Planet of the Apes (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four astronauts were sent to outer space to explore what was out there in the universe. They left their family and their very lives behind in hopes of furthering humans’ knowledge about the unknown. But when their ship crash landed on an unknown planet, only three made it out alive. One of them was Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) who held a pessimistic, or realistic, depending on how one saw humanity, view on other people. Perhaps he would begin to appreciate humans more because it turned out that the planet was ruled by apes. Humans were treated like animals, hunted, and exterminated. When caught, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an ape but an animal psychologist, found Taylor fascinating because he was able to write and talk, qualities no human on their planet possessed. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, when the apes started to speak in English, I admit that I laughed. The possibility that the English language transgressed lightyears worth of distance was amusing and downright silly. But it was supposed to be campy yet it had its own rules with much bigger roles later on. What made my eyes transfixed on the screen were its big ideas. Watching it was like looking at a mirror on how humans treated animals for the sake of scientific experiments. The subject of science, led by Dr. Zira and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), her husband-to-be, versus religion, led by Dr. Zaius, who’s position in the hierarchical ape society, ironically enough, was the Minister of Science, was explored and developed in a mature and often insightful way. Initially, I believed Dr. Zaius was just a villain, a big, hairy block that hindered in the way of progress for the sake of protecting what was written on the sacred texts he so deeply coveted. But when his motivations we fleshed out, I began to sympathize with him. The picture showed that he was not incapable of showing humanity. When the big revelation at the very end arrived, I didn’t feel cheated. In fact, I felt as though it answered many of my questions in one giant sweep. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, “Planet of the Apes” was surprisingly effective. The cinematography always changed. We started in the ship where it looked futuristic. It felt cold and safe. Fifteen minutes in, we were left to marvel at the barren desert where the astronauts saw that the only sign of life was a dried up plant. The characters looked so small and exposed to attack. When Taylor was captured, the look and feeling was a combination of both. I was convinced that the filmmakers had control over their project. Most importantly, they had a specific vision they wanted to convey and the motifs they implemented were multidimensional. A film that forces us to think outside of ourselves yet allows us to go back in our minds and reevaluate is, in my opinion, a quintessential science fiction story.
Shutter Island (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the ominous trailer for “Shutter Island” for the first time back in early to mid 2009, I immediately knew I had to see it. But even I have to admit that I lost a little bit of confidence in the movie because its release kept getting pushed back. Usually, that is a sign that the studios are not very confident about the project so they pick a month where there is not a lot of competition. Well, I should have followed my original instincts because the legendary Martin Scorcese (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “GoodFellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets”) delivered yet again. Leonardo DiCaprio stars Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), was assigned to investigate an island which harbored a sinister mental hospital because a patient recently escaped from the facility. The two head doctors (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow) seemed to be compliant initially but the lead character knew that they were hiding something terrible and it had something to do with maltreatment of the mental patients.
Since I have seen most of Scorcese’s pictures, I knew that this was not going to be a typical mystery-thriller. Right from the get-go, Scorcese established one of his themes. That is, DiCaprio’s fear of the water (perhaps a symbolism for life or rebirth) while he and his partner were on a boat on the way to the mysterious island. On the boat, Teddy stated that his family was gone and what killed his wife (Michelle Williams) and child was the smoke and not the fire. I thought that was a particularly important line because there was a lot of smoke–deception–happening in this film but it is not the kind of deception that cheats because in the end it offers us a logical explanation–the fire–yet at the same time it is ultimately up to us to determine what is real and what isn’t. In other words, Scorcese successfully blurred the line between fantasy and actuality, which could have been a total mess if the material had been steered by a less capable director. One of the many things I loved about this film was its confidence in switching back and forth among the present (the investigation), the past (Teddy’s traumatizing experiences in World War II) and the fantasy (having visions and dreams of his family). The quick cuts to horrific images (which sometimes lingered both on screen and in our minds) and the menacing mental facility reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining.” And like that particular film, I think “Shutter Island” can be a difficult to swallow in one sitting because there was a plethora of information presented to us often in one scene. The twists within a twist were fun but they can get confusing if one tries to analyze every single detail in order to find that “one” flaw. But I think that’s the beauty of this film: it is about a man who is in place where the fractured mind is king and none of it has to make sense (but it does and that’s why I’m very impressed).
I also admired the supporting actors such as Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine and Jackie Earle Haley. Even though they did not have much screen time, each of them injected something unique to their characters and it elevated the film. One of my many favorite scenes (and I think one of the most important) was with Clarkson after DiCaprio stumbled upon a terrible incident. I think the picture as a whole reeks of intelligence but I thought that scene was particularly astute because it managed to touch upon specific areas of the history of psychological practices that many people might not know about. I love disorders of the mind (the reason why I took a second concentration along with Biological Sciences) and that is why I love watching psychological thrillers. I feel so much joy applying the things I’ve learned in the university to films and getting a chance evaluate whether the scripts match what my professors had taught me. What’s more impressive to me is that this movie even captured that stigma that we easily put on mental patients: that they’re really scary because of the way they look, that they’re always going to be crazy even if they’re supposedly cured, and the lack of realization on our part that, when it comes to people with mental problems, the irrational behavior is separate from the person.
With all of that said, “Shutter Island” is my pick as the first great film of 2010. After the rollercoaster of emotions and mind-bending situations that the film put me through, I’m very interested in reading Dennis Lehane’s (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) book of the same name. The movie is approximately two and hours and twenty minutes long but it’s two hours and twenty minutes rich of a complex storytelling, a haunting soundtrack and an exploration of what can or should be trusted. Most importantly, it is an exercise in how powerful one’s vision can be if one approaches it with a balance of intellect and confidence.
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Tony Gilroy’s spy film “Duplicity” greatly benefits from the two very charismatic leads, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The two met four years ago when both were on a mission in Dubai. Unknowing Owen, an MI6 agent at the time, hits on Roberts whose mission was to steal some documents for the CIA. After a one-night stand, Roberts leaves and the film shows the two of them meeting again in New York four years later in very amusing circumstances. This is not the kind of spy movie where objects blow up and people end up dying. The target audience of this picture are those who are into astute and often confusing storytelling that eventually makes more and more sense toward the end. I mentioned that this was confusing but I meant it in a very good way. It managed to keep me guessing from beginning to end because it kept pulling the rug from under my feet. I was invested in the two lead characters because I constantly had to reevaluate who was trying to trick who and up to what point they start to trust each other (or if it’s ever possible). After all, the two are in a relationship and trust is a requisite in order for such a thing to be successful. I liked the suppporting characters, mainly Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as two rival major pharmaceutical executives. Their intense performances were so ridiculous to the point where I ended up chuckling or laughing out loud whenever they were on screen. While the picture did have its slow moments, such scenes were a nice break from the constant one-upmanship between the timeless Roberts and suave Owen. There were times where I almost preferred watching them banter in the bedroom instead of being on the outside playing professionals. As for its ending, I thought it was wonderful; there was something very comical about the whole thing for two reasons: I didn’t see it coming and it was very ironic. Overall, the film had a nice flow to it because it had a nice balance of light thrills and genuine dramatic weight. I very much enjoyed Owen and Roberts in “Closer” as well as in this film. Hopefully, in the near future, they’ll team up again to spice up the screen.
A Perfect Getaway (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“A Perfect Getaway” tells the story of three couples in Hawaii–Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich; Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez; Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton–and two of them happen to be killers. It’s the audiences’ jobs to guess who the real killers are but it’s actually less than fun it sounds because the journey to get to the revelation is pretty generic. Three-quarters of the film was funny because of all the misfortunes and suspicions of Zahn and Jovovich. While the two did not exactly have chemistry, they were interesting enough as stand-alone characters for comic relief and some sensitive moments. I just wished that the movie had more thrills than comedy because half-way through it, I constantly wondered where it was going (or even if it was going anywhere). David Twohy, the writer and director, did not shape the picture’s tone to a level that rises above tried-and-true formulas of false alarms and supposed twist endings. Speaking of the twist, I’ve read on some message boards that the picture did not quite cheat. I cannot disagree more. There were some unexplained (and ultimately unjustified) scenes that did not at all make sense when one takes the time to look back on what was happening as a whole. I believe that the movie was designed primarily to trick the audiences and the glaring inconsistencies were just too unforgivable for me to believe that it could happen in real life. After the revelation, although I did expect it in some way, it really took me out of the experience and the suspense involving the mystery immediately dissipated into thin air instead of giving me the chills like a really good suspense/thriller movie does. Still, I did enjoy the chase sequences while they lasted. In a nutshell, “A Perfect Getaway” was a highly uneven film but there were some good laughs and exciting chase sequences (when they finally happened). It’s a good DVD rental but definitely not worth seeing in theaters.
★★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Chambers Lynch (“Boxing Helena”) directed this thriller about the investigation of two FBI agents (Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman) regarding the murders of two serial killers. In the police station, they had three witnesses whose commonality was someone close to them was killed: a little girl (Ryan Simpkins), a drug addict (Pell James), and a police officer (Kent Harper). The FBI agents tried to put pieces of the puzzle together but not all of the information they gathered fit. I did like this movie until half-way through the picture. I found the murder scenes to be chilling and horrific. I also liked the idea that the inaccuracies of testimonies were explored in a meaningful way through extended sequences when the interviewers would ask pretty much the same questions in various ways. However, I grew tired of the movie because of the uninterminable scenes regarding the two officers shooting tires since they were either bored or had nothing better to do. I believe that it took away a significant amount of time from the film instead of really exploring who the killers were. A lot of critics mentioned the fact that Jennifer Lynch was David Lynch’s daughter. While that may be true, I thought their ways of telling a story were very different from each other, which was a good thing because I thought Jennifer Lynch really came into her own. However, toward the end of “Surveillance,” I felt that she tried to inject some of her father’s methods of storytelling. It did not work for me because I thought that the twist did not add much for the movie’s dramatic weight. In fact, I felt a bit cheated during the revelation. This film’s sinister tone definitely reminded me of memorable thrillers like “Se7en” and “The Usual Suspects” but, as a whole, it was more limp instead of haunting. I definitely wanted more emotional resonance instead of empty darkness and despair with far too many loose ends.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bill Paxton directed this haunting thriller about a father (Bill Paxton) who supposedly began to receive messages from an angel to carry out God’s plan. That is, to kill seven people who disguised themselves as regular individuals. Paxton recruited his sons (Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) to carry out God’s bidding; one willingly followed his father’s footsteps and one chose to think for himself and went against his father’s wishes of murder. But all of that happened in the past. The first scene opened when Matthew McConaughey, as one of the brothers, confessed to an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) who was in charge of the God’s Hand case that he knew the real identity of the murderer and where the bodies were buried. The most effective and chillling element about this movie was the lens we choose to see a story and therefore create varying perspectives and conclusions. Essentially, one could evaluate Paxton’s character as deeply mentally disturbed or he really did get messages from a higher power. The film’s tone was consistently sinister throughout and each scene had a payoff so it was nothing short of engaging. I also have to commend the acting, especially from the actors who played the kids, because if they weren’t very good, the story wouldn’t have held up as well because they were pretty much in every single frame. The one thing I loved about Paxton’s direction was that he didn’t use the all-too-typical formula of scaring kids or putting them into dangerous situations so we would care more about them. They were actually human beings who were capable of moral evaluations about the things they’ve done and the things they were about to do. This is a thinking person’s movie because there were a lot of unexplored untones that become more and more interesting the more one thinks about them. (Which I actively choose not to discuss because I refuse to give away the ending.) “Frailty” is a suspenseful, first-rate underrated thriller about a man who was suddenly broken or enlightened. Like a solid piece of literature, the interpretation is really up to us.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.
The Others (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Some people unjustly claim that this was a rip-off from “The Sixth Sense” (because both movies have ghosts in them and have a twist ending) but I am more than willing to argue that this is a movie of its own. Nicole Kidman perfectly embodies a cold-mannered mother who, despite of her intimidating aura, loves her children very much. I love the fact that we get to know her in a matter of seconds: she has no room for excuses, is devoutly religious, and likes structure. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, right from the beginning we know that there’s something wrong with the characters, the place where they live, the fog that surrounds the mansion, and the broken memories of the children. However, we cannot quite put our finger with what exactly is wrong so figuring it out is half of the fun that this film had to offer. On our way to discover the big mystery, “The Others” is able to deliver genuine scares because we do not know what exactly is going on, aided by the fact that each corner of the room is covered in darkness (the children have a condition which involves their skin being sensitive to light so their mother is obsessed with locking every door and keeping the curtains closed). This movie proves that a horror story does not need special effects in order to generate thrill and tension. What it needs is a creepy atmosphere, unsettling setting, and a spice of great acting. Although pretty much everyone knows its ending by now (it’s quite unforgettable), it is still interesting to see the characters’ journey to enlightenment (and ours), how it elevates the tension, and how it reaches the conclusion. The filmmakers do not cheat its audience unlike many “horror” films out there that pull of a twist for the sake of “shock” value. This is the kind of movie that I do not mind watching again once in a while because it is so professionally done so I can’t help but appreciate its craft. And quite frankly, the more I watch it, the more I love and respect it because while it is a solid horror film, its religious implications took it to the next level. If one is to look closely, the movie is not anti-Christian, it’s pro-thinking.
Hard Candy (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw this back in 2005, I wasn’t yet familiar with Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Even though I did notice Wilson’s convincing acting, it was Page who stole every scene. Her character is smart (but not as smart as she believes herself to be), cunning, and twisted in every way imaginable. After watching “Hard Candy” for the first time, I made a promise to myself that I would watch out for her because she not only has the talent for acting but also the subtlety that most young actors don’t have or not yet learned. When “Juno” came out, I instantly recognized her and I knew what she could bring to the table (and she didn’t disappoint). This film is not for everyone because of its subject matter: a seemingly innocent girl decides to hook up with a thirysomething man online; in a span of fifteen to twenty minutes she reveals her true intentions and the film asks its audiences to feel for the potential pedophile/ephebophile. I found this film to be both daring and interesting because most films about molestation focuses on a male taking advantage of a female. It’s about time the tables are turned. Even though the picture is edgy and tries to push the envelope, I never thought it was gratuitous–it may have been disturbing but it was never gratuitous. Technical aspects such as the use of warm and cool colors should also be noticed and appreciated. This also works as a cautionary tale for people who find romantic interests online. You never really know who’s behind the screen and what they really want so it’s smart to always be cautious no matter how friendly they may sound. David Slade, the director, helmed this as the kind of film that will keep someone guessing up until the very end.