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.
★★★ / ★★★★
I had a difficult time digesting this film because even though there are elements I liked about it (such as the quiet chaos that happens in suburbia that of which focuses on an Arab-American main character), I thought the sexual scenes are graphic, especially when Summer Bishil plays a thirteen-year-old girl. Yes, it’s honest in its portrayal of sexual predators, blooming sexualities, and wanting to escape a home full emotional suppression but it just felt wrong to me. But at the same, I feel like it’s necessary to make, show, and watch films like these because they function like a mirror to our deluded society. Most people like to believe this idea of middle schoolers retaining their innocence, but in reality, kids do have sex at a young age nowadays (The thirteen-year-old father comes to mind.). Films like “Towelhead” reminds us what we choose to ignore and (maybe) eventually forget. I also liked this film’s portrayal of Bishil’s sexuality. I know a lot of people will assume that her character is a bisexual or lesbian, but argue that she is not. In my opinion, she is aroused by looking at the magazines of naked women because it’s what she is not: a person who is free to do whatever she wants and looking like a model (despite being heavily Photoshopped). Moreover, since that magazine is the first thing that awoken her sexual curiosity, it’s only natural that she keeps going back to it. Subtle messages like that forces me to give this film a recommendation because it’s trying to get its audiences to dig under the surface. Other good performances include Peter Macdissi as Bishil’s strict father, Toni Collette as the kind-hearted pregnant neighbor, and Matt Letscher as Collette’s wordly husband. I really enjoyed Collette and Letscher’s characters because I found a certain light in them that I otherwise couldn’t find in the other characters (with the exception of Bishil). Most of the time, I love films that push the envelop but I found it hard to love this one; I admire it but I don’t quite love it because it made me feel sick and disgusted. That said, I think it’s a powerful film because it’s able to get a negative intuitive reaction from me–a trait that I haven’t encountered in a long time.
The Deep End (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I love most about this film is its audacity to be atypical. Tilda Swinton is absolutely terrific as the mother who is constantly tested to see how far she will go to protect her son (Jonathan Tucker) and his secrets. Throughout the picture, I felt like I was watching a poker game as I peer over her shoulder, both of us knowing that she has a bad hand, but she keeps calling her opponents’ bets because she invested too much in the round, desperately hoping that the others are simply bluffing. The bleak atmosphere elevated the constantly increasing drama to the point where it almost works as a thriller. I tried not to look Swinton in the eye too much because once I do, I feel like I’m in as much trouble as she is. Her Oscar win from “Michael Clayton” was a long time coming. Another great performance comes from Goran Visnjic who plays one of the men that blackmails Swinton. I thought I knew which direction his character was going to take so that specific twist was a nice surprise. As for Jonathan Tucker, I’ve seen him in movies like “Pulse,” “Hostage” and the 2003 version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but it was “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Ruins” that made me want to know more about his capabilities. Even though he’s not in as many scenes I as I would have liked here (considering he’s a crucial part of the story), he was spot-on in each of them. Overall, I was invested in each character because the situations they are put in can happen to just about anybody. There’s a certain sense of realism and that’s what makes it so engaging. This is the kind of movie that not everybody can appreciate because it’s far from the norm. Instead of focusing on what was said, the film focuses on the characters’ silent moments and decisions, thereby creating a plethora of implications. Suffice to say, I think this film is exemplary in every way.
The International (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film, astutely directed by Tom Tykwer, reminded me so much of “The Interpreter” because it’s realistic when it comes to the complexities of international crime and relations. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts star as an Interpol agent and assistant district attorney, respectively; as the two leads get closer to the truth, their morals are questioned, they gamble their lives and the lives of those they love. Their main goal is to bring down the source of international corruption led by the IBBC. To say that that particular task is incredibly difficult is putting it lightly because bringing down the IBBC means dealing with economists, politians, bankers and terrorists. What I admired about this film is its patience: it’s not afraid to let its characters talk about the technical inner workings of banks to the point where the audiences get utterly lost. Although most people will get frustrated with it because they claim to not know what is going on, I enjoyed it because that’s what makes it real. That issue of not knowing made it that much more suspenseful. Speaking of suspense, the writer, Eric Singer, knows how to effectively build tension. Just when you think everything is going to go wrong, nothing does; when you think everything is going to go right, something goes incredibly wrong. Right from the beginning, the film established its craft and intelligence; I felt like I was watching the best episodes of “Alias.” Right away, it was able to show what some people are willing to do in order to accomplish their endgame. This is one of the first adult movies of 2009 and definitely not for everyone. There are not a lot of action scenes but when those action scenes appear, they are intense and heart-pounding. If one is looking for a typical action film, this is not the one to see. However, if one is looking for an intelligent script, moral and business ambiguities, this gets a high recommendation from me.
Transporter 3 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is arguably the darkest installment out of the first three, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. In fact, I think it’s the worst because it’s lacking a particular element that made the first two so much fun to watch. Jason Statham is great as usual as the transporter of goods, but this time around the object that he’s supposed to deliver happens to be a person (not that that’s anything new). She is played by Natalya Rudakova, which I thought ruined the entire film. She’s as useless as a screen door on a submarine because her character is not particularly strong or smart. She’s not very sensible either because she chooses to take drugs and drink vodka despite her dire predicament. I kept waiting for her character to get shot in the head (hence for the film to get better) but it never happened. Without her annoying voice and distracting freckles, I think I would’ve liked the movie more. As for the elements I did like, the action is still kinetic and it delivered a cartoonish sense of humor. I also liked Robert Knepper as the villain; I think he’s exemplary in roles that require a certain griminess like his character on “Prison Break.” Olivier Megaton, the director, didn’t spend enough time to set up the bad guys’ endgame so I ultimately didn’t care for the story. He also spent too much time exploring Statham and Rudakova’s lack of chemistry, as if he’s trying to force the film’s audiences to like her. I can’t stop complaining about her because she doesn’t have any redeeming quality. (And the fact that she forced Statham to strip doesn’t count despite a glorious sight.) I love the “Transporter” series because it’s pure escapist fun, but I would say skip this one to spare yourself from rolling your eyes and pulling your hair out.
Transporter 2 (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
This is the case in which the sequel is better than the original. Even though its predecessor had more story, this one is more focused because all it wanted to do was entertain by showing its audiences one action sequence after another. Jason Statham is back as the mercenary Frank Martin but this time around, instead of transporting drugs or women, his job is to take a kid named Jack (played with spunkiness by Hunter Clary) back from school every day. Since he is a son of an important politician (Matthew Modine), he is targeted by Alessandro Gassman whose intentions are revealed later in the film. One of the things I liked about the picture is that it started off with a kidnapping but it eventually became something more sinister. I didn’t see it coming so I thought that was well done. I also liked the references to the first film (this time with paint instead of oil) and how it provided a scene similar to the ridiculousness of the first (the stunts using a fire hose). But the best scenes include model-turned-actress Kate Nauta and her duels with Statham. I wish they had more hand-to-hand combat; I didn’t like that Louis Leterrier, the director, avoided something that could be great. Yes, violence against women is a horrible thing in normal circumstances but if one assassin faces another assassin gender should not be an issue. Ultimately, I thought this film was extremely fast-paced. It didn’t feel like I watched a ninety-minute movie. Even though it might have been a little too cartoonish, I think it worked because its intention was not to tell an insightful story but an entertaining one. It more than succeeds on that level.