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.
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.
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.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I like to think of myself as an adventurous moviegoer so I’m on the constant lookout for movies that are vastly different from the mainstream. I’ve heard of the term “exploitation film” before (mainly from Quentin Tarantino because his movies often reference to that genre) but I never really knew what it really meant until I saw this film and did a bit of research about it. I really loved this documentary because I really learned a lot from it. I had no idea that Australia released all these cult classics, some of which have never been released in America. The way Australians made and released these daring movies in the 1970s and 1980s was so refreshing because nowadays, especially here in the United States, those kinds of movies are not made anymore. Once in a blue moon an exploitation flick (or a flick inspired from such like “Wolf Creek”) would be made but it was always under the radar no matter how good or bad it was. Speaking of good and bad, another thing that I loved about this documentary was it put the spotlight on good and bad movies alike and the people being interviewed explained why they thought a particular movie was good or bad (or sometimes even both). It fascinated me and I literally made a list of the movies wanted to check out. Some of them include “Mad Max” (1979), “Turkey Shoot” (1982), “Fairgame” (1985), “Dark Age” (1987), “Next of Kin” (1982), “Long Weekend” (1979), “Road Games” (1981), “Patrick” (1978), and others. The documentary, written and directed by Mark Hartley, was divided into several sections which started from movies about sex and nudity and ended with movies about car crashes and extreme violence. While it did cover a plethora of disparate motion pictures, I was also very impressed with the fact that it found enough time to discuss censorship (or lack thereof) in the era of Ozploitation. I wish this movement would repeat itself here in America because I’m starting to get sick of Hollywood trash being released in theaters weekly. Some days, I just want to see intense car chases with no real story but has a great sense of dialogue (like “Death Proof”) or even a movie about science gone wrong with buckets of blood on the side. Nowadays it’s all about the box office and watching this film really made me feel like the filmmakers wanted to make movies just because they were in love with the process–a reason why some of these exploitation films are so randomly original. I was so excited about the content of this movie, I decided to added some movies on my Netflix (the ones available in America anyway). I just want to see something so risqué and possibly something I can love and recommend to my friends when we don’t feel like going out and spending money.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Students with talent when it comes to acting, singing, dancing and playing music were accepted in New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts and those who lack such talents were rejected. The very intense audition process was only the first scene and it really showed me that “Fame,” directed by Alan Parker, was going to be a very different musical compared to the ones that have been released in the 2000s. Throughout the film, it had a certain seriousness to it. It started off showcasing naive characters who want to “make it big” but as years went on, some of them made it while the others’ dreams were crushed because they either succumbed to the pressure or they simply didn’t have that extra “thing” to make them stand out. Some of the students that the film focused on were Irene Cara (who wanted to be a singer), Maureen Teefy (who wanted to act), Barry Miller (who wanted to follow Freddie Prinze’ footsteps), and Lee Curreri (who wanted to make and play music that was different and progressive). Throughout the film’s 130-minute running time, the spotlight was eventually under each of their respective struggles and we get some ideas on what made them the way they were. I also liked the fact that none of the actors looked like typical actors or had features that most would deem “beautiful.” In fact, all of them looked kind of geeky or nerdy so that spice of realism really helped the picture to become more than another forgettable musical. As four years went by, the characters matured (while some were fixated) in both overt and subtle ways and their problems had more gravity. Granted, the pacing became a little slow (and somewhat depressing) toward the end but I was more than willing to forgive that flaw because there were a plethora of memorable scenes and fun dance sequences. I wish that Cara had more scenes, however, because I really did love her songs. I wished that the film showed more of what personal events and experiences inspired her to write. This movie’s remake is to be released this year (2009) and I can only hope that it is able to retain some edginess and realism that this one had. I also hope that the remake would not lose sight on this picture’s theses–that talent is a good template but far from enough to be successful; and those who attain fame are not necessarily safe because it’s a constant challenge to rise above the pressures. The movie’s ability to take the audiences back to the 1970s was a bonus.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was deeply touched by this biopic about a supermodel named Gia Carangi (Angelina Jolie) back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Throughout the picture, I felt that her story was very personal because we got to see her evolve from a rebellious kid who was abandoned by her mother to a stunning supermodel who everyone wanted to worked with. At the same time, we also got to see her cocaine addiction, failed relationships and connection with others, and the eventual decline of her health because of AIDS. I’m glad that this film did not particularly glamorize the fashion world. In fact, I got a feeling that it was almost against it–as if it was one of the main reasons to blame that finally drove Carangi over the edge. Gia was far from a perfect person and therefore not free from blame but she had crucial moments when she took responsibility because she really did want to change. I admired the scenes when Jolie was posing in front of the camera looking extraordinary but such scenes also had voice-overs of what the photographers, the crew, and the other models’ real thoughts about Gia. It shows that something beautiful on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s on the inside, which I thought culminated when one of the women confronted Gia with such anger during one of the drug addiction sessions concerning the lies–on how to look like, how to act, and how to live one’s life–presented by the glossy fashion magazines. I also enjoyed the fact that Gia’s relationships were highlighted throughout the film: the mother who uses her as an accessory, who’s always there when things are good but almost never there when things are bad (Mercedes Ruehl), the loyal friend she met right before she was discovered and was there with her until the end (Eric Michael Cole), the agent who she saw more as a mother-figure (Faye Dunaway), and her on-and-off girlfriend who always wanted Gia to be the best she could be (Elizabeth Mitchell). While most people I know chose to see this for the nudity by Jolie, I have to say that this film goes beyond issues of the flesh. There’s a very real story and powerful lessons to be learned here; in fact, to be honest, the “sex” scenes are not that shocking to me because I’ve seen all kinds of movies with all kinds of sexual acts. For me, the sole purpose of watching this picture for the nudity is a sign of disrespect for Jolie’s acting abilities and Gia’s memory. Directed by Michael Cristofer, “Gia” is a triumph on multiple levels (especially Jolie’s acting) and should be seen with an open mind and sensitivity.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.