The Last House on the Left (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to say that this was predictable because I saw the 1972 version directed by the legendary Wes Craven. Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome and Aaron Paul star as the three criminals running from the law who eventually come upon Sara Paxton and Martha MaxIsaac. After a series of numbing humiliations and assaults, with the help of Dillahunt’s son (Spencer Treat Clark), Paxton’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) find out what happened to their daughter and they crave bloody vengeance. I must say that this was more thrilling the 1972 version. It was smart enough to tweak some of the details from the original to keep those who’ve seen the classic guessing. I also liked the fact that Dennis Iliadis, the director, provided some sort of backstory of Paxton’s character so the audiences will be able to sympathize with her more during the more gruesome scenes she has to go through. It has a different feel than most slasher movies coming out in 2009 because the camera tends to linger on the characters’ faces in silence to fully get the picture on how a particular character is feeling after or while going through a trial. However, what I didn’t like about it was that it’s a bit lighter than the original. Some of the implications are gone because this modern version feels like it wants to garner a wider audience. In other words, it’s more commercial in its storytelling, use of music and violence. When the credits started rolling, I asked myself whether I liked the film. The answer would be a “Yes.” But I also asked myself whether this modern interpretation of the original was necessary in the overall scope of horror cinema. The answer would be a resounding “No.” Yes, the classic may be dated but an upgrade is far from necessary. For a horror picture, this “House” has the thrills, blood and suspense but watching that gruesome rape scene again made me sick to my stomach. (But then again maybe that’s the point: To place shame on the audiences due to their willingness to pay ten bucks to see something brutal.)
A Simple Plan (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first scene of this film involving a fox and a chicken coop serves as a template for what’s to come. I noticed right away that there are a handful animals that can be found in some scenes, but it’s only until half-way through when I realized their significance. Since this was based on a novel by Scott B. Smith, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the animals and their nature serve as a foreshadowing for the characters’ choices. What I love about this film is its ability to constantly ask the audiences how they feel about a situation after the characters face seemingly insurmountable challenges of lies and deceit. Just when I thought I figured out a group of characters twenty minutes into the picture, twists start piling up and my assumptions couldn’t have been any more wrong. Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thorton, and Brent Briscoe are very convincing as the three men who lead simple lives who happen to find over four million dollars in a plane crash. Thornton and Briscoe wanted to keep the money, but Paxton didn’t. However, despite his intelligence, harmless facade and ability to think his way out of sticky situations, it is arguable that he is the most immoral of them all. His wife, played by Bridget Fonda, isn’t any better because she sees the money as an escape–a way for her family to have better lives–and she is intent on following that path. This film is grim, tense and is able to offer a mirror on how the dark side of humanity can poison even the best of us. It’s also about decisions; how sometimes you only get one chance so you better think things through before jumping to a conclusion. Most of all, it’s about happiness. Sometimes, we forget that we’re happy as is when we’re faced with a chance to become more than we currently are. Having it all is a gamble so are you willing to risk everything to attain more? The moral implications of this film are challenging and insightful; it reminded me of a darker, more serious version of “Fargo.” I was also reminded of a quote uttered by Frances McDormand in the end of that film: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
Let the Right One In (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I know this was supposed to be a horror film but I thought it was really romantic. I was so invested in Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson’s relationship to the point where I wanted the movie to last longer. I actually wanted to know what would happen next after the last frame and I actually said, “No! It can’t be over!” out loud (thankfully, I watched it alone). “Let the Right One In” is about a kid (Hedebrant) who keeps getting bullied at school and a girl who recently moves into town and happens to be a vampire (Leandersson). Their loneliness was their initial commonality and they were able to soothe some of that loneliness after getting to know each other. I loved the setting of the film–most of it was shot in the winter so the sky was often bleak and there was often snow on each shot. When a scene was indoors, the lights looked somewhat dim so danger was always right around the corner. Tomas Alfredson, the director, knows how to build suspense. I found it interesting that he was able to use suspense with things pertaining to real life (such as the bullying scenes; stand-outs include the whipping and the “game” in the pool) and romance with things that are supernatural (and downright horrifying). I also liked the fact that special and visual effects were kept at a minimum. When they were used, they were utilized in perfect timing and with just the right amount unlike modern American horror movies nowadays. This film is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist who also lent a hand on the screenplay. After watching the movie, I must say that I’m very interested in reading the book because of some unanswered questions. With a little research, I was able to find out that there were several things that didn’t make it into the film, which included the girl’s backstory and minor characters with important subplots. I also found out about the meaning of certain images which enhanced my understanding of the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a great vampire picture so I highly recommend this to everyone. This is the kind of movie that would end up in my film library so definitely check it out when you can.
The Accused (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film is based on the true story of what happened to Cheryl Araujo in a bar back on March 6, 1983. Jodie Foster plays Sarah Tobias who was gang-raped in a bar despite having many people around that could potentially help. Some of the men decided to cheer on what was happening instead of putting a stop to such a horrific crime. I thought this was a terrific film because of how visceral each scene felt. Even though Foster is the victim, she doesn’t play the character in a typical manner, unlike how rape victims are played on films nowadays. She’s tough and a little bit rough around the edges but we root for her despite her deep flaws because her goal is to find justice for what had happened to her (with the help of her lawyer played with such bravado by Kelly McGillis). I’ve always had a problem whenever people say, “She’s just asking for it” whenever they see a person, especifically a woman, wearing revealing clothes or acting promiscuous. To me, that statement implies that that person is partly to blame if or when she is sexually assaulted. No rational individual, despite how one looks or acts, wants to be sexually assaulted. Sometimes, I hear that statement from my friends and it really gets under my skin because there’s a certain lack of sensitivity to the issue of sexual assault. The most powerful scene for me was when the film finally revealed what really happed with Sarah. It shows images and intentions that were not recalled by the witnesses on the stand. (Not to mention the filmmakers were smart enough not to show every person who gave their testimonies.) I thought that it’s really true to life because people tend to forget aspects of events right after they happened; some form false memories but some tend to remember the most important (or least important) details. When Jonathan Kaplan, the director, showed the rape scene, it was so disturbing to the point where I had to look away from the screen. I can withstand the most morbid scenes in films like the “Hostel” and “Saw” franchises because I know that it’s rare for people to get kidnapped for the sole purpose of appreciating their life a bit more if they happen to survive a test. But in this film, I couldn’t handle such a violent scene because I know that crimes like rape happen so often. Foster deserved her Best Actress Oscar because she was able to fully embody an atypical rape victim, whose sensitivity can only be found by truly looking in her eyes.
Gods and Monsters (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based loosely on James Whale’s life, this film is for both the fan of “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” back in the 1930’s and general film lovers. Ian McKellen plays the legendary director with such power and subtlety, I forgot that I was watching an actor playing a part. The way he told his stories about making films, fighting in the war, and falling in love has a certain organic feel to it to the point where I felt like my grandfather was passing on his most treasured memories to me. Brendan Frasier surprised me in this film because I’ve always seen him in comedies and action-comedies, but he was able to deliver as the gardener who craves for something bigger than himself. He is able to mollify the hunger by interacting with McKellen–someone who has done something important in his life. The dynamic between the two leads have a plethora of implications. To be honest, by the end of the picture, I find it difficult to define their relationship. Sure, they’ve become friends but what kind of friendship did they really have? Was it a utility friendship, pleasure friendship, or complete friendship, or a combination of two or three of them? Another stand-out was Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, McKellen’s caretaker. She was so colorful and spunky in her scenes so it’s hard for me not to notice her. Her relationship with McKellen’s character is multidimensional but it never took the focus out of the film’s core. My favorite scenes include McKellen telling his story of the man he truly loved despite the circumstances through which they met, when the film actually reshot some of the scenes from “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” and when McKellen was finally driven to madness/desperation. Even though this is well-made, this film is not for everyone because it’s really more about the characters, what they’ve been through and where they’re going instead of the plot driving the vehicle to a certain destination. This film has something to say about mortality and how one deals with life after great accomplishments have been achieved. It goes to show that the question of “what if” can be as daunting as asking “what’s next.”
My Best Friend’s Girl (2008)
★ / ★★★★
This is one of those movies that isn’t worth reviewing because it takes the word “egregious” on a whole new level. I should’ve known that I was in for a disaster when I saw Dane Cook and Kate Hudson on the opening credits. Even though I’ve seen them star in a lot of bad movies, my gut tells me to give them another chance time and again. I really was hoping this film would be pretty good because of Alec Baldwin, Jason Biggs, and Lizzy Caplan. But all of them, except for Caplan, are not likeable. In fact, I thought they were all immoral and thrived on experiencing emotional pain. Right off the bat, I hated Cook’s character because he finds it amusing to take unknowing women on really bad dates (that’s putting it lightly). I couldn’t believe for one second that Cook would be best friends with Biggs, who I initially thought was the antithesis of Cook, but I was proven wrong after fifteen minutes. As for Hudson’s character, she says she wants to be happy and be with the right guy but her actions say otherwise. Hudson should really think hard about her career because if she keeps appearing in very forgettable romantic “comedies,” she will no longer be a star by the time she’s fifty. I expected a lot from Baldwin because he never fails to crack me up in “30 Rock.” In here, he pretty much plays the same character but doesn’t exude heart. Half-way through the picture, I just wanted it to end so I kept looking at the clock. There’s a plethora of unjustified cruelty in this film and pretty much all of the characters deserve to be miserable. And if you decide to watch this picture, you’ll be pretty miserable as well. Don’t waste your time like I did.
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I really wanted to like this film more than I did because it has elements that instantly grabbed my interest: a period story with a love triangle that happens to comment about the limitations of religion. But for film that runs for about a hundred and thirty minutes, it should’ve been stronger. I thought the first half was very good because it has a mystery regarding why Matthew Goode’s character claims that he doesn’t know himself or what he wants in life. We are then taken back a couple of years when Goode meets the rebellious Ben Whishaw and the elegant Hayley Atwell–two siblings that he fell in love with. We also got to see Emma Thompson as their extremely religious mother and how the way she raised her children had negative consequences. But somewhere in the middle, the story got too cluttered: some characters leave without some sort of closure; then we are suddenly propelled to the present as we try to figure out each character all over again. It was an exhausting experience because I was so invested with the three leads during the first half of the film. I wanted to know more about their lives in the past than I did in the present. Another fatal mistake that the filmmakers had was near the ending. I’m not sure if I should blame Julian Jarrold, the director, or the actual novel itself (I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know) but there was a scene where we’re supposed to question Goode’s true intentions. After watching that scene, I felt like a rug was pulled from under me and I didn’t know whether I should still care for the character or not. Maybe if the director had done it in a much more subtle manner, it would’ve worked but I was really taken aback. This film offers gorgeous architectures, paintings, and clothing but the story didn’t make much sense because of the way it unravelled in the second half. The best part of the film was watching the chemistry among Goode, Whishaw, and Atwell; how their youth got the best of them even though they had all the potential in the world to become gods of their own destinies.
★★★★ / ★★★★
We all know the fact that people complain whenever a film doesn’t stick closely to its source material. Well, “Watchmen” remains very loyal to its graphic novel–with a few tweaks here and there so the audiences will be able to relate more with the politics it tries to tackle. I never thought I would ever read a review (like the one from Entertainment Weekly) that complains about a picture sticking too closely to its source. It seems like some critics just find a way to complain about something (no matter how ridiculous it sounds) to sound insightful so it’s hard for me to take that specific review seriously.
“Watchmen” may be about two hours and forty minutes long but Zack Snyder (who directed the 2004 version of the cult classic “Dawn of the Dead” and the highly overrated “300”) directs the movie so astutely, it doesn’t feel like it’s that long. I was particularly impressed with the way the film started: it goes over the Minutemen of the 1940’s in about ten minutes during the opening credits and then it takes us to its current setting which tells the audiences how different their successors have become. The death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in the hands of an unknown murderer sets up a series of events that results upon the reunion of five other superheroes: Rorschach (played brilliantly and hilariously by Jackie Earle Haley), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Unlike most superhero movies, the six of them are atypical in such a way that they are nihilistic, not afraid to hurt or kill, and each of them can be placed in various areas of the moral spectrum. They do not necessarily have a common goal initially but their beliefs and methods of acquiring information are often at odds with each other. A typical villain is not necessary because their own selves are ultimately their worst enemies. Though some can argue that there is a “big bad” in the film, to me, nuclear weapons and politicians’ hunger for power are the driving forces that force the characters to choose the morally gray path.
Each superhero is featured in one way or another so the audiences get an idea on what makes the characters tick (pun intended). In a way, we eventually learn to see them as regular human beings with real problems instead of gods that can jump in at any time and save the world. In fact, I can only remember one or two scenes when the characters decided to do a good dead just because they are superheroes. Although at times, the dialogue may sound a bit cheesy, especially the romantic scenes between Wilson and Akerman, the film provides a great balance between seriousness and humor. I also liked the fact that the sex scenes look realistic (as opposed to other superhero flicks) and the filmmakers weren’t afraid to show certain body parts from both genders. Usually, films like this tend to objectify women’s bodies but I didn’t get that feeling here. In my opinion, this is lightyears better than “300” because of its rich moral ambiguity and ability to genuinely entertain. Those who expect a typical superhero film may be disappointed but those who want to see something different should be impressed. “Watchmen” is a breath of fresh air from the likes of “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Spider-man.” Along with “Coraline” and “The International,” this is one of those few movies of early 2009 that is worth watching in the cinema; it also should be remembered as the year progresses.
The Family That Preys (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I can’t say that this is one of my favorite films from Stanley Kubrick, but I have to admit that this picture is extremely well-crafted. I was impressed that Kubrick shot each scene with only natural light such as the sun during the day and candles during the night. His use of certain cameras that tend to highlight the magnificient backgrounds is nothing short of brilliant. Like “Full Metal Jacket,” the topic of duality is explored in a meaningful way. The first part of the film focuses on Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal): how he left his family and joined the British Army. The second part of the film is about Barry Lyndon (still played by O’Neal) and his attempt to attain the respect he can never achieve. Redmond Barry and Barry Lyndon, though the same person, are completely different from each other. The former is naive and honorable, but the latter is hungry for wealth and power. On the outside, it’s about the rise and fall of man. But I think it’s so much more than that. “Barry Lyndon” is a classic example of a man so willing to change himself by forgetting his past as he tries to gather wealth and power (by marrying Marisa Berenson who plays Lady Lyndon), all the while not caring about anyone who gets hurt by his actions. At the same time, he’s not viewed as a completely evil person because of the events that shaped him; he still has the capability to love even though he does not show it in an apparent manner. I can see why most people would initially dismiss this film because it is very slow-moving. However, if one learns to embrace its slow nature, he or she will be rewarded by its epic historical story. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this film won two Oscars–Best Cinematography amd Best Costume Design–because I’ve never seen anything like it. Each prop is gorgeous, especially the clothes and the paintings on the walls. Many times in the movie, especially during the second half, I felt like I was visiting a museum, not just because of the aesthetics, but also due to the echoes created by the characters’ feet and the whispers in conversations. Kubrick really was a perfectionist and it shows because each of his work is always exemplary. This is a difficult film to swallow and one of the reasons is its three-hour running time. However, it’s a fascinating character study. Barry Lyndon doesn’t realize that by forgetting where he comes from, he loses a significant portion of himself and therefore cannot grow to be a better person. He finds happiness in material things but never realizes that all he had to do was look inside himself. And that is only one of the many tragedies that this breathtaking film has to offer.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This Kevin Smith comedy started off well but it got more tiring as it went on. Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen star as two “strictly just friends” friends who share an apartment but can’t pay the bills on time (or at all). After attending their high school reunion, Rogen gets a crazy idea on how to pay their expenses: make a porno. Unfortunately, the downside of this film is the eventual realization of the two leads: their love for one another goes beyond friendship. I felt like the director forcefully wanted to include the female audiences after showing one rude (but hilarious) joke after another. It wasn’t necessary because, in my opinion, female audiences can enjoy dirty jokes as much as the male audiences. If this film had ended before Banks and Rogen realize that they’re in love with one another, it would’ve been so much stronger. The scenes that involve slow motions that are supposed to hint that Banks is getting jealous of Rogen (and vice-versa) are annoying at best. Kevin Smith is a much more talented director than that (his ear for dialogue is sharp) and I really felt like he wants to hammer certain points when he really did not need to. The best part of this film is Justin Long as one of the boyfriends of one of Zack and Miri’s former classmates. He knows what to say at just the right times; not to mention the certain inflections he attached to certain words made a very amusing wordplay. I wish he was in the film a lot more because he has that certain energy that the rest of the cast lacked. Another surprise was Ricky Mabe as one of the would-be pornstars. I knew he looked familiar, and half-way through the film I realized that he was in one of my favorite episodes of “Goosebumps” called “How to Kill a Monster” back in 1997. I wish to see him more in the future. Overall, I would have been happy to recommend this picture if it didn’t try to be romantic. Instead, it becomes another forgettable film by Kevin Smith.
Speedway Junky (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll come right out and admit that this movie is far from perfect. In fact, I think its very flawed regarding its direction, editing, how the story unfolded, and syrupy melodrama. Still, I couldn’t help but get very into it because of the dynamics of the characters played by Jesse Bradford, Jordan Brower, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Daryl Hannah. I keep forgetting that Bradford can be a good actor because the first film I saw him in was the barely mediocre “Swimfan.” Watching this film reminded me of how great he can be like he was in “Heights” and “Happy Endings.” I really cared for him here as a would-be male hustler with dreams of one day becoming a racecar driver. His character reeks with naiveté but that’s one of the best things about the film because something comedic always happens to him. I’ve never seen Thomas in an edgier role because I’m so used to seeing him in harmless films and television shows like “Tom and Huck” and “8 Simple Rules,” respectively. It was nice to see that he’s capable of playing a not-so-friendly and a little dangerous character. Another person that surprised me was Hannah. I have to admit that the only movie that I can remember seeing her in was “Kill Bill” (which I’ve seen about ten times), despite her long repertoire, so it was kind of weird seeing her here as a broken down, somewhat helpless ex-prostitute (in addition to not having an eyepatch over one of her eyes). She shines in her scenes because she provided warmth and compassion (her mother-nurturing side) in contrast to the streets of Las Vegas (her ex-prostitute side). My eyes were glued to the screen when she was telling Bradford one of her stories with a customer. But most of all, it was Brower who really got to me. I’m surprised he doesn’t appear in more movies because I see a lot of potential in him. His struggle about finally finding someone he can love but that of which he cannot have is so sad but it’s easy to relate to. Out of the four characters, I wanted to know about him the most. “Speedway Junky” is written and directed Nickolas Perry, but I think it would’ve been much stronger if Gus Van Sant had taken over (he was the executive producer). I saw a lot of similarities with “My Own Private Idaho” not just in relation to the characters but the themes that it tried to tackle. Again, this movie is very flawed but I saw greatness in it–which could’ve been highlighted by a more capable director.
The Wackness (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I thought I would like this film more than I did. I certainly didn’t expect to feel like I couldn’t sit through it less than the half-way mark. “The Wackness” is about a teenage drug-dealer (Josh Peck) who does it for two reasons: to keep his distance from his parents because the two adults fight like children all the time and to support himself (and eventually his family). The main character is also a loner whose only friend is a strange psychiatrist going through a midlife crisis (played by Ben Kingsley). Incidentally enough, Peck falls for Kingsley’s stepdaughter, played by the always brilliant Olivia Thirlby. And Kingsley preys on a girl Peck initially liked (Mary-Kate Olsen). That’s only some of the strange coincidences that didn’t work at all. Pretty much all of the characters are unlikeable–they have the chance to make their lives a lot better but they choose to drug themselves instead. In other words, it’s another one of those “Hey, look at me! I’m being indie!” kind of movies that I’ve grown to abhor over the years. Jonathan Levine, the director, thinks that by changing the setting into something urban (instead of suburbia) and featuring rap music (instead of indie pop), he’s doing something unique. To me, it’s not a breath of fresh air because, despite being the antithesis of most indie comedies, it still follows the same tired formula. It’s supposed to be a comedy but it’s not funny at all because the characters are beyond miserable. I want to feel sorry for them more than I want to laugh with them. Not to mention that the humor is mostly directed to early to mid-teens because of the way the younger characters speak. The only thing I could stand about this film is Thirlby and that’s because I’m a big fan of some of her past work (“Snow Angels,” “Juno”). I found no redeeming quality in this film. It will forever remain a mystery to me why it got so much praise at Sundance.
Ghost Town (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie wouldn’t have drowned in mediocrity if it had spent less time trying to be funny and actually tried to propel the story forward. Greg Kinnear is a fine actor but it’s too bad he wasn’t given a lot to do. Most of the time, we see his character just moping around the streets with other dead people and annoying Ricky Gervais. As for Gervais, he really did surprise me because I thought he was more obnoxious-funny prior to watching this film. He convinced me that he can do awkward-funny (almost or just as good as Steve Carell) and subtle-funny. (That overly sensitive gag reflex bit was hilarious!) I haven’t seen Téa Leoni in a lot of movies, but I really liked her here as the wife that couldn’t quite move on due to the recent death of her husband. What’s nice is that she doesn’t know that she can’t let go because she’s her denial runs deeply. Still, I felt like this picture could’ve been so much more–more daring, more original, and definitely funnier. To me, a sign of a film that is running out of ideas is when it results to slapstick, especially in formula comedies. And I felt offended when Gervais’ character was making fun of Chinese names. I’m not Chinese but I still found offense to it even though it’s supposed to be just for fun. There was no reason for those jokes to be in the movie at all. If David Koepp, the director, had added more edge–perhaps some darkly comedic moments or showing us ghosts that are covered in blood and guts, this would’ve been a far superior film. Instead, it was too safe and too ordinary for a ghost story.