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Red Tails

Red Tails (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

In World War II, the U.S. Army treats Negro pilots as though they do not possess the intelligence nor the reflexes to perform effectively in battle. Although African-American airmen are admitted in the army, members of the 332nd Fighter Group are relegated to jobs like coastal runs with secondhand planes.

In 1944 Italy, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) hopes to prove that his fighter group is fit for battle just like any white American soldiers. But with bigoted officials like Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) in the way, being given a chance to prove everybody wrong seems next to impossible. Under the direction of Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the black pilots itch to join the fray and prove their worth.

While “Red Tails,” based on the screenplay John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, wishes to make a statement involving the marginalization of African-Americans in WWII, its mundane script fails to impress as a movie composed of characters, based on real people, who have interesting stories to tell.

The characters who fly the planes are mostly defined by their surface characteristics. For instance, Captain Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron leader, is the one who likes his alcoholic beverages a little too much which makes his judgments questionable and Lieutenant Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) carries a “Black Jesus” around for protection. Since many of the characters are introduced at one time, such quirks prove helpful, at least initially, to help remember them.

However, once the characters become more familiar to us, their lack of depth proves frustrating and disappointing. These soldiers are supposed to be so patriotic that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect their country and loved ones. I waited for each of their stories to be told or hinted at in some way but their conversations are always about what is in front of them and how bored they are due to a lack of excitement in their assignments. Not one of them talks about missing home.

The closest line of dialogue that provides some sort of insight into their personal lives involves one of the airmen’s admission that whenever he seals himself into his plane to do his job, a part of him feels like he has just locked himself into his grave. It turns out that others can very much relate to him. This scene commands resonance because it suggests that even though the pilots are outwardly brave, they feel vulnerable and afraid, too. Whenever they are up in the air, while they fire at their enemies, they must also keep their fears in check. The picture needs to show more perceptive moments as such in order for the audience to really appreciate the material and be engaged.

The film, however, has very good fight sequences. As the various planes speed through the sky and the camera jumps between inside and outside of the plane, I was excited at what is about to happen. The pilots may have been bored with their job at times but I wasn’t. Even more thrills are delivered during the dogfights between the Americans and the Nazis.

“Red Tails,” based on a book by John B. Holway and directed by Anthony Hemingway, also suffers from dialogue that either comes across too stiff or very earnest but it has moments of entertaining action sequences. If only we learned more about the Tuskegee Airmen as people when they were on the ground.


Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is one of the most astonishing movies I have ever seen. “Astonishing” is the perfect word to describe the work because I sat in my chair mouth agape and eyes wide open, very curious as to how the filmmaker, his crew, and the native Indians he hired managed to take a real three hundred ton steamship up a sizable hill with a steep slope in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. I admired the film for its sheer physicality and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” highlights the challenges everyone faced during the filming of Herzog’s masterpiece.

It is interesting to see footages of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, playing Fitzcarraldo and the sidekick, respectively, given that they were the first choice to play the roles. I found them ineffective, sort of goofy, and so the two of them eventually having to drop out turned into a gift in disguise. Klaus Kinski was exactly right for the role, effortlessly evoking an obsessive madness but remaining accessible enough to make us want to see his dream of building an opera house in the jungle to be realized. From the clips of Robards playing Fitzcarraldo, there is little manic intensity that can be felt instantaneously.

The documentary spends ample time showing some of the native Indians’ culture, from the way they live, sorts of food they eat, to the challenges they face against the government because they have no legal claims to their land. We get a chance to see that although the crew and the natives must interact, they have separate camps nonetheless. They do not even share the same food. There is talk of sexual needs while being so isolated out in the wilderness and prostitutes having to be flown in for the sake of preserving the native culture.

It is well-known that Herzog is quite a character. His reputation is best exemplified when he talks about the very same arrows that hit a man in the throat and a woman in the hip. They survived and so Herzog is ecstatic to point out that there is still blood on the arrows. He plans on giving the weapons to his son. Just the same, we are able to appreciate how the director works. Not once is he shown sitting on a chair and enjoying a cup of coffee. He is constantly up and about, trying to perfect every little thing because he knows that no detail is too small. It is then that we know that Fitzcarraldo is a reflection of Herzog’s obsession and ambition.

Herzog’s final product is so audacious and convincing, it was a surprise to me that some of the native Indians are able to speak and understand Spanish from behind-the-scenes. Watching the film, I felt so immersed into its world that accepting the reality actually takes effort. I cannot say that about very many movies and that makes it special.

“Burden of Dreams” cements my respect for Herzog. Say what you will about him: difficult, talented, intelligent, disturbed, megalomaniacal. He might be all of those things but I admire that he is an uncompromising filmmaker—and it shows in his work, taking art on already high level and further pushing the boundary as if there is none.


Animal House

Animal House (1978)
★★ / ★★★★

Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) wishes to expel all members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity because he is sick of dealing with their seasonal pranks. With the help of Greg (James Daughton), president of the uppity Omega Theta Pi, known as the best and most traditional fraternity in Faber College, the duo concoct a plan to finally delouse the university of the drunken party animals.

Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, “Animal House” is appropriately desultory in storytelling which reflects its protagonists’ overall lack of ambition and direction. This device is partly enjoyable because although each scene is episodic, more than half of the jokes are given enough time to escalate until the punchline is ripe for delivery. However, its lack of flow functions as a double-edged sword in that it is difficult to get to know its charming characters completely.

Bluto (John Belushi) is especially hilarious as a college student who happens to be on the heavy side. He is given very few lines to utter but each time the camera is on him, whether he is front and center or pushed to the side, all of my attention is on him like a moth to a light source. Staring at his oily, flushed, and petulant face, one part of me expected him to say something completely shocking and offensive. Meanwhile, another part of me braced itself for another one of Bluto’s inspired physical gag.

For example, the scene in the cafeteria that leads to a food fight is nicely executed. Although his frat brothers are capable of embracing a range of craziness and downright carelessness, Bluto is most fascinating because he symbolizes the id of the Delta House. Unlike his frat brothers, there is not one scene in which he is depicted second-guessing what he is about to do. Whatever feels good is right and whatever needs to be expressed is unfiltered.

Even Eric (Tim Matheson), also known as Otto, the confident womanizer of the group, has small moments of self-doubt. Otto is also interesting, in a different way than Bluto, but other than his penchant for bedding as many women as possible, he is not given much depth. It is a missed opportunity because I was actually interested in him as a person instead of just another beer-drinking member of the fraternity.

I wished there had been a more focused rivalry between the Omega and Delta Houses because the material is at its best when the two sides seek revenge against one another. There is an inherent fun in watching Delta Tau Chi—the secondhand underdogs, the campus losers—because the Omega Theta Pi members are willing to grab every opportunity to rub everybody’s noses in their poshness.

The film falls apart toward the end. The chaos in the parade feels like one careless gag after another which is most uninspiring. Instead of the attention being on the students, it becomes more about the repetitive stunts. Unlike a handful of its jokes, the messages it wants to convey about subverting the influence of an unfair person, or persons, in power do not arrive at a rewarding punchline, an ironic or satiric twist.

Directed by John Landis, I appreciated the juvenile sense of humor that “Animal House” offers. It would not have been a letdown if the screenplay had managed to maintain its jovial energy throughout and given the story a proper ending that the audience and characters deserve.



Annabelle (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Observe the first thirty minutes and it will be as clear as a bright sunny day that “Annabelle” is made only for the sake of making money. It is lacks the inspiration to set up a scene properly so that the eventual scares are effective, the creativity to write a genuinely engaging story, and the courage to separate itself from James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” the picture where Annabelle-the-doll is introduced.

The picture takes place a year before paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were asked to investigate a haunting in a nurse’s apartment. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are expecting their baby to be born some time soon, but things begin to go horribly awry when John gives Mia a doll as a present.

It is as if writer Gary Dauberman and director John R. Leonetti did not understand why “The Conjuring” works as an effective horror film. Most important is that this picture is not patient enough. It is too willing to deliver superficial “jolts” far too often—if one is generous enough to call them that—that it fails to garner enough tension and momentum to really pack a punch when it counts. One of the movie’s inspirations is Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Both films involve a pregnant woman and the occult, but the similarities stop there.

The first half is extremely repetitive. Appliances around the house activating on their own is almost always coupled with quick shots of the sewing machine threatening to puncture a pregnant woman’s finger. What does one have to do with the other? I suspected that the filmmakers knew that appliances turning on by themselves is not scary. Therefore, they felt the need to throw in images of a woman’s fingers being threatened by the needle of sewing machine in between. It is such a cynical approach that I found it offensive. There is a scene involving a popcorn on an oven that is taken directly from Wes Craven’s “Scream.” This movie is so bad, I wished it had been a spoof.

As for the couple, Wallis and Horton share no chemistry whatsoever. So when Mia ends up hurt and John is there to comfort her, it is like watching paint dry. I saw two actors uttering lines of a script but not actually feeling the scene. The only performer I found to be making interesting choices at times is Alfre Woodard as the neighbor. But even her character’s backstory is a cliché.

I was not expecting a slasher film à la Chuky the killer doll. But I did expect—as we should—a certain level of intelligence, cohesion, and an attempt at originality. But you know what else I expected? Because of the title, it is implied that we will get to see the doll many times or maybe even learn about its origins. I did not want to see it walking or running around, but I did want shots that show the doll being creepy by simply sitting there with its permanent smile. We learn close to nothing about the doll that the film might as well have been titled, “Pregnant Woman Running Around Screaming.”

“Annabelle” does not have a single subtle bone in its body. Thus, we become inured to its type of scares that the filmmakers set their work to fail. The movie is only an hour and thirty minutes long but it feels much longer than that. You want to see the doll really scare? Watch the first three to five minutes of “The Conjuring” again and spend the rest of the time you would have spent here actually doing or engaging in something that will enrich your life.


La prima cosa bella

Prima cosa bella, La (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

A vocational school teacher, Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), is tracked down by his sister, Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), and informs him that their mother, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), has received a grim diagnosis and that she has only a few days left to live. Reluctant Bruno, wishing minimal contact with his mother for undisclosed reasons, decides to return to his hometown to provide closure to the woman who raised him.

“La prima cosa bella,” also known as “The First Beautiful Thing,” written by Paolo Virzì, Francesco Bruni, and Francesco Piccolo, struggles to find a comfortable footing with its tone so the human emotions that it attempts communicate does not have enough power to ultimately move the audience. The film is divided into three sections: the present involving Anna’s looming demise, the ‘70s recalling Anna’s struggle in protecting and providing for her kids when she left her abusive husband, and the ‘80s providing possible reasons why Bruno became so angry with his mother.

I found myself wanting to relate to the material because I saw a part of myself in Bruno, from his wanting to be taken seriously to his interest in the knowledge embedded in books. However, the more humorous moments tend to overshadow the darkness inherent to the story. For example, the Anna and her family eventually find themselves on the verge of destitution. Anna feels she has to, in a way, prostitute herself to men who can provide for her children and herself. Not enough emphasis is placed on their reality. Instead, amusing situations unfold and funny one-liners are exchanged.

As the young Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti), Ramazzotti is quite convincing as a mother who loves to have fun as much as she loves her children. I enjoyed that despite her carefree attitude, we are never certain if she is a responsible parent. She keeps us on our toes because we grow to care about the children.

While there is a relatively engaging flow between the scenes, the unbearable score is consistently out of touch with the images presented on screen. For instance, when something sad is happening, the background music remains somewhat upbeat. Music designed to lead us on how to feel is not necessary here because its absence would have given us a chance to absorb the situation of the broken family. Because the music is so forceful in suggesting specific feelings, the filmmakers communicate their a lack of complete confidence in the material.

What the film, directed by Paolo Virzi, shows confidence in, however, is showing Bruno, as an adult, lacking the self-esteem to show affection for people, whether it be toward his girlfriend, sister, or mother. He recoils at the idea of someone touching his hand or putting arms around him. This piqued my curiosity and I admired the film’s boldness in not giving an easy answer. A lot of information is given to us abound his formative childhood and teenage years so the answer, or answers, is likely to be in there somewhere. Unlike the obvious music clues, the decision to hold back shows a level of assurance.


The Dreamers

Dreamers, The (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I saw a movie at the Cinémathèque Française I thought, “Only the French… Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.” The movie was Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” Its images were so powerful, it was like being hypnotized. I was 20 years old. It was the late ‘60s and I’d come to Paris for a year to study French.

But it was here that I got my real education. I became a member of what in those days was kind of a free masonry. A free masonry of cinephiles… what we’d call “film buffs.” I was one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.

Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator until worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen really was a screen. It screened us… from the world.

And so it began, my love for films, during the summer just after junior year of high school had come to a welcome close. Bernardo Bertolocci’s “The Dreamers” was a like a thunder shock to my spine that upon seeing it, I sat on the couch, silent and still, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing as the end credits started to creep down, convinced that I had not seen anything like it—and I wanted more. Right then I knew that I had just seen a film that I would carry with me so long as I lived.

The opening credits makes known that it is going to be a physical picture. As names appear on the screen, the background demands that we admire the infrastructure of the Eiffel Tower, the metallic support mostly in black while others are, curiously, in red. The color red usually represents passion and violence. There is violence in the film but it isn’t until the very end. For the most part, it focuses on several kinds of passion, physical and intimate, among three cinephiles—an American from sunny California and two French fraternal twins.

Its physicality is not only defined in terms of sex, nudity, and carnality. It is reflected in how Matthew (Michael Pitt) wears his suits and hair, how Isabelle (Eva Green) finds it a challenge to exist on her own for very long when her brother is not only an arm’s length away, how the posture of Theo (Louis Garrel) is blasé every time his father, a published and successful poet, speaks at the dinner table and yet Theo’s eyes are sharp, just waiting to pick out a ripe moment of hypocrisy. Matthew notices how the length, width, and depth of Isabelle’s cigarette lighter tends to fit in any of the patterns of a table cloth.

One of the picture’s themes is its depiction of Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo as children—that although they talk of politics, they remain cocooned. The trio runs through the Louvre Museum in an attempt to beat the record set by the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part.” Isabelle refers to the American as “my little Matthew” as if she were his big sister. They explore one another’s bodies up close and afar. Notice the innocent appearance of Isabelle’s room. A fort is built in the salon. Listen closely as to how Theo and Matthew try to persuade one another of the merits of either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

Like children, they even play games. When inspiration erupts, either Theo or Isabelle reenact a specific scene in a movie. The other two must try to guess the film. Failure to do so will result in a punishment. And like children, punishments must involve a level of humiliation. Matthew finds the game sadistic and is repelled by it initially. But Isabelle and Theo’s friendship is one he yearns for. He feels as though he has found his soulmate. Only there happens to be two of them. Their relationships are subtle, elegant, and complex.

But all games must come to an end eventually. The film mostly taking place inside an apartment, we see glimpses of the reality—a revolution taking shape—on television, by looking at a massive pile of rubbish in the streets, and observing protestors marching outside. There are blockades and behind them are police. There is a beautiful scene where Matthew takes out Isabelle on a date. It is the only moment in the film that comes closest to a typical love story but it is most welcome because it is earned. It is a glimpse of a future they might have had if they were born and had met a decade before or after. But, alas, it is May 1968.

Based on the screenplay and novel by Gilbert Adair, “The Dreamers” is beautifully photographed, each location—whether it be a room, a restaurant, or a movie theater—is vivid in detail, and wonderfully—and bravely—performed by the three leads. Some viewers may look and dismiss it to be pornographic because of the amount of flesh shown on screen. But others may look and recognize a story of awakening. In a number of ways, it had awoken me.

In retrospect, if it weren’t for this film, I probably would not have been inspired—and continuing to be inspired—to watch whatever movie I could get my hands on. Though my pursuit of knowledge is in science, it is likely that tough times would have gotten the best of me if the movies had not been there constantly to provide a delicate balance between reality and dreams.


Trading Places

Trading Places (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), aging millionaires with too much money on their bank accounts, have a bet. Randolph believes that he can turn a conman, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), whose current scheme is to pretend to be a blind man and a cripple so passersby will feel sorry and give him money, into a respectable commodity broker and an uppity commodity broker, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who is very good at his job, into a contemptuous criminal. On the other hand, Mortimer believes that such a complete transformation is impossible because everyone is born to live a specific lifestyle.

“Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, is marginally funny when it doesn’t try so hard to impress and not at all amusing when it goes through great measures to elicit a laugh. The first and last thirty minutes are effective. The set-up is interesting because it plays upon the classic nature versus nurture debate with enough unexpected lines of dialogue that proves consistently witty—up to a point—which shows promise that the material can really take off as a comedy of manners as well as a social critique of the rich and the poor. We all have a certain perception of the very poor and the very rich. So when Billy Ray starts to steal expensive trinkets in front of people telling him that he does not need to because all of it belong to him anyway, it is absolutely hilarious.

Seeing Murphy and Aykroyd eventually playing against type makes a handful of scenes that do not work, for example Aykroyd’s character pulling out a gun at a Christmas party and threatening to shoot people with it, somewhat tolerable. Likewise, the payoff is engaging because Billy Ray and Winthorpe spend the majority of the time either apart or arguing. It is refreshing to see them interact on a different level and act as the puppeteers in the philosophical game.

The middle portion, however, is a boring wasteland of tired gags with an occasional funny line or two. Even then I was not sure if something genuinely funny was thrown onto my lap or if I just wanted to laugh to shatter the tedium. Furthermore, in order for us to feel sorry for a character, the screenplay relies on clichés.

Winthorpe is shown twice or thrice standing in the rain while looking like a wet, abandoned sheepdog. There is nothing funny about it nor is it an effective way for the audience to sympathize with him. Even though he is a bit spoiled, we already feel bad for him the moment he is framed, sent to prison, and all of his hard work is taken away.

And while I liked the idea of Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute hired to hasten Winthorpe’s downfall but the two actually end up liking each other, there is not enough dramatic pull between the couple. When they kiss, it is awkwardly charming but we are at a loss in terms of what exactly they like about one another. In other words, they are not written as real people. The premise can be contrived but it does not mean that the character must be that way, too.



Singles (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

While admiring cute puppies in front of a pet store, Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) meets Luiz (Camilo Gallardo), a university student from Spain whose visa is about to expire in a few days. Not one to have much luck when it comes to romance, Linda is reluctant at first but she is won over eventually because Luiz knows exactly what to say to her and how. After he supposedly leaves for Spain, however, Linda catches him in a bar with another woman. Linda is furious. She makes a personal promise: she will focus only on her career and not get in a relationship any time soon.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, “Singles” does a good job in setting the pace of three relationships on a precipice of change which is particularly a challenge because dispersed among the three plots are colorful commentaries from people who have recently gotten out of relationships and those looking to get in one. It might have come across gimmicky, trite, than a necessary moments of insight within and outside of the story being told.

While Janet (Bridget Fonda) and Cliff (Matt Dillon) do not have the most interesting romantic relationship, their storyline is arguably the most rewarding because Janet is allowed to change in a meaningful way. Initially, Janet is used as merely a source of comedy due to her unhealthy level of attachment to the grunge-rocker who does not care for her affections. I was annoyed by yet another portrayal of a dumb girl throwing herself onto a man who clearly does not want her. As the screenplay unfolds, I realized that the material wishes to offer a statement. Janet is like liquid: an available man is a container she feels she must fill order to satisfy him.

The messages are geared toward people in twenties. Although the lessons Janet learns about self-esteem and self-empowerment may seem obvious, a lot of young women (and men) will be able to relate to her on some level. For example, there is resonance during moments when she is so desperate to be liked, she actually considers altering her body to fit someone else’s fantasy, or worse, her idea of someone else’s fantasy. While film lampoons her in the beginning, the picture is willing to change gears and allow us to care what might happen to her. Unlike many of the characters in the film, she has real thoughts and insights about what it means to be single and alone versus single and free.

The couple in the centerpiece involves Linda and Steve (Campbell Scott). Their interactions are sweet and romantic but sometimes heartbreaking and forced. Although there are chunks of the film when I felt like I was watching a television series because of the type of conflicts they must deal with, Sedgwick and Scott have a nice chemistry which keeps their storyline afloat. I would have preferred to know more about what Cliff really thinks about Janet. It wouldn’t have hurt the material if it had offered the audience a twist involving the inner-workings of Cliff’s mind. It is difficult to believe that he is stoned all the time and all he seems to care about is his band.

And then there is Debbie (Sheila Kelley): so desperate to no longer be single, she actually advertises herself on television so that she can have a pool of options. It can be argued that the amusing scenes surrounding Debbie make a statement about her relationship with herself. Debbie is the antithesis of Janet because, unlike the latter, the former does not seem at all interested in looking in the mirror and asking difficult questions about what she really wants. And she wonders why nothing seems to work out for her.


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