All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A relatively simple retrieval turned excessively complicated when three IMF agents failed to realize that there was another group interested in acquiring the same documents they were after. One of them ended up dead (Josh Holloway) so it was up to the other two to rescue Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Berlin prison. While the prison break was successful, Hunt, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Jane (Paula Patton) were blamed for the bombing of The Kremlin which meant, in the least, a breach of international relations between Russia and the United States. As a result, the president issued Ghost Protocol: a disavowal of all IMF agents and their activities, which implied they were now rogue agents and, if captured, to be treated as terrorists. It was up to Hunt and company to exonerate the IMF from unjust blame and to prevent the real terrorists from starting a nuclear war. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, was the expected fast-paced and globe-trotting action-adventure escapism with a myriad of twists to spare, proof that the franchise is worth continuing given that it has a strong script and is led by a director with a keen eye for detail and a solid grasp between thrill and suspense. Excellence was prevalent in the first hour and a half. The scene inside the Kremlin where serious Hunt and hilarious Benji had to set up an optical illusion in the hallway using advanced gadgetry, making them invisible to the guard as they broke into a vault, was genius. The scene was done without any dialogue and almost no sound but it garnered so much nerve-wracking tension, a beep on the computer or a silent opening of a door felt as threatening as watching someone put a gun on another person’s head, pulling the trigger, but no bullet comes out. Just a deafening click. Another scene I found myself very engaged in was when Ethan chased a terrorist through a sandstorm in the magnificently urban Dubai. Talk about using the environment as an inspiration for an action sequence. It was a typical cat-and-mouse chase but, like the first scene, made exponentially complicated when sand and wind were raging all over the streets which made our protagonist blind to potential threats like cars swooshing by. However, the film wasn’t without important missing pieces. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know more about the villains. Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), a diamond collector, killed Jane’s partner in the field. While it was very exciting to watch them duke it out in a posh Dubai–and extremely, vomit-inducingly high–hotel room, if we had known Sabine’s background a bit more, either she was painted as more ruthless and cunning or, more interestingly, slightly more sympathetic, then it just wouldn’t be about Jane wanting revenge for someone she lost which, by the way, grew tired as the movie went on. Sentimentality was not this installment’s forté. I was more interested in the relationship between Hunt and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst bearing a heavy personal secret, who may or may not be a double agent. Furthermore, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), the leading terrorist, ultimately felt like a henchman. It was odd that didn’t we get to see Hendricks and Hunt speak to each other. Not one word. Regardless, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird, had enough highs that gave me chills with how good it was. And guess what? It made me laugh, too.
The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
Wait Until Dark (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wait Until Dark,” directed by Terence Young, immediately established how venomous Roat (Alan Arkin) could be. He was a calculating man. He liked to be assured that he already won the game before even sitting down. He lured two criminals (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) in a blind woman’s apartment and framed them as the murderers of a woman (Samantha Jones) who used an unsuspecting doll as a mule to carry heroin from Canada to the United States. But nobody could find the doll. It was of great interest to Roat so he brilliantly set up several intertwining situations and disguises in order to trick Susy (Audrey Hepburn), the blind woman, to reveal the doll’s whereabouts. In truth, Susy had no idea where the doll was or why it was so important. The picture had a wonderful script driven by memorable performances. Hepburn was sublime as a woman who was still learning how to cope with blindness after her accident a year ago. Although she doubted that she could ever be fully independent, her husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) pushed her to learn to look after herself. My eyes was drawn to her as she effortlessly switched from being fun and flirtatious to attempting to hide the fact that she had stumbled upon new information critical to her survival. She had the responsibility of carrying the film as she adapted slightly different temperaments with the many disguised characters who entered her apartment. She had to become more than a vulnerable blind girl surrounded by crooks, slowly learning that maybe her initial doubts of not being able to function on her own was just a sign of a bad attitude. Arkin was also wonderful as Roat. He injected a healthy dose of darkness to his character. He wore sunglasses indoors and walked around as if he was better than everybody. When Roat and Susy were inevitably the last two standing in the apartment, it was incredibly suspenseful because the position of power constantly shifted. Young’s carefully measured direction came into play when the screen would momentarily turn to black because the only source of light was a match. It was a perfect example of not seeing something being equally scary as seeing everything. There were also some scenes of comedy. A little girl named Gloria, Susy and her husband’s upstairs neighbor, was an important key in the puzzle. Despite the real danger that surrounded the building, Gloria thought it was fun and exciting that suspicious men were entering and leaving Susy’s apartment. She was just glad to be a part of it because Susy assigned her small missions like buying groceries and giving Susy signals using the telephone. “Wait Until Dark” delivered every level of suspense. I will never see a refrigerator the same way.
Eden Lake (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by James Watkins, Steven (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) decided to retreat to the country for a weekend of relaxation. Steven chose the place because his last visit gave him fond memories of stunning landscape and invaluable peace. But nothing was like as he remembered it. There were now gates that surrounded the area to keep people away and sociopathic teenagers scoured the vicinity. When the hoodlums, led by Brett (Jack O’Connell), stole the couple’s car, a prank turned toward a deadly route. “Eden Lake” drained every bit of energy I had because I was so desperate for the couple to escape and find their way home. Although the picture was realistic in terms of its violence, it did not glorify it. We were meant to be sickened by the teenagers’ increasingly bad decisions and maddened by the fact that none of them voiced out that what they were doing was immoral. When some of them decided to stand up to Brett, they quivered and their resistance didn’t last for long. Although a one-dimensional character, O’Connell did a wonderful job in portraying a very troubled individual. Rash and incredibly ruthless, we rooted for the moments where he made mistakes and wished that one of his errors would lead to his downfall. We didn’t need to know his life at home or if he was bulled in the past. What mattered was the decisions he made that changed the lives of those around him. It was compelling because not only was the kids’ and the couple’s situation scary, it was also very sad. Jenny, a nursery school teacher, was essentially put into a situation where she had to reevaluate her connection with the young. We left to wonder what we would do if we were in the same situation. Personally, if someone is trying to kill me, good luck to them because gender and age become irrelevant. However, there were some pieces that bothered me. For instance, when Steven, prior to being captured, told Jenny to ask for help: What did she decide to do? She hid in the bushes, slept it off, and didn’t even look for help until morning arrived. In a life or death situation, I am convinced that no one will be able to sleep. It may be dark and the person may be tired but if I was in her shoes, I would have ran until I saw civilization. Even then I wouldn’t trust the people who decided to help because the kids had to live somewhere nearby. Despite the material’s occasional lack of common sense, I enjoyed it because it was successful in generating tension and holding onto it until the payoff. “Eden Lake” knew the difference between suspense and thrill. It was suspenseful when we were left squirming in our seats and wondering if our protagonists were going to get caught. It was thrilling when Character A was running from Character B and the latter knew exactly which direction the former was heading. The best scenes were the ones where I felt chill running up and down my spine.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first five minutes of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” written and directed by J Blakeson, observed from a distance how two men prepared to kidnap an unsuspecting Alice (Gemma Arterton). I immediately thought there was something strange with how the kidnappers paid particular attention in preparing the woman’s bed. Did they want her to feel comfortable so they would feel less guilt? Did they personally know her? Were they doing it for the money or was it simply to hurt someone who was close to her? Vic (Eddie Marsan) was the more methodical of the two criminals. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve them. Danny (Martin Compston), on the other hand, seemed to follow orders without question. What I found most impressive about the film was I didn’t care much about Alice (or whether she would make it out alive) yet I was always fascinated with what was happening. For me, the driving force of the picture was Danny and Vic’s complicated and volatile relationship. When Danny’s loyalty began to stray, there was an unrelenting tension because we knew that Vic was very intelligent and much more dangerous. Vic was huge in stature, had a booming voice, and his calculating nature made him a predator. Danny was a bit lanky, inclined to whisper, and his transparent lies made me wince. He was under Vic’s control and I desperately wanted him to untangle himself. But how could he when he was stuck in the apartment as much as the victim? In a way, he was also a prisoner. There were a handful of twists that I didn’t see coming. However, the twists didn’t feel at all gimmicky. Since Vic and Danny had to be secretive while performing their job, keeping quiet as often as possible, I was able to learn a lot about them with the way they responded to situations that weren’t in their favor. Just when I thought they would react one way, they took a different route and surprised me. I wished that Alice was more likable because I wanted to root for all of them. When I’m torn in several directions, I find myself that much more emotionally involved. Instead, I thought she was devoid of charm, whiny, and spoiled. She needed to be more resourceful in her attempt to wriggle herself out of the two crooks’ plan. The majority of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” took place in an apartment, but it was as suspenseful as globetrotting adventures of the same breed because of the constantly evolving power play between the three characters. Unlike most movies about kidnapping, the film didn’t rely on the question of whether or not Alice would make it out alive. It challenged itself by observing who could handle the most pressure when the situation arrived at a tipping point.
★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Denzel Washington), a train engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a rookie train conductor, attempted to stop a runaway train of increasing speed and containing toxic chemicals before it reached a curve in the tracks and killed thousands of lives. A corporate employee (Rosario Dawson) guided them from behind-the-scenes, completely neglecting her boss’ orders of choosing to protect stocks instead of lives. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Mark Bomback, what I liked most about “Unstoppable” was it didn’t pretend to be philosophical or allegorical. It wasn’t even a satire of the media considering FOX News, an easy and deserving target, was covering the whole ordeal. It was simply about a train that was out of control and if the characters didn’t stop it, people would die. Naturally, there were clichés such as Will’s struggle at home involving his wife and not being able to be with his son and Frank missing his daughter’s oh-so-important birthday party. It was obvious the script wanted to infuse some heart in the two main characters so we would care about them when their lives would eventually be in danger. With their acts of heroism, despite their imperfections, we all knew both of them would be forgiven in the end. There was nothing new because its only aim was to entertain. On that level, I thought it was successful. I enjoyed the scenes when the train would collide onto cars and other trains, the cops’ ridiculous attempt of shooting at a target that would supposedly slow the train down but the target was right next to tank full of very combustable gas, and when the train would go slightly off-track as it leaned on one side over another. I caught myself trying to steer the train in the correct direction with my mind so I knew I was involved with all of the insanity. I did wish, however, that Scott wouldn’t have been so transparent with his camera work. He took the obvious path of making an action picture too many times to the point where I wondered if he would (or could) change up his technique. Shaking the camera, blurrying the scene, and increasing the volume of the score is a familiar action picture formula. It would have been nice if the director tried to surprise us my suspending our expectations in the air. For instance, an occasional use of silence or perhaps slow motion during the most critical times could have helped to build some level of suspense. Sometimes taking a risk, whether the outcome be success or failure, might go a long way. It’s better than being one-note and driving some audiences dizzy from all the movements. Still, “Unstoppable” was thrilling, sometimes amusing, and had energy to spare. Sometimes that’s all we need.
The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.
Jackie Brown (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) was a flight attendant caught by two detectives (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) when she tried to smuggle money into the country. However, she was not arrested because they knew that she worked for an arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and they wanted him more than they wanted her. Realizing that she nothing else to lose considering her age and her prior conviction, she constructed a plan that might lead to her freedom from the police and her cruel boss. “Jackie Brown,” adapted from the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard, was an intelligent film which was highly unpredictable because of its constantly scheming characters. I admired the way Quentin Tarantino put his stamp on the project in terms of building tension and delivering truly rewarding pay-offs. Despite the violence and rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, it was ultimately a human story. I loved the way it took moments of silences and allowed us to guess what the characters were thinking and the manner in which they strategically reevaluated their priorities. With these specific characters, as sad as it was accept, sometimes money was more valuable to them than their lives. Tarantino juggled the characters with elegance. He was smart enough to make a film that was longer than two-and-half hours but not wasting a single minute. I thought it was pleasure to watch because I learned something new about each character in each scene. The most complex of them, except for the lead, was Max Cherry (Robert Forster). He was the most difficult for me to read and I did not find out until the very end what his real intentions were toward Jackie. Was he just pretending to be a friend because he wanted the money for himself or did he genuinely care about the woman he bailed out of jail? And even if it was the former, I can understand why he might choose to do it because I saw him as this lonely person who, despite the thousands of people he bailed out of jail, no one really cared for. He was a person defined by his occupation and not those who loved him for just who he was. “Jackie Brown” is one of Tarantino’s lesser-known works but I think it is one of his best. I loved that the picture was uncompromising, suspenseful, and surprisingly warm in the smallest dosage. I was engaged throughout its running time because in Tarantino’s world, the heroes (or anti-heroes) do not necessarily have to survive. And I was desperate to see the brave Jackie Brown make it through the tricky spider webs she weaved for herself.
The Art of the Steal (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Art of the Steal,” directed by Don Argott, focused on the struggle between what Dr. Albert C. Barnes indicated on his will regarding what would happen to his post-impressionist paintings that are currently worth over $25 billion and the Republican WASPs that controlled the city of Philadelphia. Many people, on either side, can bring up arguments about why we should or should not keep the highly valuable paintings in Dr. Barnes’ school located in the Philadelphia suburbs. But to me, the reason why the paintings should be kept at his property is as clear as day: it was stated in his will exactly what he wanted and it is unethical and immoral to not respect the person who earned the money and collected the paintings that everyone once thought were worth nothing. I loved the way the documentary was organized. Since I did not know much abour Dr. Barnes and his foundation, I was glad that the first fifteen minutes clearly explained who he was and his accomplishments. I thought it was fascinating and inspiring that Dr. Barnes came from a poor family but he put himself through school by taking jobs such as boxing. And even though he became rich due to certain medical breakthroughs he discovered, he welcomed the poor and the working class to view the paintings he collected. There was a certain poetry in the way the film eventually tackled the reason why Dr. Barnes learned to despise the rich republicans and key figures that led to the downfall of the Barnes Foundation. “The Art of the Steal” is a classic David vs. Goliath case only Goliath won in this story. By end of the movie, I did not quite know how to feel. On one hand, I thought it was empowering how Dr. Barnes was able to keep his art for so many years from money-craving individuals. On the other hand, it saddens me that people are willing to throw their morals and ethics out the window for money. The film could have been stronger if those that wanted to move the paintings to the city, even if they did not have big names, agreed to be interviewed. It would have been nice to hear their point of views and perhaps their insight could have added another layer of complexity to the issue. Ultimately, “The Art of the Steal” is a suspenseful documentary and it opened my eyes about philanthropic organizations and museums. I may not be an art connoisseur but I have a very good handle on what is right and what is wrong.
★★★ / ★★★★
In this documentary by Jeffrey Blitz, eight kids (Harry Altman, Ted Brigham, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Angela Arenivar, Emily Stagg, Ashley White, April DeGideo) competed in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and one of them turned out to be the winner. I love that this film took about five minutes or so to show us the various backgrounds of the kids: their ethnicities, neighborhoods and social class. By showing their home life, the audiences came to understand what was at stake and what a win would mean for the kids, their parents and their respective communities. Although the contenstants all wanted to win, it was interesting to me how each of them had a different level of confidence coming into the competition. In fact, some of them went into the competition so convinced that they were not going to win. And I loved the girl who bluntly said that she didn’t care much about spelling bees–she just did it because she wanted to compete. Even though this was documentary, I found it to be very suspenseful. I have to admit that I did have a fascination with words in early high school and I was often complimented by teachers when I used big words. (I try not to do that anymore because I think it’s somewhat pretentious.) Some of the words, toward the earlier rounds, I knew exactly how to spell and I knew what they meant. However, on the second day of the competition, I struggled along with the contestants to spell out the words (those tricky French words… and I know a little bit of French!). Guessing who was going to be victorious was half the fun. I’m a competitive person and watching people compete just ignites that fire inside me and I can’t help but be absolutely enthralled. (Perhaps that’s why I love watching reality shows that centers on competition.) I also liked the fact that the film commented on how the American society is driven by competition and not so much in other nations. I think it says a lot about why we think the way we think and why we respond the way we do when our expectations don’t coincide with actuality. Other commentaries also included the idea that America is the land of opportunity. Some of the contestants were first generation immigrants so I could immediately relate to them. I thought this movie really captured that drive to want to succeed for the sacrifices our parents have made for us. Most people would probably say, “It’s just a spelling bee. Who cares?” But it’s not about spelling–it’s about accomplishing something not many people get to achieve.
The Pianist (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.