Tag: scarlett johansson

Jojo Rabbit


Jojo Rabbit (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to writer-director Taika Waititi to helm a daring comedy surrounding a ten-year-old boy who wishes so badly to become one of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers, he is beyond excited that the day has finally come for him to join the German Youngsters of the Hitler Youth. Jojo has got blind Nazism on the brain, his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (Waititi). The satire is sharp, biting, and extremely funny (some might claim insensitive or offensive). And yet—the picture is not simply a parade of amusing gags, which range from recurring visual cues to anachronistic songs or phrases. When it really counts, it takes a serious look at having to wrestle against one’s racism, prejudice, and brainwashing. Its satirical jabs command power, but it is also surprisingly emotionally intelligent.

Roman Griffin Davis plays the memorable titular character in a wonderful debut. He exudes charisma and heart; he commits in every dramatic and comic scene as if he’d appeared in an array of projects before. That confidence translates well when he is required to hold a scene against great performers like Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Jojo’s mother, and Sam Rockwell, as a Nazi captain in charge of the Hitler Youth Camp. This is not a role in which a young actor can rely on looking cute because the subject matter proves to grow more complex as the story moves forward. I hope that Davis would choose to play equally colorful personalities with substance in future roles.

Perhaps on purpose, the first third of the film does not prepare the viewers for what’s about to come. Waititi makes the Hitler Youth camp feel, look, and sound like summer camp—only the children are made to go through militaristic obstacle courses, are given pocket knives and handed hand grenades. These segments are filled to the brim with vivid and warm colors, particularly yellow and green, and there is an exciting, anything-can-happen attitude in the air. In every scene and in just about every other line of dialogue, there is either a sight gag or a joke thrown on our laps. A few people might consider the gags or jokes to be offensive—and that is what makes the work a good satire. It’s not safe.

Fast-paced with seemingly a plethora of ideas to spare, the work confidently moves toward a more solemn tone just about halfway through. Its point is to show that Jojo’s desire to belong in a white nationalist hate group and kill Jewish people has dire consequences. When they finally come around, it is a like a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. I admired that even though the work is a satire and its main character is a child, it remains willing to show the evils of the Nazis. The easier choice would have been to show the mother telling his son that being a Nazi is wrong. The writer-director is correct to choose the more cinematic choice: to show how and why fervent antisemitism is a moral corruption, a cancer.

Another strong aspect of “Jojo Rabbit” is the relationship between the boy and the Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic. Their connection is handled with subtlety and insight with an occasional dose of cuteness—never hammy or syrupy. Their friendship is never about romance but reaching a common understanding. In lesser hands, the two young characters would kiss and everything would have turned out all right. But in this film, war has costs. And some costs you can never take back.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

Avengers: Endgame


Avengers: Endgame (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

It requires a daring decision to surprise me when it comes to modern superhero films and, quite miraculously, “Avengers: Endgame” manages to do so about fifteen minutes in. It has been a while since a Marvel film left me wondering, “So then… what’s next?” and it is a most refreshing feeling, a promise, a question mark followed by an exclamation point, that there is plenty more to unbox considering its hefty running time of three hours. The well-paced and consistently entertaining direction by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo gives the impression that just about anything can or will happen given that the material at hand is meant to be a closing chapter to one of the most ambitious projects Hollywood has given moviegoers.

The expectation is enormous and the picture delivers for the most part. The action sequences are busy but always given context in addition to being well-choreographed and so those giving at least a modicum of attention would not be lost; the special and visual effects are first-rate—certainly ostentatious at times but not once do they come across as empty decorations; there are enough moments of silence and ponderation given the fact that the characters remain in mourning over their fallen comrades and loved ones after Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds in eliminating half of the universe’s population; and the direct and indirect nudges to Marvel films that came before are throughly entertaining—handled with creativity, humor, and a solid sense of foreboding.

And yet the picture is not without notable shortcomings. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes on a monumental task of putting together more than a decade’s worth of stories and creating an unforgettable, possibly instant-classic, culmination. While I admired that the goal is nothing short of magnificent, the work scrambles at times at trying to be everything at once.

Most noticeable is the humor, how it comes across as shoehorned—at times cringe-y—when events begin to feel a little grave. In previous films, the well-written and well-delivered comic lines succeed in alleviating tension. Occasionally, it works here. But not nearly all the time. I think the reason is because the heavy atmosphere of foreboding consistently points to the demise of characters we’ve learned to love. Laughter fizzles rather than helping to elevate excitement. In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been a more daring decision to minimize the humor that Marvel films thrive on. It absolutely would have been more challenging.

Considering the running time, it is curiosity that there isn’t more in-depth character development. Instead, we receive one too many scenes or shots of our heroes looking solemn or trading conciliatory handshakes. Sometimes there are close-ups of tears flowing down one’s cheeks. I found the melodrama to be unnecessary; a more elegant choice might been to trust the audience to grab onto the story and understand the gravity of the plot without such dramatic signposts.

The remaining tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, may have been worth exploring. Instead, the two leaders are given only about three to five minutes to sort out their personal issues. People forget that Evans and Downey Jr. are dramatic actors; they work best not when the charm is on but when it isn’t, when the material demands that they let go of their masculine chain mail and reveal their character foibles.

While the chosen strategy is understandable from a point of view of an action-centric story, an argument can be made that an amplified drama leads to stronger moments of catharsis. Here, catharsis often comes in the form of surprise deaths and teary reunions. I was not particularly moved by any of them—with one exception that comes late into the picture.

Ghost in the Shell


Ghost in the Shell (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” offers the kind of entertainment that one can dive in and out of while doing laundry or some other chore around the house. This is a testament to the lack of depth in the writing—problematic because the material brings up questions about what makes us human, what it means to be alive, what it means to have an identity of our own, what we are in charge of in an increasingly automated world.

These are philosophical questions and yet, for some bizarre reason, the writing avoids rumination, as if the persons who helmed the screenplay—Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger—were afraid of or did not know how to build intrigue. This is a picture more interested in external stimuli rather than what it could potentially make the audiences feel or think about long after the film is over.

Its special and visual effects look expensive, occasionally impressive but at times distracting. I enjoyed that every time a scene takes place outside, roads and skyscrapers are overcome by advertisements, overwhelming people to buy products or to upgrade themselves through “enhancements,” cosmetic surgeries, to become a better, stronger, faster, more intelligent version of themselves. In a way, this is a hyperbolic version of our society—which would have been an effective critique had the writing been more willing to delve into the rules and ethos of its universe.

Less effective are beautiful but boring action sequences. While it offers a certain moody look reminiscent of pictures like the classic but, in my eyes, overrated “Blade Runner,” the stylized shootouts and hand-to-hand combat do not come across gritty enough to be believable even within the context of a futuristic world where the line between man and machine is blurred. We are simply not immersed into the action. Rather, we stand right outside it as we struggle to feel for the characters, to care whether they lived or died, whether they walked away hurt or unscathed. For instance, certainly we are supposed to feel connected to Mira (Scarlett Johansson), a creation who has a brain of a human being but the body of a machine. And yet we do not until she begins to ask questions about who she is, where she came from, who she is working for.

The “ghost” in the title refers to the human soul, but there is nothing soulful about the film. Somewhat interesting is the friendship between Mira and Batou (Pilou Asbæk), both working for the government as anti-terrorist agents, but the screenplay actively avoids meaningful conversations that reveal about how they perceive and process the world, their goals as to how they could try to change it for the better. Isn’t a part of what makes us human the ability to relate with others in meaningful, messy, complicated ways?

“Ghost in the Shell” is a product of the desire to make a quick buck rather than to create a work that can potentially stand the test of time. A commonality among great science fiction pictures is that they strive to say something about the world of today and exploring that thesis like an excellent research paper. There is a balance between technical details and information that can be understood easily, a certain universal factor. Here, there is only pretty visuals and fast-paced action, pedestrian from flesh to wiring.

The Jungle Book


The Jungle Book (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days it is simply not enough to have beautiful images gracing the screen, especially when it comes to family-friendly films where every age must be engaged and entertained. “The Jungle Book,” directed by Jon Favreau, is able to translate a Disney animation classic, about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is raised in the jungle by wolves, into a live-action adventure that is full of thrills and wonderment. Favreau takes a beloved material that has been told a number of times before and breaths new life into it.

Although the majority of the animals are made using a computer, they are convincingly life-like. The details of their furs, ears, snouts, tails, and eyes are impressive; the longer one admires every feature, the more tactile they appear to be. But it doesn’t stop there. Look at how the filmmakers manage to capture the correct posture of the computer-animated animals when they rest, eat, and interact with one another. One gets the impression that great efforts were made to research actual animals in order to create a most convincing universe.

The film offers numerous memorable sequences, from Mowgli being mesmerized by a giant Indian python (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to heart-pounding chases involving a villainous Bengal tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) whose face is half-burnt. But one might argue that the best parts of the movie are times when nature is front and center. Two standouts include a terrifying mudslide as unsuspecting water buffaloes make their way on the side of a mountain and the other involves Mowgli’s attempt to kick down honeycombs hanging from a cliff as he is stung by bees.

These two scenes are vastly different yet somehow they fit perfectly in the film. For instance, the former is drenched in black and gray while the latter features kaleidoscopic hues. The mudslide scene reflects a struggle for survival, as signaled by rapid camera movements, while the honey gathering scene highlights a growing bond between a man-cub and a new friend (voiced by Bill Murray)—this time the camera still and overall tone playful. The balancing act is assured and professional. What keeps it all together is the consistent eye for detail.

Admittedly, it took me a good while to get used to the animals’ mouths moving when they speak. The mouth movements and voices are not distracting—in fact, all of the voice actors are well-chosen—but the partnership is, at first, unnatural. After about thirty minutes, however, the transition was complete and I was able to get into the reality that some of the animals were able to speak.

“The Jungle Book,” based on the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling and screenplay by Justin Marks, dazzles and delights the senses. It might have been improved if the subject of belongingness and home were explored more deeply and with more mature insight.

Under the Skin


Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.

Don Jon


Don Jon (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) claims to value only few things in life: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Though Jon is able to bed just about any woman he sets his eyes on, he remains convinced that porn is better than real sex. When he begins to date Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he is challenged to keep a distance between himself and pornography since she thinks the whole thing is sick and disgusting. This proves difficult not only because getting off at pornhub.com has become a part of his daily routine but it is also likely that he might have an addiction.

Comedic on the surface with a few layers of questions worth asking that envelop its dramatic core, “Don Jon,” written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a joy to watch even if the subject it tackles—addiction to pornography—is not always pretty. This is partly due to the charming performances by the leads, Levitt and Johansson, and how the screenplay allows the characters to become more than stereotypes. Don could have easily been some sort of meathead and Barbara being some blonde curvy bimbo.

The three relationships unfold: between Jon and Barbara, between Jon and an older woman (Julianne Moore) who catches our protagonist watching porn on his phone, and between Jon and his precious videos. Each his handled with intelligence and no one (or thing) is treated like a joke. Instead, the characters are allowed to be imperfect and messy. We even watch them being hypocrites once in a while. We judge them through what we value in terms of what we believe a healthy relationship should be like.

The weakest part of the picture involves Jon’s family mainly because they are one-dimensional, not at all matching the more subtle aspects of Jon’s life. The father (Tony Danza) is a typical tough guy who cannot seem to pry his eyes off the television, the mother (Glenne Headly) keeps asking when her son is finally going to get a girlfriend so she can have grandchildren, and the sister (Brie Larson) is always on her phone and does not say anything until the movie is almost over.

The whole sham of somebody not speaking until she has “words of wisdom” to impart annoyed me immensely. And when she does speak, she does not say anything profound. This surprised me because many reviews claim that it is one of the best scenes in the picture. I was far from impressed. I thought her “words of wisdom” is glaringly obvious within the first forty minutes. There is no punchline or real insight.

“Don Jon” is most entertaining when it shows believable characters, having us like them, and then discovering something about them that feels a little off. That is why the Swiffer pad scene, hair gel appraisal, and others like it—a normal activity followed by an unveiling of an ugly (or beautiful) trait—make an impact and create rippling effects that challenge (or strengthen) the foundation of a relationship.

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.

Her


Her (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Deciding to dive into a film with a premise that is potentially rife with unintentionally funny and embarrassingly awkward situations, given that the main character gets into a romantic relationship with his operating system, “Her” ends up being quite a delightful surprise. It is sweet, amusing and accessible, but it also has insights when it comes to the complexities of human connection—what seems so real and substantial one minute can feel so fleeting and imaginary in the blink of an eye.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man who remains to live in the shadows of his impending divorce. He has the papers but he refuses to sign and send them. To him, it is neither the right time nor does it feel right. When he purchases an operating system, who names itself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he is slowly pulled away from the shadows and learns to open up to someone new. That someone new just happens to be a machine. Is there something wrong with that?

Writer-director Spike Jonze creates a futuristic world that is a patchwork of past and future. The orange glow, a technique usually used to denote a past, gives the picture a dream-like, sunbaked atmosphere. On the other hand, the lifestyle of advanced technology and infrastructures of futuristic Los Angeles communicate otherwise. In that way, it is a science fiction film in concept but its essence is grounded in a sort of parallel reality. The images are easy on the eyes.

It is up to us to do the judging. Either one buys the romance or is repelled by it completely. After all, the central relationship is between man and machine. Samantha may sound just like a human being. She may claim to feel a spectrum of emotions like joy, love, jealousy, and hurt. She says she has needs and has dreams. But the fact is she is not a person and will never be a person. Is it all an illusion?

Jonze is a smart director—one who has consistently turned an original vision into reality—and so he anticipates and avoids the trappings of the romance genre. Casting Phoenix is an advantage because he can be unpredictable. Part of the excitement is wondering what he will do next—how his character will react to more familiar situations like a blind date or consoling a friend who is at the end of her wits (Amy Adams). From the moment Theodore activates the OS to the final shot of the L.A. skyline, Phoenix embodies a character that we want to see achieve some sort of happiness. Theodore may be a sad sack at times but, through his conversations with Samantha, we learn that he is aware of his limitations and that he can be impossible. Aren’t we all?

“Her” makes an interesting double feature with Steven Spielberg’s undervalued “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” about a robot in a body of a child who goes on a journey to meet The Blue Fairy so he can make a wish and be turned into a real, live boy—parallel to Samantha’s obsession with having a body. Though the scope and mood between the two are worlds apart, both pose similar questions about mankind’s relationship with machines and machines having human-like consciousness.

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.

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.

The Prestige


The Prestige (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man who is as narcissistic and self-centered as ever. This time around, he had to face-off with a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who was out for revenge for the wrongs done to his father and an American weapons expert (Sam Rockwell) who craved power in politics. Tony also has to deal with his health, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) being the new CEO of the company, a new sexy assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and Rhodey’s (Don Cheadle) need to deliver the Iron Man suit to his superiors. There was no doubt that “Iron Man 2” was bigger and grander than the original. However, I don’t believe it was one of those sequels that disappointed. What I loved about the first one was the fact that it was an origins story. The first hour bathed us in curiosity and the rest tried to explore the lead character’s depth (although we came to realize he didn’t have much depth at all–which I loved). In “Iron Man 2,” it was more about having fun with the main character and his big ego. I thought it was funny, exciting and I liked that it didn’t try to be darker or deeper than the original. In some ways, I had more fun with the sequel than its predecessor. I was also very into what was happening on screen because of the many hints of The Avengers slowly forming (make sure to stay until after the credits). The tone was different than other superhero films because it made me feel like the superhero that we were watching was not the only one in his universe. I also enjoyed Rourke as Whiplash. He wasn’t given much screen time but every time he was, he generated maximum impact. I thought he was menacing but at the same time I felt somewhat sorry for him. When I looked in his eyes, I saw pain and vulnerability trying to wrestle (pun intended) with anger and thirst for blood. One of this film’s drawbacks was it didn’t spend more time putting Rourke’s character on screen to add some sort of enigma and rivalry between him and Tony Stark. I absolutely loved the race track scene and when Stark visited Whiplash in jail. There was a certain crackle and pop between the two characters when they spoke to each other because Downey Jr. and Rourke knew how to play with certain subtleties in terms of intonations and body languages. Those scenes left me at awe and it’s unfortunate because small moments like the jail scene would probably be ignored since most scenes were loud and bright and glamorous. Bigger and louder isn’t necessarily a bad quality but as the “The Dark Knight” has proven, a nice balance between quiet moments and adrenaline rush makes a superior and ultimately unforgettable superhero film–not just a superhero film but a movie that has the power to stand alone in its own right. Directed by the very funny Jon Favreau, it was apparent that “Iron Man 2” had actors that had fun in their roles so I had fun with it as well. I loved that Favreau put himself in his own movie for kicks. I think most professional critics are wrong about this one because they claimed it was inferior to the first. But I’m saying see it and pretend as if it’s not a sequel. I have no doubt that you will recognize a really good movie in it.

Lost in Translation


Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.