If…


If… (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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


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


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


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


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


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.

RocknRolla


RocknRolla (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

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.