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For All Mankind

For All Mankind (1989)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After going over several million feet of original film from none other than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, along with hours of interviews and mission recordings from cosmonauts, director Al Reinert created a collage of various Apollo and Gemini missions that just have to be seen to be believed. It is most special that the film is pure in that it does not contain one footage that has been already shown in the media.

Although the documentary offers images that are literally out of this world, it is first and foremost a human experience. The comments we hear often relate to mankind’s tendency to be curious and how it must be like to discover or experience something new. Out of all the fascinating voices, I loved listening to T. Kenneth Mattingly II most. His words are wrapped in philosophy and sense of wonder. His voice is soothing without a hint of irony. Couple these qualities with the images that showcase the majesty of space and we feel a most uplifting spiritual experience.

When he admitted that he did not know how to do most of the mission but knew how to do his piece, it made him very relatable. A lot of us tend to hold astronauts in impossibly high regard. It is nice to hear an astronaut admit to the fact that he was not very knowledgeable about the specifics of how things worked. He knew only what he was trained to do.

The images are so mesmerizing, I found it difficult not to blink in the attempt to capture it all. It was just so cool that none of the wondrous images is created by special and visual effects. The illuminated surface of the moon against the blackness of space is the ultimate contrast—the known and the unknown, what we have accomplished and everything that is left to be discovered. Also, since the moon’s environment is so alien, actions like picking up a rock or tripping over the lunar surface becomes worthy of our attention.

It is not a regurgitation of facts but a celebration. We see astronauts hopping about the moon while singing, humming, and laughing—very similar to children having the best time on a playground. Their joy radiates through their space suits. A fun bit involves one of the astronauts letting go of a hammer and feather at the same in order to test Galileo’s theory involving motion of falling bodies. Another astronaut describes to us the troubles of using the restroom in zero gravity. He leaves very little to the imagination.

“For All Mankind,” with a powerful but never overpowering score by Brian Eno, is a quilt of the many doors we have opened in outer space and the infinite others yet to be discovered. It is most appropriate to be shown to young people because it might inspire them not necessarily to visit other celestial bodies but to dream a little bigger, reconnect and stay connected to that curiosity to explore, and feel proud for the advancements in science given our short time as a species on Earth.



DUFF, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed by a childhood friend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), now a jock and the most popular boy in school, that out of her group of friends, she is considered to be “The DUFF,” acronym for the designated ugly fat friend. A classic symptom: The boys approaching her and asking about Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Styler Samuels), both beautiful and talented in different ways. In order to prove that she is not a DUFF, Bianca separates herself from her two best friends to go after Toby (Nick Eversman), a classmate she has had her eye on for some time.

Based on the novel by Kody Kiplinger and screenplay by Josh A.Cagan, “The DUFF,” is supposed to empower high school students who feel like they are not beautiful on the outside, but the film is so heavy-handed with its messages that it comes across rather disingenuous or fake. It does not help that the protagonist has a proclivity toward whining and moping around when she does not get her way so it makes it difficult to root for her. Regardless, the material has a few sweet moments and clever lines of dialogue to make a tolerable final product.

The heart of the picture is the friendship between Bianca and Wesley. Although they do not look like high school students at all, Whitman and Amell do share some chemistry so their characters’ banters are convincingly fun and flirtatious. The problem with their relationship is not where it is heading but the details of their getting to know one another. Observe the scene where Bianca learns a little bit about Wesley’s home life. It feels like from a completely different movie; the sudden shift in tone made me wonder if we are supposed to like Wesley more just because of issues at home. Even if that isn’t the case, that piece of information is never again brought up for further elaboration.

That is the main problem in the film: its annoying habit of introducing strands that never come into fruition. Another example: After Bianca gets into a fight with her best friends, we rarely hear from them again until it is time to reconcile. The most successful and memorable movies for teenagers have effortless, effervescent flow: we really feel like we are walking in the shoes of the characters we are supposed to relate with. Here, I always felt like I was an observer, only occasionally relating with the protagonist.

The adults at school (Ken Jeong, Romany Malco) are written as clichés in that they are unable to relate with the young people they see every day. We never get the impression that they genuinely care about their students. It does not make any sense. Worse, the student-teacher relationship likens that of those found on television sitcoms doomed to be cancelled mid-season. Do not get me started on the so-called relationship between Bianca and her mother (Allison Janney). Human relationships are one-dimensional here.

Directed by Ari Sandel, “The DUFF” is portraying edge rather than being edgy. If one looks back to teen movie classics like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” and Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” they dance to their own grooves. They take many risks that pay off. In this film, the writing is nothing special, often safe, simply recycling ideas from its inspirations.


Gegen die Wand

Gegen die Wand (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

Cahit (Birol Ünel) crashed his vehicle onto a wall after he was kicked out of a bar for disorderly conduct. Recovering in a psychiatric clinic, Cahit bumps into Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a woman with the tendency of cutting her wrists when her life becomes unbearable. Although they do not know each other at all, Sibel asks Cahit to marry her. According to Sibel, their sham marriage will give her an alibi to move out of her parents’ house and live life according to her rules.

Written and directed by Fatih Akin, “Gegen die Wand,“ also known as “Head-On,” explores love in a manner that does not feel false or contrived. It begins with a small but important commonality between two people: the need to have someone who understands what it is like to want to reject one’s culture in hopes of finding a better one and then branches into deeper connections like friendship and partnership. Cahit and Sibel have, to say the least, rough and volatile personalities.

I enjoyed the film for its honesty. The writer-director is not afraid to make us feel sorry or embarrassed for his protagonists as they take solace in random hook-ups and drugs. Every time Cahit takes someone to bed, we watch him perform like he has something to prove or that he wants to be reminded so badly that he is still alive, still able to feel sensations that a “normal” person can feel. Sometimes the sex is titillating, other times it just comes across as awkward.

Likewise, each time Sibel snorts cocaine, there is a happiness about her because she has completely bought into the illusion that just because her parents no longer track her every move, that what she has attained is freedom. In a reality, she has only moved from one kind of prison to another. The fact that she is depressed coupled with her taking stimulants is such a toxic combination, it is actually scary to watch. It cannot be mistaken that the duo lives very sad lives—a cycle of self-hatred, self-pity, and apathy. There are times when the picture shows no mercy in portraying people living on the edge of life and death.

Sometimes it appears as though the characters could care less if they lived or died but I found myself continuing to feel for them. Whenever each is faced with a life-changing decision, I hoped that they would choose to do the right thing even though they most likely would not. The film is most interesting in that about halfway through, it changes gears by forcing Cahit and Sibel to mature. It is hard to watch them deal with the repercussions of their actions but it is most necessary. The jump forward in time is handled with maturity and wisdom. We grow curious if remnants of their former selves remain. Are people really able to change completely?

I admired the film’s scope and vision. Due to its depth and complexity, one can interpret the story several ways. Despite its darkness, one might argue that it is a beautiful story about self-worth. Because if Cahit and Sibel did not have a glimmer of it somewhere within, they would not have had the will to fight against the tide.


You’re Next

You’re Next (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

It is the thirty-fifth anniversary of Aubrey and Paul (Barbara Crampton, Rob Moran) so they invite their grown kids to their vacation home, unaware that their neighbor next door was massacred the night before. Dinner is served and barely two minutes into what should have been a nice meal, an argument between brothers (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) explodes. As upset voices fill the room, a guest is hit by an arrow, shot by someone from outside.

“You’re Next,” written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, is slightly better than an average slasher flick for one reason: a final girl named Erin (Sharni Vinson) who is worth rooting for until the very last second. On the other hand, its premise, masked strangers terrorizing a family, is painfully standard. It only gets better when unexpected pitch-black humor, such as a line uttered by someone who is badly hurt, surfaces.

The first half is stronger than the latter half. I enjoyed watching panicked people running around the house as they try to gather the fact that someone outside wants to kill them. The material finds a few creative ways to move a group of people from one room to another despite an avid shooter picking off the weakest links. Here, the screams of terror works even though lines like, “We’re gonna die!” cheapen the moment a little bit. One of the most effective scenes involves Aubrey having a meltdown as she watches one of her children die.

But the star of the picture, appropriately, is the survivor. In horror movies, I always find it annoying when a whiny weakling makes it to the final act or, worse, survives. Erin is the antithesis of a dumb blonde who asks, “Is anyone there? …Hello?” while entering a dark room with no weapon—and no chance. Erin is tough mentally. She makes brisk movements. She is always looking around for whatever she can use to defend herself. She knows what to do with the weapons. She can be creative when resources are limited. Most importantly, she is given enough background to make the fight in her believable.

The masked murderers are not interesting at all. While we are given to understand their motivation, there is not much substance to them except to look sinister as their image is reflected on glass. The problem is that they are not as smart as the heroine. Still, some of the kills are inspired. I liked the one where a masked figure traps one of his victims, lying on the ground, and uses an ax as if he were playing crochet. Though one anticipates the crunching sound of a skull being split open, one still cannot help but flinch.

Those who make careless claims that “You’re Next” is innovative need to get their eyes checked—or watch more horror movies. It is entertaining during some parts and at times it falls completely flat due to the lack of energy and precise execution while tension is supposed to be escalating. We are given a good protagonist but the screenplay requires more work in order for the final product to be truly worthwhile.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The so-called simian flu having wiped out half of the planet’s entire population, a small faction that remains, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), hopes to fix a dam and reactivate electricity. Doing so will allow them to send a transmission and reconnect with other survivors. However, the dam is located within the territory of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, many of which have grown to fear and hate humans.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, is highly visually-driven, at times a feast for the eyes, but it lacks well-established human characters that function as Caesar’s sounding board. As a result, the story is only interesting up to a point and while the images are beautiful, the material is not emotionally involving overall. And with its overextended finale, it challenges the patience.

The computerized apes are convincing especially when their faces are front and center. There is a humanity in their eyes which is important because it helps us to buy into the gamut of emotions they have toward each other and those who threaten their existence. Perhaps most entertaining are the interactions between Caesar and Koba, the latter driven by revenge for having been treated badly by humans. Although both are apes, there is a significant difference between the way they act and reason. The former is very human-like while the other likens that of a rabid dog.

The apes eventually do speak but it is most effective when they communicate via sign language. With the latter, we get a sense of their camaraderie and culture. The former, on the other hand, comes across too forced. At times I found the speaking patterns to be uneven. For instance, earlier in the film, pronouns are uncommonly used. Later on, it is more prolific. Thus, the difference sounds jarring.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), volunteer to go to ape territory and fix the machines that will enable the dam to work again. It is reasonable to expect that at least one of them will be a viable character worthy of exploration by the screenplay actively establishing subtleties and various shades with respect to human-ape relationships.

Instead, the changes that Malcolm goes through, if any, are quite elementary and so quickly presented that a believable arc is not created. And although there are instances when these characters are thrown into grave danger, I did not feel particularly moved by whatever fate awaits them. I grew worrisome of the possibility of yet another speech denoting how much they care about each other.

Directed by Matt Reeves, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” entertains on a visual level during the first hour or so but when firearms in the latter half get involved, there is a certain level of detachment often found in shoot-‘em-up action films. While I liked the subtle differences in firearm technical proficiency between apes and humans, this detail is not enough to save a limp, rather brainless third act.


The Book of Life

Book of Life, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★

“The Book of Life ” is written so blandly by Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Douglas Langdale, the rather unique animation—the characters looking blocky and very marionette-like—is overshadowed by a screenplay that challenges the audience to keep their eyes open. One would think that because the animation looked so distinct, the material would strive to be more compelling or unique, full of surprises. This is not the case and thus the picture is not only a big disappointment, I felt like it was a waste of film.

La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), leaders of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, respectively, make a wager involving three childhood friends. Maria (Zoe Saldana) has won the hearts of both Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) but she must eventually decide who she wishes to marry. La Muerte thinks that Maria will choose Manolo while Xibalba believes Joaquin has it in the bag. Who will Maria choose?

I felt no passion writing that last paragraph because the story is as standard as it sounds. There is no excitement in the story because right from the very beginning, we suspect who Maria will choose ultimately—and she does. And while the script does show good qualities of each man, there is still a lack of tension or drama because there is an obvious and constant leaning toward one character both in terms of character design and what he stands for. We never believe that Maria would ever choose the alternative.

Listening to renditions of various songs from pop culture is like enduring the sounds of nails being scraped on a chalkboard. A tip: If one were brave enough to offer a rendition, it should at least be as good or better than the original material. Otherwise, it comes across laughable, lazy, and out of nowhere. It appears as though a lot of effort is put into making the picture, so why didn’t the filmmakers take a chance and create original songs?

The idea is to make money, right? So let us Look at Disney animated films. Despite mediocre efforts, like Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s “Frozen,” because more than a handful of songs are either endearing or memorable, sometimes both, it made a lot of money. Sometimes the songs themselves can sell a movie. Yes, part of the game is to make money but another part is to get people to actually see the work. The animation here, solely from a visual standpoint because I had not seen anything like it before, is worth seeing.

Genuine comedy, subtle cues, and creativity are drowned by mindless action, from bulls charging at a matador to bandits terrorizing a small town. It is difficult to care about what is happening because we never grow close to the characters. Other than wanting to marry the girl, Manolo and Joaquin do not seem to have a specific motivation that everybody can relate with at one point or another. We deserve much better than this.


Une vie de chat

Vie de chat, Une (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Still mourning over the death of her father, young Zoé (voiced by Lauren Weintraub) is rendered unable to speak. Since her mother, Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden), is too busy trying to catch a mob boss (JB Blanc) who plans to steal an invaluable statue, they barely have any time to interact in a meaningful way and attempt to move on from their loss as a family. Meanwhile, Zoé’s cat, Dino, goes out for a walk each night and partners with Nico (Steve Blum) to steal valuable jewels from the wealthy.

“Une vie de chat,” based on the screenplay by Alain Gagnol, offers an old-fashioned hand-drawn animation but it is nonetheless interesting to look at because the action and the drama draw us in to look closer at its details.

It is immediately noticeable that the objects that surround the characters appear one-dimensional with the exception of things they wear and hold with their hands. The items they touch are often extreme elements: a gun signifying danger or a crayon denoting innocence. Another detail worth noticing is the lack of background movement—for instance, wind caressing the trees’ leaves or a flock birds making their way across Paris—when characters step outside their homes, thus contributing to the flatness of the canvas. Since Zoé is stuck in a state of grief, one has to wonder whether she sees the world as flat because she is so numbed by what has happened to her father.

The picture offers wonderful moments of comedy, too. I enjoyed that the mob boss’ henchmen are given distinct personalities, not just mean-looking crooks who do what they are told like well-trained dogs. By making them amusing, the material remains appropriate for children and the chase scenes have an entertainment value to them other than quenching our curiosities in terms of whether or not they will be successful in their assignment.

The mob boss, Victor Costa, is also interesting to watch. Instead of simply being the one to call out orders and getting angry when things do not go his way, he is actually involved in the action. It is ironic that he is paying his incompetent henchmen to perform actions that he almost always end up doing himself.

However, what the film lacks is more scenes of Zoé interacting with Dino as a pet, confidant, and friend. There is not a lot of magic, sense of wonder, or even camaraderie shared between them and so when the cat’s life is threatened, I was neither especially alarmed by the fact nor did I felt protective of the feline. In order words, the screenplay does not overcome the blasé nature of a domestic cat, a shame because Dino’s face has tribal-like marks which suggest he is probably more interesting than we expect. I had to wonder if Dino had been more engaging if the screenplay had allowed us to read his mind or had some form of narration from his point of view.

Nevetheless, “A Cat in Paris,” directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, delivers plenty of visual creativity despite its thin and familiar plot. The scene I admired most is the way in which the animators use simple white lines set against the dark when all the lights are compromised in a maisonette. It is a surprising change, nicely executed, which is reflective of the filmmakers’ willingness to experiment with and push our expectations.



Cinderella (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.

Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.

The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.

James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.

I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.

There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.

“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.


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