Tag: woody harrelson

Zombieland: Double Tap


Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
★ / ★★★★

If your idea of entertainment is unadulterated boredom then Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland: Double Tap” is a winner: a lazy, low energy, soporific sequel to a predecessor that embodies none of these qualities. It is astounding that although there is a ten-year gap between the original and the follow-up, the ideas served here are tired and maddeningly cliché, rotten, the actors hamming it up to create a semblance of a good movie. I felt embarrassed for their efforts; they are character actors stuck in a third-rate material. It is clear that the picture has no reason to exist other than to make money. To say it is a waste of ninety minutes is an understatement.

The introductory scene shows some promise. Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), via narration, acknowledges that since we last spent time with them a decade ago, zombies have specialized and a few have evolved. Each type is given a specific name based on the undead’s characteristics, particularly the manner in which it hunts. But this potentially fresh idea is dropped almost immediately and picked up only when convenient—when it is desperate for an action scene. Instead, we are bogged down with lame dialogue—most of them expository—about the importance of sticking together, of family, of home being where your loved ones are. Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick’s screenplay appears to be confused when it comes to their target audience. Did they mean to impress those with IQ lower than 70?

Every time the material attempts to explore family dynamics among Colombus, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), it is a challenge to prevent closing one’s eyes because none of the connections ring true. For example, the father-daughter relationship between Tallahassee and Little Rock is forced and awkward on two fronts: there is no chemistry between Harrelson and Breslin—the latter at times coming across like she doesn’t even want to be in the film while the former, almost recognizing the lack of enthusiasm from his co-star, recompenses for their shortcoming as a unit by exaggerating an already hyperbolic character—and the screenplay never provides a warm, touching, or curious moment between the two characters prior to their relationship being challenged.

Another example is Columbus and Wichita’s would-be romantic connection: it is dry and purely circumstantial. Like Harrelson and Breslin, Eisenberg and Stone lack chemistry—this time the romantic variety. I suppose the idea of opposites attract is meant to be humorous, but what they share is consistently one-dimensional. Wichita is always the straight man, Columbus the bumbling bungler. The writing fails to let the audience see—or discover—what Wichita sees in Columbus, vice-versa. It is without question that interpretations of these characters are detached from the previous film. And so the whole thing comes across as a charade.

Even zombie attacks are nothing special: the undead appear and they are shot either in the distance or pointblank. Observe how these sequences are edited like a music video. The reason is because fast cuts and other flashy, in-your-face techniques are meant to establish a veil of energetic razzle-dazzle when, in reality, unfolding before us is just another shoot ‘em up. Substitute zombies with bad guys in suits and nothing is changed on the fundamental level. I felt especially insulted when a character would yell out zombie types (“Homer,” “Hawking,” “Ninja”—introduced during the opening scene) when one is encountered instead of allowing us to discover ourselves which version is in front of us. It zaps away the already minimal tension.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not made for smart people. It is made for the undead audience, those who prefer to have everything spoon-fed or explained for them. There is no excitement, no suspense, no thrills, not even one good scare. I did not feel as though the filmmakers felt confident or passionate about their material. If they did, they would have put more effort in elevating the dialogue, making sure that the relationships ring true, ensuring that the action is creative or surprising. If the bar is this low for the series, I hope it stays dead. It is an insult to everyone involved.

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Sam Rockwell) is in the “dog-borrowing” business. He observes from afar, steals the dog, and once a big reward is posted by a desperate owner, Billy’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns the canine. It is a scam that works… until Billy ends up stealing a Shih Tzu owned by an irascible gangster (Woody Harrelson). Charlie is out for blood and will do absolutely anything to get his dog back. Caught in the middle is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter with a drinking problem. His most recent project is writing a script titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem: he has nothing else written down except the title. But it seems that the events about to unfold is the perfect panacea for his writer’s block.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Seven Psychopaths” may have borrowed elements from tough guy flicks, stories of unsuspecting writers in need of stimulation suddenly being thrusted into ridiculous adventures, and typical bromances in forgettable comedies, but it puts all of these elements into a blender, loony ingredients are added, and shaken once more to create a rather original material that works for itself despite its occasional distracting self-awareness and criticisms of its own inspirations.

Most enjoyable is the fact that the story is willing to go in many directions. While the main strand involves the kidnapping of the Shih Tzu, what makes the material memorable are the colorful imaginings and retrospectives. Many supporting characters enter and egress but they never feel disposable even though a lot of them are killed. They are consistently given something important to do or funny quip to say so it is thrilling when a new face is introduced. The attention is not in the violence or deaths but in our curiosities of how someone might alter the course of the game.

Its off-beat sense of humor is coupled with good performances. Walken does his usual slithery menace but it works given his character’s history. The scene that tickled me most is one that takes place in a hospital where the gangster and the dognapper finally face each other. It is given appropriate beats to solidify the tension. The reward is small compared to the larger surprises later on but it makes a lasting impact. What is a surprise, however, is Farrell deciding to play Marty straight. As the picture goes on, it is increasingly clear that Marty must almost be a blank canvas, somewhat bland with sporadic quirks, in order for us to be absorbed in the more flamboyant personalities.

There are few movies that come out within a span of a year where the audience can feel a filmmaker’s love and passion for his or her work. “Seven Psychopaths” is one of them. It is in the dialogue, the images, and silences that separate a flicker from a full-blown flame. The number of things it wishes to address matches the quantity of its twists and turns. Although there are some problems with its pacing as it reaches the climax, I guess one can consider it a part of its own funky groove.

Solo: A Star Wars Story


Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Credit to Alden Ehrenreich for making the correct decision of not simply imitating Harrison Ford to play the younger version of Han Solo. With such an iconic role, it is best to step away from the long shadow and deliver a performance that, in its essence, true to the character but at the same time different in its own right. Word had gotten around that Ehrenreich required an acting coach on set, but fear not: the performance is solid because it captures the type of swagger we have come to love from the original interpretation of the title character. This time, the swagger is youthful and occasionally uncertain, not yet so arrogant and bitingly sarcastic. One could see Ehrenreich growing into the role if a sequel or two were to happen.

Like all “Star Wars” pictures, Ron Howard’s “Solo” is teeming with colorful and interesting personalities, from the familiar characters like the adorable but physically strong Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the smooth gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) to new additions like the warm but mysterious Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and Han’s headstrong mentor named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). When these personalities are on screen together and taking a jab at one another through dialogue, one is challenged not to smile from ear to ear. Their wonderful chemistry keeps afloat a screenplay that requires further character development.

A challenge when it comes to telling an origins story is to find a way to distract the audience from certain facts in order to create an experience that does not feel predictable. I’m not convinced that this challenge is overcome because as the busy and well-choreographed action set pieces unfold, the gnawing suspicion of a possible betrayal lingers in the mind. Han is a character who is almost defined by having trust issues, certainly someone with issues against figures of authority, and so we anticipate one or two sudden left turns. The events occurring on screen, for instance, needed to have been more heightened and so full of tension that we forget our destination. On a scale of one to ten, it is functioning on a seven rather than on an eleven.

The photography is beautiful. Although numerous images look rather dark most of the time, I did not find it frustrating that certain things are difficult to see. Particularly wonderful are scenes that take place indoors or underground and we are tasked to look closely at alien faces or robotic designs as complex action sequences unfurl. This approach is immediately noticeable during the opening sequence in which Han and Qi’ra attempt to escape their shipbuilding planet and start a new life together. The film is shot by Bradford Young and he has a knack for using lighting, sometimes the lack of it, to lure the audience into a world that is both dangerous and full of wonder.

Although the picture can be criticized for being episodic—being composed of one mission after another that build up to a finale—those familiar with “Star Wars” films and its very nature as a series would likely not take an issue with this strategy. However, I yearned to learn more about the new characters, particularly Qi’ra who is hinted of having done “terrible things” in order to ensure her survival over the years.

While flashbacks and speeches are not at all necessary, the specifics of her struggles could have been communicated in other ways such as how she deals with herself and others when the going gets tough, when she is left with no one else but silence and her thoughts, the discrepancies in her personality from the time we meet her and till several years later. Writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan take a gamble by saving most of these necessary details in the possible follow-up of Han’s story.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The plot of Martin McDonagh’s structurally elegant and emotionally honest “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” involves an unsolved case of a girl who was raped, murdered, and set on fire, but the story is no murder mystery. Instead, it is an exploration, perhaps even an exorcism, of the psychology of some members of the titular small town who are directly involved with the case that has reached a dead end. The characters we meet may not be entirely likable but it is required that they be interesting. McDonagh continues to create work that will stand the test of time. This time around, his work asks us to consider how we might respond in the face of great injustice—especially one that happens to us and our family.

The film is a perfect showcase for Frances McDormand’s astounding range. Playing Mildred, the mother of the deceased, the veteran performer makes it so easy to summon inconsolable rage and disarming vulnerability within a span of seconds. While it is not difficult to empathize with the character as is written on the page, who has grown tired and beyond frustrated for not hearing any progress regarding her daughter’s murder, there are numerous instances where the audience is challenged to stay behind the actions of the protagonist. Like those around Mildred, she is capable of unnecessary cruelty.

Given the character’s wit and intelligence, Mildred has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses, lies, and deceit. This character trait paves the way for exciting, dialogue-driven scenes where power can shift at a drop of a hat. There is build-up, stare downs, and silence which do not follow any sort of rhythm to prevent becoming predictable. Mildred is aware that what she is about to say or do to somebody will hurt deeply and yet she does it anyway so the person she is dealing with would feel a fraction of her pain and suffering. McDormand demands that you do not take your eyes off her because Mildred is a bomb waiting to go off.

It gets the feeling of a small town just right, from the humble but busy streets to the interior decor of gift shops, homes, and local police station. But the relationships among the residents is most intriguing. Take the relationship between Mildred and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the latter being the lead investigator of the unsolved murder case. The two are constantly butting heads and yet look closer and notice there is mutual respect there. It just appears that respect may not be there all the time, especially when either gets so riled up that they see nothing but red.

Their common understanding is a great contrast when it comes to Mildred’s relationship with the other men in uniform (Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek) who consider the grieving mother’s decision to rent three abandoned billboards out in the highway as an affront or insult to who they are and what they do for the community. To them and others within the community, why couldn’t she just grieve in private like everyone else? Must the tragedy of their town be publicized constantly? Must everybody be reminded of the traumatic past?

While the material does not provide one glorified action scene, especially for a story that touches upon a murder, it is firecracker from start to finish. The characters are so fully realized that we learn about who they are and see them undergoing changes to the point where they become unpredictable. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes one left turn after another that it is near impossible not to be regaled by its mesmerizing dance.

Out of the Furnace


Out of the Furnace (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Rodney (Casey Affleck) owes a lot of money and he believes a quick way to pay his creditors is to participate in mano-a-mano fights. But defeating locals prove not profitable enough. So, Rodney convinces his manager (Willem Dafoe) to schedule a fight in the hills of Jersey where inbred drug dealers like Harlan (Woody Harrelson) having grown so powerful that even cops feel the area is out of their jurisdiction. Harlan expects Rodney to drop the fight. Maybe Rodney is too much of a loose cannon. When Russell (Christian Bale) learns that his younger brother is missing, he drives to Jersey where Rodney is last seen.

Directed by Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” is not for people who expect a straightforward revenge picture where it gets violent real quick and justice is served cold in equal servings. It is a moody, messy, meandering piece of work with a lot offer to those willing to follow the bread crumbs and value asking questions more than getting easy answers. Watching the events unfold is like looking through a dark fog—the focus is not necessarily on what happens but the feelings behind and underneath the occurrences.

Rodney and his debts, Harlan and his drugs, Russell and his clean way of making a living—it is clear that money is the main motivation of the central characters. The brothers live in a working class neighborhood and they are often dirty-looking—often covered in dirt, sweat, or grime, sometimes bruises and blood. Meanwhile, Harlan is a rabid dog who lives in the woods with nameless lackeys. As far as they know, he is always right. To say something otherwise is to gamble one’s life. Outsiders do not know this fact.

The picture does not reach full power until about halfway through. Clocking in at about two hours, the first half involves Russell losing those that he values. Every day is a struggle to keep them close by. One mistake—involving drunk driving and an auto accident—costs him just about everything. It is easy to sympathize with Russell because he is a good guy and he wants to do the right thing. Unlike his brother, he has learned to be humble—even if it means forcing himself to do so—and how to keep his temper in control.

Because the material is so patient before delivering the big blow just above the hour mark, it creates a real sense of dread and convincing, palpable tension. And yet, surprisingly, even though it tackles the subject of vengeance, it does not lose track of the sadness with regards to what can never be reclaimed.

What does not work is a subplot involving a chief of police (Forest Whitaker) and Russell’s ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Though the material avoids certain trappings, we never see the cop doing anything of value other than delivering lines about how important it is to follow procedures and allowing the men of the law to do their jobs. In addition, the ex-girlfriend is underdeveloped. She is reduced to doing two things: laugh or look sad. Whitaker and Saldana are good performers, but they could have been played by another pair and it wouldn’t have made a big difference.

“Out of the Furnace,” written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper, will divide viewers. I admire movies like this. It has a goal and it carries out its vision without compromise. It may not be perfect but others ought to follow its lead when striving to commit to a specific voice. Forget trying to impress the audience. Just tell the story the way it is intended, assuming a solid screenplay, and rest are likely to fall into place.

The Edge of Seventeen


The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There is a profound sadness in the heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen,” sharply written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, which is only one of the many reasons why its story is worth telling. The film is head and shoulders above similar coming-of-age stories about socially awkward high school students because there is an authenticity in both script and performances. And while the target audience is likely to be smart and self-aware teenagers, twenty-somethings and above who remember those turbulent years will probably be able to relate to every character here since we have already gone through the seemingly interminable trials that come with being a young adult.

Hailee Steinfeld plays the central character named Nadine with electric energy and alluring vibrancy. Most interesting is that although Nadine is indeed our protagonist, there are numerous times when she comes across unlikable. I found the material to be honest in its portrayal of teenagers in that sometimes they mistake honesty for being purposefully hurtful. Steinfeld fits the role like a glove because she is able to communicate a number of thoughts and emotions all at once without ever losing the viewers’ empathy. She commands the role especially because she has the ability to evoke both nuances and broad strokes often within one scene. Steinfeld should aspire to take on more roles with this level of complexity since she is clearly more than capable. I am convinced we will see her on screen for a long time.

The picture is exciting due to its ability to surprise. Although most unsurprising is the trigger that sends Nadine over the edge—her best friend friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and her brother (Blake Jenner) sleeping together—what’s refreshing is in how the characters are painted after the fact. No one is a villain, only flawed people responding to their mistakes. As Nadine is forced to make connections when the bond between her and Krista is severed, sooner or later we realize that every person she comes across are worth exploring further. Lesser comedy-dramas tend use supporting characters as crutches or punchlines. Not here.

Particularly interesting are the history teacher and a classmate in history class. Woody Harrelson plays Mr. Bruner, a teacher who appears to be apathetic about his job, his students, and perhaps even his life. Although there is a lot of great humor in the exchanges between Mr. Bruner and Nadine, the dramatic payoff between the teacher and student later on is equally great—if not more—despite the former offering no words of wisdom about high school or life. They do not even share a hug or a look of approval.

I am particularly difficult to please when it comes to romantic interests in movies. A second fascinating supporting character is played by Hayden Szeto, a classmate who has a lot of talent and heart. Despite the fact that early on it becomes all too clear to us that Erwin and Nadine are a good fit for one another—whether it be through friendship or something more—the way their relationship as two teenagers simply trying to figure things out is a breath of fresh air. The high level of writing and performances overcomes the expected cutesy-ness.

High on emotional intelligence, pointed sense of humor, and entertainment value, “The Edge of Seventeen” belongs on the shelf among superior modern coming-of-age films such as Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” and Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Aspiring coming-of-age pictures about smart teenagers should look up to it as an example.

Rampart


Rampart (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has been a cop for twenty-four years. The Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department is currently under investigation due to people’s complaints of police brutality, planting evidence, and other unethical behaviors when Dave is caught on film severely beating a Mexican after the two had been in a car accident. Suddenly, the cop finds that all eyes are on him and the dirty laundry of his past, including a possible murder of an alleged serial rapist, is under a magnifying glass.

“Rampart,” written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman, is not complete character study but it benefits greatly from Harrelson’s performance. As a corrupt cop set on going down a self-destructive path, it is a challenge to identify with Dave but the contradictions that Harrelson brings to light made me wonder if there is some kind of hope for the man. Even though I suspected that he probably will not change over the course of the picture, I wished that he would for the sake of those he cares about and those who cares for him.

As Dave meets with various figures in the police department (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robert Wisdom), we learn a little bit more about him—that beneath the sarcasm and seeming lack of remorse, he is a stubborn but very eloquent man. When he is offered to issue a public apology about the recorded incident and retire early, he refuses because it is important for him to remain a cop or, more importantly, to be in a position of power.

Though the film has spots where the tone and pacing are off, it remains interesting on some level because even though Dave is a bigot, a racist, and a sexist, he is not without humanity. His relationship with his daughters (Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky) are nicely executed. The pain in the disconnection of the kinship is always at the forefront. Although Dave is always on the attack whenever he interacts with fellow adults, it is refreshing to see him on the defense when his children are watching. He is convinced that if he is caught doing the wrong thing, he will lose them forever. But they already know that he is not a perfect man. He is not even a good father to them; the girls are always in fear whenever he is near.

As the picture goes on, however, it does two things: it begins to recycle its basic ideas and it is unable to find alternative routes when it encounters dead ends. Since we eventually have a complete impression of Dave’s personality and what great lengths he will go to endure the controversy and be a cop on the prowl again, it is only natural that we come to expect what is next. Unfortunately, the screenplay offers nothing. A third act is not there.

Despite its initial promise, “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, ends up being a big disappointment. Although an interesting character study, the important dramatic arc—the answer to “So what?”—is absent. As the screen fades to black, I was left with furrowed brows.

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.

Friends with Benefits


Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.

The Thin Red Line


The Thin Red Line (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

An AWOL soldier, Private Witt (James Caviezel), had never been good at following orders. When ordered to go left, he turned right. But when he was found in a Malaysian island by 1st Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Pvt. Witt, as punishment, was assigned to be a stretcher bearer in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The attack was led by Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) and his superior Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte). The former wouldn’t obey the latter’s orders because he believed that sending his men forward was suicide. The Japanese bunkers were too far and too hidden for a typical affront. Lt. Col. Tall wasn’t convinced. Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones and beautifully directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” was fascinating because it combined the horrors of war with spirituality. We were given the chance to hear a soldier’s thoughts, American and Japanese, about his place in the world, trepidation in terms of facing his mortality, and the loved ones he left behind. While the action scenes were raw and unflinching, I was most impressed with the way the soldiers played the hand they’ve been given. Some made rookie but dire mistakes out of panic (Woody Harrelson), some succumbed in fear and would rather be invisible (Adrien Brody), while others were distracted by flashbacks, wondering whether someone was still waiting for them at home (Ben Chaplin). The film highlighted that war was not as simple as two sides fighting for a cause. In a way, the battlefield was a glorious arena in which we had to fight ourselves. While good soldiers trusted their instincts, orders, too, must be obeyed. The conflict between instinct and duty could break a man. I was most interested in Pvt. Witt because he looked at his enemies with serenity. Unlike his comrades, not once did he show hatred toward the soldiers on the opposite side of the mountain. I wondered why. If I was in his position, I’m not quite sure if I could look at my enemies as if they were my equal. I would probably see them as lower animals and treat them as such. I just don’t think I can be as forgiving if I knew that my friends and comrades died because of them. Pvt. Witt mentioned that “maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.” Malick used images to underline man’s place in nature. There were zen-like shots of soldiers just sitting around and admiring, for example, a plant. It took them out of the situation, even for just a few seconds, until the voice of their leader urged them to go on. There were several shots of birds, flying in sky or dying on the ground, which symbolized either glory or pain. “The Thin Red Line” was sensitive and intelligent. It tried to find answers in a place where answers were as transient as they were permanent.

The Messenger


The Messenger (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.

Zombieland


Zombieland (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

I love zombie movies because I’m fascinated with the idea of the dead taking over the world of the living. (Did I mention I have nightmares about zombies?) Not to mention zombie flicks usually have social commentaries which were not absent in this little gem. “Zombieland,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, who wants to make his way to Ohio to be reunited with his parents. On the road, he meets Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a man on a mission to find Twinkies; Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as Wichita and Little Rock, respectively, sisters who initially look innocent but turn out to have a knack for survival. The very “28 Days Later”-like gathering of very different people was smart because all of them yearned for that rare human connection in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. All four of them eventualy head to Southern California in order to find refuge with other humans. I love this movie’s self-awareness. It seemed to know its strengths which were highlighted in the beginning of the film as Eisenberg described his survival guide. It was done with such craft because the jokes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny so the realization that it was all a gimmick later on became insignificant. The flashback scenes were done well, especially how Eisenberg’s character reflected on how much of a loser he was back when humans still ruled the planet–staying in on a Friday night playing video games, not socializing with people, and not getting enough attention from girls. A lot of people compare him to Michael Cera but I think there’s an important difference between the two. I think Eisenberg’s awkwardness is edgy and his characters usually have a certain toughness. Cera’s awkwardness, on the other hand, is softer and cuter–the kind that makes you go “Aww” and maybe pet him afterwards. That awareness was also highlighted via pop culture references from Russell Crowe, Facebook to Ghostbusters. Comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead” is inevitable because it is a horror-comedy about zombies. But I think “Zombieland” is a little scarier because the characters didn’t stop to analyze a zombie, imitate, and make quirky comments about them. All of that said, I had one problem with the film. I thought it slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle because it spent too much of its time showing the characters bickering on the road. It got redundant and such scenes could have been taken out and instead added terrifyingly slow suspenseful scenes. Lastly, I thought the final showdown at the carnival was inspired. The movie was able to find ways on how to kill zombies using the rides or the characters using the rides to their advantage. It made me want to ride a rollercoaster right then and there. I’ve read audiences’ reviews about how surprised they were with how good the movie was. To be honest, right after I saw the trailer for the first time, I had a sneaky feeling that it was going to be good. It certainly didn’t disappoint and in some ways exceeded expectations. If you love zombie movies, blood and guts, cameos, and pop culture allusions all rolled into one, then see this immediately. It’s total escapism and it has the potential to get better after multiple viewings.

Transsiberian


Transsiberian (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Snow is everywhere in pretty much every scene and it made me feel cold just watching it. Half-way through the picture, I realized that the weather is not just a tool to establish a mood. When I look back on it, it’s really neat how much influence the ice has over the characters. I also liked that it took its time to establish the main characters and the fact there’s no archetype villain in the film. As a result, the characters are that much more complex and interesting. They’re just being themselves but their interests happen to collide and that’s when the conflict starts. The show-stopper here is Emily Mortimer. Like in most of her movies, she’s a seemingly timid woman who possesses a silent power which helps to carry her through with whatever is thrown at her. One minute she’s having fun and the next minute she’s totally mortified with what’s going on. And that observation reflected this film. Brad Anderson, who also directed “The Machinist,” has a talent with shifting the mood from one side of the spectrum to another in a matter of seconds. Not only does it make the picture thrilling, it also makes it unpredictable. Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, and Eduardo Noriega are pretty good in their roles but I thought they were a bit underdeveloped, especially the latter two. But maybe the point is to know as little about them because the film makes a commentary regarding strangers in a different country where one does not speak the language. But the one actor that arguably matched Mortimer is Ben Kingsley. He’s such a mystery from the first scene to the last and I craved to know more about him. His methods are highly questionable, every word of Russian he speaks sounded like a threat, and the way he would look at Mortimer suggests he knows more than he’s letting on. For a film that’s almost two hours long, I was glad that there’s a lot of dynamics at work but at the same time I feel like some characters were not explored enough. I think we could do without the little stops of the train during the first forty minutes, but that’s a really minor complaint. Otherwise, pretty much everything about this thriller worked for me because it made me think not only while it was playing but after as well.