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.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.