Million Dollar Baby (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, swore he would never train a girl. But after his main boxer left for a manager who could book him to have a shot at a title, Frankie just might change his mind. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s longtime friend and partner in running the gym, insisted that Frankie should take a second look at the determined Maggie (Hilary Swank). Despite his initial reluctance, Frankie decided to train her. In a way, he saw it as a chance to forgive himself for the decision he made many years ago that led to Scrap losing half his sight. Written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” was a moving story about people who used their body as instruments. I was impressed with its clear vision of what it wanted to tell us about each character and at what point they were in their lives. Maggie was a nobody, just a waitress who took home her customers’ uneaten food, but she turned into a rising star in a matter of months. She craved to be in the ring. She was proud of every beating–if her opponents were lucky enough to land a punch. On the other hand, Scrap had accepted that his turn in the ring was over. He felt the need to pass on his knowledge in regards to both the techniques in boxing and the business side of the dangerous career. Meanwhile, Frankie was somewhere in between. Not really knowing his place hardened him. He couldn’t quite let go of the mistakes he made and he was almost blind to how he made others’ lives better. Perhaps it had something to do with the daughter who wouldn’t communicate with him. The three were connected by their passion for the sport and their own definitions about what it meant to be a true fighter. The actors’ performances were equally strong which elevated an already sublime screenplay. Swank was a natural. I was astounded by her ability to make determination look glamorous and ugliness almost effortless. Freeman had quieter moments but he made each scene he was given memorable. I especially enjoyed the way he balanced his character’s playfulness and solemnity, never settling in being predictable. As for Eastwood, with that soft but ferocious growl, I believed his character’s life being all about boxing. However, one small problem I had with the film was its occasional use of music. I noticed it especially when the movie would cut to scenes of Maggie being a waitress. Cue the sad melody, a sign that we should feel sorry for her. I didn’t need the music for me to realize that she had to work extremely hard to scrape by. I could see it in her eyes and the way she held her pride when she felt like someone was doing her a favor. “Million Dollar Baby” was fearless in reaching into the souls of its characters. As a testament to the film’s power, we eventually find ourselves needing to reach for the box of tissues. Indeed, the events toward the end were sad but it was more than that. I think it’s a wise reminder that even the most ordinary can have the potential to have magic in them.
★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) had a dark ideation. Once a successful playwright but now struggling to keep up with his reputation due to his recent flops, he came across a manuscript written by one of his former students named Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve). Sidney invited unsuspecting Clifford to visit his home in order to offer some advice to make the play better, murder him, and pass Clifford’s work as his own. Sidney’s wife (Dyan Cannon) had heart problems in the past but she reluctantly went along with her husband’s devious plan. It took a bit of time for me to get into this film. At first I thought the plot didn’t quite know how to move forward. I also had some problems with its tone. Did it want to be funny or thrilling or both? I wondered, could it have its cake and eat it, too? I also found the acting a bit amateurish, especially Cannon. I was aware that the picture was based on a play written by Ira Levin but her acting felt stuck in that medium. I thought she was annoying, whiny and needy–a damsel-in-distress who stuck by her husband for no good reason. However, after about forty minutes, it gained its footing and the material showed me it had intelligence. Very unexpected twists upon twists were abound but what I liked best about it was it felt like a play but it gained enough power to work in a cinematic medium. The tension became so high to the point where the exaggerations almost felt necessary. Caine impressed me because I’m used to watching him play quieter characters that are almost grandfather-like and humble. It was a breath of fresh air to see him so bitter, so angry, so flawed. His character caught my attention because it was the kind of character that valued his reputation more than anything else. He talked of sociopaths which made me wonder if he was projecting his own characteristics onto someone else. Sidney Lumet, the director, astutely used mood as a weapon to surprise the audiences. At times watching the film was like reading a novel. Just when I thought the picture was over because the mood was reaching a serene plateau, it suddenly came to life and delivered shocking punches. In less experienced hands, it might have felt too contrived or forced. Lumet’s direction certainly helped the sudden shifts in mood to feel as natural as possible. “Deathtrap” did not start off with flying colors but it is difficult to deny that it was a sublime murder mystery once it found a connection with its core. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s slow but compelling thrillers should eat this one up like candy.
A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.
Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by the legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “Apocalypse Now Redux” added about fifteen minutes of footage to the original “Apocalypse Now” and improved its colors. Therefore, this review will cover both films. “Apocalypse Now” was about Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) and his assignment to kill the derranged Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Cambodia. In order to get there, Captain Willard and his team–consisted of Lance (Sam Bottoms), Chef (Frederic Forrest), Chief (Albert Hall), and Clean (Larry Fishburne)–must travel upriver and avoid multiple brushes with death. I’ve heard a lot about this film being one of the best war movies ever made, so I expected it to be an all-out action picture. However, I eventually realized that it was more astute and sublime than that; it actually bothered to comment on not only the horrors of war both in and out of the battlefield but also the politics from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, one of my favorite scenes was when the crew visited a French plantation led by Christian Marquand. The discussion they had on the dinner table was so passionate and nothing could waiver my attention on what was being said, how the words were being said, and the characters’ body language. That scene reminded me of one of my favorite films “The Dreamers,” when Theo and Matthew were arguing about Vietnam. Another thing I loved about this film was its ability to gradually change tones from beginning to end. At first, I thought pretty much every was clear-cut and everything made sense. Somewhere in the middle there were distractions/side-quests which mostly made sense but some I did not quite understand. But the ending was so mysterious (when the crew finally reached Brando’s domain), it left me scratching my head because I felt a mix of confusion and awe. Even though I did not fully grasp what was happening and why certain things were happening, I felt a sort of genius about the whole thing. Because sometimes horror and terror do not make sense. Lastly, it is also very difficult not to admire its timeless feel. Not even the more recent war films of today can match the look and style of this great accomplishment. I am not going to go as far as to say that I think this picture is a masterpiece. But perhaps after another viewing or two, I will get a better understanding about its rich surrealistic journey.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
It’s definitely refreshing to see Anne Hathaway play a sarcastic and narcissistic character because I’m so used to seeing her as sugary and sweet like in “The Princess Diaries,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Ella Enchanted.” Although she’s had her share of darker characters such as in “Havoc,” it’s in this film that she truly shines and showcases her potential as a serious actress capable of carrying roles that have a certain resonance. Although the backdrop of the film is Rosemarie Dewitt’s wedding (as Rachel), the film is really about Hathaway’s inner demons as she tries to recover from addiction to drugs (and negative self-talk regarding herself, the world and the future). I must give kudos to the director (Jonathan Demme) and the writer (Jenny Lumet) for their sublime way of telling the story and how certain characters would crash onto one another. Although the arguments between DeWitt and Hathaway are truly scathing, I still felt an undeniable love between them because of the things they’ve been through. Some of those things are explored in the picture in insightful and meaningful ways so the audiences truly get to appreciate the main characters. I loved Bill Irwin as the father who mediates between the two daughters. Even though he strives to play the middleman, after certain fights, it’s noticeable that it pains him to see his daughters fight. My main problem with the film is that it lost some of its momentum especially toward the last twenty minutes. The movie started off so strongly because we really get to experience Hathaway’s frustration, sarcasm and rage but I felt like those attributes were missing in the end. Yes, I get that Hathaway’s character wanted her sister to have a nice wedding so she tries to hold her smart remarks but I still wanted more. However, I believe this is a strong film because I felt like I was really there with the characters; from the rehearsals to the actual wedding, it made me miss my own family and relatives when we would gather and everyone would act crazy. In a way, I could relate to Hathaway’s character because I consider myself the black sheep in the family (minus the drugs). I also enjoyed the multicultural cast and the fact that the issue of race was not brought up. The main critique I’ve heard from audiences prior to watching this movie is the somewhat shaky camera. I thought it was utilized in a good way in here because it added to the sense of realism. Not everything has to be perfect especially in a film with a very flawed lead character who wants some sort of closure in order to be able to move on with her life.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.