Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Dirty Harry (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
A San Francisco cop with a reputation in the streets as Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) because of his willingness to not play by the rules tried to hunt down a serial killer named Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) who claimed that he would kidnap or kill people if the city failed to give him whatever he desired. Directed by Don Siegel, “Dirty Harry” became an iconic film. Naturally, my expectations were very high. I thought it was a bit dated but it was very efficient with its time, a great homage yet reinvented detective pictures, and the acting was very strong, especially by Eastwood. But what I loved most about the film was its simplicity. It was essentially about a cop who wanted to capture a bad guy. Certain twists such as the cop’s tendency to spy on people he was meant to protect, penchant for grand speeches and glorification of violence when he was fully aware there were other means of extracting information made the story very modern and quite bold. My opinion of the lead character always evolved and that X-factor made me emotionally and intellectually invested in the material despite its typical premise. The moral questions it brought up about power, choosing the lesser evil, ethics and inner demons were insightful and at times revealing, particularly toward the end when Eastwood’s character became almost obsessive in capturing the murderer. Even though I did not agree with much of his methods, I rooted for him to succeed because no one else was willing to take as many risks as he did. He was willing to put his career on the line which meant so much to him despite scenes that depicted him volunteering to give up his badge. The way I saw it was that the badge meant nothing to him but he was very passionate about being a cop and catching (or killing) those who did wrong. I did notice a plethora of political right-wing undercurrents but I don’t believe it hindered the picture in any way. What I thought it could have improved on was allowing the audiences to enter the lead character’s heart and mind more often. We did get to see his humanity toward the end of the movie so I felt like I understood him more. However, during the first half, I thought he was more of a vigilante in which killing was his addiction. At times I’m torn (and still torn) because I loved the way my perception of Harry Callahan changed toward the end. I also would have liked to have seen Harry interact with his new partner (Reni Santoni), a typical good guy, for more contrasting views in the ethical dilemmas involving law enforcement. “Dirty Harry” is a strong film. The action scenes were particularly gripping because there was no soundtrack. Everything was stripped down and, although the movie was released in the early ’70s, it is still refreshing to watch.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
The Box (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
An unsuspecting couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) from the suburbs in the winter of 1976 received a box with a red button from a man with a deformity (Frank Langella). They were told that if they pressed the button, they would receive a million dollars in cash. However, upon their decision to press the button, someone they didn’t know would die. I’ve read and heard all sorts of frustration about this film and I have to admit I was really excited to see it. I like debate as opposed to just everyone agreeing that something is horrible or a masterpiece. It was a weird movie but definitely not as strange as I thought it would be. I liked its ability to keep me guessing. At first I thought the strange events that were happening were driven by some sort of a government conspiracy or some sort of an alien life form. But as it went on, I started wondering if the happenings were really happening. It was like watching “The Twilight Zone;” the more unbelievable the story became, the more I wanted to know what was really going on. Unlike most people, I didn’t feel frustration with it. I learned to embrace its enigmatic nature because I rooted for the couple to succeed. The primary moral question was always at the forefront for me. Admittedly, I would have made the same decision they chose (yes, they did press the red button–which is not a spoiler because if they didn’t press the button, there would be no movie) because they really needed the money. However, as much as I enjoyed watching the strange happenings unfold–like people becoming sort of possessed and having unexplainable nosebleeds (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”)–the picture desperately needed focus. While I was able to follow it with the best of my abilities, when I looked at the big picture, it was a bit confusing and some scenes needed to be trimmed off. In a way, it became redundant as it went on and the movie probably should have only been approximately an hour and twenty minutes. Nevertheless, despite the mediocre rating, I’m willing to give it a slight recommendation because it entertained me and it worked as a hybrid between science fiction and a paranoid thriller. “The Box,” based on a short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Kelly, kept the mystery alive throughout because of some nice twists. It was not as focused and as tight as I would have liked but it definitely had the potential to be really good.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother and son (Ellen Burstyn and Alfred Lutter III) decided to go on a roadtrip to Monterey after the head of the family (who was emotionally abusive) unexpectedly passed away. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie because I’m used to Martin Scorsese’s other projects which usually involved tough men drowning in dangerous situations. In here, it was more about a woman’s sense of self-worth and the way she kept picking herself up for her son after numerous heartbreaks. I think the picture had a great balance between drama and comedy but at the same time Scorsese wasn’t afraid to experiment with certain shots such as his homage to “The Wizard of Oz” in the first scene. It surprised me how amusing moments came off sad situations and vice-versa. The movie really embodied that 1970s feel; even though it was released thirty years ago, oddly enough, I thought it was fresh and I was fascinated with how it was all going to unravel. Two of my favorite scenes were when Burstyn said goodbye to her best friend and when the son tried telling his mother an unfunny and endless joke. Instead of going for the easy laughs and melodrama, it felt more like a slice-of-life picture that happened to work as a road trip film. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character was dependent on men and although she knew it, it was sometimes difficult for her to put her son first when she had a boyfriend. Even though that specific trait of hers bothered me, I still couldn’t help but root for her because she was essentially a good person. Even though her life was full of disappointments (such as her dream of becoming a singer not being realized), those things didn’t get her down. I also enjoyed watching the side characters such as the plucky waitress (Diane Ladd), the weird waitress (Valerie Curtin), and the kind but sometimes unpredictable farmer who the main character eventually fell in love with (Kris Kristofferson). All of them brought something special to the table that gave the movie a certain edge. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a great film with strong acting (especially from Burstyn) and an interesting script. I’ve read reviews saying that since this was one of Scorsese’s first movies, it didn’t quite have Scorsese’s style that could be found in his other works such as “Casino,” “GoodFellas” and “Raging Bull.” I disagree. One of the things that made those movies so great was a fantastic ear for dialogue and I think “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” had that quality. The dialogue just didn’t have that “tough guy” feel to it but it certainly had strength.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot about Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a modern noir about a private detective (Jack Nicholson) who decided to investigate about water dealings in Los Angeles, only to discover later on that what he was onto was deeper than he could tread. I was impressed by this classic picture because even though it was set in the 1930s, there was something about it that was very aware of the noir films that came before. I thought that subtle self-awareness worked in its advantage because although it did follow some of the textbook rules of noir movies, it had the ability to flip some of those rules upside down and I was taken by surprise time and time again. I loved the acting especially by Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It’s an excellent collision of two great actors because Nicholson played a character who was always asking questions and snooping around no matter what the cost and Dunaway played a character who was a fortress. You never really know what she’s thinking or feeling because she’s so good at hiding certain bits of information that are crucial to her endgame. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to give away facts that could help Nicholson’s character but still keep her secrets. I also liked the recurring theme of a character thinking he or she knows everything but it turning out to be quite the opposite. In the hands of a less gifted director, I think the messages would have been obvious and less fun to think about. There were also certain metaphors in the film that I found to be fascinating. For instance, that scene between Dunaway and Nicholson regarding a flaw in the iris meant so much to me in ultimately determining whether I was in the right direction of guessing who was involved in what. And in this film, a whole array of things were happening all at once to the point where a less attentive viewer will almost certainly get lost in the maelstrom of intrigues, social commentaries and taboos. “Chinatown” was well ahead of its time because it was able to synthesize remnants of what made the noir films in the 1940s and 1950s so great yet still embrace the very modern moral and ethical conundrums that plagued the era of its release. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll love instead of like this movie. I recently found out that the more I think about certain movies and the more the events connect in my mind, the stronger my appreciation for them. Given the chance, I’ll be interested in watching “Chinatown’ again in the near future to see if its subtle ways had embedded themselves in my psyche. If it does, that is a sign of a great film.