Amantes pasajeros, Los (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Peninsula 2549 is a plane on its way to Mexico City. A virgin psychic, Bruna (Lola Dueñas), goes inside the cockpit and tells the pilot and co-pilot (Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva) that she senses something big will happen on the flight—that it will be a special day for everyone. She is told a little secret: aside from the folks in business class, the pilots, and the three gay stewards (Raúl Arévalo, Javier Cámara, Carlos Areces), everyone else is drugged in order to prevent a panic—the plane has been flying in circles for some time. There is something wrong with the landing gear and so the plane must land in a special way. They are currently looking for an airport that can accommodate their predicament.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Los amantes pasajeros” is a disappointing misfire. The comedy being as light as a cloud is not the issue. The problem is that the screenplay has no interesting or original story to tell. The film, however, works as a hit-or-miss sketch. Some sections are riotously funny, a few are worthy of chuckles, and some fall completely flat, lifeless, boring.
I am convinced that even Almodóvar was aware that the material lacks a special something in order to keep it afloat, so to speak. So, he makes us sit through subplots that feel completely forced. One that stunned me because it is so out of place involves an actor (Guillermo Toledo) who calls his suicidal girlfriend. For a while the picture puts us on the ground but it serves no point. Are we supposed to learn something about the actor? The women he loves? Is the idea of romantic love being satirized? Because the approach is so broad, the message or the point, if any, is vague and confusing.
Even one character who is potentially interesting—because she is so unpleasant—fails to entertain. Norma (Cecilia Roth) acts as though everyone else is beneath her. On top of that, she is paranoid, dominating, and yet she can be open given enough… inspiration added to her drink. Although she talks a lot, there is only one thing that is surprising about her. Even the bit of surprise is not worth the wait.
The focus of “I’m So Excited!” should have been on the crew. One of the funniest bits involves the three fabulously effeminate stewards performing a dance to The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” They are so lively and out there that I felt like I was having a great time in a Vegas cabaret show (while I’m intoxicated). Why can’t the rest of the movie have that level of ferocity? The Almodóvar that I am used to is someone who constantly pushes the envelope and knows what works on screen consistently. You know what would have made that scene funnier? If the actors actually sang the song. I would not have cared if the singing were bad. It would have been a bigger risk and taking risks is what great filmmaking is about.
I also enjoyed some of the jokes about sexuality—bisexuality, to be exact—between the pilot and co-pilot. I think Almodóvar wishes to comment on how we, as a society, are so willing to subscribe to a label that by doing so, sometimes it prevents us not only from having a good time and being open to experiences but also from finding happiness. There is a minute trace of seriousness behind some of the jabs and they would have had more impact if the writer-director did not prescribe to making a light comedy from end to end.
Nightmare Before Christmas, The (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of doing the same ghoulish activities every Halloween. Walking in the forest all night for a spark of inspiration, he stumbles upon doors that lead to different towns of major holidays. The one that grabs Jack’s attention is the door with a Christmas tree painted on it. Christmas Town is the antithesis of his own. Instead of shrieks, laughter pervades the air, the place’s warm colors reflect the gleeful feeling of giving and good cheer. Jack feels it his duty to introduce Christmas to his friends.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” based on the screenplay by Caroline Thompson, is so beautiful to look at because the stop animation is exacting about its grim and delectable details. From the moment the audiences are thrusted into Halloween Town, accompanied by an excellent song, its citizens may look macabre at first glance but upon closer inspection, most of them can pass as adorable–even huggable. For instance, I could not help but be drawn to the pudgy zombie with his eyes sewn shut, cackling witches with warts taking over their noses, and the way the vampires’ tweedy dead fingers move each time they express an emotion or reach a high note.
As much as I admired that the screenplay willingly takes some risks by forcing us to identify with characters that are not classically bonny, I enjoyed it on another level because it has a handful of creepy details. Sally (Catherine O’Hara) is not a happy rag doll created by the controlling Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey). He is desperate to keep her inside his lab to tend to his every need.
Sally, happier when exploring outside and admiring Jack from afar, concocts poisons and sneaks them in her creator’s food, essentially killing him. But this fact is likely go over children and most adults’ heads. Since everybody in town is already dead, the scientist’s deaths are attributed to simple cases of “blacking out.” The idea that death is an unfamiliar concept in Halloween Town is supported by Sally jumping out from a tower and “surviving.”
The picture does not retreat from taking risks as the plot unfolds. There are kidnappings, pounding toys and animals with a hammer, and decapitated heads being packed into Christmas presents. I wished, however, that the villain, Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), a giant sac with a penchant for gambling, were more developed. Naturally, Oogie Boogie and Jack must face each other eventually, but the confrontation is not thrilling or suspenseful enough because the enemy’s endgame is not really clear. One can easily argue that the villain is merely acting upon his nature as do most citizens in town.
Nevertheless, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” directed by Henry Selick, has a uniqueness still unmatched after all these years. Its level of imagination tickled the kid inside me and made me wish Halloween Town were a real place.
Flores Raras (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Though it is slightly out of her comfort zone to travel, American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) decides to visit an old friend from college in Brazil. Mary (Tracy Middendorf) just so happens to “live with a woman” named Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires), an architect who is very passionate about her work, so passionate that she is continually remodeling her country estate in Petrópolis. The plan is to stay for three days—a long enough time span for Elizabeth to catch the attention of Lota. Three days extended to weeks and soon Mary is out the door and Elizabeth is moving in permanently.
Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s book, “Flores raras e banalíssimas,” and adapted to the screen by Matthew Chapman, Julie Sayres, and Carolina Kotscho, “Reaching for the Moon” is a beautifully executed love story between two women who fall in love but their own personal demons are so strong that either they are not able to give themselves to one another completely or their feelings for each other are always out of synch. Their constant struggle to connect fully—without shame, without insecurities—is worth looking into.
I have trouble when it comes to writers being portrayed in the movies. They are usually shown as these strange creatures who whine a lot about their comfortable lives for no good reason. Usually I respond with annoyance; often I respond with great frustration. So it is a nice surprise that Elizabeth is actually depicted as a real human being. I enjoyed how Otto infuses small but dark qualities in her character without making her unlikeable or detaching her completely from a good person with a wonderful talent for stringing words together. This way, the alcoholism feels real in that the duality is apparent—and painful to watch—in scenes where Elizabeth is intoxicated.
I loved what Pires has done with her character. There is a danger to her portrayal of Lota because of the decision to make her masculine. But the performer does not rely on stereotypes. She uses our expectations as a template to surprise us. As a result, when Lota’s more sensitive moments come into light, we are delighted or devastated. There is no in-between and that polarity makes us want to get to know the character more.
Interior and exterior shots are disarmingly arresting. When the camera shows the beauty of the spacious estate, I wanted to jump inside the screen to caress the grass, sit on the benches, play in the water. When it shows the inside of a house or a building, I wanted to stand in front of the shelves so I can learn what kind of books the characters read, to discover the contents of the drawers, to feel the texture of the rug. In other words, a convincing version of a real life is shown on screen. It is most inviting.
However, some sections of the second half are problematic in terms or pacing and level of depth. When the ‘50s and ‘60s Brazilian politics enter the picture, there is less of an emotional pull not because the backdrop is not interesting but because the screenplay does not provide enough sufficient details for someone who may not be familiar with the history of Brazil. When politics come to a boiling point which run parallel to the couple’s emotional and psychological drainage, there is not much of an impact.
Directed by Bruno Barreto, “Reaching for the Moon” might have been better off as an immersive three-hour film. I felt as though some of its scope and depth are sacrificed for the sake of having a more digestible running time. Lota and Elizabeth are two very passionate and accomplished individuals—whether they are a couple or not. In movies that portray two people in a relationship, showing that quality with honesty is rare. Therefore, no compromises should have been made.
Invention of Dr. NakaMats, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Yoshiro Nakamatsu, more popularly known as Dr. NakaMats, claims that the main problem that man currently faces is how to prolong life. About to turn eighty years of age within a few weeks, this problem is of particular interest to him because he wishes to live for sixty more years to have the chance to create useful products that can benefit the world.
“The Invention of Dr. NakaMats,” directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder, turns its lens on an eccentric specimen who may or may not have delusions of grandeur. Because of such a professional, astute, and slightly intimidating aura that radiates from him, I was ready to believe everything he has to say. For example, he is so assuring when stating that he, in fact, had invented the floppy disk. (After a Goggle search, his claim remains unsupported.) However, that is not to suggest that he had not invented anything. Some of his work are even patented.
The film’s title has a sharp double meaning. On one hand, the star of the documentary are the various items that Dr. NakaMats created. I wanted to know more about the so-called Brain Drink, a mishmash of medical herbs designed to enhance the brain’s functions, and the accompanying scientific data that support what Dr. NakaMats claims it is supposed to accomplish. Another item of interest is the “Love Jet,” a spray for women which purportedly helps to sexually satisfy them. Although a handful of women agree to appear on camera to express the product’s effectiveness, some things do not quite add up. How convenient that neither Dr. NakaMats nor the filmmakers ever bother to explain how it works. It just does.
On the flip side, I wondered if the film is really more about the invention of a person. This made me feel uneasy because there are specific details that underline the flaws of being human. We learn about the inventions as well as the inventor’s values. For example, there is an emphasis on Dr. NakaMats’ affections toward his deceased mother. The visit to the cemetery and the emotions that comes with it feels genuine. I believe there are some things that even the most talented and hard-working illusionists cannot conceal. With Dr. NakaMats, it is in the way he speaks so fondly of his mother, how smart and hard-working she was, and how she inspired him to be man full of vibrant energy, despite his age, to the point where simply listening to him speak for only a short time is a source of entertainment because of his wit.
Moreover, he shares about two or three interactions with his children which prove to be very awkward. When they approach him and he does not approve of how it plays out, he asks them to back to where they were and, essentially, “reshoot” the “scene.” They agree passively. Unlike Dr. NakaMats’ attitude toward his dead mother, the interactions between he and his children are mostly cold. When Dr. NakaMats attempts to hug his daughter, notice she does not return the embrace. Why not? Is it a case of a cultural difference? Is she simply a shy person and is not one to show affection while out in public especially when cameras are around? Or is the woman next to him not really his daughter?
“The Invention of Dr. NakaMats” is very involving and uncomfortable at times. I enjoyed it because such qualities manage to keep me on my toes, inspiring me to think if what I am really seeing is the truth. In a way, I felt like a kid again. Most of us can remember being young and an adult trying so hard to convince us that a story or idea is true even though deep in our gut we feel that the person is blatantly lying. Watching this movie is exactly like that and it is… almost genius.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer-songwriter whose career is stuck in mud. He is certainly very talented but his unwillingness to bend from what he thinks is best has likely cost him a real shot at making it big. Combine his inflexibility with an inaccessible personality and circumstances that often lean toward bad luck, every day is an upstream battle. He does not even have a place to sleep.
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the look, the mood, and the right actors but it lacks one important element: a reason for us to wish to see the next scene. Though it is not without a sense of humor, the picture is one note in that things are simply allowed to happen to the main character. We watch Llewyn sleepwalk through his rotting career. Since a series of unfortunate turn of events do not have much depth to them, Llewyn’s journey is most depressing.
The film jolts to life when the protagonist performs with nothing but his voice and a guitar. I enjoyed the way Isaac allows Llewyn to be vulnerable when singing and a wall once again when the melody stops. It communicates that the man is not entirely incapable of connecting. Perhaps he is afraid or hurt or simply not ready. In a way, a part of him died after Mike, his musical partner, committed suicide.
The Coen brothers know how to frame the performances. Oftentimes the camera is up close: from the waist up with occasional close-ups during the chorus. They put us in the front row so that we can relish the tiny emotions of the faces and voices. Though the perspective pulls back once in a while to capture the space between the artist and the audiences, our connection to the performances are not allowed to waver. This is best shown when Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” to Mr. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a producer in Chicago.
When the songs stop, so does our involvement. The wait is about three to five scenes until the next one. In some ways, the structure of picture likens that of a mediocre album: the first two songs are great, the next three are passable followed by a good one, and then a few more fillers until a memorable track. There is an imbalance to film that I found almost unbearable. Couple that with a slow pacing, it becomes a challenge not to get frustrated.
Despite the dark brooding in the marrow of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the lack of substance is astonishing. Halfway through, I asked myself: “Am I enjoying this movie as a whole so far or are the songs keeping this thing afloat?” I leaned toward the latter. Since the centerpiece is the soundtrack with accompanying visuals, perhaps the Coen brothers might have been better off releasing a series of music videos.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Over the years, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has learned to expect the worst. Upon first impression, she lacks an air of joviality or a zest for life. For someone so young, she looks unhappy, tired, and it appears as though she has given up on many things that should matter. Working as an intern for Seattle Magazine, it is no surprise when she quickly volunteers to cover a story that involves a man who put up an ad asking for people interested in going back in time with him. Darius considers it to be a win-win situation. If the person turns out to be crazy and article is a success, it might lead to a promotion. But if what is advertised is in fact a possibility, it will give her a chance to change her past.
While “Safety Not Guaranteed,” directed by Colin Trevorrow, is not short of ambition, it might have been a more complete and fulfilling experience by doing one of two things: to have no subplot and a shorter running time or to have a longer running time with a more fleshed out subplot. Instead, it sits somewhere in between: moving forward at a constant pace but not taking enough risks by embracing extremes. Our interest goes on autopilot after a while.
At least there is a semblance of freshness in the relationship between Darius and Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who claims to have successfully gone back to the past. What they have is complicated given that Darius choosing to acquaint herself with the guy is essentially rooted upon deception so she can get to know him well enough prior to writing the article.
Plaza is very good in conveying a certain level of toughness in Darius without letting go of her character’s amusing quirks and acerbic sarcasm. It is easier for a performer to reduce Darius to a stereotypical angry punk rocker given her penchant for eye liners, dark clothing, serious demeanor. Instead, the protagonist is played with some insight and is allowed to react like any other person when a handed a surprising turn of events. Throughout the course of her experience with Kenneth, the subtle changes in her challenge us to catch up to her thoughts which makes her intentions a little harder to categorize.
It is unfortunate that their possible romantic connection is interrupted by a subplot involving Jeff (Jake Johnson), Darius’ superior, wanting to reconnect so badly with a former one-time flame. Perhaps its point is to relay the idea that holding onto the past and, given the opportunity, changing it to meet a fantasy is like watching—and being entertained by—one person attempting to push a five-ton boulder up a mountain. While appropriate given the plot’s themes, there is nothing much to it and other the character being a source of amusement.
In other words, most of us already know why the past should remain the past. The screenplay does not bother to further question or explore the human condition of wishing things to be different than they are. It fails as an effective and involving subplot that runs parallel to the central relationship. Worse, on a more basic level, it interrupts the flow of what is brewing between Darius and Kenneth.
Another missed opportunity involves the second intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), so severely underused that he might as well not have been a part of the investigation. Although he is given three or four funny lines to say, we do not get a chance to get to know him as well as Darius or Jeff. Why have him there in the first place?
Written by Derek Connolly, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is smart to leave its ending open to interpretation, but it is not entirely enthralling experience because some key elements that lead up to that point are a struggle to sit through at times. For a movie about a possible time travel, I kept wishing it would fast forward through its more somniferous clichés.
Furious 6 (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is in a pinch: desperate to capture the group responsible for taking down an entire military convoy in Russia, he seeks help from Toretto (Vin Diesel), leader of a successful multimillion dollar heist in Rio, now a retired international criminal. The main suspect is Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), believed to be assembling a tech bomb that can blind a country for twenty-four hours. But Toretto needs a good reason to give aid. Hobbs is one step ahead: inside a manila envelope is a photo of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto’s former girlfriend, who is long believed to be dead.
“The Fast and the Furious” franchise enjoys a luxury that many other franchises do not possess: as each installment gets crazier, the more entertaining it becomes. More than ever, the chemistry among the actors feel exactly right, the action sequences are so out of this world—but well-executed—that its defiance against adhering to the laws of physics is not only welcome but expected, and it is a hell of a good time.
The wow factor is clearly present. Director Justin Lin has an eye for creating the most ridiculous chase scenes. A standout involves a chase after a botched Interpol mission in London. Though its sleek style is clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it does not settle for being a cheap carbon copy. The inspiration is in spirit but the presentation is signature: fast and ridiculously expensive cars crashing against each other and whatever is in the way. Pair these elements with a high-spirited score and sound effects as well as well-timed jokes and a sinking sensation that the good guys have little to no chance of coming out on top, a suspenseful action picture results.
The villain is interesting because Evans plays him quietly. The less he speaks, the more I wished to know more about him. His actions communicate a lot on their own. Thus, it is somewhat of a surprise that one scene rings completely false: Owen telling Toretto about his code. The former discusses the value of precision in their line of work. The entire scene feels too scripted—like it is designed solely to spell everything out for the audience.
A little detour in the US involving O’Conner (Paul Walker) cripples the pacing of the film just before the halfway point. I began to wonder if the material is creating some padding. If so, why? If the point was to enhance the story or the character, it does not succeed in either. This is usually a problem with the majority of movies that are over two hours long.
But once the action picks up again, it is difficult to look away: hand-to-hand battles that climax in a subway station, a chase involving a tank that weighs thirty tons (and demolishing everything in its path), and a plane being prevented from taking off. Each one is highly entertaining. I even caught myself saying “Ooh!” (“That’s got to hurt.”) and gasping out of sheer horror or disbelief.
The script may not be the film’s strongest point—there are a few corny lines—but the visuals more than make up for it. I came out of the movie wanting to drive my car really, really fast. That’s how I know it has done its job.