Girls Rock! (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
After hearing about this film, I knew I had to rent it because I liked what it was trying to accomplish. However, as much as I like the ideas behind the film, I can’t quite recommend it because I felt like it didn’t have enough focus; it tried to tell stories of about five bands so its an hour and a half running time wasn’t enough to dig deeper into these children’s lives. There were moments in the film–especially near the end–when it captured some of these girls’ loneliness and their reasons for joining the camp. I wanted to know more about that instead of how they make music. There’s also a great message about kids having to learn to work through their problems in front of those same people who they are having frustrations with. It not only applies in a band or group dynamics but also in the real world. However, what I found distracting was the little animations and statistics flashing on the screen. I felt like I was watching a college student’s documentary and those tidbits took me out of the whole experience. Those minutes combined should’ve been used to further explore the campers’ psychology. Still, there were some interesting characters here such as the Korean girl who hates herself, the girl who has a brother with Downe Syndrome and the girl who’s been through a lot of tough times being transferred from one foster home to another. I wish the filmmakers would’ve primarily told their story and then talk about how music has changed them. This is not just about the camp. It also comments on how society is designed to make women feel second rate, how music has changed in the 90s and how that correlates to women and expectations regarding their bodies. Having taken a few Women’s Studies courses, I found it to be insightful but (at times) a bit preachy. Again, this film has a plethora of good ideas but it needed to have an extra punch by working on its execution.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those films that I will never forget because of how daring it was (still is) especially back at the time of its release. Lindsay Anderson was able to helm a counterculture film that fuses reality with surrealism and dark fantasy, all the while embracing its satirical nature. This was Malcolm McDowell’s first feature film and it was easy to tell that he was a star. He played his character with such domineering sneer and swagger, it was almost as if he was preparing to star in “A Clockwork Orange” directed by the great Stanley Kubrick. The way McDowell’s character and his friends (David Wood and Richard Warwick) were constantly pushed toward the edge by the faculty was fascinating to watch. Each scene has an implication and a certain bite to the point where I found myself referring back to the earlier scenes and realized that foreshadowing is one of its strongest elements. The final scene involving a bloody student uprising against the school system was done in such a provocative way; I didn’t know whether to laugh or take it seriously. Another element that I found to be interesting was the romance between McDowell and a waitress (Christine Noonan). That one “animalistic” scene was so out of the blue but it was exemplary because it’s as if it symbolizes every student’s frustration in that public school. Lastly, the romance between Warwick and one of the younger boys (Rupert Webster) provided a much-needed sensitivity to the picture. Even though they may not have many scenes where they conversed, when they finally did, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. This may have been really controversial back in the late 1960s but I think it’s more relevant today. School shootings have now become far too common because of the way students feel about their teachers, peers and the school’s atmosphere. (On the other hand, one can argue that school shootings happen for no reason at all rather than to inflict pain and violence.) This film does a tremendous job avoiding expected rationalizations for the students’ future actions whenever it could. If one is craving for something different in style and perspective, this is the one to see.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
★★ / ★★★★
Even though I really wanted to like this film more than I did, I can understand why it gained its cult following. The film features dark alleys and hallways as if to resemble the dark side of humanity. That metaphor is consistent throughout so it’s difficult not to admire Abel Ferrara’s direction. Each scene is so visceral and honest to the point where it was painful to watch; two scenes I can recall right away is the scene that involves a rape and when the lead actor (Harvey Keitel) actually sees Christ. Keitel pushes his acting ability to its limit and it was great to see. His character is extremely difficult to like because he’s on drugs pretty much every hour of every day, he doesn’t really care for his family, he terrorizes unknowing teenage girls and his obsession with gambling ultimately takes a toll on his soul. That latter component, in my opinion, is the one topic that’s fully explored. On the outside, it seems like he gambles for the money but if one were to look closely, it’s more about his desperation to stay in touch with reality. Without living in some kind of risk, it seems as though the lead character doesn’t feel like he exists–at least exist in a meaningful way. As much as I love symbolism and reading between the lines, at the same time, that’s the most frustrating part of this film. It doesn’t really let the audiences know why things are unfolding as they are. It’s open to interpretation so it automatically weeds out those who are unwilling to look past the grimy, nihilistic setting. To me, it needs more focus in terms of exploring its core and why this tortured character ended up the way he is. The pictures gives us a lot of scenes that involve Keitel’s character doing a lot of very bad things but without some sort of background, he becomes the enemy instead of someone we can watch all the way through–not necessarily root for. I admired this film’s many conflicting ideas but I cannot quite recommend it because I feel like it needed more substance instead of just featuring self-destruction for about ninety minutes.
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
While the animation does look great in 3D, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would because it didn’t have enough heart. Essentially, as the title suggests, monsters must battle aliens. Reese Witherspoon lends her voice as Susan Murphy, a woman who gets turned into a giant after being in contact with a meteorite. Other stars include Seth Rogen as B.O.B the blob, Hugh Laurie as Dr. Cockroach Ph.D., Will Arnett as The Missing Link, Kiefer Sutherland as General W.R. Monger, Rainn Wilson as the villanous Gallaxhar, Stephen Colbert as the President of the United States, and Paul Rudd as Derek Dietl, Susan’s self-centered husband-to-be. Their voices didn’t distract me from the story but I wish the story was more interesting. Even though there’s references to other movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the soundtrack has something to do with outer space such as The B-52’s “Planet Claire,” I found it hard to fully get into the characters because they didn’t show enough vulnerability. They may be amusing from time to time but their other dimensions could’ve been explored. Although this was obviously made for children under ten years old, animated films like “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo” show that it is possible to include adults while targeting children. The writing just has to be sharp enough to include jokes that are relevant to the film’s universe while at the same time incorporating common issues like friendship, self-reliance and maturation. In “Monsters vs. Aliens,” I felt like the priority was on the visuals instead of the emotion so there was this jarring disconnect between me and the picture. With a little more time rewriting certain aspects of this film, I can see its potential to become as memorable as “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monster House.” Instead, just rent it on DVD instead of watching it in theaters. One won’t be missing much until then.
The Sting (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot of great things about this film back when I was not yet in love with the cinema but never actually tried to search for it. I recently got around to watching this picture because I was in the mood for a classic story about American con men. What I loved about “The Sting” is the partnership between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Each of them brought something to the table that the other one lacked, so having them together on screen was a joy to watch. I’ve seen a few of Redford’s more modern movies but none of them comes close to his performance here. In the beginning of the film, I thought he looks like a man who’s just in it for the money (and maybe a little bit of revenge) but as the film unfolded, among the chicanery and greed, he surprised me. He played the character with such honesty and introspection to the point where I realized the real reason why he does the things he does. Even though he cons other people, he feels remorse and is aware that he’s just like anybody else: capable of loneliness and hoping for a break from it all. As for Newman, I haven’t seen him in a lot of movies but this convinced me that I should. Behind those bright blue eyes, I found a certain connection–a sort of power–that is hard to come by in modern cinema. I must also commend the director, George Roy Hill, for the excellent pacing and the way he told the story. Yes, the 1930’s look of the film is magnificient–from the shiny vintage cars, exquisite clothes, colorful buildings up to the certain dialects the characters used–but without that feeling of wide-eyed excitement, all of those elements would’ve gone to waste. I thought this picture had a nice balance between thrill and comedy. Even though it’s comedic 80% of the time, that 20% of darkness peeks at the audience from time to time and that’s when I really I got involved. I wish the movie explored that darkness a bit more because it reminded me of modern gangster films’ certain styles and attitude. On top of all that, “The Sting” has a handful of twists and double-crossing that I didn’t see coming. This is a must-see.
The Women (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I was really excited when I first saw the preview for this movie but that all excitement was taken away after I read a plethora of bad reviews upon its release. However, I still wanted to watch it because of the four lead actresses: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith. Reading those egregious reviews actually helped because if I had seen this film with high expectations, I think I would’ve been more disappointed. Even though this film offers nothing new to subgenre of women’s relationships and point of views, it had some good ideas but they were never fully explored. One of the things that I liked most about the film was Ryan’s relationship with her daughter (played by India Ennenga) and friends. However, I feel like Benning was on screen a lot more which is unfortunate because Messing and Smith’s storylines are much more light-hearted and comedic. Still, Benning’s storyline was essential to the story; a woman and her career is important to any feminist projects. Since this movie is about two hours, I felt like Diane English, the director, had more than enough time to focus on each friend. The fact that there was no men that could be found in this film may sound unbelievable but I actually didn’t mind it that much. I completely accepted the fact that this film wanted to focus on women’s issues. There are myriads of films that focus on men (despite women’s apperances in the background) so why shouldn’t there be a film that tries to turn that whole idea around? A lot of people make a big deal about this whole “not having men in the movie” idea but when women are invisible in moving pictures, it is often ignored or is considered as a norm. However, what I disliked most about this film was when it tried to be funny. I hated it when the soundtrack would be heard whenever something “funny” happens. To me, it suggests that filmmakers are afraid that the audiences may not understand that something amusing is going on so they constantly need to add that “This is funny!” cue. That lack of confidence is a big negative on my book, especially when this film took a long time to get made. Instead of being inspired to take risks, it ultimately succumbed to the genre’s conventions.
I Love You, Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Paul Rudd stars as a guy who can relate more to women than men, but he needs a best man for his wedding so he decides to start making some guy friends. He goes on a series of “man dates” and he eventually meets Jason Segel, a fun-loving guy who Rudd can genuinely connect with. Although I really liked this film, I didn’t quite love it because the middle portion wasn’t as funny as the beginning and the end. That inconsistency is glaring because when one experiences a lot of laughter in the beginning, expectations rise and a successful comedy should be able to deliver all the way through. However, all of the actors such as Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin and Andy Samberg added something to the table. Even the side characters are interesting and hilarious because each of them has a certain quirk that doesn’t get old. I thought this buddy comedy was successful at making fun of the quirk instead of the character itself (when it wants to). However, there were moments when the film is actually making fun of the character which acts as a mirror on what the society expects from an individual. Ultimately, Rudd is the star here. I’ve seen him in a plethora of films where he’s the best friend or the funny brother. I think this movie, written and directed by John Hamburg, would’ve fallen apart without Rudd. In many scenes, I could feel his character’s awkwardness to the point where I wish he would stop talking to save himself further humiliation for trying so hard to be one of the guys. In a way, I saw his character’s silent suffering as a commentary about society–how guys are expected to act, look and speak a certain way in order to be accepted as a “man.” So the laughter that the movie gets from the audiences acts as a confirmation that guys who are more in touch with their feminine side are expected to change their ways and be how a “normal” guy should be. Like “Superbad,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this is a really enjoyable, bona fide film and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of awkward characters being forced to deal with awkward situations.
★★ / ★★★★
This is another picture about the London underworld which focuses on different kinds of groups who wield power (or peceive themselves to wield power when they really do not) and the dynamics within such groups. Even though I have no idea what is going on most of the time despite how much I try to pay attention, I did enjoy some scenes scattered throughout the film. There are a lot of familiar faces here such as Thandie Newton, Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Jeremy Piven and even Ludacris. But I don’t think Guy Ritchie, the writer and director, was efficient enough in pushing his actors to the best of their abilities. However, Wilkinson did a great job (as always) as one of the leaders of crooks running all over London. I was most interested whenever the camera was on him because his responses to certain changes in the story were unpredictable and the way he delivered his lines often had a morbid undertone that surpasses a mere threat. I also liked the fact that Ritchie highlighted the homoeroticism that’s consistent among these type of films. Instead of shying away from it, Ritchie included some really funny scenes between Butler and Tom Hardy. Even more impressive is the fact that those jokes felt natural–it’s something that I can actually hear from these “tough guys.” I guess my main problem with this film is that I never felt utterly included in the events that are unfolding. I think if Ritchie works on that in the second part of this trilogy (if they do make it), I would like it a bit more. This film is definitely for the fans of “Snatch” and “Layer Cake.” The cool factor is there, there are interesting characters (though more than half of them are underdeveloped), but most importantly, the humor is consistent. It just needed a bit more polishing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary focuses on the students at Stuyvesant High School–the most competitive high school in America–and how they campaigned to be the student body president. What I love about this documentary is its very naturalistic feel. I felt like I was back in high school during the classroom and hallway scenes–none of that “Gossip Girl” glamour and serialized drama that’s all over the CW and MTV nowadays. Since most of the students are very intelligent book-wise (the school’s average SAT score is 1400, if that means anything), I was interested to see how the race would be different to “typical” high schools in the United States. Upon watching this film, I thought it wasn’t really all that different except that the students here are more articulate, even though some of them do not yet know how to correctly use some vocabulary words in a sentence. While there are four candidates, the film focuses on three because one barely put the effort into campaigning. After the primaries were over, the competition got a lot tougher and it was much harder to determine who was going to win. In the first five minutes, I had an idea (more like a bet) on who was going to win but as the film went on, that person’s flaws political-wise became apparent to me to the point where I wasn’t sure if he or she is the right person to lead the student body. I also liked the fact that Caroline Suh, the director, did not shy away when students started talking about the importance of race in the election because the majority of the school is Asian-American (as did my high school). Suh astutely divided the time between the (initially) three bona fide candidates and I felt like I got to know them in some way. Even though the candidates themselves are very flawed, that’s what makes them fascinating to watch. “Frontrunners” and “American Teen” are both documentaries but are very different in many ways. However, if one enjoyed “American Teen,” she will most likely enjoy “Frontrunners.” Ultimately, my favorite theme that this documentary tried to tackle was the idea of hardwork sometimes not being enough to acquire something. To me, the most heartbreaking scene in this film was the reaction of the student who didn’t make it to the final two. That was a prime example of the common conception of America being a land of competition.
Save Me (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I knew that there was no chance in hell that I was going to change my mind about these so-called institutions that aim to “correct” people’s homosexuality. I’ve had friends that were sent to these morbid places and I can attest that they do not work. Correcting homosexuality is like trying to will your body to not to respond to pain when you touch an extremely hot surface; nature is not something that you can simply “correct” no matter how hard you pray. It took me a while to get used to this picture because the first few scenes show gay people only in a negative light–that they’re all about sex with no strings attached and hard drugs. Eventually, though, we see characters that are complex and worthy of screen time so I somewhat forgave that distasteful first few minutes. Chad Allen and Robert Gant may not have that much of a chemistry, but they tackled their characters with enough dignity to the point where I was interested in their own personal battles instead of the forces that keep them together. One of those forces is Judith Light as one of the leaders of the ministry. Even though I thought her character was never someone that I would ever get along with, I still felt sorry for her because she desperately wants redemption for the way she treated her son after he told her that he was gay. Since her son died in his teens, she tries to find a way to forgive herself by taking in homosexuals and “correcting” their proclivities. I thought Light was the best thing about this flawed film mainly because of her acting. I thought it was true to life how she’s friendly and approachable when she’s around other people but judgemental (not to mention extremely homophobic) when she’s alone with her husband. For a character that I can immediately dislike, Light was able to get me to care for her even just a bit. I think this film would’ve been stronger if the romance aspect was completely written off. The topic of redemption was not really at the focus most of the time because the movie had to spend time shaping Allen and Gant’s relationship. For a subject this controversial, you don’t need a romance angle for people to find it interesting. Whether one supports homosexuality or not, one will have something to say after watching this film.
Short Cuts (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This three-hour film is more personal than epic. Directed by Robert Altman, this mosaic of people who are living in Los Angeles is truly one of the best pictures of the 1990’s. I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to connect disparate characters which involve multiple storylines but this is the finest example of that kind of subgenre. What I love about it is that it doesn’t try to forcefully connect the characters; each transition and twist of fate happens in an organic way to the point where I can actually picture it happening in real life. I also liked the fact that it doesn’t try to tell a story about how one person changes for the better after going through a hardship. Instead, the film’s aim is to simply show who these characters are and how they respond to certain challenges that come knocking on their doors. I was involved in each storyline but the three that stood out for me was the bit about Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison’s son, Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine’s slowly crumbling marriage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn’s unexpressed frustrations. Other stories that focus on Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Annie Ross are interesting as well but those are more the peripheral storylines that serve to support the picture’s bigger themes. Despite it’s three-hour running time, I wanted to know more about these quirky characters. Even though their lives are painfully normal, enough strangeness happen to such lives that makes them completely believable. If one is a fan of movies involving intersecting lives, this is definitely the one to watch. I was expecting this film to be like “Paris, je t’aime” in order to prepare for the release of “New York, I Love You” (which I’m beyond excited for) but I got something so much more astute and rewarding.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this film to be thoroughly engaging from beginning to end because, despite the roughness and violence presented on the outside, the core is very sensitive but nothing is glamorized. Presley Chweneyagae is excellent as the lead because he’s convincing as a gang leader and a person who happens to have a broken soul because of his childhood. We see his character change in myriads of ways but each of those changes are subtle enough to leave a lasting impression. My favorite scene was when Chweneyagae was able to connect the old man on the wheelchair to a dog with a broken back. That scene was so powerful because there are a lot of muffled emotions and unsaid thoughts yet I couldn’t help but feel like everything is being revealed. I do not consider this a typical journey of a man becoming a “better person” by the end of the picture. Instead of taking a literal journey to exotic places, the main character was able to find self-respect, honor, and the ability to love in the place where he lived pretty much his whole life. With the help of the baby that he accidentally took while hijacking a car–seeing himself in that child while at the same time reminding him that the child is everything that he is not–he began a transformation that ultimately warrants his redemption. I’m glad the Academy recognized this as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2006. I will remember this film for a very long time.
Regular Guys (1996)
★★ / ★★★★
I thought it was weird how this movie was filmed in the ’90s but it looks like it’s made in the early ’80s. The soundtrack didn’t help either so I assumed that the story was set in the ’80s. However, later on, one of the characters stated that it’s the ’90s and it’s “pretty much anything goes” when it comes to sexual orientations. There are a lot of things in this picture that worked for me but there are also things that did not work. I thought the two leads–Christoph M. Ort and Tim Bergmann–playing the cop and car mechanic, respectively, had chemistry and the way their characters interacted was natural. When the focus is on them, the film becomes stronger because it is able to explore different dimensions of masculity/femininity and straight/gay/bisexuality. Carin C. Tietze’s role as the sexually ambigious new partner of Ort also had something to bring to the table. The movie becomes a lot weaker when it tries too hard to bring forth the comedy. The bit about the stolen cars and homophobic cops were like subplots from a completely different movie. Not to mention the strange revelation in the end about a particular character’s sexual orientation. Those distracting elements slowed this film down significantly. If half or all of those elements were eliminated, I would’ve given this a recommendation. It’s a shame because the script has intelligence and I liked that this picture is filmed in a female’s perspective (arguably). Yes, there’s male nudity but there is no graphic sex scene. Everything is tender so it is able to focus on the sexual frustration that the two leads experience. There’s a stark contrast between American gay films and European gay films. In the latter, it’s not afraid to show what real bodies look like, while the former almost often showcases the ideal.
Saw V (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I don’t know why I keep watching this series. Even though I have a feeling that it’s going to be disappointing, I still feel some sort of excitement whenever they release a sequel. I guess it has something to do with human nature and violence. Everything about this film is recycled. People claim that each sequel adds to the storyline because it provides information that the audiences did not have prior to a specific installment. I cannot disagree more. I think the writers have dug themselves so deep into the “mythology” of the series to the point where there’s five plotholes to each so-called twist. Each sequel then tries to solve those plotholes by trying to tell a story and providing more twists to keep the viewers engaged. It’s an interminable cycle that I think will not end any time soon as long as people are actually willing to pay for a ticket in the cinema. Even though I did enjoy this sequel more than “Saw IV” because it’s more comprehensible, we get too many flashbacks (it’s literally more than half of the film) that practically say, “Look over here! You missed this! Aren’t we brilliant and you’re not because you didn’t figure it out before?” It’s an insult but a laughable one so it becomes somewhat harmless. What worked for me was the rivalry between Costas Mandylor and Scott Patterson. I’ve been wanting these two to collide ever since the first few sequels. (I actually do not remember when each of the character appeared because all of them have the same “story.” Only the torture scenes are different.) Here, they get to battle it out a bit. Another actor that worked for me was Julie Benz even though I strongly believe that they could’ve used her more. She’s a strong actress (I’m still a big fan for her role in of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Dexter”) and it shows in pretty much each scene she was in. What didn’t work for me was the return of Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. No, that is not a spoiler and you will see why. He talks in the same pitch and tone in pretty much every line and I can fall asleep listening to him. If they are going to make a “Saw VI” (which I bet they will), I want to see less of him. As for the infamous traps, I only have one favorite which has got to be the opening scene involving a pendulum. I also liked the part where Benz finally figured out what they were supposed to do right from the beginning. I cannot recommend this picture because everything is like a rerun of the first four movies.