THE IMPOSSIBLE (Spain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The story of a tourist family in Thailand caught in the destruction and chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Impossible, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), is one of the best true-to-life survivor stories I’ve seen since Touching the Void.  No doubt some liberties were taken here and there at the screenplay level, as always happens with movie adaptations, but while the film played out, the story was as gripping as any book by John Krakauer.

It’s 2004, and the Bennett family is on Christmas vacation in Thailand, at a beautiful beachside resort that has only been open for a week.  (In a nice little detail, we see that the protective plastic film has not yet been removed from their light switch panels.)  Henry (McGregor) and Maria (Watts) enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas day with their three sons, Thomas, Simon, and Lucas (Tom Holland in his cinematic debut, already doing cartwheels and backflips on the beach).  On the morning of December 26th, an unthinkable catastrophe occurs when a tsunami, triggered by a massive seaquake offshore, slams into the beach.  The visual effects during this sequence are as convincing and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen.  As the wave sweeps over everything in its path, the Bennett family is separated.  Maria and her son Lucas manage to find each other in the immediate aftermath, but there is no sign of Henry and her other two sons.

What follows is a story that gives new meaning to the words “hopeless” and “hope.”  While the outcome is somewhat predictable – SOMEONE survived to tell this story, after all – the filmmakers have managed to put together a film that generates suspense and cheers despite what we may or may not know about this family.  There are scenes of people missing each other in hospital hallways by seconds.  In a lesser film, it might have been comic.  In THIS movie, those scenes generated groans of empathetic frustration from the audience (that is, me).  By that time, we had followed various Bennett family members through many highs and lows, and I desperately wanted the right people to be found at the right time.  It was unexpectedly effective.

That sentiment applies to the movie as a whole, not just that one scene.  I have seen so many disaster movies that I was primed to expect certain cliches and tropes, even though this movie was highly rated and recommended when it came out.  To be fair, this movie does indulge in those tropes.  I mean, by nature, it HAS to.  The difference with The Impossible is that these stereotypical events and scenes all felt way more real than expected.  Credit to the screenwriter and director for molding these cliches into something more compelling than yet another reworking of The Day After Tomorrow.  When the finale of The Impossible arrives, it feels uplifting and inspirational instead of hackneyed and obvious.  It’s a neat little magic trick that I wish I could explain better.

An interesting self-reflective thought occurred to me during this movie.  There is a scene where Henry, the father, is huddled with a group of English-speaking survivors in a bus station.  Someone offers Henry his cellphone, even though he is trying to save his battery in case his own family tries to reach him.  Henry reaches someone in England, but because he still cannot find his wife, he breaks down and hands the phone back to the stranger.  The stranger looks at Henry, looks at his phone, and hands it back to Henry: “You can’t leave it like that.  Call him back.”

My entire life, my favorite sub-genre of science fiction has been anything dealing with an apocalypse or set in a post-apocalyptic future, like The Matrix or World War Z or the superlative HBO series The Last of Us.  One of the things many of the movies in that genre have in common is the inherent tendency for humans to turn on each other or behave selfishly when the chips are down.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Somebody finds water in the desert, and instead of helping mankind, they sell it to the highest bidder.  Or someone discovers that the invading aliens will give them preferential treatment if they help round up more humans themselves.  That kind of thing.

Well, here is The Impossible, based on a true story, and here is a man who desperately needs to save the battery power on his cellphone, but whose compassion will not allow him to let Henry’s short conversation go unfinished.  “You can’t leave it like that.”

I have no way of knowing if this moment really happened or if it was manufactured.  All I can report is that scene, in a movie full of hard-hitting emotional beats, is probably my favorite scene.  Here is an apocalyptic situation in the truest sense of the word.  Here is a person who could have been justifiably selfish, but his empathy won’t allow him to turn his back on someone who is suffering.  It even got me wondering: would I do the same?

If this scene was taken from real life, then maybe all those post-apocalyptic movies got it wrong.  Maybe, when the chips are down, people are inherently good.  Is it possible?  I’d like to think so.  I’d like to think I’d do the same.

Long story short: The Impossible takes you on an unforgettable ride made even more remarkable due to it being based on a true story.  It’s full of great performances and astonishing visuals, but you may never want to stay at a beach resort again…

P.S.  According to the real-life woman played by Naomi Watts, the biggest “lie” in the movie was the color of the ball her children were playing with just before the tsunami struck…it was yellow, not red.  Do with that information what you will.

KING KONG (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis (as Kong)
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1933 New York, an overly ambitious movie director (Black) coerces his cast and crew to travel to the mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who is immediately smitten with leading lady, Ann Darrow (Watts).

A cheesy screenplay, stupendous visual effects, breathtaking action sequences…James Cameron’s – sorry – Peter Jackson’s epic remake of THE classic monster movie may not have been the movie that anyone was clamoring for, but I, for one, am glad it was made.  To me, it’s one of the great monster movies of all time, and one of the greatest adventures since Jackson’s own epic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

To make things easier for myself, I’m just going to tick off the highlights.

  • The screenplay lacks any semblance of subtlety, but the dialogue is not exactly the point here.  It serves its purpose.  In fact, the best scenes that approach any emotional depth are the virtually wordless interactions between Ann Darrow and Kong.
  • The visual effects are stunning.  Even putting aside the spectacular action sequences, Kong himself is one of the great triumphs of modern CGI wizardry.  Building on the technology used to bring Gollum to life, Kong’s movements and facial expressions are based on the motion capture performance by the man who really pioneered this new branch of acting, Andy Serkis.  To watch Kong expressing, not just red fury, but also puzzlement, melancholy, happiness, even (for the briefest of moments) fear…to watch it happen, and to feel the character come to life, is awe-inspiring.  You look in his eyes, and you see the mind behind them, working things out.
  • The sequence that begins with Ann’s encounter with Skull Island’s version of the T-Rex, and which ends with Kong in single battle with said beastie, is the kind of thing we go to the movies for, or at least the kind of thing we go to these movies for.  It’s pure blockbuster gold, and mostly without any music in the background.  Blu-Ray/DTS bliss.
  • Okay, yes, Adrien Brody would not be the obvious choice for the hero if the movie.  But hey, in the film someone actually says something like, “Real heroes have lousy haircuts and a skin condition.”  Or something like that.  Which makes Brody, by that definition, hero material.
  • True story: the first time seeing the movie in the theater, there were sniffles in the audience as poor Kong expires and falls to his death.  (Did I ruin that for you?  How did you THINK it would end?)
  • The extended cut is not quite as good as the theatrical version.  With the additional animal attacks, the movie would have been just too exhausting in theaters.  (On home video, though, it’s cool to watch.)
  • Now that you’ve seen the remake, find and watch the original.  You’ll be amazed at how much of the original found its way into this new version.

In summary, King Kong is modern thriller moviemaking, with director Peter Jackson in peak form.  Sadly (at least so far), he hasn’t reached this pinnacle again.  But one can hope.


By Marc S. Sanders

In early 2022, the local theatre that I volunteer at, Carrollwood Players in Tampa, Florida, will be presenting Luce by playwright Julius Onah.  I’d never heard of this dramatic play before, and I learned that Onah wrote a screenplay adaptation with J.C. Lee.  Onah directed the film. 

Watching the film ahead of seeing the stage production left me quite surprised.  It was not what I expected.  Luce is a story that begins as what I anticipated would be an examination of social or racial injustice and evolves into a suspenseful thriller that questions those arguments.  There are four main characters to ponder what they stand for.  Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an adopted black boy from a war-torn country and now the star athlete and likely valedictorian of his high school.  Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) are his white well to do parents, and Mrs. Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is Luce’s African American history and government teacher with a fifteen-year tenure at the prestigious high school.  Over the course of the film, each character will be fleshed out with background and dimension.  Each character may also change his or her position on the main conflicts at hand, and each one of them will exercise an action of misgiving or betrayal.  So, in what seems like a perfect world of brilliant academics and success, who can we trust?

Harriet is introduced as “stern” and later confirmed by Luce and Peter as a “bitch,” but spoken humorously within the private confines of their car ride home from an evening speech event that Luce conducted at school.  Amy shames them for the characterization.  The men in her family are wrong to describe a hard-working woman in such a way, even if it is a little sarcasm among just themselves.  A day or so later, and Amy meets with Harriet because she’s disturbed by an essay that Luce wrote glorifying the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who believed that elimination by violence is a sound societal solution to his country’s problems.  The assignment was to select a historical figure and write the paper from that figure’s perspective.  Following her review of the essay which left her uneasy, Harriet takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker where she uncovers a bag of illegal fireworks.  Amy is shocked by Harriet’s actions and at first can not fathom Luce as a boy who would ever have a violent nature or want to cause harm.  Debates in the kitchen occur when she gives the run down to Peter.  Questioning confrontations with Luce and his parents occur as well.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Luce is such a model student.  He’s also a brilliant debater, and that makes it hard to get to the truth.  Is there any truth to get to at all however? Is there any justification to question him when no crime or damage has occurred and by all accounts, Luce did in fact meet the standards of the assignment?  Luce asks a good question as well. As a student, were his civil rights violated by Harriet when she took it upon herself to search his locker, under no one’s authority or approval?

All of these questions are presented early on in the film.  Afterwards, developing twists take place and the story adopts a thriller mentality to it.  Luce seems so kind and enviable.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. presents the character with a beautiful smile, who is well versed, polite and presentable.  Luce even steps in to calm down a fight among his peers.  He delivers gracious speeches.  He’s a brilliant model of the debate club and he’s a star on the track team.  He takes it upon himself to approach Harriet with a mea culpa to whatever misunderstanding may have occurred, but there’s also a disturbing subtext.  He volunteers to her that his favorite holiday is Independence Day because he appreciates its meaning when he considers the violent country he was rescued from…along with the celebratory fireworks that traditionally accompany the day.  Wilson never asked for this information, and yet Luce is telling her anyway.  Is he being sincere, or is he using this as a means to torment Harriet?

Amy becomes torn by these events.  Does she really know her son, that she eventually nurtured out of the fear of his original environment?  Does it make sense for Amy to hide the paper and fireworks that Harriet gave to her with trust that she’ll address these allegations with her son and husband?  Did Peter really want to adopt this boy, when he and his wife could have easily had a child on their own, thereby avoiding the challenges of raising a child of a different race, from a war-torn country?

As a white, middle class, Jewish American male, I don’t think I’m any wiser on the plights that people of other races have endured following my experience with Onah’s film and screenplay. I thought I might have been early on in the film, but then the film seems to divert to the wise mechanics of how any one of us can be sinister, either for our own satisfaction or to prove a point, or to protect a loved one, or to mask our own foolish blindness.  Onah deliberately leaves threads of his story ambiguous, and I appreciate that.  I always like to think and ponder a film or a play or book, with its characters, long after it’s over and Luce is a perfect opportunity. 

There are surprising moments in Luce.  Just when you think you have one of these four characters figured out, something happens that forces you to take two steps back and start over.  I’ll credit Onah’s story for that, but also the impeccable casting here.  Octavia Spencer is such a great actor.  She’s awarded a character here with much background that is challenging and lends to why the other players in the story have a right to question her actions.  Watts is given more material to play with than Roth.  Typically, I’d argue that mothers bear the weight of affection towards a child more than a father and so more opportunities present themselves here for Watts to turn Amy into an unsure, but loving mother. It’s ironic, but as I watching this film, I couldn’t help but parallel some of the themes with the play/film Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, which also ends with much uncertainty.  Amy certainly becomes more of a character plagued with internal doubt as the story progresses here.  Tim Roth is maybe given the least amount of dimension here, but he embodies the wishy-washy nature of not really knowing what’s true and what isn’t.  Roth portrays the guy like he doesn’t know whose side he’s on anymore, and he just wants to cut through the bullshit.  Harrison needs to become a more established actor in today’s mediums of streaming and cinema.  He’s brilliant at playing one face while keeping me guessing whether he’s playing another face as well.  By far, this was the most important role to cast in this film, and the production got the right guy for the part.  Side note: after watching the film it was interesting to see what his character’s name could potentially stand for.  Don’t read anything ahead of the film.  Check out the trivia notes on IMDb afterwards. 

You may expect to have a discussion on what Luce was trying to say.  I don’t think it bears overthinking from a societal perspective, really.  If Julius Onah were to hear me say this, or read this publication, he might be disappointed to know that.  Rather, I think it’s better to piece together how all of the surprises came to be.  Regardless, Luce is terrific dramatic entertainment with superb and nuanced performances, and heightened suspense from its toe the line direction and the entire cast.