Boy Culture (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
This surprised me because it looks like a typical indie LGBT movie but it manages to rise above its clichés and tell a meaningful story about three roommates who genuinely love each other despite their differences. Derek Magyar is a male hustler who is self-deprecating but sensitive, Darryl Stephens wants to sleep around more but is anxious whenever he has to visit his family because they are not aware of his sexuality, and Jonathon Trent is pretty much like Magyar and Stephens’ kid because they took him in when he has nowhere else to go. The way this film played with the dynamics of the three characters made me care for them at their worst and laugh along with them when whenever they’re put in awkward or embarrassing situations. There are barely any sex scenes, a quality I like in LGBT films, because the focus is more on the characters’ emotional motivations than their physical yearnings. It’s very easy to shed one’s clothes but very difficult to shed one’s soul. As for the hustling aspect, I didn’t care much about it except for when Magyar’s most recent customer told his story regarding his first love. Those moments were touching because Magyar learns from an older person and applies the story and its lessons to his own life. Even though the characters do stupid things sometimes (like most people), they’re smart in their own way and insightful when they need to be. With a higher budget, I think this would’ve been something better because the script is already interesting. I applaud Q. Allan Broca (who also wrote and directed the hilarious “Eating Out”) because he was able to shape the story into something that the audience can really connect with.
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought I wasn’t going to like this movie because of all the negative reviews so I went into it with very little expectations. It kind of reminded me of a less gory version of “Hostel” because the idea of anti-Americanism was explored a bit. There are three actors that I’m familiar with: Josh Duhamel (“Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”), Melissa George (“Alias”), and Olivia Wilde (“House”) so I was aware with what they can potentially bring to the table. Luckily, they didn’t let me down. The three of them are the smartest and strongest out of the group but will all, some, or none of them survive? The first half of the picture is a bit comedic but there’s that constant feeling of danger looming around the corner. I don’t know if it’s the music of the use of color but the audiences are instantly put in a situation where we wonder when exactly the horror will kick in. I think I enjoyed this picture that much more because every time I would visit a new place, I would always think of the people that live in that particular area–how they think differently than me, what they think of me, and whether I’m doing something wrong that can potentially offend them. This movie takes advantage of that fear and fuses it with other common fears like heights, drowning, getting lost, and chased by people whose goal is to kill. I was particularly impressed with the cavern scenes underwater because not only is the setting beautiful, but the filmmakers made that beautiful place into a battleground. By the end of the film, that place not only becomes ugly due to the events that happened there, it becomes nothing short of horrifying. I was surprised by the negative reviews because I found this movie to be interesting and exciting. I covered my eyes and winced at some parts… and it felt great! If it’s a Friday night and you’re with a group of friends, this is a good choice to see because it’s both easy to make fun of and it has its thrilling moments.
★★★ / ★★★★
Snow is everywhere in pretty much every scene and it made me feel cold just watching it. Half-way through the picture, I realized that the weather is not just a tool to establish a mood. When I look back on it, it’s really neat how much influence the ice has over the characters. I also liked that it took its time to establish the main characters and the fact there’s no archetype villain in the film. As a result, the characters are that much more complex and interesting. They’re just being themselves but their interests happen to collide and that’s when the conflict starts. The show-stopper here is Emily Mortimer. Like in most of her movies, she’s a seemingly timid woman who possesses a silent power which helps to carry her through with whatever is thrown at her. One minute she’s having fun and the next minute she’s totally mortified with what’s going on. And that observation reflected this film. Brad Anderson, who also directed “The Machinist,” has a talent with shifting the mood from one side of the spectrum to another in a matter of seconds. Not only does it make the picture thrilling, it also makes it unpredictable. Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, and Eduardo Noriega are pretty good in their roles but I thought they were a bit underdeveloped, especially the latter two. But maybe the point is to know as little about them because the film makes a commentary regarding strangers in a different country where one does not speak the language. But the one actor that arguably matched Mortimer is Ben Kingsley. He’s such a mystery from the first scene to the last and I craved to know more about him. His methods are highly questionable, every word of Russian he speaks sounded like a threat, and the way he would look at Mortimer suggests he knows more than he’s letting on. For a film that’s almost two hours long, I was glad that there’s a lot of dynamics at work but at the same time I feel like some characters were not explored enough. I think we could do without the little stops of the train during the first forty minutes, but that’s a really minor complaint. Otherwise, pretty much everything about this thriller worked for me because it made me think not only while it was playing but after as well.
Quid Pro Quo (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve actually heard of the existence of a group of people who want some of their limbs cut off in order to be complete, but I can’t pinpoint exactly where I heard it from before. Hence, the subject matter of the film wasn’t that shocking to me. Nick Stahl is one of my favorite actors to watch because he always manages to use his charisma to his advantage. Most of the time, I find it very difficult not to identity with his character because his face has a certain sadness that makes me want to know more. A lot of people might quickly write him off for playing the same role time and again but I think his acting has subtlety so each role is a little different than the other. In “Quid Pro Quo,” although his character has learned to embrace his disability, he stumbles upon a pair of shoes that can magically make him walk. Even though that may sound literal and a bit unbelievable, I think it’s more symbolic than anything else which can be backed up toward the end of the picture. After he wears the shoes, it made me realize that maybe he’s not so comfortable with being a disabled person after all no matter how strong he tries to be. Maybe he repressed his frustration so much that he forgot how important it is for him to be able to walk again. Vera Farmiga is just as complex. While Stahl wants to walk, Farmiga wants to be paralyzed. Just when I thought I got her all figured out, such as why she wants to be wheelchair-bound, a piece of information is introduced at the end of the movie which can explain why she wants to be paralyzed. In a strange way, this reminded me of “Secretary” (although not as twisted and darkly comic). Both are strange but still manages to be sensitive with the subject matter and not look down on people who do lead such lives. A first time writer and director, I think Carlos Brooks has it in him to make a great film in the future.
★ / ★★★★
Western is my least favorite genre so I’m probably not the best person to listen to when it comes to reviewing a western film. I’m most familiar with modern westerns like “Brokeback Mountain,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “There Will Be Blood.” However, I know how to ascertain and elucidate why I like or dislike a movie. “Appaloosa” did not work for me for two main reasons: it lacked focus to be thoroughly engaging and it did not have enough material to tell an insightful story. While Ed Harris (who also wrote and directed the film) and Viggo Mortensen did a good job in their respective roles, I felt like their relationship wasn’t explored enough. Were they merely friends or are they more like brothers? Although the tone of the film is masculine, most great westerns that I’ve seen leave room for softness and vulnerability (or otherwise, “feminine” qualities). If walls are consistently up, how are the audiences supposed to identify with and understand the characters? Renée Zellweger didn’t do a bad job but she sounds like she’s from a completely different film. The story focused on her a bit too much while sacrificing potentially rousing action scenes. However, I did like the occasional comedic moments because it shows that the actors and filmmakers are not afraid to have fun with the project. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I did not like this film because I caught myself zoning out from time to time. Whatever happened to featuring vast landscapes and the poetry of brotherhood? Is Harris simply trying to offer something different to the genre or did he clearly miss the point? I have patience when it comes to certain pictures when most people do not. I’m guessing that a casual moviegoer, especially a person who is not partial to western films, will be bored out of his or her mind.
Love Songs (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although the ending is abrupt, it impressed me because of its implications. Deceptively simple on the outside, this French film has something to say about young love/lust and it is executed in just the right way without being too heavy-handed with its messages. Even though the template of the picture is the three-way romantic relationship between Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, and Clotilde Hesme, I thought the relationship between Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet–how Leprince-Ringuet brought Garrel back to life, more aware than ever, after a certain tragedy was the best part of the film. I love how this movie uses musical numbers when a certain character cannot put his or her thoughts into the right words. It’s true to life because relationships (romantic or otherwise) get complex and sometimes we can’t say what we want to say in order for others to understand our point of view. It’s very honest and the singing voices reflected that honesty–the actors actually sang without attempting to make the voices polished or grand (like in most American musicals). Written and directed by Christophe Honoré, one can tell that this movie had a low budget but that doesn’t stop it from trying to achieve something great. The only quibble I have with “Les Chansons d’amour” (“Love Songs”) is it didn’t explore Garrel’s relationship with Leprince-Ringuet enough. They are really opposite and it would’ve been beneficial if they had a little more conflict while at the same time learning from each other.
The Man of My Life (2006)
★ / ★★★★
This movie is all over the place. I gave up trying to figure out its purpose about half-way through. This film is like an unnecessary overextended vacation–we get shots of adults talking and children playing, but all of them don’t seem to amount to anything. I get the idea that Bernard Campan does not have a sense of self and he tries to find it by interacting with Charles Berling, whose character happens to be gay. But at the same time, I feel like they can’t really learn from each other–at least not in a meaningful way–because their relationship is only by means of utlity. Their conversations are shallow and choppy; maybe I’m lost in translation but a great movie resonates through language barriers. Partly written and directed by Zabou Breitman, I thought he could’ve done a much better job with the pacing (cutting off thirty minutes or so) and escalating the drama a bit more (why can’t some of the adults notice that Campan and Berling are around each other a little too much?). In the end, I felt like nothing great is at stake so I couldn’t feel for the protagonist. I couldn’t relate with any of the characters, especially Berling’s because he sees life in such a negative light. The filmmakers tried to justify Berling’s pessimism by introducing a story regarding his relationship with his father. It felt contrived, if not forced, so I didn’t buy it at all. Although some people have strained relationships with their father, they learn to rise above it and be strong people. So it begs the question: how can Campan learn something about his life from Berling if Berling doesn’t even know himself? Avoid this one especially if you’re a person of logic.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I haven’t seen the 1951 version by the time I wrote this review so I’m not going to compare the 2008 version to that one. That said, it’s interesting to me how Keanu Reeves can be so good at playing robotic characters (like Neo in “The Matrix” franchise) but so bad at playing real people that are supposed to be emotionally crippled or conflicted (as Alex Wyler in “The Lake House” and Detective Tom Ludlow in “Street Kings”). I thought he was effective here as Klaatu, a humanoid whose role is to determine whether the human species need to be obliterated in order to save the Earth. He was creepy, convincingly powerful, and had a definite sense of purpose. He claims that if the Earth dies, everything else will perish along with it but if all humans die, the Earth and everything that it nurtures will go on living. I thought that was a decent reasoning so I went along with it. What’s unforgivable, however, is its lack of human emotional core. That’s when Jennifer Connely and her step-son (Jaden Smith) come in. Their backstory isn’t enough to convince me why Reeves should spare the human race. In the end, I wanted to see an apocalypse because humans are portrayed as violent people (the United States army) and incapable of standing up to authority, such as when Kathy Bates (as the president’s Secretary of Defense) followed what the president wanted her to do despite her best instincts. There are only four things I liked about the movie which saved it from utter failure: the somewhat brilliant visual effects, Gort as Klaatu’s automaton companion, the idea of humans’ nature regarding a precipice and change, and John Cleese as the Nobel prize-winning professor who we meet in the middle of the picture. The rest is junk, which is a shame because the movie is started off very well. The director, Scott Derrickson, could’ve made a superior film that is more character-driven and less visually impressive. After all, the story is about humanity and why we should be saved from extinction. Since the director lost that core (or maybe he didn’t find it in the first place), the final product is a mess. This picture can be an enjoyable Netflix rental on an uneventful Friday night but do not go rushing into the cinema to see it.
★★★ / ★★★★
Angelina Jolie should at least be nominated for an Oscar because she held this film together. I couldn’t take my eyes off her to the point where I noticed every spasm on her face every time there’s a revelation or when she feels cornered by pretty much every authority figure she encounters. Clint Eastwood did another great job with taking his audience to a specific moment in time and make us believe that that universe is both beautiful and tragic. However, I don’t think this is his best film due to the problems in its pacing. Toward the last twenty minutes, there were scenes that could’ve been endings but ultimately weren’t. Even though the additional scenes added some sort of closure with the characters and its audiences, a masterful work would’ve felt natural instead of forced. Aside from Jolie, other great performances include John Malkovich as the reverend who fights against the corrupt ways of the LAPD and Jeffrey Donovan who refuses to listen to Jolie’s claims that the child who the LAPD returned to her was not her son. Amy Ryan also did a great job as Jolie’s friend in the psychiatric unit. Even though she did not have many scenes, she’s memorable because she did the best she could with everything she was given. As for the story, it’s very engaging especially when Jolie gathers evidence that the child who was returned to her was not her real son. I have to admit that I did get teary-eyed during various moments in the picture because I really did feel Jolie’s plight; it felt like the odds are against her but somehow she still summons the strength to fight back. I also admired the film’s theme of attempting to find the evasive truth–how the truth cannot be fully achieved because “truth” sometimes relies on the perspective of other people. The question of when the right time fight and the right time to let go is also explored in an insightful manner which could’ve been a disaster in less experienced hands. With a little bit more focus on the story and a better pacing, this could’ve turned out to be a masterpiece. That said, I’m giving this an enthusiastic recommendation because of the strong performances and touching story based on what really happened to Christine Collins and her son back in 1928.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I almost gave this a two stars out of four because there were moments where I thought it diverged too much from the adventure and focused a little bit too much on lame/unnecessary character development. With a family-friendly summer blockbuster film, one expects breath-taking action sequences right after another instead of a forced attempt of sentimentality. Still, I decided to give this film three stars because there were some truly memorable scenes such as the mine ride, the cave of crystals, the T-Rex, and the geyser. Brendan Fraser, like in “The Mummy” films, is really likeable as a scientist whose lab is about to be shut down; Josh Hutcherson continues his role as a kid who’s a little bit sarcastic but often keeps something up his sleeves; Anita Briem is also a neat addition because she provided energy when the story tends to slow down a bit. I did not see this in 3-D even though the entire picture is designed to be seen in such a format so I can’t comment on how much or if it’s better than on a flat screen. Still, there’s plenty of visual eye candy and adrenaline for those who just want to sit back and not think too much. But I must admit that I really like the science in the film: how Fraser’s character used kinematics to determine how high they are from the ground as they free fall, the application of Geology when it comes to recognizing certain rocks and their properties, the concept of bioluminescence (the production and emission of light when chemical energy is converted to light energy), and more. It made the movie that much more fun for me because I’ve taken classes that deal with those concepts. (I am a certified nerd/geek/dork.) This is the kind of movie that a babysitter can let kids watch because it’s pretty harmless, there’s a plethora of bright colors, and pretty funny one-liners. It could’ve been a lot better but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Billy the Kid (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of critics really liked this documentary but a lot of casual moviegoers did not. I think it’s always a challenge watching a slice-of-life picture because most people will think about the movie’s purpose (even though there might not be one) to the point where they get distracted from the film altogether. For me, when I watch slice-of-life movies, I almost always relate them to my life; I learn to accept the inconsistencies of the story, the rough edges of direction, and the all too ordinary images. In a way, I treat it less like a movie and more like a diary, per se. And like a diary, this movie made me sad, laugh-out-loud and everything inbetween. There were times when the protagonist would say really awkward things to the point where I noticed myself squirming in my seat… And then I just start laughing because I was amazed by how engaged I am into this 15-year-old’s motivations and ways of thinking. What’s even better is that he’s funny but he doesn’t know that he’s being funny. I heard from a few sources that Billy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after the film was shot, which made sense because he’s a very smart kid (I love his references to films), but he’s very awkward socially. In a way, Billy reminded me of Heather Kuzmich of “America’s Next Top Model” Cycle 9. As for the documentary’s deeper moments, I was interested hearing about Billy’s family, specifically how his biological father treated his family back then, how some people get alarmed when Billy would check out books about serial killers, and the work he had to go through to potentially have his first girlfriend. Billy has a defined set of principles that makes him relatable and interesting. But I have to be honest: When I was in high school, Billy was the kind of person I avoided (I feel so mean now that I look back on it!) and thus not be friends with because I felt like they don’t know when to stop talking and respect other people’s space. So, in a way, this movie got to me; maybe I should’ve been more understanding because some people are so eager to make friends to the point where they seem like they’re trying too hard or they’re being fake. I got really sad when they showed Billy’s silent moments. Even though he has a great mom who supports him 100% and some friends he can talk to, I feel like he’s still alone. I can relate with that (and I think so do most people) and that’s why I found this movie to be truly genuine.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.
Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” I can’t really make comparisons with that classic children’s film because I haven’t yet seen it while writing this review. However, from what I read from people’s blogs who have seen both, they claim that it captured the original’s main themes. All of the actors were impressive in their own way. Juliette Binoche is still electric even though she’s a bit more broken down here than in her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but didn’t like the fact that she pays more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche’s son, is sublime as a lonely boy but doesn’t make us feel too sorry for him. He shows that he’s strong in some ways, whether it comes to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song plays the nanny who I think made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting is so nonchalant but there’s something about her that’s caring and welcoming. I wanted to be her friend by the end of the movie. Several other plot elements include Binoche’s conflict with her tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and, of course, the mesmerizing observation of the red balloon, which symbolizes youth, friendship, and loss. The classical piano music that accompanies some of the scenes and the use of bright colors made the picture that much more poetic. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life. Watching this homage is like eating and savoring my favorite kind of cake–pretty much everything about it worked and I have nothing negative to say about it, which is very rare.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie genuinely scared me. It is comparable to “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” because of the zombie-like creatures that are fast and extremely menacing; “Cloverfield” comes to mind because the entire picture is seen through a hand-held camera. Despite the content of the film, without Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Dexter”), this movie probably would’ve failed. Providing a character that’s real, good-natured, and one of the boys (established during the amusing first fifteen minutes), we ultimately care about her when the creatures roam about the apartment complex. She really amazed me during the last few scenes because not only can she scream and look good doing it, I wanted to reach out into the screen and help her escape. Another stand-out is Jay Hernandez (“Hostel,” “Planet Terror,” “Lakeview Terrace”) as a firefighter who is both strong and approachable. I wish he and Carpenter had more scenes together because when they interact, the movie feels more alive. As for the scares, a lot of them are memorable: whether something is moving in the background, strange noises coming from a dark room, or bodies falling from above–all of it worked because the characters are trapped in one place. Danger is always around the corner and it doesn’t let go until the credits appeared. I thought the use of lighting is excellent. Most of the time, it makes me want to look closer because the “thing” that we’re supposed to be looking at is shrouded in darkness. Therein lies the trap because once you look closer, something pops out–your heart starts beating and your eyes try to look for an escape. This is one of the better horror films to come out recently and I’m glad to have seen it in the cinema with a friend and enthusiastic horror fans.