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The Hustler

Hustler, The (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick), tour all over the country to challenge billiard champions for high-stakes games. Eddie’s latest opponent, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), has a reputation for being one of the very best, undefeated for the past fifteen years. Things are looking up for Eddie until an observant gambler named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), drinking a glass of milk now and then, begins to watch the match.

Based on the screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, “The Hustler” is a surprise because it manages to make a very dry sport interesting. Just how does the film able to pull this off? Since the camera focuses on the behavior of the players combined with what occurs on the pool table, it is able to offer something unique.

People respond to challenges in different ways and the filmmakers are aware of this. Each time a cue hit the cue ball, there is split second in which the audiences are able to see how the balls disperse. Interestingly, there is not one complete shot of a cue hitting the cue ball until all the balls stop moving. Once a turn is over, it is almost immediate that the camera focuses on the characters’ reactions, from how proud they are of the shot to the worry that creeps in like a thunderbolt when a slight error is made.

Balls follow the rules of physics but human emotions do not. The duel between Eddie and Minnesota Fats is very involving which almost sets an impossible standard for the rest of the picture. When Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a fellow alcoholic, at a bus terminal, I liked that it does not come across completely romantic. Their flirtation is executed with a certain rhythm, a dance which recalls the feeling of Eddie and Minnesota Fats circling the billiards table. However, when the couple end up living in the same apartment, the breezy pacing hits the break. Perhaps the screenplay wishes to make the point that not much good can come out of two current alcoholics living in the same place.

Eddie’s interactions with the woman is the antihero’s turning point, but I kept wishing for him to finally get back on the saddle and play. This is a problem because the character arc is the point of the film, not necessarily the pool matches. It is redeemed slightly, however, by scenes between Newman and Scott which contain very sharp dialogue. Gordon admits to Eddie that he believes Eddie is born a loser even though he has undeniable talent. Gordon, having a knack for business, proposes that if they worked together, the road to success would be theirs for the taking. My curiosity was piqued in terms of which man is really taking advantage of whom.

As foolish as Eddie becomes after he drinks glass after glass of J.T.S. Brown bourbon, his determination to make money remains as strong as Gordon’s. The symbiosis between the two is parasitic and the screenplay elegantly peels the layers of their motivations until the final pool match. Money is what the main characters are constantly, blindly after. The excitement of gaining or losing it paints a portrait of addiction.

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen, the redemption in “The Hustler” is not only appropriate, it is earned despite the protracted middle section. While the big moments provide reference points for the drama, the small moments define them.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Running was always a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like.

There are six new detainees in Ruxton Towers, a reform school, and when they arrive, the young men are given numbers, 988 to 993, ordered to strip, and change clothes. In a few minutes they will meet the man in charge of the school, one that is referred to as The Governor (Michael Redgrave). By the end of their time there, The Governor expects them to be industrious and honest citizens, people who will contribute to society.

Based on the short story and screenplay by Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” tells a laser-focused story about an angry young person named Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), caught by the police for stealing money from a bakery. Though a great number of films have adopted the technique of telling a story by jumping between the past and the present, very few have achieved mastery of the approach. Aspiring filmmakers should require themselves to see this picture. Notice how the shuffling between two times, despite having a completely different in tone and mood, achieves a natural ebb and flow. It entices the viewer rather than repels or bores.

It is necessary to show the film in black and white because it is a reflection of our attitudes toward juvenile delinquents. Under Tony Richardson’s expert direction, he makes a case that behind every rebellious teenager, there is a reason for his or her actions. It may be shallow or deep, relatable or opaque—doesn’t matter. What matters is the reason, often subconscious and guarded by defense mechanisms, is important enough to that person that he or she is unable to deal with the frustrations, anger, and other negative emotions in a healthy manner. And yet the movie is not a psychology course. Instead, it urges us to open up and be more sympathetic.

I found the flashbacks impressive, from carefully observing Col dealing with his father’s mortality to when he has met a special someone who he feels safe enough to share a little bit about what might be going on in his head. It is wise to make the flashbacks most engaging because that is when our protagonist is most free—at least in a physical sense. The poetry comes in when we are taken out of the flashback as if waking up from a dream. We are back to watching Col running. His body is in that school but his mind is not. Such a coping mechanism sets him free.

But will he allow himself to be free in a physical sense? That is the big question. The Governor is highly determined, some might consider him obsessed, to win the long-distance cross-country championship trophy against the Ranley School. Recognizing Col’s speed and stamina, he chooses 993 to win the competition. It is suggested multiple times that if Ruxton Towers were victorious, it would be Col’s fast-pass to guaranteed freedom.

Because I was so involved in understanding Col’s past, his present mindset becomes extremely difficult to fathom. I kept guessing till the very end. When I thought I knew the answer, I second guessed. This is a good thing. It means that the character is not predictable, not created for the sake of showing something on the screen or having someone to root for so we can feel good about ourselves by the time the picture ends. The final answer is complicated and requires contemplation.

I love movies that are deceptively simple yet jolts viewers who are willing to be challenged to pay attention. It moves with grace and commands effortless poetry. When beings from another planet visit Earth, there are only a few films I can recommend—powerful works that will enable them to understand, or at least appreciate, what it means to be human. This is one of them.



Coriolanus (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

In the midst of a food crisis in Rome, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a general assigned by the government to protect a grain storage, is branded by the people as the enemy. With the way he comes off as cold and detached to the plight of the common people, his face easily becomes a symbol of corruption.

Meanwhile, enemies of the Romans, the Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), threaten to invade Rome while the citizens turn against themselves. Martius is called upon to eliminate Aufidius, the two having worked together five times prior, and his armed men before they gain the upper hand.

“Coriolanus,” based on William Shakespeare’s play, is difficult to enjoy on the level of entertainment but the performances are so strong, I could not help but wonder what might happen next. The picture’s dialogue is essentially taken from the play and, in my experience, fully understanding it is like pulling teeth.

I have read a couple of the Bard’s plays and it had always been challenge. Constantly I found myself having to reread lines of dialogue in order to grasp the meaning behind the veiled poetic lyricism as well as the implications and emotions simmering between the lines. I encountered a similar task here. It is less work in some ways and more in others.

Since everything is visual, nothing much was left to the imagination in terms of space, where one character is relative to another and which characters are relevant to each scene. But since I was not able to read the dialogue on my own pace, the aural experience is a bit of a challenge because the actors speak very quickly—necessarily so—in order to invoke specific feelings like shame, rage, and passion. As much as I tried to keep up, at times with great frustration, there were times when I was confused in what is being said in one scene which inevitably affects another and why certain events inevitably transpire.

Hence I relied on watching the actors. I had fun observing Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Martius’ mother, so obsessed with her son bringing honor to his country and family, I wondered if she really cared about her son as a person, capable of being vulnerable and getting hurt, rather than a mere tool to be disposed once its done its job. In some ways, I found her to be a scarier figure than Martius. With the son, as mercurial as he is at his best and a bellicose beast at his worst, at least he has an outlet for his negative emotions. Volumnia, on the other hand, has very little reason to be tempestuous and yet there is a danger about her bubbling underneath.

I found the relationship between Martius and Aufidius interesting. Although they are enemies at the time, it is easy to feel a certain level of respect and admiration between them. When I can feel that there is already a history between the characters without much discussion of it, that is when I know that I am watching something good—that the filmmakers are successful in creating a believable universe.

Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Ralph Fiennes, I recommend the film to those interested in Shakespeare’s work and people who have little to no trouble decrypting early modern English because the project does have artistry as a film and offers good human drama. However, I did not enjoy it as a whole because of my limitations but I would not mind sitting through it for a second viewing.



RoboCop (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

With four degree burns all over his body and a spine that is severed from the waist down, the possibility of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) surviving the ordeal is, according to the specialists, highly unlikely. It is most fortunate that the CEO of OmniCorp, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is scouting for a man to enroll in a program led by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). The hypothesis: Putting a man inside a machine will give the company a chance to ease the minds of a mostly robophobic American public and eventually annul a bill that bans crime-fighting robots domestically.

One of the key problems with “RoboCop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is a lack of dramatic focus. What kind of story does it wish to tell? A man who one day wakes up and realizes that he is part-machine? The complications that arise when business and science form a collaboration? The role of the media in politics and vice-versa? A family ripped apart by greed and corruption? Although these questions can be very interesting to explore, such are only worth sitting through with a high level of writing. This film excels in showcasing expected action scenes but suffers severely when it attempts to shed some insight.

When bullets are involved, my attention was transfixed on the screen and my ears relished every sound when somebody pulls the trigger. The pop of the firearms are alive and coupled with camera movements with a sense of urgency, it is exciting to a point. The robotic suit of the protagonist is sleek and easy on the eyes despite never convincing us fully that with such a bulky exterior—not to mention the mass of the thing—aerial acrobatics is possible. Yes, there are a few moments when it feels cartoonish.

I enjoyed that the villain is not really bad, per se. Sellars is a businessman and wants to make a lot of money. What kind of CEO of a billion-dollar company is not driven by capital? His justifications to reach his goal, one can argue, are the elements that make him villainous. Keaton plays his character like a real person. And in an action picture with shades of science fiction, it is critical that we get a taste of something that is grounded. Oldman playing the scientist, on the other hand, makes a mistake by embodying too likable a character. Doesn’t he want to make money, too? Funding is important.

What does not work entirely is Alex/RoboCop’s relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son. Pick any of their scenes and it feels tacked on and forced—as if the only way for us to root for the good guy would be to reminded again and again that he has a family to leave behind. Cornish’s dramatic scenes are awkward. I could feel her trying to push the tears out. I felt her thinking about the lines rather than just letting go and communicate the anguish of a woman who is being denied to visit her husband. It is not entirely the performer’s fault. The women characters in the film are not given depth.

“RoboCop,” directed by José Padilha, is good-looking but empty. It is neither cerebral nor brawny enough—which makes it somewhere in between. And that is boring. When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching the original “RoboCop” on HBO before going to bed. A handful of its images made an impression on me. I may not remember the details but the fact that I could remember something about it two decades later proves that there is something extreme about it, an element that is dangerous, not safe.

The filmmakers should have taken inspiration from the original and strived to push the envelope beyond what is expected, to prove to the naysayers when it was announced that a remake was in works that they were wrong to have doubted. Wouldn’t that have been icing on the cake?


Good Deeds

Good Deeds (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) has always done what was expected of him, so unlike his brother, Walter (Brian White), the rebel, who has gotten so bitter over the years, it seems like he is out to sabotage everyone who was and is good to him. And with a mother (Phylicia Rashad) who has very high expectations, she gives the impression that making a mistake is a permanent character flaw.

She insists that Wesley, the son she prefers, marries Natalie (Gabrielle Union), a woman from a respectable background who craves spontaneity and excitement in her life—qualities that do not come easily to Wesley, the CEO of Deeds, Incorporated, let alone offer to someone else. When Wesley meets Lindsey (Thandie Newton), however, the fighter in her makes him question whether the life he is living is the life he wanted.

Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “Good Deeds” possesses some elements of engaging drama, like the blossoming relationship between Wesley and Lindsey, the businessman and his janitor during graveyard shift, but the material is greatly offset by painfully one-dimensional characters like the angry brother, disapproving mother, and the fiancée with unmet needs.

I was moved by Lindsey’s situation of being a mother with a daughter (Jordenn Thompson) with whom she has to raise all on her own. The poverty that they experience together provides an obvious but nonetheless effective contrast against the posh problems in Wesley’s beautiful home and office.

I enjoyed Newton’s performance because she has a way of balancing anger and desperation without looking like the actor is out of her depth for the sake of delivering intense angst and tears. In her early scenes, especially one that takes place in a parking garage, we can almost see the wall between the two negative emotions—and their accompanying defense mechanisms—disintegrate and build up again. Despite Newton playing a character who knows how it is like to be poor, hungry, and homeless, we are given a chance experience a softer side of Lindsey eventually.

However, I wished that Wesley was not portrayed as being too good because there were times when I thought he was boring. Subtlety is clearly not the screenplay’s greatest strength because the title must be enforced consistently. It is simply too long of a wait before we finally see a change in Wesley. It would have been more interesting if the picture had consistently shown the protagonist becoming infatuated to deviate from the norm he built for himself without actually going through it. Then, once he finally does, it would make sense because the change that happened within him would not come off as forced or simply as a tool to move the plot forward.

Most unfortunate depiction is Wesley’s family being relegated to stereotypes. Due to the film’s almost two-hour running time, it does not make sense that there is not much effort in turning them into well-rounded characters. As a result, the scenes surrounding the family feel like a part of soap opera—a lot of yelling, screaming, and pointed looks in close-ups but collectively they carry little gravity.

“Good Deeds” is like a bowl of soup that consists of vegetables that I either loved or found très dégoûtant. When you have good soup with some ingredients that are unbearable to your own palate, you do not dispose the entire thing. You pick out the bad stuff and not eat them. My experience with the film is a reflection of this.



Enemy (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Sitting in the faculty lounge, a colleague (Joshua Peace) asks Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor, if he likes going to the movies. The question leads to gloomy Adam being given a recommendation, a film called “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and he later goes to rent it, hoping that a light movie will cheer him up. After having seen it, he goes to bed. There is something about it that he found intriguing. So he turns on the laptop, jumps to a particular scene, and watches it closely. He hits the pause button. There is a man there, playing a bellhop, who looks exactly like him.

Based on the novel by José Saramago and adapted to the screen by Javier Gullón, “Enemy” is an ambitious picture about a man who finds his double but it is a big disappointment because it has very little output. Its laziest attribute is relying on enigmatic images—a giant spider hovering over the city, visions or memories bleeding into one another, an underground sex show—to try to keep our attention. It promises but never delivers on an intellectual, emotional, or psychological level. Thus, despite its short running time of ninety minutes, it is an experience to be endured.

What is the first thing you do when you find evidence that there is another you out there? You tell other people—your friends, your family, your partner. But not Adam. He continues to sulk in his dark apartment and tries to convince himself that what is happening is really not. This makes him boring and difficult to relate with. He is supposed to be our compass throughout the increasingly surreal and bizarre experience, but the material fails to make him accessible. This is a critical miscalculation.

The contrast between Adam and his double offers nothing new. We expect them to have opposite personalities. Indeed, they do. We expect them to lead completely different lifestyles. That they do, too. One tends to hunch, the other stands up straight. The problem is, aside from the occasional surrealistic imagery, the screenplay offers nothing surprising in terms of human element. Must they be complete opposites? There is no anchor to keep the story attached to something we can believe in without question. As a result, the material becomes increasingly dull, dry, and predictable.

There is some form of web that is supposed to keep the picture together. Right from the beginning, I knew exactly what it was doing: planting the seeds for that big, mental “Oh!” once the screen cuts to black and the credits start rolling. How do I know? When the camera goes for a close-up and remains still, you can bet that what is being said is important. Director Denis Villeneuve needs to learn a thing or two about how to treat subtlety like silk, not a sledgehammer. Experienced and intelligent viewers will not—or should not—fall for the typical trappings of the genre. That is what angers me most—it is painfully ordinary in its execution that it ends up not giving the material justice.

A surprising number of people like to defend movies like this. They say things like, “If you look more into it after it’s over, it’s all going to make sense” or “You have to see it multiple times to look for clues!” Stop right there.

A successful movie, one that has reached its full potential, speaks for itself. It does not require to be researched or to be seen a hundred times so that the viewer can get a complete comprehension of what he or she had just seen. Watching a movie is not a homework assignment. When filmmakers treat it as such, they need to go back to film school and learn the basics.



Ils (2006)
★ / ★★★★

A French couple, Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen), wake up in middle of the night due to a noise outside their mansion, located in an isolated area of Romania. Although the two feel threatened, they are convinced that the intruders are just a bunch of mere pranksters. Surely enough, things quickly turn for the worse when the intruders get a hold of Clémentine’s car and the electricity in the house is cut off.

Written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, “Ils” capitalizes on the claim that what we are about to see is based on a true story. I was already unimpressed. The longer we sit through it, the more apparent it becomes that the picture relies too often on “Boo!” moments and consistently fails to go beyond elementary techniques in order to really capture the menace behind the motivations of both the protagonists and antagonists.

Naturally, we are supposed to root for the couple because they are the intended victims but would it have been too much to know more about them other than what they do for a living? As for the villains, I found myself snickering at the silliness of the execution because the filmmakers try so, so hard to make them appear to have supernatural powers—very swift movements that makes one think of The Flash at his most enthusiastic.

When the intruders appear behind a plastic covering or stand across the hallway, they wear hoods as if they belonged to a coven of witches who practiced dark magic. Its unintentional humor, its earnestness, often plucked me from the moment. I wanted to get scared. Although I was willingly vulnerable, the so-called scares and thrills did not work for me on any level.

The rising action is somewhat interesting. I enjoyed it when the camera follows Clémentine and Lucas as they move from one section of the house to another. Every room offers a varying level of danger. This decision benefits the picture to an extent, proof that the filmmakers are not completely incompetent.

There is flow underneath the tension because the couple’s attempts of escaping and hiding are uninterrupted. It gives a genuine impression that we are running around with the protagonists. Things do go wrong for them from time to time but there is a foreboding feeling that it could turn much worse at any second.

However, about a dozen scenes need to be reshot. For example, Clémentine and Lucas are supposed to be clandestine during the more tense moments but they cannot help but drag their feet just about every time they run. If I were them, desperate to evade the home invaders, I would have tiptoed until my calves began to hurt. Furthermore, it might have made more sense if the characters whispered to each other once the home invasion began. Instead, they continue to use their normal voices. It is not at all a surprise that the trespassers always seem to know their relative location. Their voices create unwanted echoes because the place is so spacious.

And then there is the cliché involving a weapon. If this were really based on a true story, the first thing the characters would have done was to obtain a big knife, one that was especially sharp—maybe even a meat cleaver—from the kitchen. (Assuming a gun is not available.) That is certainly what I would have done if I heard a noise outside and my partner unwisely suggested that we investigated.

Also known as “Them,” despite its attempts to be thrilling and scary, “Ils” ends up evoking silliness more than anything. It dares us to snicker at the couple’s lack of basic survival instincts.



Saved! (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

As a pious Christian, Mary (Jena Malone) has worked hard to make Jesus the center of her life. Up until the summer before senior year of high school, everything has gone according to plan. But when her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), confesses to her that he might be gay, she feels an urgent need to rid of his “toxic affliction.” She reasons that if she gives his virginity to Dean, he will be cured of his homosexuality. Soon, Mary learns that she is pregnant and feels she must hide it from her mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and classmates because gays, drug addicts, and pregnant girls are sent to a “treatment center.”

Written by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban, “Saved!” exposes some of the hypocrisies of a specific organized religion within the confines of a high school but it is not exactly an indictment. By withholding from being a full-on satire, it turns into a more accessible picture. In my opinion, the movie can be enjoyed divorced from one’s beliefs so long as one is not blind to or can appreciate good irony.

Instead of having only Christians and atheists, the picture consists of a spectrum of characters, from those who take every word of the bible to heart, like the imperious Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), those who use religion as a guide but not a rule, like the new student named Patrick (Patrick Fugit) who also happens to be the son of the school’s pastor (Martin Donovan), and those who are closet atheists, like Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary Faye’s brother who requires a wheelchair. There is even a Jewish girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri Martino), who mocks anyone, especially Hilary Faye, trying to convince her that being a Christian is the only correct path to salvation.

The interactions among the disparate characters are written, executed, and performed with vibrant energy. Though some personalities are obvious extremes, there is a rhythm to the encounters in the hallways and cafeteria that is so distinct to high school. As a result, even though the story takes place in a mostly white Christian school, the feelings of being ostracized, victimized, or marginalized are delivered with clarity.

Less effective are the romantic detours. For instance, although Malone and Fugit look cute together, there seems to be little depth to what their characters wish to have. Mary and Patrick get one or two romantic scenes but there is little else to support them. A very similar observation can be applied to Roland and Cassandra. However, most pointless is the would-be romantic pairing between the pastor and Mary’s mother. Unlike the younger cast, Donovan and Parker share no chemistry whatsoever so their scenes or any scene where one talks about the other are boring.

The last twenty minutes is standard fluff. Don’t you hate it when anything and everything is revealed during “defining nights” like the prom? Though one can argue that it may be a part of the satire, I say that the screenplay has not done anything particularly special to overcome or overpower the clichés it is targeting.

Directed by Brian Dannelly, “Saved!” has enough vicious wit, cleverness, and energy to make up for its shortcomings in the final third. It does not hammer us over the head with its message of tolerance. Instead, it presents a variety of situations and it is up to us to ask ourselves if what is portrayed on screen is how we would like to be treated.


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