whose actions may across as narcissistic and megalomaniacal.

The action sequences bored me. There is not a single one that pushed me to lean a little closer to the screen. Particularly uninspired is final showdown in London. Spider-Man finds himself attempting to destroy countless drones before any one of them gets a chance to shoot him. It is extremely frustrating to sit through because one gets the feeling that the screenwriters, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, have forgotten to show the viewers why the protagonist having to sift through hordes of small robots is actually interesting. There is fifteen to twenty minutes worth of acrobatics and every second feels empty. It is obvious, too, which shots are CGI. One isn’t required to try to be able to recognize them; maybe it’s because the filmmakers didn’t try either. I felt no weight or real danger during the action scenes. I looked at my watch twice.

Although not without its charms, it is clear “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is an inferior sequel. Just because Peter Parker is still a teenager does not mean that his story should remain light and silly. It can still offer funny moments of awkward teenagers simply trying to find themselves. And it should; it is highly appropriate in this version of Spider-Man. But the more daring and wiser choice would have been to tackle head-on the sadness our hero feels for losing a father-figure, a colleague, a mentor with whom he deeply respected. Learning to deal with loved ones who passed is a part of growing up, too.

Captain Marvel


Captain Marvel (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A third of the way through the picture, I couldn’t help but feel like an important ingredient is sorely lacking. The war between Kree and Skrulls is propelled with a high enough level of excitement, the special and visual effects are strong, and there is intrigue in how the events unfolding in 1995 may tie into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) eventually putting together Earth’s mightiest superheroes. The problem becomes tantalizingly clear when the picture hits its first important dramatic note. Given Brie Larson’s track record of independent dramas, she is most powerful as a performer when the scene is quiet and the camera is still—almost the polar opposite of an action film.

This does not mean Larson does not belong in the picture. In fact, I enjoyed her interpretation of Captain Marvel, who comes to know herself as Vers, a soldier of the Kree Empire, but has fragmented human memories as Carol Danvers. Despite a potentially confusing exposition, Larson has a way of making us care for our heroine not just as a superhero but also as a woman who feels incomplete due to being in the dark when it comes to her very own identity. Notice that for the first forty minutes or so, it is a challenge to invest emotionally into the material because there are far too many attempts at making jokes but not enough convincing dramatic gravity. It would have been such a breath of fresh air if “Captain Marvel,” written for the screen by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, had been a character drama first and an action picture second. Of course, this more inspired avenue would not rake in the big bucks.

Still, this Marvel outing is entertaining enough. I liked how chase scenes on Earth during the mid-90s are photographed and directed almost exactly as similar movies within the genre at the time—clichés included. There is a wonderful chemistry between Larson and Jackson which is necessary because their characters must forge a convincing friendship from the moment they meet at a payphone next to a Blockbuster video store until one of them must leave and travel to another galaxy. (The story’s timeline is about twenty to thirty five hours.) Danvers and Fury share a handful of amusing moments but not once do these come across as forced as bad buddy comedies.

Like many superhero films, this one, too, suffers from a lack of a strong villain with complex motivations. Observe that once Captain Marvel is able to reach her full potential, her enemies, including the main antagonist, are simply thrown about like rag dolls. Because they are no longer a threat, the bright colors, the bubbly soundtrack, and the acrobatics are reduced to an exercise of futility. I was bored by them and I was reminded of what I disliked immensely from “Wonder Woman”—we are handed action with not much context or purpose. It can feel like a waste of time.

Perhaps the most curious relationship is between Danvers and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Both were Air Force pilots and their few but valuable interactions suggest a deep history. The two sitting down and having a conversation can be more entertaining than the big, loud, and ostentatious action pieces. The reason is because, with the former, we know precisely what is at stake. There are times when it is easy to forget that we love or admire our superheroes not because of what they can do but rather who they are despite their powers or abilities, when they are unmasked, vulnerable, one of us.

Glass


Glass (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Although not short on ambition or ideas, it is a great frustration that M. Night’s Shyamalan’s “Glass” isn’t a stronger film. Part of the reason is for a closer of a trilogy (started by “Unbreakable” in 2000 and preceded by “Split” in 2017), the work is expository for the most part. Aside from an exciting opening minutes in which David Dunn (Bruce Willis), equipped with superhuman strength and psychic ability, is shown what he’s been up to, along with his now adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), since we last saw them, the material begins to move at a snail’s pace once the story shifts inside a psychiatric hospital. Initially curious, it gets duller by the minute. There is plenty of dialogue and monologuing, but these do not reveal anything particularly new or exciting.

The screenplay wishes to explore a grounded comic book universe which is full of potential because our culture now, especially the movies, is inundated with the commercialism of superheroes, products on a conveyor belt that we eat up right from the twenty-second teaser trailers. There is a stark difference between superhero pictures of today and superhero films before “Unbreakable” was released, for better or worse. This would have been a far more interesting avenue to drill into: 1) To show why relatively humble superhero movies should still be made despite the fact that several multimillion-dollar juggernauts are released annually and 2) To introduce an exciting discussion about superheroes in general and why they continue to be a staple in popular culture.

Instead, we get only crumbs of the more compelling themes until the third act—which does not work. We get the impression that the writer-director wishes so badly to surprise the viewer that the ideas that do end up on the platter are severely undercooked at best, thoroughly forced and unconvincing at its worst. Cue the flashbacks and would-be brilliant throwaway shots that the audience should have noticed all along. (I caught them all.) Perhaps it might have been better if the surprise is that there is no surprise, just a strong, well-ironed storytelling.

It is not entertaining enough—a head-scratcher because Shyamalan knows how to execute and shoot an action scene. For instance, When Dunn and The Beast, the latter being one of the twenty-four personalities (James McAvoy), must face-off in an abandoned factory, there is a real sense of excitement: the location is moody and dark, blows to the body are shown and actually felt due to the elevated sound effects, and stakes are high because we get the impression that the two are well-matched. Even when the action is shot in broad daylight, the director remains willing to play with the camera, showing us different perspectives of the sequence just because he can. The confidence is apparent when it comes to images. On paper, far less.

The title of the picture refers to Mr. Glass or Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a genius mass murderer born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by brittle bones, but we do not get enough moments with the character in order to have an appreciation of him. The charade of catatonia lasts for too long and it is quite boring. And when he does begin to speak, move around, and carry out his plans, not one thing he does is particularly clever or compelling—at least not one I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself. When the antagonist is this thinly drawn, it is without question that the screenplay requires further revisions. The work feels rushed.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard


The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Considering the sheer talent and great comic timing of the leads, it is most disheartening that “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” written by Tim O’Connor and directed by Patrick Hughes, is not a better movie. Instead of presenting us a breezy, balanced action-comedy, it is a limp death march, nearly absent of any big and lasting laughs, to the finish line—quite literal because the plot involves a bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) escorting an assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) so that the latter can testify against a dictator (Gary Oldman) at the International Criminal Court. Naturally, the dictator’s goons attempt to prevent the bodyguard-hitman duo from reaching their destination.

One gets the impression the script is barebones. Casting a pair of charismatic motormouths as co-leads is a good decision because the two have different approaches to wring laughter out of the audience. But relying on the duo to ad lib in order to plug holes in the script is a critical misstep. Notice that as improvisation unfolds, we begin to lose sight of the characters. This strategy is executed too many times and so during the latter half, it is a challenge to care about the story and whether Bryce and Kincaid would make it to their destination. The picture does not seem to understand how buddy comedies work since it is all behavior, no substance.

Action sequences unfold in beautiful open spaces, particularly one in Amsterdam, but a film can have the most eye-catching shootouts but ultimately amount to nothing if everything else around it is a bore. Such is the case here. It does not help that the villain is stuck in a courthouse and not one of the hired guns is genuinely threatening or memorable. Imagine if there had been two minions who have equally recognizable faces as Reynolds as Jackson. Cast performers who do not typically appear in comedies but turning out to have comedic chops. Now, isn’t that more exciting, more creative, more inspired that what is shown here? It certainly would have surprised the audience.

There are romantic subplots forced into the plot which do not work on any level. Reynolds and Elodie Yung, an Interpol agent who happens to be Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, share desert-dry chemistry. There is not one instance in which the viewers recognize what they see in one another. On the other hand, Jackson and Salma Hayek, playing Kincaid’s wife, do share some chemistry, but the screenplay’s lack of substance reduces the relationship into an unfunny, tired caricature. The picture struggles to get basic emotions and relationships right.

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a disastrous action-comedy because it lacks inspiration and imagination. Numerous awful comedies tend to have jokes on paper first and a semblance of story is built around them. Here, however, one gets a sneaky feeling that there is neither jokes nor story in the first place. It goes to show that just because the right actors are booked it may not necessarily translate, especially if there is nothing to support them. It is a waste of precious two hours that feels like four.

Kong: Skull Island


Kong: Skull Island (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It probably would have been more appropriate for “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, to have been released in the middle of summer because, for better or worse, it embodies all elements of a blockbuster special and visual effects extravaganza including the sub-genre’s shortcoming: nice to look at but look closer and realize nothing much goes on inside. What results is a watchable action-fantasy, certain to entertain on late-night cable viewings, but it is not for viewers who demand creativity and intelligence alongside suspense and thrills.

Big names are cast in this monster film but the characters might as well have been played by unknowns because not one of the actors manages to inject something extra special to his or her performance. If less familiar performers had been cast instead, at least they would have benefited from the exposure. Instead, otherwise compelling actors familiar with the art of subtlety are reduced to playing extremes: Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous military man, Tom Hiddleston as the quiet hero hired for a job, Brie Larson as a photojournalist who finds humanity in a gargantuan gorilla, and John C. Reilly conveniently provides comic lines.

Just about everything is so expected, so familiar, that I found minimal excitement in a film that is supposed to balance wonder, horror, action, suspense, and eventual catharsis. I wished to know who the characters are outside of their occupations and what pushed them to partake in the mission. What makes he or she interesting other than being on survival mode? What makes he or she worth rooting for (or against) just because he or she means well (or the quite the opposite)? Clearly, these characters are one-dimensional. There is no excuse for a movie with a sizable budget to have a minuscule imagination. Look at how it portrays scientists. They are silent, cowering, often in the background.

For an island that is supposed to be undiscovered—being surrounded by perpetual storms helps—there is a lack of a sense of discovery outside encounters with massive creatures. At one point, the outsiders come across quiet indigenous people covered by paint and jewelry from head to toe. The picture dedicates not one scene in showing a new outsider attempting to make a connection with the curious human inhabitants. The story might have been set in the ‘70s but such is a mere ploy since it fails to capture the essence of that era. Notice that in movies released in the same time period, even in blockbuster films that happen to be set in a strange or new land, there is always an attempt to communicate, to connect, to find a commonality. Not here.

It excels in a few individual scenes, which usually last about five minutes, before forcing us to wait for the next action sequence. Perhaps most impressive is the graveyard scene. Notice how it builds atmosphere and mood. We are awestruck by the mighty skeletons; as the camera lingers on them, we try to imagine corpses that were once there. The yellow-orange dirt highlights the white bones’ surfaces—their cracks, crevices, and holes. All the while we know that something is going to happen soon. It becomes a matter of perfect timing. I felt elated when the execution got it exactly right. At that moment, I caught myself wishing that the entire material functioned on such a high level and on a consistent basis. There are stretches where neither the senses nor the mind is engaged.

“Kong: Skull Island” is not for audiences who demand more than two CGI characters duking it out during the final ten minutes. Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” got it right where this movie got it wrong. In the 1993 classic, there is dimension to the central characters, we get to know some of the creatures up close (sometimes a little too up close), it pushes us to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. It engages us intellectually. We grow to care deeply for our protagonists. Here, I did not care whether they would make it out of the island alive.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite all the magic flaunted in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” based on the novel by Ransom Riggs and directed by Tim Burton, why doesn’t it feel magical? Part of the answer is because it fails to choose a specific target audience. Too scary for younger children and not dark enough for pre-teens, it ends up somewhere between. What results is a watchable fantasy-adventure but far from a memorable one. It is without a doubt, however, that the material has the potential to become a series that can get better given a more detailed writing, more focused direction, and an approach that doesn’t hold back out of fear that the final product isn’t family-friendly enough.

Let us consider the title character played by Eva Green. The performer exudes the look of intrigue, perhaps even a sinister layer or two beneath those knowing dark eyes and curious smirk, but the writing has a frustrating habit of making Miss Peregrine friendlier just when we feel we are about to discover a surprising trait or perspective from her. As someone who has the power to control time, the children’s home and way of life perpetually stuck in 1943, Miss Peregrine is not convincing in her wisdom and role as protector of children born with abilities—such as being able to control fire, air, plants, and the like. The character is diluted when in fact the material demands that she be as extreme as possible since she anchors the strange universe we observe from the outside.

Another character, equally important, that is watered down, but in a different way, is Jake, the grandson of a man who used to live with Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children but, due to the Second World War, has since left the home and grown old. Portrayed by Asa Butterfield, he has the lanky body frame and awkward postures that fit well in this particular story but I did not feel a certain enthusiasm, a wondrous feeling, in the portrayal. Since Jake is our conduit to the magical world of time loops and bizarre abilities, Butterfield does not exude a sort of warm and inviting feeling. The Jake who becomes a leader during the final stretch of the film is most unconvincing; the evolution rings false.

In terms of its images, the special and visual effects impress. For instance, the look of so-called Hollowgasts with their gargantuan frames, eyeless heads, shark-like teeth, long tongues, and reptilian movements creep thoroughly and convincingly. Eyeless corpses we come across once in a while command a certain tragic lifelessness to them. (The Hollows love to eat eyes—especially those of children.) In addition, the look of the children’s home on the Welsh island in 1943 is colorful, bright, detailed, and inviting. If only the same adjectives could be used to describe each person who lives there. They are reduced to superficial traits.

Based on the screenplay by Jane Goldman, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” has room for considerable improvement. Although far from an impressive start of a potential series, small but critical shifts in terms of mood, tone, characterization, and willingness to take risks might turn an otherwise forgettable material into a work with a specific voice and perspective about the current state of our world and ourselves. Looking at the big picture, the story is about “peculiars” or outcasts and their place, or lack thereof, in this world and this time period. This subject is ripe for social commentary.

The Hateful Eight


The Hateful Eight (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Hateful Eight,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is not for the type of audience who would rather watch elaborate chase sequences or skyscrapers blow up every fifteen to twenty minutes—whether it is on mute or otherwise. It is, however, for the most part, for viewers who prefer to listen to extended dialogues as closely possible as lines uttered reveal—sometimes small, at times significant but almost always telling—traits of the individual, colorful characters that show up on screen.

The picture runs for about three hours and it is divided into six meticulously crafted chapters. After the fourth chapter, therein lies a sudden shift it tone and pacing—as if it were once a man in a drunken stupor suddenly jolting himself into full awareness and ready to sprint to the finish line. But one should not make the mistake of labeling the first four chapters as “boring.” Such a criticism, in this case, is most superficial—arguably to be an egregious error.

The first hour and a half is an exploration of who the characters are despite our first impressions. The more we get to know them, the likelier it is for us to care about what would happen to them eventually as the story drills deeper into the western mythos of justice, vengeance, and the roles people play as well as the archetypes fellowmen assign onto others in order to further define one’s self-perceived status. There is a level of intelligence, wit, and creative brazenness here that is not seen enough in movies of today.

As far as plot goes, it is very simple to follow. A man known around post-Civil War Wyoming as “The Hangman,” whose real name is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), has captured a murderous criminal named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There is bounty of ten thousand dollars—dead or alive—on her head and John Ruth is escorting her to a place called Red Rock to collect the sizable reward. Some say it is far easier to kill the criminal—that way, there is no chance that she will end up killing her captor instead—but according to the stories, once one is captured by The Hangman, he or she must hang. Though their trajectory is clear as day, they are forced to take refuge in a haberdashery due to an approaching blizzard.

Listen to the dialogue closely as the characters talk about race, make jokes, and tell stories that may or may not be true. (The story of a man’s final wish is likely to leave the viewer stirred.) Under the same roof are highly dangerous folks with volatile personalities. This being a Tarantino film, we know already that somebody is going to go off eventually. Thus, suspense is embedded into the marrow of the situation. As the figures begin to question and challenge one another’s beliefs, opinions, and values, we attempt to guess which one will break first. I did not guess correctly who would go for his gun first—and I was most elated by such an unpredictability.

While a slew of criticisms are likely to label the picture as slow—which is not entirely without validity—some movies, like this one, demand that it be as slow as molasses. In my opinion, we are meant to be absorbed as fully as possible into this world. The more subsumed we are into its overall universe with respect to the varying perception of each character, the more we are able to recognize the criticism the writer-director wishes to make—sometimes inadvertently—about how we relate (or fail to relate) to one another today. Yes, it has something to do with race relations, too.

As I watched “The Hateful Eight,” filled with very strong performances particularly by Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, I felt as though I was watching a work of a filmmaker who is not afraid to achieve his vision. Anybody is entitled to have their opinion of the film, but one cannot take away the fact that Tarantino made and presented his work the way he intended it to be. Others should aspire to follow.

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Spy action-thriller nowadays default on looking gloomy and dark in order to be taken seriously. Who would have known that one that is bright, funny, and vivacious proves to be a breath of fresh air in a sub-genre that is increasingly becoming one-note?

“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, is a highly entertaining, creative, and good-looking picture that takes inspiration from early Bond films—eccentric villains included—and runs with it till the finish line. Couple such qualities with good performances and pacing that can keep up with The Flash, what results is a mindless good fun for those who are not easily offended and willing (or craving) to embrace the unexpected.

With Lancelot (Jack Davenport) dead after being cut in half, there is an open position in a top secret government intelligence agency. Arthur (Michael Caine), the leader, requires his fellow agents to recruit potential candidates who have the potential to replace Lancelot. Once gathered, a challenging and thorough training process will take place. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who feels indebted to a man who saved his life seventeen years prior, chooses a Royal Marines dropout named Eggsy (Taron Egerton)—the only son of that same man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and fellowmen.

Its level of violence is very high and so although at times it comes across light or high-spirited, somewhere along the veins of Robert Rodriguez’ “Spy Kids,” it is absolutely not for children. Having said that, the violence is never meant to be taken seriously or offensive—including the church massacre that a surprising number of viewers point out as unnecessary or just plain sick. I believe that it is meant to be over-the-top in order to demonstrate the evil that the villain is willing to execute. I found the scene to be well-choreographed, well-edited because we can actually observe the action unfold instead of attempting to make sense of random cuts, as well as exciting and amusing.

The villain, Valentine, is played by Samuel L. Jackson who sports a thick lisp and a strong dégoûté, ironically enough, for blood. His crazy plan involves saving the human race from extinction due to global warming. However, in order to save the species, he is willing to initiate a mass genocide. The details of his plan has to be seen to be believed. I have not seen a villain like this in years and he is a true throwback from classic Bond pictures. His lethal assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), reminded me of those kick-ass women from Quentin Taratino’s “Kill Bill.”

Egerton is a breakout star partly because of his performance but mostly because of his looks. I bought him completely in terms of playing a character who has been raised in a rough neighborhood, very tough and street-smart. The actor has the kind of face of a big movie star in the making. Given the right role in the right project, if it did not happen to be this one, his career, in my opinion, will skyrocket. Furthermore, anybody with an accent Egerton employs can come off rather threatening but the performer draws us in by maintaining a level of sensitivity or vulnerability even when he looks like he is ready to fight. That is key because it makes us root for him.

Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is the kind of movie I am happy to revisit once every year or two because of its infectious energy, willingness to be fun, and creativity. If a sequel were to happen, consider my seat booked.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

In my original review of Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” I asserted that the picture is nothing more than a movie that happens to have a superhero in it. The predecessor, though the action sequences are beautifully shot, is flat, boring at times, and has a villain with an endgame so confusing and paradoxical, the material never gets a real chance in engaging the viewers. The core is hollow.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the same writers as the original, feels and looks like a completely different movie. It has more inspiration, enthusiasm, well-timed comedic moments, and characters worth caring about. As a result, a highly entertaining and confident mainstream blockbuster is created and just about every scene gets it right.

Each time a vehicular chase is involved, one can always expect three elements: a ridiculous amount of wasted bullets, glass shattering in every direction, and, perhaps most importantly, an increasing level of suspense. If one comes to think of it, the approach is not dissimilar to the better installments of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Let us take the pivotal scene with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of an espionage agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., behind the wheel as an example. It is, in a way, inspired by horror greats: utilizing a simple thing as space to trigger our hearts to beat that much faster.

It begins with a glance at a man in a police car while at a stop light. Notice as the action unfolds, although the violence grows incendiary, accompanied by a boost decibels, there is increasingly less space for our eye-patched hero to wiggle through. Assuming that one has seen him in other Marvel installments, we already know how effective of a fighter he is when he is free to move around. But this time the conflict is fresh because not only is there no room for escape, no one is coming to help him. We believe that he is in genuine danger. We hold our breath as the intimidating masked man with a metallic arm gets ever closer.

The plot is technical and almost irrelevant but here it is: S.H.I.E.L.D., under the direction of a senior official named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is about ready to launch its latest creation called Project Insight. It involves three heavily weaponized helicarriers that, in theory, will protect seven billion people across the globe. They are so advanced that once they are in the air, they never have to land. By sharing a connection with satellites, these helicarriers will supposedly be an effective tool to terminate acts of terrorism before they even occur. Though a man born in the 1920s and later cryogenically frozen for about seventy years, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sees through the flaw in the project immediately. He claims what will be achieved is not true freedom but fear.

The final statement above hints at a more interesting Captain America. While I find his background to be sufficiently absorbing because he was so determined to become a soldier despite weighing only ninety-five pounds and standing at about five feet four inches, I have always found his reasons for wanting to become a soldier lacking special depth. He always wants to do the right thing—not like Iron Man, who can be a jerk sometimes, or The Hulk, who is almost always out of control. Here, the definition of the “right thing” is a muddled a little bit. And yet it is enjoyable that his character arc is not so obvious as to cause his change to come off as false. Thus, we look forward to the further changes in his reasons for fighting in the inevitable sequels.

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a superior follow-up in every single way. The action is more thrilling, the motivations of the villains make more sense (even though their identities are able to be seen from a mile away), and we learn something new about our heroes. It is—without a doubt—a step forward for both the “Captain America” franchise and the Marvel universe.

Django Unchained


Django Unchained (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist, approaches a group of slave traders and expresses his intention of possibly purchasing one of the chained men in line. Since he is greeted with animosity, what could have been a peaceful transaction turns deadly. But Dr. Schultz, a man of his word, does not neglect to pay the seller, on the ground and under excruciating pain for being shot in the leg, for the black man he just bought. Later, he tells Django (Jamie Foxx) that he is a bounty hunter. They make a deal: if Django helps Dr. Schultz track down three men, believed to be hiding in one of the plantations in the south, and help to kill them, Dr. Schultz will not only give Django his freedom, he will also earn twenty-five dollars for each corpse.

Perhaps the most notable quality of “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is its generosity when it comes to weaving subplots into its bones. This creates a narrative that inspires us to wonder how they will unspool and reconnect.

There are many elements in the screenplay that may be worth a second look in order to further appreciate its craft, like hybridizing the western and blaxploitation genres to create a farce out of the racism in mid-nineteenth century America, but what I am sure about is that the film would have been better if it had been shorter. This is because not all of the subplots unwind in consistently interesting or surprising ways. Most start off exciting but almost all eventually lose vigor. For instance, the scenes that comprise about half the picture often have one premise: the stupidity of a white person who ardently supports slavery. The scene with the Klu Klux Klan quickly comes to mind. Although the humor underneath the punches, some blood-soaked in irony, is present, I could not help but wonder when or if the material would change gears. I grew increasingly tired of the setup and as the film went on, some of the jokes that have been used are recycled.

I enjoyed that the dialogue is not as ostentatious as one would come to expect from Tarantino. Instead of the sentences demanding us to pay attention to a carefully chosen word and how it is used as, say, a double entendre, the actors’ performances outshine the script. If this had not been the case, the exchanges between Dr. Schultz and Django might not have communicated a friendship that we could believe and invest in despite the most unlikely circumstances that surround them. Times when the two main characters–a white man and a black man–are quiet or making a real connection by telling each other more about themselves are, surprisingly, the most memorable moments because the material taps into the simmering sadness and outrage of the scar that continues to define America.

The hyper-stylized violence also works but maybe not in a way one would come to expect. Sadly, a lot of people have the tendency to relate to violence on screen more than scenes of two people connecting to one another through simple conversations. The gun battles are dispersed and I think the writer-director is very smart to have employed such a technique to get people to care more deeply about what is happening. While I would have preferred that the violence be saved at end of the picture to serve as a catharsis, it is understandable why the bloodshed may feel to occur very randomly at times.

I did not find “Django Unchained” especially entertaining but I appreciated its visual artistry and carefully measured yet outwardly wild performances. Although it can be interpreted as a straight arrow revenge story, we can look at it another way and think about issues it wishes to address underneath the amalgamation of anachronisms.

Sydney


Sydney (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John (John C. Reilly) is sitting outside a diner with hands in his face when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) comes up to him and offers coffee. John accepts and we learn that the reason why he looks so hopeless is because he lost all his money. John’s good intentions impresses Sydney. That is, John had wanted to win enough money so he can give his mother a proper funeral. Sydney, a man of experience, decides to teach John some tricks in exploiting the casino’s loopholes.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Hard Eight” may be a small film but it is equipped with big guns: a confident, fast-paced, and focused direction; a wonderful ear for dialogue; and characters who continually reveal layers of personalities and histories.

I expected the film to be about John because he is the protégé as well as the first person the camera fixates on. It turns out that while he remains an important figure in the storyline, it is really more about Sydney and how much he grows to love John like flesh and blood. To complicate the plot, right after Sydney teaches John the first lesson in outsmarting the casinos, the picture jumps two years forward. Not only are John and Sydney slightly different from the time we meet them, there are two new characters: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), John’s sort-of girlfriend for two months, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), John’s friend that Sydney doesn’t particularly like.

We are expected to learn about the four and how their relationships change the dynamics of the situation. Hall delivers an incredible performance. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my grandpa: tough, suave, mostly quiet but very capable of warmth and support. Every time he is on screen, I was drawn to him and he doesn’t have to say a word.

There is a scene in a shabby hotel room where panic-stricken Reilly and Paltrow are on the foreground yet I kept noticing Hall on the background, just standing there, completely calm, while his face is drowned in shadows. In each scene, I felt him observing and thinking what he might do next. He never becomes predictable.

In most movies that aim to tackle special relationships between a parent and his or her non-biological child, there comes an obligatory scene where the former tells the latter, “I love you like you’re my own.” I almost always roll my eyes or end up stifling a snicker. It has turned so cheesy, so passé. But not here. I completely bought the set-up and delivery. During that scene, I relished every emotion on Sydney and John’s faces, held my breath at every pause, and found it hard to swallow because I was so moved. The moment is earned.

“Hard Eight,” also known as “Sydney,” is a gem and I’m astounded that it’s Anderson’s first feature film. By the end, it accomplishes two things. 1) It kept me interested in what would happen next. 2) Somehow, I couldn’t think of one thing I would change to make it better.

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.

Eve’s Bayou


Eve’s Bayou (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During one of the Batiste’s parties, the family led by Louis and Roz, Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, respectively, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) caught her father having sexual relations with another woman (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis was one of the most successful doctors in town so he was able to provide a good life for his family. To Eve’s surprise, it turned out that her mother, aunt (Debbi Morgan), and others in the community were fully aware of Louis’ infidelity. But what triggered Eve, according to her own words in the beginning of the picture, to kill her father just when her youngest sibling (Jake Smollett) was only nine years of age and her eldest sibling (Meagan Good) just turned fourteen? Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, “Eve’s Bayou” consisted of familiar story lines but it was elevated by complex characters covered in moral dilemmas. For instance, Eve, still a child, could easily have been driven by simple motivations. The first few scenes were almost predictable: Her mother seemed to prefer the company of her brother, while her father enjoyed dancing with her sister. Naturally, we would assume that Eve would reveal the secret she stumbled over, specifically, a secret she didn’t fully understand, out of bitterness because she would want to get back at someone and attention would be directed at her. But that didn’t happen. Instead of focusing on the main character’s immaturity, the material focused on how a child became less immature over time because something foreign was thrown on her lap. Seeing her father having sex with a familiar woman was not the issue of the story. It was what opened her eyes and allowed her to evaluate the world in a different way. As a result, the material felt fresh. It also felt exciting. Eve’s family and community believed in gifted individuals with the ability to look in the unseen. While it did provide some of the amusing scenarios, it didn’t make fun of people who believed in alternative explanations. The question was whether or not we believed but whether the characters would continue to believe or stop altogether. There was a thoughtful contrast between science (personified by the adulterous husband), supposedly something we could always trust, and faith (personified by the fortunetellers like the mysterious Elzora played by Diahann Carroll). Lastly, all of the actors were natural in their roles especially by Jackson. His character was a nice man but there were certain scenes when he would assert his gentleness to get exactly what he wanted. That calculating nature hinted at something darker within. “Eve’s Bayou” was a beautiful portrait of an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. Instead of going for the easy answers, it allowed us to look at its threads a little more closely.

The Other Guys


The Other Guys (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.