I Sell the Dead (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A grave robber (Dominic Monaghan) on death row started to confess his adventures with his old partner (Larry Fessenden) to a priest (Ron Perlman) who could ultimately decide his fate. I heard a number of good things about this horror-comedy set in the 19th century but it failed to impress me. Twenty minutes into the movie, I started to feel bored because the story wasn’t going anywhere. I thought it had potential when Monaghan and Fessenden stumbled upon their first supernatural (somewhat funny) encounter, but it took the path of silly ordinariness instead of the path of real darkness and irony. There were too many scenes when the two leads would argue or just hang out and the audiences were left outside of their jokes. Think of it as standing next to two close friends laughing like there’s no tomorrow and you have no idea what is so amusing. It’s just awkward and it doesn’t encourage us to stick around. Neither of the main characters were worth rooting for. To me, they were just a pair of graverobbers and there was nothing particularly special about them. There was no redeeming quality despite their actions and they lacked an extra dimension, a crucial element that makes us effortlessly identify with them. A majority of this picture was obvious. Everyone voiced out what they were thinking or what they were about to do. Watching something devoid of curiosity or surprise or a slight hint of intelligence is definitely an unpleasant experience. Furthermore, the film lacked a much needed gravity or tension. For a pair of graverobbers encountering so many weird phenomena, I didn’t feel like they were shocked or excited or curious about the things that were unfolding before their eyes. If I meet a real vampire or dug up an alien corpse, I would start to question everything I was lead to believe was true. I would have some sort of a conflict within myself and it would reflect on my actions. Written and directed by Glenn McQuaid, “I Sell the Dead” was painful to watch to say the least. This was supposed to be the winner of the Slamdance Film Festival for Best Cinematography but it ultimately doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t resonate with the audiences. It was just too all over the place for my liking and it was no fun watching randomness. The movie may have only been eighty minutes long but it felt longer than two hours because I wasn’t having fun with it. Lastly, I was excited to see it because some reviewers pointed out the sharpness of its dark comedy. I don’t know what they consider as darkly comic but if I were to exaggerate, I would say the movie was a very light dark comedy. The movie lacked teeth so the ironies lacked bite.
Repo Men (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star as former childhood enemies whose job was to extract vital organs from people’s bodies when they fell behind on their payment plans. But after Law was involved in an accident during a job, his boss (Liev Schreiber) didn’t waste a second to get Law to sign a document so he could get an artificial heart. Only then did Law began to sympathize with the people he decided to shock into temporary paralysis and cut open without remorse. I liked this movie in parts but not as a whole. I thought the second half of the movie was much stronger than the first because it eventually didn’t second-guess itself in delivering the action, blood and violence. The first part of the movie felt a little bit forced; not for one second did I believe Law and Whitaker as colleagues let alone friends. I also thought that the scenes with the Law’s wife and son were a bit redundant and if I were to disregard those scenes altogether, the overall product would have been the same. In other words, the director (Miguel Sapochnick) wasn’t quite efficient in terms of time, which scenes were really important and which others needed to be taken out. Although the movie had some nice ideas splattered throughout, none of them were fully realized because the characters were not fully developed. Since it lacked character development, it was difficult for me to read their beliefs despite what they portrayed on the outside and their specific motivations. Just when I thought it was about to dive deeper into its characters, the scene would have a drastic change of tone and it took me out of the moment. I wished that it had taken one route instead of trying to balance thoughtfulness (comparable to “Gattaca”) and pure escapism (comparable to “From Paris with Love” and “Shoot ‘Em Up”). Instead of me enjoying the picture as a whole, I liked specific scenes such as Law trying to sneak into his former workplace, scenes that involved bloody surgeries, the white room, the battle to the pink room, and the final scene that (admittedly) took me by surprise. Overall, it made me think whether I enjoyed the movie despite its flaws or whether I enjoyed it because of its potential to be great. It had a great setting because it looked futuristic but not so far off that it was completely unbelievable. In some ways, it reminded me of post-apocalyptic films like “Children of Men.” Perhaps with a better writing and more focused direction, “Repo Men” would have had more punch to match its ambition.
Cold Souls (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Paul Giamatti stars as himself in “Cold Souls,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes, who one day decided, with the help of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), to extract his soul and put it into storage. He came to such a drastic decision to relieve some of the anxiety he was feeling about doing a play. He figured that if his soul was not in his body, we wouldn’t be such a worry-wart and therefore wouldn’t think about the little things that didn’t quite matter in the long run. However, after the operation, he found himself to be not quite himself anymore–the subtlety in his acting was gone, his ability to relate with others was ziltch and even his wife (Emily Watson) claimed that he was “different.” That catch was when Giamatti decided he wanted his soul back, the Russian black market already got ahold of his soul. The concept of this film was quite impressive when I saw the trailers, but unfortunately, the execution was lackadaisical and meandering. I thought I would get a “Being John Malkovich”-level film because of the many questions and intricacies regarding the soul but I felt as though the film didn’t want to tackle such big questions and issues head-on. When it comes to movies, when I feel reluctance coming from the filmmakers’ parts, I constantly find myself having a hard time buying the concept of the movie. Unfortunately, it happened in “Cold Souls.” Instead, the picture ran rampant with broken scenes of Giamatti doing random things that didn’t add up to anything. It’s not the lead actor’s fault; he was tremendous in this film–his quirks and outbursts were downright hilarious and self-deprecating. It was really the writing and direction that bogged this film down to something dangerously soporific. For such an interesting topic that have been theorized by philosophers for hundrends of years, it didn’t have any power so the film felt stagnant. Half-way through the picture, I wondered if the movie would have been more interesting if it had been a hybrid between a comedy and a thriller. After all, the Russian black market was involved. But instead of menace and dark wit, we get somewhat of a comic look at their lives as they try to gather souls from very talented actors like Sean Penn, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, George Clooney, and the like. Sometimes the comedy worked but most of the time it didn’t. With a more capable director and a sharper writing, this film would definitely have been so much better. I say “Cold Souls” might be a good rental for very patient viewers but it’s definitely not for those looking for something that’s dares to look at the extremes of what-if.
★★ / ★★★★
“Bakjwi” or “Thirst,” directed by Chan-wook Park, was about a priest (Kang-ho Song) who knowingly participated in a fatal experiment in order to help other people who might be infected with the disease in the future. Surely enough, the experiment killed him but he later returned from the dead as a blood thirsty vampire. I couldn’t quite enjoy this movie as a whole because it was very odd which, frankly, I did not expect. I thought it was going to be a pretty standard horror film about a vampire. Others may like the fact that the movie tried to pull off some comedy here and there but I found it to be very distracting. Maybe the humor was lost in translation because I’m not Korean so I didn’t think it was funny at all. I found the scenes with the family (Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin) to be very dull and redundant. And the whole “romance” between Song and Ok-bin Kim did not persuade me at all that they were “in love.” There were far too many–from what it felt like–obligatory sex scenes that didn’t quite move the story forward. As realistic as they were, they didn’t do anything for me; I was more interested with the scares that it had to offer. I wanted to know more about what it meant for the lead character to be a vampire and the struggles he had to go through since he chose to live by certain codes. One of the most important of those codes included not killing people because God saw it as a mortal sin. Did he, when stripped with religion, inherently thought it was wrong? After all, he was no longer a “normal” human. I didn’t really get my questions answered because the movie insisted on spending time with that annoying family. The priest was a very interesting character because I don’t know a lot of vampire characters who remain loyal to his religion after death. However, I very much enjoyed the last forty minutes because I finally felt that I was watching a film that was edgy, suspenseful and mysterious. I don’t want to spoil anything because I did not see certain things coming but the events that happened in the last third of the movie really fascinated me. I felt like the movie finally came alive especially the beautiful outdoor scenes. It had this mesmerizing glow that glued me to the screen. If only the level of filmmaking was the same as the last third of the picture, I would have given “Thirst” a recommendation. With a running time of about two hours and ten minutes, it certainly felt that long or maybe even longer.
Food of Love (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novella “The Page Turner” by David Leavitt, writer and director Ventura Pons helmed this movie about an eighteen-year-old student (Kevin Bishop) in Juliard who one day works for a much older pianist (Paul Rhys) and their eventual relationship in Barcelona. What started off as a young man looking for his identity eventually became more about how his mother (Juliet Stevenson) coped when she found out that her son was into men. I’m not exactly sure which half I liked better because both had equal number of strengths and weaknesses. I liked that this film was constantly changing and constantly exploring the dynamics between the characters. But then once in a while, it slides into amateur acting and melodramatic scenes. Toward the second half of the picture, Bishop became increasingly angry with his mother, the reasons of which were vague to me. Yes, she was around him all the time but I thought she wasn’t suffocating. I could tell that she cared about him and only wanted what was best for him. So when his outbursts came, I didn’t believe it because he had no reason to take out his frustrations with her. In fact, there were times when I was more interested in the mother than the son, which was not a good thing because the film’s focus should have been Bishop’s character, the things that were important to him and the things that he was searching for. There was a certain sadness and desperation about Stevenson’s character when she finally decided to attend a meeting consisting of mothers with gay children. As for the mentor aspect of the story, I thought that Bishop and Rhys’ relationship was creepy. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that the whole thing was romantic. I just don’t find anything appealing when it comes to an eighteen-year-old being with a thirty- or fortysomething. The supposed musical connection they had wasn’t really explored. Instead, there were far too many scenes in the bedroom. Though none of it was graphic, such scenes could have been taken out and the director should’ve built upon the foundations of the arc that the lead character was supposed to go through. Ultimately, I thought this movie had potential but it was far too unfocused and it easily surrendered to the usual pitfalls of homosexual romance.
★ / ★★★★
I had high expectations from this movie because the premise of it was interesting: a man named Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) who was a “Silvertongue” had the ability to bring book characters to live simply just by reading about them out loud. He did not always have such an ability (or was he aware of it) so over the years, the disparate characters from the books were taken to the human world–some of them good (Paul Bettany as the fire-wielding Dustfinger and Rafi Gavron as Farid, a sort of Aladdin-like character) and some bad (led by Andy Serkis as Capricorn). One of my biggest problems with this movie was its dialogue. It was so uninspired and it lacked a sense of wonder that movies like the “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” innately have. Since this was based on a children’s novel by Cornelia Funke, I expected it to be at least entertaining by way of enchancing the audiences’ imagination. Instead, we got this overly long exposition, chaotic action scenes that did not amount to anything, and characters that were not exactly likable or memorable. I usually love watching Helen Mirren’s elegance but I think she was completely miscast as the grandmother who loves books and the indoors more than other people and the outdoors. Her character’s attempt at humor made me feel sort of ashamed because none of them were even slightly amusing. There were many points in the film where I just felt bored and wondered about the technical things. For instance, I thought about the repercussions that would happen in the book if the characters were suddenly taken off the pages. I thought of the “exchange” that had to happen–if one was to be transported into the book, wouldn’t it make more sense if someone comparable would be taken out of the book? There were a plethora of plotholes and by the end of it, I was just tired of being disappointed. Perhaps with a better direction other than Iain Softley, the translation from novel to film would have been better. I suggest not to waste time with this one. Even the kids would be bored out of their minds.
★★ / ★★★★
At first, I thought this film was going to be a thriller because of the scene when Keith (Jesse McCartney) told someone his real intentions for befriending one of the most well-rounded and mature girls in school named Natalie (Elisabeth Harnois). Natalie seems to have everything going for her: great grades, intellectually curious, gregarious, athletic, and on the verge of getting into an Ivy League school. But then she meets Keith: a smart guy who is a bit rough around the edges who is unlike anyone in school. He’s actually interesting because he has substance but he does not boast his intellect on everyone’s faces. Natalie does not get along with Keith in the beginning; that is, up until she starts falling for him. I liked the powerplay between the two, which pervaded half of the picture. However, somewhere during the half-way point, it started falling apart because it spent too much of its time trying to conceal Keith’s secret. The mature Natalie became an immature, emo Natalie who actively risked her life and others’ just because she felt overwhelmed by everything going on around her, such as problems with her boyfriend, declining grades, and losing a potential scholarship. Keith’s secret was strangely fascinating to me. I had several theories ranging from him being a serial killer to an early CIA agent recruit. So when I ultimately found out his secret, I could not help but feel a bit underwhelmed because of the expectations that came with my (reasonable, at least in my mind) hypotheses. The second part of the film was chaotic to say the least. For about forty-five minutes or so, I felt like I was watching a bad teenage play and everyone happens to overact to every situation. It did not feel real and I felt repulsed by what was happening on screen. And the “lesson” of the film did not work for me on any level. Basically, the film justified (or tried to justify) Natalie throwing away everything she worked so hard for. That is not a good message at all to teenagers, especially when they should be encouraged to be the best they can be. Directed by Todd Kessler, “Keith” is pretty unoriginal but Jesse McCartney fans might be happy to see him show his acting abilities.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love Simon Pegg because he never fails to make me laugh in any movie he stars in. Naturally, I had to see this picture despite bad to mediocre reviews. He plays Sidney Young, a writer who takes up a job offer from Jeff Bridges, the leader of a magazine that specializes in publishing stories about celebrities. Amazingly unaware that he’s way different than anybody else who works for the magazine, he constantly butts heads with the serious Kirsten Dunst, and, predictably enough, the two fall for each other eventually. I would have liked this film a lot more if it had focused on the comedy instead of experimenting here and there with media satire. With that indecision, the picture becomes an unfocused mess. I cannot pinpoint which is stronger: the slapstick comedy with Pegg or the poking fun of celebrity life such as the dragon-lady publicist played by Gillian Anderson (really, she was great in every scene she was in). While the two distinct camps do indeed have their moments, they never really come together so I felt like I was watching two different movies at the same time. I think Robert B. Weide, the director, is the one responsible for such a disconnect. If he had spent less time trying to fit Pegg and Dunst’s obvious lack of chemistry, he would have had more time actually shaping the slapstick and the satire into one comedy with a pretty powerful punch. Overall, this is not a particularly bad film; like most critics, I’d say this was a mediocre effort. If people were to see this, I think they would find Pegg very funny (or very annoying) because he has a certain vibrant energy that one cannot find anywhere else. Since his character is a movie-lover, it was fun for me to watch him make (sometimes too obvious) references to other motion pictures. “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” is a mixed bag so one should decide carefully on whether to actually see it.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard that one of Spike Lee’s motivations for making this picture is to highlight the fact that African-Americans did participate in World War II–something that is not apparent in other World War II movies (notably Clint Eastwood’s). Although I did enjoy this 160-minute feature in parts, when I look at the bigger picture, I realize that it didn’t use its potential to be great. Las Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Derek Luke and Michael Ealy star as four American solders who were forced to wait in a Tuscan village because they were surrounded by German soldiers. Along the way to Tuscan, Miller stumbles upon an enigmatic Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who has an imaginary friend. Eventually, the two form a friendship that underlines the religious aspects of the film. I found it strange that Lee wanted to represent African-Americans yet he has characters that were drowning in stereotypes. I’m not black but I felt offended as I was watching the film because I know that some characters would’ve been the same if certain stereotypes were absent like that glaring gold tooth that one of the characters has. Story-wise, I felt as if it was all over the place. One minute the plot was about resistance fighters, the next minute it was about faith, the next it was about invaluable artifacts, and the next it’s about a love triangle. I would’ve preferred if Lee focused on just three issues and made a leaner film that offers a lot of insight about the psychology of a soldier who’s fighting for a country that treats him as a second-class citizen. Whenever “Miracle at St. Anna” related being in an actual war in another country and feeling like one is in a war in his own country, the movie becomes that much more alive and interesting. During those scenes, I was so engaged to the point where I caught myself thinking, “Oh, I never thought about it like that before.” Instead, it tried to tackle too much so it lost considerable amount of focus. The emotion is there and so is the entertainment value. However, what’s missing is the mark of great filmmaking. Therefore, “Miracle at St. Anna” is not as powerful as it should have been so it disappears in the sea of motion pictures about World War II.
Seven Pounds (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love Will Smith and Rosario Dawson but this film, directed by Gabriele Muccino, did not live up to its potential. The number seven was supposed to be special and I didn’t get to fully understand why it was important. The seven strangers that Smith was supposed to help weren’t fully explored. In some instances, we only get to meet a stranger once but never see him or her again. Instead, the picture chooses to focus on the romance between Smith and Dawson. Since it had a two-hour running time, I found no reason for the picture to not be able to do both. I think the director needed more time helming this project because some scenes either felt incomplete or too convoluted. The melodrama needed to be toned down as well. I’m usually a sucker for films that have a lot of melodrama but in here, I found the symbolism to be too heavy-handed. Instead of being organic and leaving the audiences to decide whether or not they should feel for a particular character, the movie makes that choice for the audiences by showing one sad scene after another. In the end, I was just frustrated with it all and I wanted it to end. If it weren’t for Smith and Dawson, I think I would’ve been harsher with “Seven Pounds.” I did enjoy them interact because they do have chemistry. I’ve always admired Dawson’s ability to balance beauty with an edgy attitude and this one is no exception. My favorite scene was when the two leads were in a field and Dawson claims she wants to run but she cannot because of her weak heart. She expressed that longing so effectively to the point where I teared up a bit. As for Smith, I’m glad that he doesn’t just appear in one action movie after another. This is a nice reminder that he can do dramatic roles and convince us that his character is suffering yet selfless even though the picture itself is barely above mediocre. If one is a fan of these two actors, I still say go see it. However, if one is looking for a film that is insightful and character-driven, go see something else because this one feels recycled.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.