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Sisters (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★

After appearing on a game show called “Peeping Tom,” Danielle (Margot Kidder), a model and a some time actress, decides to go to dinner with her co-star, Phillip (Lisle Wilson). The date is going smoothly until they are interrupted by Emil (William Finley), Danielle’s ex-husband, who insists that she go home with him immediately.

The next morning, Grace (Jennifer Salt), a reporter for The Staten Island Panorama, notices something strange going on across her apartment. She sees Phillip writing “HELP” in blood on one of Danielle’s windows so she calls the police immediately. But when Grace and two cops search Danielle’s place, there is no body to be found nor is there other evidence that an act of violence had taken place.

“Sisters,” directed by Brian De Palma, is an effective chiller with a healthy balance of camp, suspense, and intrigue. It is apparent that the director enjoys capturing Kidder on film because of her physical beauty along with the heavy French-Canadian accent she employs for her character. There is a certain air of tranquility when the actress’ face is front and center, talking about whatnots, her skin glowing.

Contrast Danielle’s delicateness and elegance to Salt’s self-assertive Grace, her name so ironic and yet so amusing in her own way because she knows what she wants and how to get her way exactly. At times she gets so pushy, she has no problem telling everyone how to do their jobs, from the cops sent by the station to the private detective (Charles Durning) hired by her employers.

Most tense sequences involve the missing dead body. Whenever the camera observes in and around the apartment in question, there is a growing sense of dread, accompanied by a nicely paced suspenseful score by Bernard Herrmann. It is difficult to deny that a material is good when we are given the knowledge where the body is located but we still bite our lips at the slightest possibility of error.

Admittedly, there are actually moments when I did not want the body to be found just so that the tease would last a little bit longer. I was tickled by Grace’s suspicions. It is like watching a great game of hide-and-seek only there is absolutely no chance of the person hiding will jump out of his or her spot because, well, he or she dead. Another masterful trick in Brian De Palma and Louise Rose’s screenplay concerns a sudden shift of interest. While the first half focuses on the corpse, the second half is more about identity and the questions surrounding truths and lies.

However, a critical misstep of the film is the employment of plot conveniences such as conversations suddenly turning into gargantuan hints, possible red herrings, designed for us to make sense of the increasingly bizarre mystery. While it is understandable that seeds are required to be dispersed so that we do not feel cheated by the eventual twists later on, more obvious clues are not necessary.

“Sisters” uses split-screens well. When the technique is used, my eyes are like ping pong balls because both sides of the screen offer something worth seeing. Since my eyes and brain are always involved, it never feels like there is a wasted moment.


The Giver

Giver, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

After an event only referred to as The Ruin, the Elders (the chief elder played by Meryl Streep) decided to erase all humanity’s memories of the past in order to create a new society defined by true equality. People’s ability to choose is also taken away and the Elders must be respected for never erring. Although people have lived in serenity since then, acts of evil remain—only the practices are more sleuth and hidden behind euphemisms like “release” and “Elsewhere.”

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “The Giver” brims with potential in terms of its capacity to entertain, to get us to be involved emotionally, and to dazzle us in such a way that very few dystopian films aimed at young adults have achieved. Instead, the final work comes across superficial, rushed, and laughable at times due to its glaring contradictions. The screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide does not provide an effective transition between novel and film so, in the end, there is only potential and mediocrity.

At least it offers some visual splendor. The first third of the picture is in black-and-white to denote a society that is devoid of diversity, flavor, and excitement. As our protagonist begins to learn more about the tyranny imposed upon his community, spots of color are more easily seen—by him as well as the audience.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is assessed to have all four traits that could make an excellent receiver of memory: intelligence, courage, integrity, and the capacity to see beyond. He is required to visit The Giver (Jeff Bridges) on a daily basis in order for him to receive the memory of the past—good and bad. But the stark differences between the past and present inspire Jonas to challenge the current system. He feels that the memories should not be contained but be given to everybody.

Underwritten characters are abound. While Jonas can be relatively interesting at times because of Thwaites’ ability to convey innocence and determination, we do not completely get under the skin of the lead character’s inner thoughts and personal turmoil. Thus, he is not a believable savior, certainly not someone we can imagine making it through the challenges given by those in charge. Compared to well-written leads in recent dystopian pictures targeted toward teenagers, such as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” series and Thomas in “The Maze Runner” series, Jonas is too bland, without a modicum of urgency and innate fire.

I did not buy into the friendships whatsoever. Scenes involving Fiona (Odeya Rish) and Asher (Cameron Monghan) are a complete bore. We do not learn anything about their lives, let alone how they think or what it is about them that are drawn to one another. They are defined only by their actions toward the end to prove whether or not their friendship with Jonas is strong. The same critique can be applied to Jonas’ family. Mother (Katie Holmes) and Father (Alexander Skarsgård) lack dimension so when they are required to do anything, there is no tension prior to their supposedly defining decisions.

The only moments with a glimmer of wonder involve Jonas and The Giver’s private sessions. As memories are being transferred, we get to see glimpses of them. The images are filled with color, energy, and vitality that they completely overshadow everything else, from the lackluster speeches made by Chief Elder to the romance between Jonas and Fiona.

Based on the book by Lois Lowry, “The Giver” will be begging to be remade ten to twenty years from now. I believe that the story can be translated exactly right to the screen. We have the technology for it. We just need screenwriters daring enough to take risks and make necessary changes in order to aid the transition. And because of the depth of the material, the running time will absolutely need to be longer than the current standard.


Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After the death of a patient, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks around New York City and enters a jazz club where one of his former classmates, who dropped out of medical school, is supposed to play the piano. Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) tells Bill that he has another gig later that night—one that is particularly strange because he is required to play blindfolded. In addition, the event’s location is held at a different place every time and he is told only an hour prior where it will take place. Piqued with curiosity, Bill insists that he goes with Nick to the party but, clearly, it is not open to guests. One needs to provide the password at the gate and the attendee to be costumed and masked.

“Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s final work, is a film that functions on several planes. On one hand, it works as an exploration of marriage and the roles spouses play in order to stay married. On the other, it is a descent into a nightmarish dreamworld which involves a thriving secret society that is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its business hidden. It is a beautiful-looking film from top to bottom, but the aesthetic enhances the experience of us getting to know Bill as a husband and as a man, which at times are mutually exclusive spheres.

What it is not is a simplistic skin flick meant to titillate but offering little substance. The dialogue is rich with passion, guilt, and frustration—particularly memorable is the scene where Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), confesses to her partner of nine years that just a summer ago, she contemplated of having an affair with a young Naval officer. The scene is one that constantly evolves. It begins with a level of sensuality. As the argument heats up, amusing elements are introduced and we are left to wonder whether the space between the lovers will dissolve or grow. It is exciting that it is entirely possible to go either way. Finally, the scene ends with a catharsis and sadness, followed by a phone call that brings terrible news.

Cruise and Kidman’s performances are colorful and engaging. Kidman is particularly entertaining in playing a character who is under the influence, whether it be of one too many alcoholic beverages or marijuana. Though Kidman’s screen time is about a third of her co-star, she hits the nail on the head in every one of them. Notice the way she plays Alice, who is a little bit drunk at a Christmas party, when a man named Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) expresses his interest to take her upstairs to, supposedly, show her some art. What could have been a tacky scene turns into an elegant power play. Admittedly, I wanted to see her commit an act of infidelity. I suspected that she also wanted to but her senses are not yet numb to the ring on her finger.

On the other side of the spectrum, Cruise plays Bill almost stoic most of the time but he is never boring. His curiosity tends to lead to one close call after another, whether it be of getting caught by his wife as he considers being physically intimate with another woman or being physically hurt by members of a secret society after they discover his trespasses. As the picture goes on, we are all the more convinced that he is out of his depth. There is suspense when his hundred dollar bills and the title in front of his name are no longer able to save him from what must happen.

Some argue that the set is never a convincing stand-in for New York City. They miss the point completely. I believe the exterior shots are not meant to look real, just as outer appearances of the characters do not accurately provide a real representation of themselves. The interior shots, on the other hand, are entirely different. These are very detailed—from the paintings on walls, books on shelves, bottles and glasses of wine on tables, to textures of carpets and rugs in every room. We get a sense of how they live, what they like, where their interests lie.

Based on the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut” challenges the mind and the senses. Some may even find it to be a physical trial due to its running time of two and a half hours. But one thing cannot be denied: A dark artistry is at work here and once one has adapted to its rhythm, one will not want to look away.


Ne touchez pas la hache

Ne touchez pas la hache (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a French war hero, insists on speaking with Antoinette de Langeais (Jeanne Balibar), currently a nun in Majorca and formerly a Parisian socialite. It turns out that although Antoinette had been married with another man five years prior, Armand and Antoinette eventually come to share a love affair so intense, it has come to threaten their lives, reputations, and sanities.

Based on the novel “La duchesse de Langeaus” by Honoré de Balzac, the film is mostly composed of extended conversations between the general and the socialite. Neither is looking for love when the story begins. And yet when Antoinette spots Armand at a ball, something inside her is inspired to get to know him—a chance to soothe the gnawing need to break out her routine. She figures that since he had been in a war, he must have rousing stories of heroism and adventure—all for the sake of her own entertainment.

Balibar, although not classically beautiful, has quite a commanding presence. Watching her is like observing a venus flytrap: very calm but swift to react when her prey is exactly where she needs them to be. I loved the way the character uses her hands when she flirts, the way she stretches her neck when she suspects that Armand is gazing at her ravenously, and the way she utilizes her eyes to appear as though she wants to be taken right then and there in a poorly lit salon, providing a perfect ambiance for two flesh to come in contact.

Once I got into the rhythm of their flirtation, which, admittedly, had taken a tremendous amount of effort because the pacing is purposefully languorous, I found it quite entertaining because Armand has no idea that Antoinette is playing him like a harp. And just when I thought I had cemented an opinion of her due to her cruelty, the material changes gears and shows that Armand is no fool. He, too, has a darkness about him and there are times I was genuinely concerned about Antoinette, what he might do to her or, worse, what she might do to herself.

I mentioned the challenge in terms of its sluggish pacing—one that should not be taken lightly: for most, it is likely the determining factor between being immersed in the story and finding the emotions rather false and pointless. Although a period piece, lush cinematography and spectacular clothes and jewelry are largely absent. Under certain circumstances, it works. By stripping away the glitter, our focus is almost always on the couple and their internal struggles. In other ways, the austerity makes the picture look too bleak and depressing. With an already rather dreary love affair, the tone is at times unforgivingly monotonous.

Furthermore, the title cards which denote the passage of time such as “the next morning” and “that night” interrupt the momentum that the material works so hard to build. After seeing a black screen with white text on the foreground, I found myself wondering as to what purpose it serves. Obviously, for example, a ball would occur “that night” because the characters just finished talking about attending one as a pair. The title cards would have been more practical when months or years have passed since the last scene.

“Ne touchez pas la hache,” also known as “The Duchess of Langeais,” is like a slow dance: from afar, it’s quite nice to look at because thought is actually applied when it comes to the steps but the longer it is observed, repetitive movements take prominence. Certainly it challenges one’s attention span.



Maleficent (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Her wings taken away while she slept, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) a faerie who protects the Moors, vows to get vengeance from the human she thought she loved and loved her back. Since the betrayal, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a human, has been rewarded the crown, gotten married, and had a child.

It is the day of the the princess’ christening and Maleficent, uninvited, comes to visit. Her present: a curse that will take effect upon the newborn’s sixteenth birthday. Once she pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, she will succumb to a very deep sleep and may never waken unless she receives a true love’s kiss.

Written by Linda Woolverton and directed by Robert Stromberg, “Maleficent” boasts splendid visuals and a confidence to offer an alternative perspective with respect to the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty. For the most part, it is enjoyable to watch. Its weakness, however, lies in some of the characterization of the main players from the original story, from the handsome prince (Brenton Thwaites) to the three pixies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple) who raise the infant away from the castle.

Jolie does a wonderful job playing an iconic character. I was suspect whether she could pull off the sweeter moments required in order for the audience to sympathize with her character because she has a natural harsh look. Despite the dark and heavy makeup, she is able to control her face in such a way that the sharp cheekbones appear a little bit softer. However, the magic, as always, is in the eyes. She is able to deliver different and subtle expressions through them depending on the turn of events. Imagine someone else in the same role with only one look. It would have been a disaster because the character would likely have become a caricature.

Although the picture is teeming with visually striking computer graphic images, they do not always work. To me, a lot of the scenes in the Moors look superficial and fake. It is one thing to create various mythic creatures but it is another to overdo how the plants look. The grass and trees look like they come straight off a fantasy world. This is most unnecessary. The only part where CGI plants work is when giant, thorny vines surround the Moors in order to protect the place and its inhabitants from the invading humans.

Perhaps more unpleasant to look at is the three pixies. Whoever thought that it is a good idea to put the actors’ faces on animated bodies ought to have been asked to leave the planning room. I was at a loss as to why having ten-inch pixies were deemed necessary when they transform themselves to the height of humans eventually. Why not simply give Staunton, Manville, and Temple wings and had been allowed to fly once in a while?

The prince might just as well not have appeared in the movie. A part of me was very amused because he is required to do only three things: ride a horse, fall asleep, and kiss the princess. The character might as well have been mute because when he does speak, the content is fluff and easily forgotten. And yet a part of me felt that he should have had a more prominent role. In what way? Perhaps it might have been a good idea for the screenwriter to give him a trait that is absent from the original work. Here, it gives the impression that he is shown for the sake of making an appearance.

I was surprised because I found myself emotionally invested in Maleficent’s redemption. It is refreshing to see that there is no hero or heroine to show the “villain” the error of her ways. There is no grand speeches, only silences and observation. Though she has magical powers, she is as powerless as the humans when it comes to doing things out of anger that cannot be undone.


The Maze Runner

Maze Runner, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

His memories erased, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a cage-like elevator, soaking wet, as the clunky box makes its way up to the Glade, a place where a community of boys, known as the Gladers, has formed over three years. They have no idea why they were sent there. Their life is defined by a consistent attempt to find ways of making it out of the surrounding labyrinth which just so happens to change every night.

Come daytime, a gate opens and Runners like Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Ben (Chris Sheffield) go into the maze, memorize its geography, and try to recognize patterns. While, in theory, it should be relatively safe while the sun is out, it is always a possibility that one might not make it out in time before the gate closes and massive spider-like creatures, known as Grievers, come out to hunt.

Directed by Wes Ball, “The Maze Runner” is an entertaining, story-driven, mysterious, and suspenseful adaptation of James Dashner’s best-selling novel. It is clear that the picture’s strength lies in the rising action because it concerns itself with details, from the specific roles the boys have undertaken in order to create a working community to the curious maze begging to be deciphered. Because the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is able to establish the rules with clarity, when such rules are inevitably broken, it is all the more engaging to watch the twists and turns unfold.

It is refreshing to see an adaptation of a young adult novel showcasing a diverse cast. It helps on the most elementary level because there are a handful of characters worth knowing. And yet the film does not rely on race in order to make us remember whose role is what and where one’s allegiance is placed. We get to know what makes Alby (Aml Ameen) a good leader beyond having a strong but not overbearing personality. We get to know what Minho makes a good Runner beyond being able to run fast and being observant. We get to know what makes Thomas the wildcard—the key element that threatens to overthrow a stable existence that has reached a dead end.

I wished, however, that Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the very first and only girl to be sent to the Glade, had been given more background. Unlike Alby, Minho, and Thomas, we do not get a real idea what makes her special—what specific characteristics or talents she has to offer that might help to establish herself as a critical fragment of the group.

Scenes that take place in the maze demand attention. Especially engaging are sequences where towering metallic structures move on their own and our protagonists are very close to becoming pancakes. Add massive spider-like creatures into the mix and one comes to appreciate an increasing sense of foreboding and danger.

Very close calls made me pull my limbs closer to my torso. At times I even found myself yelling instructions at the screen. It isn’t that the characters exercise bad judgment; it is because the thrills and suspense come hard and fast, left and right that I found myself unable to contain my excitement. Those who have a fear of tight spaces will absolutely get a kick out of this one.

There is a line or two in the film that claims everything is there for a reason in the maze. While certain revelations during the final fifteen minutes might not be convincing enough to some audiences, it worked for me because the answer(s) is not something I would have guessed. It sets up a promising sequel that is likely to feature an entirely new environment and set of challenges. Usually, I dislike attempts made to set up the next chapter. They are usually cheap, obvious, and tacky (Andrew Niccol’s “The Host” quickly comes to mind). Here, it is done with class and curiosity. I felt the protagonists’ emotional and physical exhaustion. But it does not mean they have nothing left to give. This series deserves to continue despite what box office numbers might imply.



Fitzcarraldo (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A few great movies can be summed up in one word and it is not considered a hyperbole. With “Fitzcarraldo,” written and directed by Werner Herzog, the word is “fearless”—in ambition, scope, and execution. Coming into the picture, I have seen about a half a dozen images of a steamboat atop a sizable hill. I was dazzled then. But actually watching the massive boat being dragged from a river onto land and up a steep slope is something else entirely—it is a spectacle. Knowing that none of the images on screen are made by computer trickery adds to the raw sensation of witnessing something extraordinary.

Brian Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream: To build the greatest opera in the South American jungle and have Caruso as his star attraction. Building an opera house will require considerable funds. Since Peru’s rubber business proves to be very profitable, he hopes get into it by purchasing an unclaimed land, one that is teeming with rubber trees. The catch is in order to get there, one must go through dangerous riverbends and rapids as well as survive against hostile native people.

To immerse us in the story, Herzog makes a point to allow the scenes to unfold in a slow but nonetheless fascinating fashion. From the moment Fitzgerald is introduced, we are curious about him because his obsession appears to be indomitable. Kinski is perfect for the role because he creates a character whose frame, movement, and posture communicates a desperation to succeed. His one great failure, which involves an incomplete railway, still hangs over his head and we get the impression that if this latest project were to fail, it just might destroy him. Thus, before the exposition ends, we understand and sympathize with the protagonist. We root for his dream to be realized.

The picture has an eye for nature, from huge trunks of trees being sawed off to the majesty of the river up ahead, and once the journey is over, it feels as though we have gotten a real taste—one that lingers—of the Amazon River. Lesser movies that are shot on location usually fail to capture that feeling of presence. Here, because Herzog is such a perfectionist and he knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey, we are in the moment every step of the way. The experience is one that is considered to be transportive.

It also has an eye for interesting faces, from Fitzcarraldo and his lover (Claudia Cardinale) to Fitzcarraldo’s motley crew on the ship (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez). When the camera rests on an indigenous person’s face, whether it be that of a fierce leader or an innocent child, there is a regal quality in the faces without distracting remnants of one trying hard to give a performance. When they look at a distance, especially during a scene where they mourn for their dead, it is almost like they are telling a story. In a way, the film is similar to a documentary in that rawness is valued and treasured. We get a sense of a specific culture.

“Fitzcarraldo” reminded me a sensational feeling when I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa sangre” for the first time. Both defy categorization. And both demand its images to be ingrained in our minds so deeply that it sets the bar for other movies of its type—if others directors—future, past, and present—are brave enough to take a similar gamble.


Powder Blue

Powder Blue (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, “Powder Blue” tells the stories of an exotic dancer, a suicidal man, an ex-con, and a mortician and how their lives are connected to one another days before Christmas Eve. While the picture aims to communicate the sadness in the paradox of living in a hugely populated city yet no one seems to really care, most the scenes, I must admit, made me laugh when it is supposed to be very serious.

For instance, as Charlie (Forest Whitaker) lures strangers to shoot a bullet through his heart for $50,000, the execution of the character’s request lacks a proper build-up that comes across effortless and commanding genuine tension. Although Whitaker’s performance might have been convincing given a proper direction coupled with a script that offers a backbone and supporting substance, it feels very awkward here. The rare glimmers of intensity is a testament to how good Whitaker can be as a raw performer.

Another weak strand involves Jack (Ray Liotta), recently released from jail, frequenting a strip club because there is something about the sight of Johnny (Jessica Biel) that piques his curiosity. While inside the strip club, each time he is shown standing about or sitting down staring into nothing, he always looks sad. It is emotionally manipulative because not enough time is invested toward honing in on the character’s sadness and communicating it to us that does not come across preachy.

The convenient flashbacks do nothing to make us more sympathetic and sensitive to the characters’ struggles. If there is one shining moment in the film, it is found in the waitress that Charlie meets in a diner that stands in as his second home. While Sally (Lisa Kudrow) has her own share of problems and sadness, the light within her resonated with me. I enjoyed the way Kudrow allows her character to reach out and help Charlie and yet she isn’t quite sure if she is ready to take on a friend or a potential romantic interest.

Sally and Charlie share several gauche conversations but the way in which they mirror each other’s energy made me want to know more about their relationship and consider ways that could help them to move on from their current problems. What they have is about hope and it is critical to the picture because everything about it is so depressing: the cinematography, the subject matter, and the characters being convinced that there is no escaping their fates.

The storyline that shows potential but ultimately does not deliver involves Qwerty (Eddie Redmayne) and his reclusive existence. We are given information about his life like the fact that his father, also a mortician, recently passed away and that their family business is about to go under due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately, there are not enough scenes of his struggles designed to show rather than tell. What is executed nicely is his interactions with a dog he accidentally had ran over and later taken home. It shows that he is capable of giving love but recent events in his life almost prevents him from going out there in the world and living his life as a young person.

Because “Powder Blue” is so intent on showcasing the seedy environs of Los Angeles, it neglects to paint its characters as real people. It also feels overlong. The problems of the protagonists defines them and the screenplay is unwilling to explore other potentially more interesting avenues.


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