Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A group of aliens visited Earth to get some plant samples, but they were interrupted by humans whose mission was to record extra-terrestrial life. One alien failed to make it back to the ship. On the night Elliot (Henry Thomas) went to pick up pizza from the delivery man, he heard a noise in the shed. Elliot threw a ball inside. Something threw the ball back to him. Elliot was a lonely kid. He recognized the creature as harmless and they became friends. Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was a prime example of the power movies can have across generations. It appealed to children because the alien was cute and cuddly. The scenes of E.T. exploring the family’s home, held together by a recently divorced matriarch (Dee Wallace), was comic genius. Those of us whose parents allowed us to stay home alone could relate to E.T. as he explored the refrigerator and made a complete mess of the kitchen. Furthermore, no one could resist releasing burst of laughter when Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot’s precocious younger sister, dressed up E.T. as a girl. As for adults, it was a genuinely heartwarming film. The connection between Elliot and E.T. was fully explored so being emotionally invested was effortless. Symbolisms, notably the flower, were present but they were never manipulative nor did they take the focus away from the boy and his pet alien. But what I admired most, and the reason why Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, was in the way Spielberg carefully controlled his scenes. Notice when the family was having dinner and the conversation started in a light-hearted way. The topic was what they should be for Halloween. After several lines of funny dialogue, Elliot started to get annoyed by his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) because he insisted that what Elliot saw in the shed was just a goblin or a coyote. However, Elliot’s frustration was directed to the unsuspecting mother, the easier target, someone physically closest to him on the table. The painful subject of their father being with another woman in Mexico suddenly came up. The progression from funny to annoyance to hurt was masterful. We learned about the subtle intricacies of the characters by simply observing how they reacted to the flow of conversations. A similar technique was used toward the end, involving a freezer, but the emotions were entirely different: From sadness, surprise, to utter joy. I also admired the way the director ended the film as our protagonist looked into the sky full of hope, wonder, and maturity. Right when I yelled, “Cut!” in my head, the picture faded to black. An unparalled story about the universality of friendship, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” doesn’t seem to age. That’s because the lessons it had to impart about empathy, love, friendship, and family define us as a species.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Océans,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, explored the interplay between nature and mankind. This documentary caught me by surprise because I thought it was just going to be about the creatures that lived in the ocean. But it also turned out to be a commentary on how humans, despite living on Earth for a relatively short period of time, have negatively affected the ocean in shocking ways and the animals that depended on the ocean for survival. The movie showed absolutely breathtaking images of predator-prey relationship, notably when the birds would dive underwater at lightning speeds and try to capture fish. That particular scene was so intense, it was like watching an action movie only it was actually real and it happens every day. But my favorite scenes have got to be the ones shot in the ocean floor. I love those scenes because the strangest-looking creatures appeared on screen. There’s something about creatures that can expertly blend in their surroundings and make surprise attacks that have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of waiting for a kill (or the hunt), I’m not exactly sure, but I can watch those scenes for hours. However, my problem with “Océans” was its lack of focus. I felt like the movie jumped from one type of living thing to another without any smooth transition. It would have felt more organic if the first fifteen to twenty minutes were only dedicated to fish, hard shells the next, penguins the next and so on. The movie jumping from one group to another and then back took me out of the experience. Perhaps the directors decided to do it for people with short attention spans but it just doesn’t work for people like me who can pay attention to one element for about an hour (given that the material is interesting). Regardless, “Océans” is worth seeing for the stunning images and the emphasis on the world being bigger than us so we must take care of it the best we can. There was this brilliant line in the film that stated something like the humans’ indifference is utimately nature’s downfall. It certainly made me want to commit to recycling instead of only sticking to it only if I felt like it. This is also a good movie to show to children (especially those in elementary school) because it has a clear way of showing concepts like the aformentioned predator-prey relationships, symbiosis and pollution. Plus, it had really cute clips of sea lions that almost had human qualities in the way they nurtured or played with their young.
Under the Sea 3D (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m sure everyone had seen movies they wished would last for hours and hours. “Under the Sea 3D,” written and directed by Howard Hall, was one of them because of its great ability entertain and enlighten. In just a span of forty minutes, the deep sea documentary was able to capture lives of sea creatures ranging from small harmless fish, creepy sea snakes, turtles that love to feed on venomous jellyfish to rare sea dragons and cute sea lions in New Guinea, Indo-Pacific, Southern Australian waters. The movie was also able to comment on humans’ impact on the environment. However, it didn’t feel heavy-handed because the focus was really more on the animals and how they depended on their respective habitats (and vice-versa). What I liked best about this film was its ability to create suspense by creating danger for certain animals. For instance, in one scene the innocuous creature was the cute-looking one that you just want to pet but in a few minutes, it turned out being the predator with an amazing speed in terms of capturing and swallowing their prey whole. The film’s technique of turning our expectations upside down made the movie consistently interesting and engaging. It was unpredictable in the best way possible. I even caught myself thinking “What’s next?” with such enthusiasm. I felt like a little kid again who just had his first lesson in grade-school Biology. The living things under the sea were so magical-looking (to say the least), it sometimes reminded me of “Finding Nemo,” especially the coral reefs. I thought it was amazing how much the creatures relied on each other in order to survive. Concepts such as symbiosis, mutualism and commensalism were illustrated nicely, especially how one of the crabs used a jellyfish as “a hat” (as Jim Carrey, the narrator, puts it). Although they were quite simple concepts, the way they actually worked made me feel like everything had a purpose. “Under the Sea” was also one of those movies that made me feel humbled. I couldn’t believe some of the creatures existed even before the age of dinosaurs. Realizing their resilience and effective hunting techniques, it made me want to learn more about the different creatures–creatures that are thriving now and those that are not thriving now but might thrive in the future. I think this is a great film for kids because not only did it have bright colors and strange-looking animals, it was able to educate and inspire. I wish I saw it in the big screens (IMAX or 3D) because it was already stunning on television.