The Wrestler (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this film came out of nowhere because I never heard of it before the awards season. Since many critics gave it enthusiastic recommendations, I thought I’d check it out. I’ve never been that much of a big fan of Darren Aronofsky because his films start out really good but as they go on, they lose that powerful momentum that initially piqued my interest. “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” are perfect examples. That said, I think “The Wrestler” is one of his most consistent and touching films. Mickey Rourke is devastating as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and he deserves to be nominated for an Oscar. I’ve never seen him so broken down, trying his hardest not to scream out of frustration even though pretty much everything in his life is going wrong. Throughout the film, we get to understand that he feels more at home in the ring than out in the real world because he is accepted and respected in there. Moreover, he prefers the ring over the real world because physical pain is more bearable than emotional and psychological pain. I admired the way he kept his cool when people are annoying or insulting him; even though he can just as easily result to violence, he refrains and that’s what makes me want to root for him. It was painful for me to watch his interactions with the daughter he neglected (Evan Rachel Wood). There was a scene when they were sitting down and Rourke decides to pour his heart out to his daughter. That was one of the most poignant scenes I’ve seen in any movies that came out of 2008 because it felt so genuine. What I found distracting, though, was Rourke’s relationship with Marisa Tomei. At first it was sweet then it got ugly; ten minutes later it’s sweet again and then it’s the total opposite. It was somewhat effective the first two times but it quickly got repetitive and it was a waste of screen time. I felt like Aronofsky wanted to increase the drama when the picture already has enough. Still, I recommend this film to everyone because it has something to say about faded glory and one’s relationship with people who matter most when one has lost everything.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by the enigmatic David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac”), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a sight to behold, but it is too long for its own good. While the first and last hours are absolute perfection, I couldn’t help but feel tired during its saggy middle. There were so many repetitive elements that Fincher could’ve left out because they do not contribute to the overall big picture. I consider this film as one of Brad Pitt’s most complete performances. Throughout most of the picture, we see him with wrinkly skin and broken down posture; however, we feel for his character so much because even though he is born in extraordinary circumstances, he leads a pretty ordinary life. Pitt reminds everyone that he is more than just an actor who is mostly known for his pretty face. Prior to watching this film, I thought this would be another “Big Fish” which highlights oddities and fantasies but I was glad to be proven wrong. Although the characters we meet during Pitt’s journey are colorful, they are not out of the ordinary–they are people who are not unlike anyone we can meet off the streets, but they have fascinating stories to tell because of their beliefs and drive. My favorite character who Pitt meets is played by Tilda Swinton. She craves to do something with her life, but she feels trapped because of a specific failure she experienced in her past. That fear to continue only to possibly fail again is universal so I couldn’t help but get affected. Cate Blanchett is always amazing in every movie I see her star in so it was no surprise that she delivered. I couldn’t take my eyes off her during her ballet sequences. I could feel the pain in her eyes whenever the topic of getting old is discussed; her insecurities are heightened whenever she sees her lover get younger every time they meet. Like the fear of failure, the fear of getting older is universal as well. Although those two actresses did a great job, I think Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin’s mother, should be recognized as well. She played her character with such sincerity, I felt warm whenever she’d express her enthusiasm. Even though this film is about many universal ideas, my favorite issue it tackled was the idea of returning home. There was a quote that made me think because, being a college student that goes to school about seven hours away, it is true in my case: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.” I didn’t love this picture, but I really liked it because it has so much to say about life. In a nutshell, despite its depressing tone, it made feel so thankful and so happy to be alive.
Smiley Face (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie is a smogasboard of cameos ranging from the most familiar names and faces–Adam Brody, John Krasinski, John Cho–to those whose faces are familiar but their names give us a hard time recalling–Jayma Mays, Marion Ross, Rick Hoffman. But this movie would’ve been a complete mess without Anna Faris. She once again proved to me–twice to this year along with “The House Bunny”–that she can elevate an average movie into a pretty good one. For me, Faris is like Steve Carell: both can stand in one place and not do anything but they never fail to make me laugh out loud. I was shocked when I found out that Gregg Araki directed this stoner comedy. It’s the complete opposite of the moody, serious, and masterful “Mysterious Skin.” What I like about this film is that it’s so random and pointless to the point where it got me thinking. I know it may sound weird but I thought this picture had something to say about the way we live our lives; how random it is, how things don’t quite go the way we expect them to be. When such disappointments happen, we may feel angry or sad or both, but by the end of the day, we should just be thankful that we’re alive–that we are able to feel these emotions and (possibly) learn from our experiences. Araki really shows his talent during some silent but exquisite scenes, especially that one scene when Faris was sitting on the beach, facing the wind and the sand as the sun sets. I’m really glad that a friend recommended this to me (he’s a big Anna Faris fan) because I decided not to add this movie to my Netflix upon its release since the premise sounded lame. Yes, it’s stupid and can go in a million different directions, but I learned to embrace its positives. It’s funny, the performances are pretty good (especially Faris), and strangely thoughtful.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.
Hallam Foe (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the get-go, the film establishes that the protagonist (Jamie Bell) is a strange but very sad character because he doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s death. He acts out by spying on people, breaking into people’s homes and going through their things, all the while jotting down what he has seen, felt, and done after such actions. He also happens to believe that his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary, killed his mother. That first part of the film was compelling because Bell was able to make the audience feel for him even though the things he does are creepy and borderline criminal. I found it difficult to blame the protagonist because not only is he really young and not aware of the consequences of his actions, I could tell that he really did love his mother… or maybe he loved her too much to the point of utter dependence. Taking that important parent figure from his life at such a young age damaged him emotionally and psychologically so I found his flaws to be reasonable if not relatable. The second part of the picture when Bell moved to the city and met a look-alike of his mother (Sophia Myles) was a bit less compelling because there were so many distractions that slowed the plot down (the scenes during his job which was supposed to serve as an escape, his nightly adventures in the streets, et cetera) .The only thing about the second act that I found to work in all levels was his sexual attraction to his look-alike mother (and how he stalked her at first). It says a lot about his desperation and the lack of closure regarding his mother’s death. The last act when Bell returns home was jawdropping and heartbreaking at the same time. By the end of the film, I felt like the main character grew so much despite still being a bit flawed and fragile. The story doesn’t tie everything up regarding the characters’ lives but offers hope that there’s a light at the end of the interminable tunnel of bleakness and confusion. This film provides an interesting character study and I only recommend it to those that are interested in how a character evolves over time.
The Hunting Party (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
The beginning was so all over the place that I was almost certain I would give this film a two stars at best when it ended. I was proven wrong in the second half when everything started coming together. The jokes are more witty, the characters are more interesting because they’ve begun to change, and the implications regarding politics are more powerful. Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, and Jesse Eisenberg are amusing as three journalists who attempt to capture one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. I couldn’t stop smiling to myself when they eventually resulted to posing as CIA agents because they are so desperate to reach their goal. Richard Shepard, the director, did a good job of not making the story heavy-handed. I’m a big fan of his film called “The Matador” which definitely has similarities to this film. He has a talent of telling unconventional CIA stories that are both thrilling and comedic. And it was really hard for me to assign this picture to one genre because it touches pretty much all genres due to its subject matter. If only the first half of this movie was as good as the second half, I think it would’ve been an instant favorite of mine. It took too long to establish the characters and their purpose. Upon reading the film’s plot, we know which direction it’s going to take so there’s no reason for it to be unfocused. If one decides to watch this movie, I suggest not to get discouraged during the first forty minutes because the rest of it has something meaningful to offer. It suggests a lot about how certain groups of power like the CIA and the United Nations might work in real life.
The Bubble (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie showed my limited knowledge of the Israeli culture, which I think is a great thing because I’m that much more aware by the end of the day. I was surprised by how much the characters are aware and admire the American and European cultures. I enjoyed the references such as the play (which was also turned into a movie) “Bent,” competitions like “American Idol,” to actors like River Phoenix. And those are only some of the references that are talked about; some are posters on the walls and some can be seen on their television sets. In a way, these characters use foreign media to escape the unstable politics of their country. On top of that, the characters deal with finding romance–whether it’s a woman (Daniela Virtzer) searching for a man, or a man (Ohad Knoller) searching for another man (Yousef “Joe” Sweid). For an LGBT picture, it’s very political. I imagine casual moviegoers who want a typical boy-meets-boy story will be very frustrated with this because politics and romance get an equal amount of screen time. But that’s the reason why I was consistently interested in what was going on in the film: the LGBT characters are complex in a different way. It’s nice to see how the characters show their love for country by voicing out how much they oppose the war instead of supporting it. From some of the people I met, they think that the only way to show love for your country is to support its agendas–whatever they may be. This is one of the more meaningful, sensitive, intelligent, and challenging LGBT movies I’ve seen in a while.
American Teen (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The true rating I would give this film is three-and-a-half out of four stars (if I did half-stars), but I decided to round up because watching it made me feel like I was back in high school: the drama and the emptiness, the highs and the lows. I found bits of myself with all of the subjects (some more than others) and it made me reflect on who I was in high school and who I am now. The person I could identify with the most is Hannah Bailey (the rebel) not just because she’s into movies but also the fact that she considers herself to be an “in-between” pertaining to the high school spectrum that ranges from ubergeekdom to uberpopulardom. Whenever she’s on camera she truly shines because she offers something refreshing: while the rest of the subjects, more or less, are most concerned about getting into a specific college or feeling peer pressure of belonging in a group, Hannah wants to get out of Indiana as soon as possible and move to San Francisco because she’s so suffocated by both where she lives and who she’s surrounded by (and their ideals). Jake Tusing (the geek/loner) is interesting for me to watch because he’s so socially awkward (that table scene cracked me up so much!) and I feel bad whenever he puts himself down. It irks me whenever someone says a mean comment directed at him (joking or otherwise) but he just brushes it off by agreeing with them. He needs to learn that he can still be a great person while at the same time not letting certain people get away with certain things. As for Colin Clemens (the jock), even though I didn’t participate in competitive sports, I can relate with him because he wants to go to college but his family do not have enough income to pay off the tuition (not to mention I can get really competitive and I know how it’s like to lose once in a while). He needs a basketball scholarship to pursue an education or else he has no choice but to go to military school. I found it very easy to identify with him because I hate seeing people who want to spread their wings but unable to do so because of pecuniary matters. As for Megan Krizmanich (the queen bee), she has her uberbitch moments but she’s far from a monster. I consider her a textbook definition of a traumatized individual hiding behind a false strong front. She reminded me of myself back in high school when I would easily get angry over the silliest things, when in reality, it was more about my own self-esteem rather than people’s behavior that I don’t agree with. Last but not least, Mitch Reinholt (the heartthrob) is another basketball jock and best friends with Colin. He’s a genuinely good person but he succumbs so easily to peer pressure. I wanted to shake him so badly and tell him that in order for him to be truly happy, he should do whatever he feels is right and ignore what everyone else says. Ultimately, the five subjects are admirable and flawed in their own ways. Nanette Burstein, writer and director, paints her audiences a fairly accurate portrait of how it’s like to be a high schooler in America. If the middle portion of the film had been more daring and focused instead of simply exploring what’s on the outside, this would’ve been a stronger. (It did explore what’s underneath at some points but it didn’t do it enough.) Even though one may not agree with stereotypes, it’s undeniable that these people do exist and it’s important for one to look beyond what’s on the surface.
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.