The Debt (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
In 1965, three Mossad agents, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington), were assigned to abduct Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), also known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, and send the captive, with the help of other spies, to Israel to stand trial for his crimes. Vogel, although a certified doctor, was a proud member of the Nazi party. One of his sick experiments involved attempting to change children’s eye colors which inevitably blinded them. In 1997, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) stumbled upon critical information surrounding their last assignment and he felt it was his duty to inform his former partners. David (Ciarán Hinds) jumped in front of a truck. Rachel (Helen Mirren) stood trembling in her shoes. The information must not be made public. What really happened during their last mission? Directed by John Madden, “The Debt” contained a number of juicy secrets shared among the characters, whether it be about the kidnapping in East Berlin, how they felt toward one another as government agents as well as people who occupied one apartment for a considerable amount of time, and the great lengths they were willing to go for the minute details of past to remain comfortably in the shadows. Unfortunately, the writing and direction seemed largely disconnected. As a result, the picture felt and looked as if it was performing a juggling act and was rather inept at it. For example, when Mirren’s character was about to do something that could potentially change the game or reveal certain pieces of the puzzle that would make the lightbulbs in our heads to go off, I caught myself looking closely at the screen and getting excited for what was about to happen. But the film failed to deliver the promise by suddenly cutting to the past. I understood what the filmmakers were trying to do. After all, unfinished business was a recurring theme. Jumping between two vastly different times and places could have a big dramatic impact if the past was as interesting as what was about to happen in the present. But it wasn’t. I felt almost cheated that the tease led to a dead end–at least for the time being. The past involved a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of action. Though it was clear what the trio were trying to accomplish, and some of the scenes were quite well-done, especially the ones set in the doctor’s office, I was more interested in how the older Rachel and Stephan tried to extricate themselves away from the mess they created for themselves. The thing is, when we know we did something bad, we’re more concerned about the consequences than the actual bad thing we did. There’s something so primal about the fear of getting caught. That’s what “The Debt,” based on the screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, seemed to miss completely so the emotional peaks were seldom. Although the details of the “bad thing” needed to be addressed, the film should not have been mired in it.
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.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) lived in Hailsham, an English boarding school led by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), all their lives. The three children shared a strong bond. Kathy and Ruth’s beds were next to each other so they learned to become friends over the years. Smart and artistic Kathy began to have feelings for Tommy who was kind-hearted but often rejected by his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, was one of Tommy’s passive tormentors but she wanted to make Kathy jealous so she began to spend more time with the social outcast. Miss Lucy’s (Sally Hawkins) arrival in Hailsham made an important impact in the trio’s lives because she revealed their true purpose. Many reviews kept their readers blind about the dark secret involving the children. I don’t think it’s necessary because the children being clones and future organ donors was just the template of this morally and emotionally complex story which was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The core of the story was how Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively, in later years) dealt with the revelation that they weren’t going to live long lives or realize any of their long-term dreams. It made me question how I would start living if I’ve been told that I could be notified at any time that someone needed my organs and I could possibly die for someone I haven’t met. None of the three tried to run away after their discovery. I was curious why they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was a selfish thing to do. Having made aware that they were clones, they were always on the lookout for Possibles, their look-alikes, the models in which they shared 100% of their DNA. The material made powerful implications that genes had more impact than the environment from which one was raised. For instance, Kathy’s belief that she was modeled from a prostitute or a pornographic actress because she had strong urges to have sex even as a child. She tried to stop those urges which made her shut down other important aspects of herself like acting on her attraction toward Tommy. Another moving element in the picture was Tommy’s misplaced expectations about a possible deferral from organ donations given that a couple was able to prove their love for one another. His willingness to look into the impossible reminded me of David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s highly underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Both characters wanted to be with someone they loved so desperately. They wanted to live a meaningful life so badly, they were willing to turn to the fantastic. “Never Let Me Go,” adroitly directed by Mark Romanek, was a poignant film that wasn’t solely about the ethics of organ donations and the cruel destiny laid out for the characters. Personally, I thought it was more about the powerless making small but critical decisions with the cards that they were given. The odds were against them, comparable to why we often find ourselves rooting for the underdogs in competitions.
Death at a Funeral (2010)
★ / ★★★★
A dysfunctional family dispersed all over the country came together for a funeral. Secrets were revealed, drugs were accidentally taken, old flames encountered each other, a nude man decided to hang out on the roof and threaten suicide–but none of it was particularly funny because the movie was confined in going for the obvious laughs. Even worse, the picture was directed by Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”), so I expected a certain level of wit, intelligence and insight in terms of what it meant to mourn and how one’s opinion of somebody else would change when a critical piece of information was revealed. Instead, the movie focused on the surfaces of problems aided by weak acting by otherwise good actors. I did enjoy James Marsden as Zoe Saldana’s high-as-a-kite boyfriend who took some “vicodin” but I wish I could have known him more. I wanted to know how it was for him to constantly be rejected by her father because the father thought the boyfriend was not good enough for his daughter. Of course, there was the race issue which the film constantly brought up but it never tackled the subject with elegance or even an ounce of respect. Being a person of color, even I thought some of the things that were said or the way certain scenes were executed were borderline racist. It made me feel uneasy but I highly doubted it was on purpose as a LaBute project (more commonly) would like its audiences to feel. Chris Rock, as one of the deceased’s sons and arguably where the heart of the film should have been, played a blabbering fool and I did not feel any ounce of sadness because his father died. He let his rivalry with his successful brother (Martin Lawrence) get in the way of spending final moments with his father. In the end, I grew to dislike both of them because they so self-centered. If I had been in that funeral with them, I would have showed them a piece of my mind. I’m not saying that the film needed to be sad because we were at a funeral. My point is that it should have had a sense of balance between sensitivity and willingness to push the envelope. The characters were all the same when they should have been different from one another. Not everybody had to run around screaming or yelling. What about the silent man in the corner? “Death at a Funeral” is a remake but I’m not going to bother comparing this to the original because, as I’ve always said, each work has to stand on its own. This movie failed on multiple levels because it wasn’t willing to look inside itself. It had no idea between having a twisted sense of humor (which I love) and featuring idiocy from one scene to the next until the credits.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.
Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A Puerto Rican family gathers during the holidays and a lot of their secrets come pouring out at the dinner table. If this movie didn’t remind me of “The Family Stone” a little too much, I would’ve liked it a little more because I constantly found myself comparing the two. While “The Family Stone” had real dramatic weight to it, “Nothing Like the Holidays,” directed by Alfredo de Villa, only injected the drama just so that it would feel sad on the surface. Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña were having marriage problems, Freddy Rodríguez just arrived from Iraq and everyone thought we was some big war hero, John Leguizamo wanted to have kids with his wife (Debra Messing) but she considered her career as more important, and Roxanna Rodriguez was viewed by her family as a big Hollywood actress but she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was quite the opposite. I quickly grew tired of the big arguments and everyone being loud. At least when I’m with my family, although it may be loud and everything seems to be happening at the same time, things are interesting and we feel united. In this picture, we don’t get that certain feeling of warmth because their liking for each other doesn’t seem all that genuine. It’s as if the actors didn’t connect with one another or their characters; they’re just different people placed in a room and are forced to interact with each other. It was painful and awkward for me to watch. When the characters don’t have anything to say, the movie features a whole lot of dancing scenes as filler. I found myself constantly looking at the clock and asking myself when it was going to be over. The side journeys that each character took didn’t resonate so I felt like the lessons they learned were very contrived. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is definitely nothing like the holidays (my holidays anyway) because it lacked one of the most basic things: being fun. It suffered greatly because it was too formulaic. It actually didn’t need the sappy drama because the key lies in the human interactions and comedy that comes with the attractions and repulsions of each varying (sometimes histrionic) personalities.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot about Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a modern noir about a private detective (Jack Nicholson) who decided to investigate about water dealings in Los Angeles, only to discover later on that what he was onto was deeper than he could tread. I was impressed by this classic picture because even though it was set in the 1930s, there was something about it that was very aware of the noir films that came before. I thought that subtle self-awareness worked in its advantage because although it did follow some of the textbook rules of noir movies, it had the ability to flip some of those rules upside down and I was taken by surprise time and time again. I loved the acting especially by Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It’s an excellent collision of two great actors because Nicholson played a character who was always asking questions and snooping around no matter what the cost and Dunaway played a character who was a fortress. You never really know what she’s thinking or feeling because she’s so good at hiding certain bits of information that are crucial to her endgame. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to give away facts that could help Nicholson’s character but still keep her secrets. I also liked the recurring theme of a character thinking he or she knows everything but it turning out to be quite the opposite. In the hands of a less gifted director, I think the messages would have been obvious and less fun to think about. There were also certain metaphors in the film that I found to be fascinating. For instance, that scene between Dunaway and Nicholson regarding a flaw in the iris meant so much to me in ultimately determining whether I was in the right direction of guessing who was involved in what. And in this film, a whole array of things were happening all at once to the point where a less attentive viewer will almost certainly get lost in the maelstrom of intrigues, social commentaries and taboos. “Chinatown” was well ahead of its time because it was able to synthesize remnants of what made the noir films in the 1940s and 1950s so great yet still embrace the very modern moral and ethical conundrums that plagued the era of its release. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll love instead of like this movie. I recently found out that the more I think about certain movies and the more the events connect in my mind, the stronger my appreciation for them. Given the chance, I’ll be interested in watching “Chinatown’ again in the near future to see if its subtle ways had embedded themselves in my psyche. If it does, that is a sign of a great film.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.
sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed “sex, lies, and videotape,” written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, because it was able to deliver intimacy among characters that are extremely flawed and at times downright unlikable. Andie MacDowell (as the wife who is so uncomfortable about sex, she stops having sex with her husband), Peter Gallagher (as the husband who does not get any sex from his wife so he decides to get it from his wife’s sister), Laura San Giacomo (as the extroverted sister who is driven by jealousy to the point where she will get herself in situations that can potentially hurt her sister), and James Spader (as the husband’s college friend who videotapes women and their sexual secrets) all did an amazing job trying to measure each other up–what they know, what they don’t know and how they can untangle themselves from each other. This is a prime example of achieving a lot without a big budget. Instead of flashy special and visual effects, it focuses on the script and the role of psychology in these characters’ lives. The conversations felt real because what the characters say out loud are sometimes lies and we have to constantly figure out what they really mean by looking at their body languages. This film is not only about human relationships. It’s also about voyeurism, how one’s alienation with oneself can sometimes infect others, and how one can share more information when facing a camera instead of facing another individual. I think that’s very relevant today now that YouTube vlogging is such a phenomena. Some of the most popular YouTube bloggers are very soft-spoken in real life but when they get in front of the camera, it’s like they become a completely different person. This film reflected that and I was very, very impressed. This is the kind of picture that I wouldn’t mind watching multiple times because of the complex dynamics between the characters. It’s just that good and I highly recommend everyone to watch it especially those who are into character studies.
The Reader (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If Kate Winslet doesn’t get nominated and win two Oscars for her performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” I would be very disappointed with the Academy. Having seen pretty much all of the films that generated the most buzz in the Best Actress category, I can vouch that she’s the one who truly deserves it. In “The Reader,” Winslet shines as a woman who gets sexually entangled with a fifteen-year-old boy, played with such vulnerability and innocence by David Kross. Strangely enough, even though their relationship is taboo, I’m willing to admit that I did find chemistry between the two of them. In the first half of the picture, Stephen Daldry, the director, was smart enough to focus on the two leads’ hunger. That hunger is presented both emotionally and physically but never completely separate. Both of the characters intentions are never completely clear which makes the film that much more interesting. I was often questioning myself about who was really using the other. Just when I thought it was about to lose its focus, the second half was able to summon all of its power and give its audiences reasons why they should care for the Winslet and Kross (played by Ralph Fiennes as time went on). Even though the two are deeply flawed, we relate to them in many ways because they tend to choose the more difficult path in order to keep protecting their secrets. Such secrets may seem so simple at first glance but there’s a lot of shame in those secrets, especially those that belong to Winslet’s character. Some of the best scenes of “The Reader” are its silent moments when the images do not require an explanation. Having said all of that, I think this film would’ve been much stronger if the last thirty minutes were more fluid. I thought there were many “final” scenes where the film could’ve ended. The “choppiness” could’ve been taken care of with a little bit more time. I’m giving this a high recommendation for the reasons mentioned previously but especially for Winslet’s performance. But the real surprise for me was the newcomer Kross, who I hope to see more in the future. He’s so brave for deciding to star in a film of this caliber. He not only sheds his clothes but ultimately his soul–which is far more challenging for any actor his age.