Tag: steven spielberg

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t take much brain power to imagine Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” stripped off its sense of wonder because the product is “The Lost World,” a sequel so constantly on autopilot that not even one of the best characters in the predecessor, chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), is able to outshine its generic screenplay and execution. Notice that when the noise and movement die down and characters are required to speak and connect with one another, boredom numbs the mind. At least it is proud to be a mindless monster movie, I guess.

If one signed up for action, the picture does not disappoint—to a degree. There are two highlights. The first is the Tyrannosaurus rex attack of a trailer that contains an infant T. rex. Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), a behavioral paleontologist who just so happens to be Dr. Malcolm’s girlfriend, intends to treat the infant’s broken leg. For some reason, it does not occur to her, despite being a professional who studies behavior, that the animal wailing about may attract its parents. Two angry T. rex attacking a trailer, the shelter of those whom the dinosaurs believe to have kidnapped their offspring, is worthy of the attacks found in first film. There is a defined setup, special and visual effects are employed to service and enhance the storytelling, and it forces viewers to undergo a rollercoaster of emotions. Just when you think it is over, it is far from it. I always love it when a character falls on glass… and then it starts to crack. Cue instructions being yelled at the screen.

Another terrific scene involves a desperate sprint through a field of long grass… which is also a Velociraptor nest. It works because this sequence is not always in-your-face violence and horror. Because it is near impossible to see what’s around the characters, it is more suspenseful compared to the garden variety shocks. I enjoyed how at times all that is required to show is a long, muscular tail grabbing its prey. Whack! Accompanying screams for help and squelching noises are enough to paint a vivid picture in minds. This sequel needed more of this.

There are some concepts worthy of exploration in “The Lost World” which is based on the novel by Michael Crichton and written for the screen by David Koepp. A few examples: how large, private companies exercise their power—even going as far as to squash the reputation of dissenters—to ensure prevention of a single cent being taken off their profits; how we, as a species, sometimes tend to exercise cruelty and dominion over creatures that we fear or do not yet understand; and how we can set aside our differences to attain a common goal.

The last bit is especially critical to dig into because there are two groups that have been sent to Isla Sorna: Dr. Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) team composed of our protagonists who respect nature (Goldblum, Moore, Vince Vaughn, Richard Schiff) and InGen’s team, a bioengineering company formerly led by Dr. Hammond and has since been under the leadership of Dr. Hammond’s nephew, Ludlow (Arliss Howard), made up of men with big guns and latest technology. For some reason, the work fails to mine the drama between these factions. When they finally cross paths, their differences are dropped at a… drop of a hat and they travel together with minimal tension. The stench of laziness emanating from the screenplay cannot be ignored.

This is a shame because one of the members of the InGen team is worthy of getting to know. Roland, played by Pete Postlethwaite, is a hunter who chose to be there not for the money or fame but for the thrill of hunting the apex predator. Postlethwaite injects the character with enigma, charm, and specific perspective of seeing the world. His Roland is no ordinary stern villain. Observing the way he approaches problems, he is pragmatic, methodical, extremely focused. Roland could have been a terrific foil for Dr. Malcolm. And yet the material simply brushes aside this potential source of conflict. Yes, for another tired chase scene.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” is one of the movies that inspired me to become a scientist. Most viewers tend to remember the picture for its more overt images: A Tyrannosaurus rex swallowing a goat whole, a herd of Gallimimus creating a stampede as one of them becomes prey, a Velociraptor learning how to open doors. But I remember it most for its informative and entertaining presentation—using animation—of how businessman John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and his scientific team manage to clone creatures from Jurassic and Cretaceous periods: extracting DNA from fossilized mosquitoes coupled with the staggering power of genetic manipulation. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, who co-writes with David Koepp, the film continues to stand the test of time because it is first and foremost about ideas. It just so happens to work in synergy among elements of high octane summer blockbuster entertainment.

Notice how the first half focuses on enveloping us with a sense of wonder rather than flooding our eyes with one-dimensional thrills, like chases or gore. When we see a dinosaur, yes, they are visually spectacular, but look at how the camera tends to fixate on the faces of our characters. No words are exchanged among them. Instead, we attempt to read what they are thinking and feeling by looking into their eyes. The experience of seeing live Brachiosaurus must mean differently for paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), even though they work together in the same archeological dig site, because we have met them earlier and got a sense of what’s important to them: as individuals, as a couple, and as scientists who must learn how to adapt to and utilize technology to further their careers. The screenplay is wonderfully efficient: it assumes we are intelligent and more than capable of wanting to get to know the colorful personalities on offer.

Speaking of personality, aside from Dr. Grant, chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is also invited by Hammond to take a tour of Isla Nublar. By the end of the tour, the businessman hopes to get their approval so the park can finally be open to the public. Naturally, things go horribly awry. In a sea of curious characters, with two adorable and energetic kids among them (Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello), Goldblum’s Malcolm manages to stand out in two ways: the character’s memorable lines which reflect what the audience might be thinking in terms of the danger of wanting to control what cannot be controlled (life, essentially) and the performer’s unpredictable (and joyous) line deliveries. Goldblum’s performance is as big as the dinosaurs. And he has the star presence to match.

The CGI dinosaurs are terrific for its time. Couple showing them in their natural habitats—walking in herds, eating leaves off trees, drinking from a lake—alongside John Williams’ musical score, the whole enchilada is magic. But I prose an alternative: the animatronic dinosaurs are more impressive and have aged better than the CGI dinosaurs. The sick Triceratops quickly comes to mind. One of the most unforgettable scenes involves Dr. Grant leaning his entire body against the Triceratops’ abdominal area as the creature breathes in and out. Who doesn’t want to do exactly that when coming across a massive and gentle dinosaur? Another: Dr. Sattler putting her whole arm in a pile of excrement in order to determine what, if any, the Triceratops has eaten that made it so ill. I wanted to put my arm in there, too. It made me imagine how it must be like to be that close to a hill of feces: the stench, the warmth, living things that may be feasting in there.

“Jurassic Park” is a movie remembered fondly for its action sequences—which are well-made and executed well, often propelled by a high level of craft and bravado. But it is also a movie that inspires us to consider what’s not on the screen. You are looking at the screen, but images and sounds emanating from it are so powerful, so inviting, we imagine being on that island and yearning to experience a once in a lifetime opportunity. It is for children, for the elderly, and everyone in between. Spielberg is able to tap on human curiosity through the guise of popcorn entertainment. Isn’t that one of the reasons why movies are made?


Jaws (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Many of today’s horror movies, especially those with bloated budgets, have proven one too many times that there is nothing particularly scary about people being killed on screen. They may be gruesome, ugly, bloody, or especially violent—perhaps all of the above—but real scares, those that crawl their way into the mind and attach themselves there, are often confused with evanescent jolts or shocks. They can learn a thing or ten from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” based upon Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel (who also penned the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), not because it is the granddaddy of summer blockbusters nor due to its reputation as being one of the all-time scariest movies. The reason is far simpler: It is pure craft from top to bottom.

When we finally lay our eyes on that great white shark, we do not see a mechanical, malfunction-prone prop. We see a living, breathing, eating machine—teeth the size of shot glasses—a real threat to those living and vacationing on Amity Island during the Fourth of July weekend. On the surface, the shark “appears” (we do not actually see its full body until late in the picture) every fifteen to twenty minutes to eat—or try to eat—people. But really look at what’s happening. These suspenseful and thrilling expository sequences are designed so that Spielberg can feed us information about the twenty-five foot, three ton creature.

For instance, the first scene involving a teenage girl who goes skinny dipping at night tells us the creature’s level of stealth. Although it is quiet out there in the ocean—minimal wind, no boat or planes passing by, and the girl herself isn’t even madly splashing about—she is not able to detect the shark coming… until its jaws are latched onto her leg and she is being dragged to and fro. Another example: the scene involving two fishermen at the jetty who think they can catch the shark nilly-willy. This sequence is meant to show the shark’s sheer power. I can go on. Later, we are forced to appreciate the shark’s intelligence. Then much later, its tricky instinct. We learn why it is an apex predator. Then it gets real scary: The second half combines all of its traits (supported by John Williams’ unforgettable score), and we watch spellbound.

There is another monster in the film—human greed. Despite pieces of human body parts being washed ashore, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) insists that the beaches remain open. He pretends to care about the local business owners and yet he is often surrounded by men in suits, men in power, men who have a stake on the local economy, perhaps men also elected in local office. Our hero is Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a recent transplant from New York City who wishes to do the right thing for his new community. Not only does he need to face bureaucracy, he must also wrestle against ignorance.

Scheider is wonderful in the role. His interpretation of Brody reeks of goodness at first glance, and he is a good person, but the character’s more complex layers are revealed during quiet moments with his family (sometimes with a drink in hand), when he listens closely to the expert opinion of enthusiastic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss—terrific), when he looks at the cantankerous shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw—a scene-stealer) and try to make sense why the man in front of him is the way he is. This trio of vastly different personalities and temperaments is great entertainment—take away the shark and there is comedy a-brewing.

“Jaws” is the kind of work that one can visit every year and it never gets old. It is timeless precisely because it gets the island setting right, from the streets where vehicles are mere inches from one another… yet there remains a positive feeling in the air, inside establishments where people can be heard talking over one another (notice how some lines of dialogue do not have anything to do with the plot), down to how it is really like simply sunbathing at the beach—the gleeful screaming of children, adults gossiping and cackling, sloshing of the water, revving of motorboats, when the wind picks up just a little. “Jaws” is entertainment of the highest order not just because elements that make up a genre movie are present; it actively works to transport us into a time and place as if we live there.

Minority Report

Minority Report (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The mission: Find the Minority Report—a vision of a possible future crime, namely murder, from one of the three psychics, called PreCogs, that differs from the other two—and extract it from the mind of its source. Since this report casts doubt on the process, this is proof that the concept behind the 2054 experiment called PreCrime—arresting a person, or persons, before a murder is committed—is flawed and therefore not yet appropriate to be adapted as a nationwide program. This is the plot of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” based on the 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, a vision of the future so fully realized that it takes the viewer through a fascinating story of morality, dangers of technology, and human error. It is a science-fiction film for the ages, certainly one of Spielberg’s best.

Yet underneath its intelligent ideas, thrilling chase sequences, and eye-catching visual touches somehow both passing as modern and futuristic, it is about a man who remains in grief, in depression, due to the sudden disappearance of his young son six years ago—now presumed to be dead. We go through this compelling journey and realize that the film is about second chances—the very thing that those people arrested for pre-murder are never given, all because of the assumption that PreCogs are never wrong. That is, until this man in grief, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), who lost his identity as a father and as a husband, is deemed guilty of PreCrime—that soon he will shoot a person dead, one he hasn’t even met.

Clearly, the picture is capable of delivering thrilling sequences of action—which is different from action sequences although it does that well, too. (The opening scene involving the cheating spouse, the “Spyders” on the hunt, and the mall with the balloons are expertly paced and edited.) Notice that before John goes on the run, the screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen ensures we know every relevant detail as to why the protagonist must do what he does.

Since we have a complete picture of what is at stake for the main character, he running for his life—his own friends and colleagues against him—is all the more suspenseful. If he gets caught, we know precisely what will happen him because we have witnessed an arrest and seen what happens to the convicts’ bodies. Thus, emphasis is not on what will happen to the character from the perspective of punishment. Instead, importance is placed on the big picture: if PreCrime became a national program, imagine the numerous factors that could go awry, the number of men and women to be wrongly convicted.

The picture is filled with to the brim with inviting performances, from Cruise who is required to juggle being a tough leader, a desperate runaway, and a vulnerable man who lost those most important to him; Samantha Morton as the most gifted PreCog with a tragic backstory; Colin Farrell as the clever and punctilious DOJ agent whose role is to audit the PreCrime program; Max von Sydow as the father of the program and a sort of father figure to John; and last but certainly not least Lois Smith as the mother of the program but has since lived in isolation because her project turned into something that we feel deep down is morally reprehensible to her. Smith gets one scene—a key one—yet it is the most memorable of the bunch because she utilizes every pause and modulate every line of dialogue to her advantage. I craved to know more about her character, particularly her time as a geneticist and her relationship with the PreCogs.

Tightly-written and beautifully photographed, “Minority Report” is a modern classic. It clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours and yet it moves like a gust of wind because the filmmakers are in complete control of the storytelling machine: a traditional three story arc from Point A to Point Z in a way that is direct with a few surprises along the way.

One of the surprises is its sense of humor. Watch closely when we are shown people simply living in this version of a future and how they adapt to technology, for instance. Look at the advertisements. Observe the freeway scene where cars go up, down, and sideways; are they traveling on a road or on the side of buildings?—it is like a statement on what action films have become… or will become. Hopefully not the latter; the future is not set in stone.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Underneath the superficial layer of impressive visual effects lies a movie with great potential to hone in on our relationship with escapism, sometimes in the form nostalgia, in “Ready Player One,” a busy and noisy picture that functions both as a love letter and a criticism of video game culture. While its main goal is to entertain by parading pop culture references from the 1970s to the 2010s, it is actually most effective when these elements are brushed to the side as the film gets a chance to explore its specific universe where virtual reality has taken over nearly everyone’s lives to the point where an imaginary world of avatars is chosen over actual life with flawed but real people.

Director Steven Spielberg is no stranger as a storyteller when it comes to underlining our connection with technology. As he did in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report,” superior works compared to this film, he touches upon our responsibility in ensuring that the tech we create does not overshadow our humanity. However, this theme is not ironed out through the scope of our protagonist’s journey in attempting to win complete ownership of the OASIS, an extremely profitable virtual reality world where people, many of them low-income, go to become and do anything they wish. Their only limit is their imagination.

Tye Sherdian plays our hero named Wade Watts and he lives in a place called “the stacks” in Columbus, Ohio 2045, a slum-like location where trailers are literally stacked on top of one another. While Sheridan is competent in portraying a character who is suddenly thrown in an epic battle against corporate greed (Ben Mendelsohn), he is ineffective during dramatic moments where, for example, he must connect in a romantic way with another character (Olivia Cooke). His facial expressions do not change much throughout the course of the film.

But the picture looks beautiful. I argue that the scenes that take place in the real world are more eye-catching than those set in virtual reality. To me, there is a tactile griminess in the overpopulation of this world; people look dejected, angry, without hope. Look at the crowd’s postures, whether walking about or sitting down, how nearly lifeless, wan, and hungry they look. They rarely smile; no laughter is heard in the various outside communities we visit, not even inside the corporate building where management rule with an iron hand. The potent images of its real world draw us in because they show a possible eventuality for us.

Sure, the CGI in the virtual world looks amazing. Who doesn’t wish to see the DeLorean smash against other generic cars in a high-stakes race, to marvel at the sheer size of the lovable Iron Giant, to be terrified by the seemingly indestructible Mechagodzilla, and wish that there was a Gundam standalone movie in the works? But they are not critical to the enrichment of the picture compared to the aforementioned elements of convincing world-building. In other words, they are stunning decorations. And I think these throwbacks spent so much time being front and center that the film’s running time had ballooned unnecessarily.

Still, there are moments when references are utilized to progress the plot. I will refrain from specifics, but the best example, I think, takes place inside a classic horror movie. My mouth was agape when Wade and his friends (Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) set foot inside this incredibly memorable place filled with nightmares. The first shot of this place is exactly the way it should be. Spielberg is smart enough to take a few seconds of pause so that those of us familiar with the work have time to be thoroughly impressed. And I was.

Based on Ernest Cline’s novel, “Ready Player One” is not about winning trials in order to acquire keys that will lead to a participant claiming ownership of the OASIS. It is about the importance of human connection. Its overall message is apparent way before the halfway point. It left me scratching my head then as to why Spielberg felt the need to return consistently to the less interesting virtual world. And because it attempts to juggle both worlds where stakes in each one were treated with equal importance, there is a disconnect between central character relationships like the budding affection between Wade and Samantha. There should be romance there, just like there should be romance between the picture and the audience. Alas, there is only impersonation.

The Post

The Post (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Impeccably acted and executed with a high level of verve common to memorable historical dramas, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” on the surface, is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents that spans three decades with regards to the United States’ role in Vietnam, the resulting quicksand war, including the government’s lies and manipulation of the American people, but look a little more carefully and realize it is an exploration of the role The Washington Post, under the leadership of publisher Kay Graham, in continuing to inform Americans of the contents within the aforementioned classified documents after The New York Times was stopped by the Nixon administration from reporting any further about the leaks.

Meryl Streep plays the publisher who, over time, becomes willing to risk her company, fortune, and reputation for the sake of truth. Graham’s evolution from a woman who holds a title but not the respect that should come with it to a strong leader who leaves the room in silence once her decision is made is consistently intriguing. The veteran director ensures that the requisite rollercoaster ride of emotions that come with such a journey are not only present but that the viewers are thoroughly engaged with every turn of events.

The power of Spielberg’s control and Streep’s range, from behind and in front of the camera, respectively, are in perfect unison during an early scene where Graham is in a meeting with bankers and members of the company’s board—all of whom are white male. Questions demand the publisher’s input at times but these are always directed to the spectacled man next to her. For emphasis, Spielberg never places the camera from Graham’s side of the long table. As the subject struggles to speak up and realizes that her presence is merely a formality, decoration, the camera patiently inches toward Streep’s face for a detailed close-up. Although Streep’s face begins to dominate the screen, she is able to make us feel how small, how humiliated, Graham must feel at that moment.

Equally intriguing, in content and tone, is how the source of the leak (Matthew Ryhs) is tracked down by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), one of the journalists for the Post. Despite a high-stakes situation, the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer establishes contrast by providing just enough room for light humor. Odenkirk does plenty with the limitations of the way the character is written. (Most of the time he is talking to someone on an office telephone or a payphone.) It helps that the performer looks like a convincing experienced journalist who is desperate to get to the contractor who acquired the highly controversial documents. I wished the character had more detail to him.

The narrative drive behind “The Post” is appealing because the story is supported by a natural ebb and flow of white-knuckle suspense and light amusement, spearheaded by leads who deliver top-notch performances. And yet not once do we forget that the themes it explores are serious and timely. It is a great reminder that we, as Americans, tend to take the First Amendment for granted.


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.


Lincoln (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is up for a second term as the president of the United States and he is determined to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, designed to ban slavery across the country, by the end of January 1865. Although it had been passed by the Senate on April 1864, the House of Representatives is an entirely new arena: twenty more votes from the democratic side are required to pass the amendment. With the American Civil War in its fourth year and everyone is growing weary, Lincoln believes it is of utmost importance, morally and politically, to douse slavery and its possible reemergence once and for all before the war comes to a close.

As someone who does not know much about Lincoln other than the fact that he had managed to abolish slavery prior to his assassination, I found “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, as an educational and moving portrait of a leader who has, in a theory, a lot of power but at the same time almost enslaved to it because his ambitions are not often in tune with a public that is either not ready for or not willing to face radical changes.

Choosing to focus on a specific time frame of Lincoln’s legacy is smart because it gives us ample time to get to know the man on a more personal angle. While we are given several chances to observe how he interacts with those closest to him professionally, fellow republicans, and democrats, it is interesting that much importance is placed on his internal personal struggles to make slavery illegal. This is when Day-Lewis’ sublime performance comes into play. Yes, he looks very eerily like the Lincoln we see in photographs but without the specific knowing and sparkle in his eyes, most of us might find it difficult to believe his character for wanting to push for the change that he thinks the country needs in order to move forward or at least be better than it was prior to the hundreds of thousands lives lost in the Civil War.

As a side note, this may sound strange because we often yearn for the opposite but because Day-Lewis’ performance feels so complete, I found myself wanting to see a glimpse of the actor playing Lincoln. Eventually, I felt like I was able to but it required considerable effort and patience. When the actor is quiet, it is like staring down a sphinx. And most of the time Lincoln keeps his feelings to himself. But when he shows the anger and frustration of his character, those very discerning can recognize the man behind the performance. I wish I can tell you why my gut needed a reminder that I was watching an actor playing Lincoln. Perhaps it is an uncommonly traversed avenue to connect with the material on a deeper level.

The look of the picture is also impressive. I like to look at faces, especially in profile, and so I could not help but notice the way light is utilized to create an additional angle on a face or shadow to reflect fears or doubts during one-on-one conversations. A similar observation can be applied when the camera pulls away from the faces. Since most of the deliberations occur indoors, when there is a special point to be made, most of the light is focused on the center of the room. And yet at the same time, the dark sides and corners of the room draw us in. It is a fascinating way to tie in to the picture’s overarching theme. A room can be interpreted as a reflection of the nation’s attitudes toward putting slavery to death. Although most of those under bright lights are informed and ready for change, there are those who remain in the dark, some will do anything to resist being in that light. Imagine if the rooms had been completely lit. The mystery painted on the people’s faces and the tension in the room might have been absent altogether.

“Lincoln,” based on the screenplay by Tony Kushner, is also peppered with memorable performances by Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife still in a state of grief over their son’s passing due to typhus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son who wishes to leave school and enlist in the army, and David Strathairn as the Secretary of State. Because the film is able to function as a character study, Lincoln the storyteller being the most revealing and entertaining, as well as detailing a specific time in history, it overcomes our awareness that the Thirteenth Amendment will inevitably pass.


Amistad (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and other African slaves, taken from their land, kill their Spanish captors while the ship, La Amistad, is on its way to Northeast America. The slaves are eventually captured and find themselves in trial for murder. Meanwhile, Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) attempt to search for the right lawyer for the case in order to gain the Africans’ freedom. Enter Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), aware that winning is close to zilch if he approaches the case from a typical angle, wishes to argue that the men are “stolen goods” and therefore bound by specific rules already set by the courts.

“Amistad,” written by David Franzoni and directed by Steven Spielberg, thrives on stunning visuals and attention-grabbing performances. The first scene shows how the slaves take control of the ship. While the action occurs in the dark but there is something beautiful, almost poetic, about the way the darkness complements the mutiny and murder.

The recurring theme that the slaves are treated essentially animals makes a powerful statement. For instance, the way a man holds a chair like a lion tamer because he is afraid of being attacked by a colored man, the manner in which kids poke at the chained Africans with sticks as if they were street dogs, and the lack of scenes in which the prosecution attempt to communicate, even through gestures given the language barrier, with the men and women on trial. The aforementioned images are important because they communicate to us that people with dark skin are less than the white man. These images are found either on the side or in the background so it never feels as though Spielberg is hammering us over the head in order to get his point across.

The courtroom scenes are shot with an orange-yellow glow. The color palate remains hopeful despite the fact that gaining the Africans’ freedom is a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle. We all know what will eventually happen because the Supreme Court’s decision has a direct connection to the American Civil War, but my attention is piqued nonetheless.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance as former President John Quincy Adams is sublime. His ten-minute speech toward the end touched me personally. It made me want to learn more about American history especially in terms of what our founding fathers went through in order to establish the building blocks of this country. Hopkins, despite looking like his character is about to fall over every time he takes a step forward, manages to highlight Adams’ strengths: the cunningness of a fox and the heart of a lion.

However, I wasn’t convinced that “Amistad” has reached its full potential. While it is moving and the case is revolutionary, for a film with a running time of about two hours and thirty minutes, it should have had more complexity. We spend most of the time with the defense but barely any time with the prosecution (the lawyer played by Pete Postlethwaite). At most, we see the latter looking shocked or angry or confused. Their emotional outbursts might have been more interesting if the audience is provided some more in-depth background information on how they approach the case. But perhaps its one-sidedness is on purpose, like image of the Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin), a child, jumping up and down her bed instead of governing her country.

War Horse

War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.

The Goonies

The Goonies (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

In Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” a group of kids found a map containing the location of a pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) had a week before their family were forced to move because their parents could no longer afford their home. But when Data (Jonathan Ke Quan), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) agreed with Mikey to search for the mythical treasure for one last adventure, they stumbled upon the hiding place of three Italian criminals (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, Robert David) on the run from the cops. Their hiding place contained a secret passageway that led to an underground cave that housed the legendary pirate ship. “The Goonies” would appeal to kids because they would most likely be able relate to the characters’ silliness and quirkiness, the soundtrack was energetic, and it played upon the universal idea of children’s penchant for treasure hunting. Despite being a kid at heart, I wasn’t that entertained. There were far too many people in the cave. The two girls, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), were completely unnecessary. The romance between Andy and Brand dragged the picture’s momentum. How could we root for their romance if they weren’t fully realized characters? The fact that the picture kept suggesting that there could be something between Andy, around sixteen years old, and Mikey, who was still in elementary school, was more awkward than funny, creepy than cute. I felt like the girls in the movie were added simply to appeal to the same sex. I wish they made their exit when they stumbled upon a well where three guys above could have taken them home. I grew tired of their whining. I enjoyed the film most when the guys accidentally triggered booby traps. It was like watching a light version of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” exciting but we never truly felt that the characters were in any real danger. We were simply curious to see how the protagonists would adapt to the quickly changing environment. I did wish, however, that the criminals were more dangerous. Most of the time, they acted more like cartoon characters. I didn’t buy for one second that they were smart enough to pull off breaking someone out of jail as they did in the first scene. “The Goonies” wasn’t rich with subtlety. The child actors’ lines often felt forced and it was obvious when some of their lines were dubbed. They probably ran out of takes. Still, the movie was entertaining and charming in its own way. Based on Spielberg’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how sharper and stronger it might have been under his direction.

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), a journalist with an appetite for adventure, recently purchased a model of The Unicorn, an ill-destined 17th century ship built during the reign of Charles II, for a meager price. It was believed to have been carrying a secret cargo when the ship, led by Sir Francis Haddock, was ambushed by greedy pirates. Unaware that there was a scroll hidden in its mast, Tintin left the model unattended and was purloined by the henchmen of Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a mysterious gentleman convinced that the piece of paper held a clue to the location of great treasures. Based on the comic books by Hergé, the film embraced a high-octane energy similar to the “Indiana Jones” series. The way one action sequence led up to another, guided by John Williams’ uplifting and suspenseful score, felt natural and I was impressed to have been lured each time. I was particularly drawn to the Wire Fox Terrier, Tintin’s best companion named Snowy, and the way the camera glided with him when he was compelled to rescue his master from dangerous situations. The comedy entered the equation when, like most dogs, Snowy was tempted by food instead of focusing on the mission at hand. The style of animation was quite astonishing. Battles occurred on land, air, and sea and each offered something unique relative to the challenges presented depending on the environment, our protagonists’ level of fatigue, and the bad guys’ aptitude for violence. Moreover, it was surprisingly confident in presenting certain realities. At one point, a man who knocked on Tintin’s door to warn him of the danger he was about to be thrusted into was bombarded by about a dozen bullets. For an animated film targeted for kids, I felt somewhat uneasy when it showed the man’s ravaged body hitting the floor, leaving clues using his blood, and gasping for his last breath. I admired that the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish made room for some darkness. It elevated the material from what could have been a silly treasure hunt to something with history and gravity. But unlike the “Indiana Jones” series, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, did not have great emotional payoffs. While there were emotional peaks like when Tintin and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the last descendant of The Unicorn’s captain, struggled to find a way to survive a plane crash, the treasure was exactly as we envisioned. It was too literal and bereft of implications, uncharacteristic of Spielberg’s work. I wanted to be more surprised about the content of the treasure and what it meant not only to acquire it but to keep it. Perchance there was a reason why it remained hidden for so long. After it was revealed, I didn’t feel as though evading bullets, being lost at sea, and almost getting decapitated was worth it. The final scene “The Adventures of Tintin” left more to be desired in a negative way. The journey didn’t feel complete due to a lack of closure. I felt as though the screenwriters wanted to end the story, but they couldn’t find a way to capture the essence in turning the last page of a great adventure.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.