Waking the Dead (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1972, Fielding (Billy Crudup), an ambitious aspiring politician from a working class background, met Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl who loved to spend her time working for the church and helping others in need. But in 1974, Sarah died in a car bombing while helping some Chilean activists enter the United States. Fast forward ten years when Fielding was running for office, Fielding became plagued with visions of Sarah. He began to question his sanity because he thought he saw her walking in the streets and even calling his house phone. I was torn whether or not to recommend this film. There was no doubt that I highly enjoyed it because the chemistry between Crudup and Connelly was one of the strongest I’ve experienced in a long time. When they had conversations, even though they didn’t always agree with each other’s approach to politics (politician versus activist, mainstream versus counterculture), it was apparent that they loved each other because they exuded a certain warmth and sometimes fiery passion in their eyes. When they made love, it was sexy and when they were away from one another, I looked forward to seeing them eventually taking up the same space. They were both smart, caring, had something to prove and I found bits of myself in both of them. Unfortunately, I had a problem with the way the story was put together. It wasn’t told in a linear order so it was up to us to put together the pieces, which I found to be a positive quality because it managed to challenged me. One of my favorite aspects of the picture was its uncertainty whether Sarah was alive all along or whether she was really dead and Fielding was experiencing some sort of guilt. In the end, there was no clear answer. Personally, I thought it was the latter because it was more grounded in reality but at the same time there’s enough mysticism to it to provide another dimension to the material. However, if it was the latter, I didn’t understand why Fielding felt so much guilt involving the death of his lover. Was it because he moved onto another girl (who he didn’t even love but it was more for a political strategy) years after Sarah’s death? If so, I didn’t think he should have felt guilty at all because everyone deserves to move on from a painful period of his or her life. I think the film could have done a better job showing and explaining to us why Fielding was so guilt-ridden. Since that crucial part was missing, it was very problematic because it was what drove the scenes in the 1980s forward. Based on a novel by Scott Spencer, “Waking the Dead,” directed by Keith Gordon, benefited from the strong and believable acting between the two leads. If it had clearer connection between past and present, I think it would have been unstoppable.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, “Rabbit Hole” was about a couple named Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) whose son had passed away eight months ago. The two had vastly different ways of coping which caused tension between them. Becca tried to get rid of their son’s belongings while Howie desperately tried to hang onto his son’s memory by watching a video on his cell phone. Further, Becca found comfort in reconnecting with the teenager (Miles Teller) who ran over their son and Howie found common ground with another woman (Sandra Oh) who lost her son eight years ago. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” was a gut-wrenching look at a couple about to pass a critical point in their grief which could go one of two ways. They could dissolve their marriage from a lack of communication or go through the notions together and find some closure. Many elements were thrown at them and we had a chance to observe their reactions. One of the key conflicts was Becca’s sister being pregnant. On the outside, Becca was seemingly supportive like when she brought over some clothes that used to belong to her son. However, there were times when her bitterness would show and snide remarks about how her sister’s future husband, a musician, might not be fit in being a father due to financial stability. Becca didn’t want to hurt others but she did small ways because she didn’t know how to deal with her anger and guilt. Mitchell took some risks that paid off. The general tone was depressing but there were some scenes that I thought were laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) talked about kicking someone out of her house. The sense of humor did not feel out of place or inappropriate because these characters deserved some happiness in their lives. More importantly, the rapid changes in tone felt right because when someone is dealing with a great loss, various emotions, empty they may be, are amplified, sometimes reaching certain extremes. The plot may be familiar but it still managed to surprise me with its insight. I loved the scene when Becca’s mother explained to her daughter that moving on from grief was like carrying a brick in one’s pocket. When a person finally moves on, she forgets that it’s there but there comes a time when she will reach into her pocket for whatever reason and she’s reminded that it’s there. Wiest did not have very many scenes but she made the best of what she was given. Even though her character remained on the sideline, I felt like she, too, had an important story to tell. “Rabbit Hole” was emotionally exhausting but a strong picture nonetheless. It showcased why Kidman is an actor who should not be forgotten. There’s a lot of shallow talk about her face and what she did to it. I don’t care about such sensationalisms as long as she continues to make moving films like this one. The rabbit hole could be interpreted as a metaphor for depression but let’s not forget that Alice woke up from her nightmare and moved on.
Crazy Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb and directed by Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart” told the story of a 57-year-old musician named Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) who traveled from one small town to another to perform songs that people loved back when he was in his prime. Completely trapped in the habit of smoking and alcohol, he slowly began to change his ways after meeting a charming music writer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son. Bad Blake also had to deal with stepping out of the shadow cast by an artist he used to mentor (Colin Farrell), reconnecting with his 28-year-old son and writing new songs so he could stop living from paycheck to paycheck. The thing I liked most about this movie was its simplicity even though it was a double-edged sword. Between scenes with other actors, we got to see Bridges perform with his guitar and bare his soul. While the songs were definitely easy to listen to (and I’m not much of a country fan), I felt that it was meaningful to Bridges’ character because he had a look in his eye that he actually lived through the events that he was singing about. So I thought Bridges did a great job serving as an intermediate between the songs and the character’s life experiences. However, I wished that the film had spent less time building on the romance between Bridges and Gyllenhaal because I felt as though the whole thing became redundant (and sometimes forced). I understood that Gyllenhaal’s character was the key to Bad Blake’s redemption into getting his life back on track but some of the courtship rituals, though it tried to be not as typical as Hollywood movies, still felt typical in an independent movie sort of way. Instead, I felt like the movie would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Bridges and Farrell because they shared a common history. It would have been nice if Farrell’s character had talked about how his mentor was like before becoming a faded musician. When those two interacted with each other, I felt real tension between them; I felt a strange mix of anger, jealousy and respect between the two which culminated when they shared the stage in front of 12,000 people. As I mentioned before, “Crazy Heart” is a simple film so it’s understandable why most people won’t initially recognize why it’s essentially a good film. Yes, it was sometimes predictable because we’ve all seen movies about washed-up musicians before. However, at least for me, with a movie like this, it’s all about the acting and I believe it ultimately all came together because I made a connection with the lead protagonist.
Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.
21 Grams (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
“21 Grams,” written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, tells the story of a dying patient (Sean Penn), a mother (Naomi Watts) and an ex-convict (Benicio Del Toro) and how their lives collided in one tragic afternoon. The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I wasn’t impressed. Seven years later, I decided to see it again because both critics and audiences liked it so maybe I just missed something. Unfortunately, I was right the first time. I’m not much of a fan of movies that try to tell their stories out of order unless they’re done extremely well because I think there’s just an innate narcissism in that technique. Instead of focusing on the story, the audiences become distracted and that’s exactly how I felt as I navigated my way through this picture. I was not convinced at all that the technique was necessary to enhance the experience because I’ve seen the same kind of plot time and again. However, even I have to admit that performances from the three leads were very strong. The actors were successful in implementing layers to their characters and it was great how sometimes their body languages were more expressive than the words they’ve spoken. I was particularly fascinated with Watt’s character: how she dealt with the loss of her family and how she almost regressed to the time in her life when the only way she knew how to cope was to drown herself in drugs and alcohol. I empathized with her character and I wanted her to overcome all the pain she had to bear. I also liked the look of the film because not only did it look like it could take place in the real world but the feeling it had highlighted the characters’ struggles. Their mental states reflected their surroundings such as a dingy hotel room, a house lacking in color, or an impersonal room in a hospital. I appreciated those details because I felt like the writer really put some thought into the material. Unfortunately, I just can’t recommend the film because it got too caught up in its own gimmick. Instead of really honing in on the themes and ironies of the picture, it was too focused on making the precise places where to cut to take us to a different scene and then coming back to it later when our feelings of anticipation have been somewhat diminished. If this had been told in a linear way, I think some of the clutter wouldn’t have been there. I also would have liked it if the film had tackled the issue of 21 grams a lot earlier instead of stapling it in the end. In fact, it almost felt as though it was footnote. “21 Grams” might impress people who haven’t seen a lot of movies like it, but I thought it was just mediocre despite the daring performances.