Me and Orson Welles (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) was magnetized toward the arts so when the opportunity of working with Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) production of “Julius Caesar” had presented itself, Richard just had to be in the play despite lacking theater experience. Through a week of rigorous rehearsals, Richard fell for a secretary named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) who everyone admired but earned the nickname of being an Ice Queen. Little did Richard know that he had to compete with Welles for Sonja’s affections. I understand that this movie must have been a big deal for Efron because it gave him the chance to finally be considered as a serious actor. In a way, the actor had parallels with his character because Richard wanted to be taken seriously despite his age and lack of connection in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, the movie barely kept my attention. I could not connect at all with Richard because there did not come a point where he had a clear vision between wanting to have the girl or wanting to achieve his dreams. Obviously, he could not have both. To an extent, his lack of understanding about what was more important was understandable because he was young, but I think the writing should have presented a key moment when the audiences would realize that Richard was worth rooting for even though he did not know exactly what he wanted. There were two characters who overshadowed the protagonist. One was Danes as an elegant woman who knew what she wanted and would do anything to go where she wanted to go. Unlike the main character, she had experience and was wise despite the fact that I did not always agree with her actions. The other character that fascinated me was Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring young writer who liked to visit museums for inspiration and when she felt down. Kazan was absolutely charming and, more importantly, the zeal she embedded in her character did not feel forced. Generally, Efron was satisfactory as Richard, albeit too safe, but his lack of intensity was magnified when he had to interact with Danes and Kazan. Furthermore, I do have to say that his optimistic one-liners made me cringe. “Me and Orson Welles” was surprisingly weak especially since Richard Linklater was the director. In most of his films, he has such a great ear for dialogue and sharp vision in terms of capturing actors in their most natural state to the point where it almost looks effortless without sacrificing the characters’ multi-dimensional personalities. “Me and Orson Welles” was very uneven, especially in its first half, and ultimately disappointing.
I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.
★★★ / ★★★★
Alexa (Emmy Rossum) is a good girl who gets perfect grades and is passionate about acting but her high school peers consider her as a total loser. Ben (Ashley Springer), Alexa’s best friend, has not yet come out of the closet despite his accepting psychiatrist parents (Ana Gasteyer, Wayne Pyle). And Johnny (Zach Gilford) is a popular rich kid who puts on a tough persona but he’s really a sensitive soul. Written by David Brind and directed by Adam Salky, I thought “Dare” was going to be another typical indie film about high school teenagers “finding themselves” but it surprised me because my loyalty toward certain characters had a 180-degree turn halfway through the picture. I had this idea that Alexa and Ben were the so-called good guys and Johnny had no redeeming quality about him. After all, he projected this image that he didn’t care about anything or anyone. It turned out that, due to the varying turn of events sparked by a successful stage actor (Alan Cumming), the two best friends were the parasites and the rich kid was arguably the victim. The film was divided into three chapters that focused on each of the main character so the audiences got a chance to observe the characters’ lives from differing perspectives. While I thought Rossum was the best actor of the three, I was glad that her chapter was first because it wasn’t as well-written as the other two. It wasn’t that her chapter lacked dimension but it wasn’t as dark (though it did try) as the other two. From there, the film gathered momentum as we got to observe Ben’s desperation get the best of him (or the worst of him) and onto the climax of the film when Johnny had a session with his psychiatrist (Sandra Bernhard). I thought that scene was particularly special because it wasn’t just a patient talking to his psychiatrist and the psychiatrist going “uh-huh… uh-huh.” There was a real sense of tension there because they were not afraid to disagree and argue with each other. But at the same time one could get this feeling that Bernhard’s character really did care for Johnny and that tension came from her genuine concern about her patient’s self-denial. Johnny’s loneliness was the most powerful and convincing part of this film; I was fascinated because he was frequently torn by two extreme forces–Ben and Alexa–who he considered his friends. “Dare” is far from a perfect film because there were still elements of typical high school drama that lingered. I wanted to see more focus found in the second half instead of characters trying to figure out where they belonged in the social hierarchy. It was edgy in its own way and it delivered in the most unsuspecting ways.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This sequel is arguably just as good as the original mainly because of the exotic locations and earnest acting. Two and half out of the four storylines worked for me: Amber Tamblyn’s pregnancy scare and her fear of everyone leaving her someday, America Ferrera’s accidental acting gig and her fear of growing distant from her friends, and half of Alexis Bledel’s lost love (Michael Rady) in Greece. I usually love watching Blake Lively (and I did love her here) but the storyline involving archeology and her grandmother felt forced. Every time the film would focus on her so-called life challenges, the momentum of the picture slowed down tremendously. As for the part that didn’t work for me regarding Bledel, it mostly has something to do with her acting. This was also a problem in the first film but whenever she’s about to cry, it feels really forced to the point where it’s borderline laughable. I can read it in her eyes–her questioning about whether she’s exuding enough tears and emotion. Out of the four, acting-wise, I think she’s the most dispensable. However, there’s something about this movie’s energy that kept me interested. I believed that the four leads really were college students because of the way they talked to each other and the questions that they raised (and eventually answered) when no one was around. Even though I’m not the target age group, I could relate with some of the girls, especially Tamblyn’s serious and introspective persona (not to mention her love for movies), because I have gone through the fears of losing one’s high school friends when I moved on to college. Overall, I’m recommending “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” because it has nice life lessons and the actresses are interesting to watch.