Tag: addiction

Ben is Back


Ben is Back (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although occasionally adhering to a few tropes of drug addiction dramas, “Ben is Back,” written and directed by Peter Hedges, provides a realistic look at a specific person who decides to come home from rehab on his 77th day of being sober in order celebrate Christmas with his family. It is a sad story, so knowing when it comes to which elements to amplify when the heart-tugging moments come around, but it is worth seeing because it is willing to stare into the void of drug addiction.

It treats addiction like the disease that it is. Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the son who insists that he is doing much better and is healthier than ever, and Julia Roberts plays Holly as the mother who wants to make her son feel welcome but at the same time extremely wary that the most seemingly insignificant trigger may result in relapse. From the moment the family sees Ben standing near the front door as they pull up on the driveway, one could feel them getting ready to resume carrying the burden they had dropped temporarily. It is an astute decision for the director to keep the camera inside the car for a few more seconds before the would-be happy reunion, as if the family, even subconsciously, is bracing themselves for another rollercoaster ride. They are tired of Ben, but they must try not to show it.

Particularly intriguing is the decision to show how Ben has affected his community. There are dead bodies in the ground and their families are still in deep mourning, some very angry. And so when depressed parents despise Ben’s presence even at church, we may not know them but we empathize with them, too. The screenplay ensures that we are likely to feel how they are feeling if we were in their shoes. Even Ben believes he deserves some kind of punishment, welcoming it even. He feels sorry, deeply sorry, but the sentiment is too late. Corpses have been buried, money have been stolen, there are new addicts on the street thanks to Ben the former drug dealer.

Performances by Roberts and Hedges are highly watchable and emotional. Tight close-ups are employed generously, but the duo are up for the challenge. The latter shows Ben slipping bit by bit while the former portrays Holly as desperately trying to keep up with her fragile son, to ensure that 1) he maintains his sobriety and 2) she be there to catch him when or if he falls. (They made a deal that he could stay home for Christmas but must return to rehab the next day.) She watches him like a hawk, but, as drug addicts do, he manages to find ways to elude her. Even a few seconds matter. The picture makes a point that their relationship—the addict and the supervisor—is a lot of work, exhausting, untenable. And the story unfolds in just over a day. It communicates, with great clarity, a mother’s love for her child.

Carefully paced and unafraid of raw emotions, “Ben is Back” shows that the road to sobriety is labyrinthine—not just for the addict but also for the loved ones who care. Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing when only one or two variables have changed. And sometimes you are just so tired of having to be the constant source of support that you hope that, against all odds, simply being there is enough. And when it isn’t, well, life has a way of pushing us forward.

Being Charlie


Being Charlie (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Written by Matt Elisofon and Nick Reiner, “Being Charlie” is supposed to be about an eighteen-year-old being forced to get help from drug addiction, but most frustrating is that every so often the screenplay turns away from what drug addiction and rehabilitation truly is. Instead, once in a while we are handed easy laughs and supposedly moving human connections even though these elements appear at wrong times or not yet earned. As a result, the picture, although it offers some effective moments, is, a whole, an unconvincing walk in the shoes of a young person who needs help but neither knows it nor wants it.

The opening scene is one of the film’s shining moments because it is dipped in irony. It gets the viewers excited because the first image of dramatic pictures tends to set the tone for what they hope to convey or accomplish. We see Charlie (Nick Robinson) sitting in front of a birthday cake and surrounded by people. But it might as well have been a scene from a funeral. There is no joy on our protagonist’s face; there is no sadness or annoyance—his expression is simply blank. He is not surrounded by friends or family but of fellow men and women getting treatment. Everyone in the frame is dressed so formally and the light in the room is so dim, it were as if the birthday is a day of mourning.

We consider: Perhaps Charlie’s birthday wish was to be dead.

But herein lies the problem. Throughout the course of the picture, the screenplay consistently fails to provide enough depth when it comes to the people in Charlie’s lives: those important to him because they are biologically connected (Cary Elwes, Susan Misner), those with whom he chooses to form friendships with (Devon Bostick), and those who end up surprising him because, as it turns out, they genuinely care about his well-being (Common). Details matter most in movies about addiction. Otherwise, as is the case here, the work ends up looking and feeling like a cheap imitation.

The movie, middling in quality for the most part, is elevated by two performers. Robinson is convincing as a troubled teen not because he looks rough or tough. On the contrary, he looks handsome and gentle and so it works when Charlie’s resentment and anger—toward his parents, toward the system, toward himself—surfaces and threaten to flood the room. The other performer is Common, playing one of the leaders of the halfway house who is quite tough but fair. Common commands an almost tactile presence that all the other actors here do not have. Most unfortunate is the filmmakers’ failure to recognize that the relationship between Charlie and Travis is the true heart of their material.

Instead, the majority of its running time is dedicated to Charlie and a potential romance with a girl named Eva (Morgan Saylor). Their relationship offers no excitement or tension because we get the impression within the minute they meet that they are not a good fit for one another. In addition, the conflict between Charlie and his father (Elwes) is contrived, heavy-handed, and so ludicrous at times that such a subplot would fit so perfectly in a bad Lifetime movie.

“Being Charlie,” directed by Rob Reiner, would have been a better film if the writers had dared to look drug addiction and recovery straight in the eye and given us unfamiliar notes, rhythms, and observations about the struggles that come with it. It would have been tougher material to swallow but at least it would have been inspired.

Shame


Shame (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.

A Hole in My Heart


A Hole in My Heart (2004)
★ / ★★★★

As his father, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), and his father’s friend, Geko (Goran Marjanovic), shot an amateur pornographic film in their apartment, Eric (Björn Almroth) retreated to his dark room and listened to heavy metal music. “Ett hål i mitt hjärta” aimed to tackle issues like how addiction to pornography could ruin lives but I’m not sure it was successful in doing so in a meaningful way. The picture showed us graphic images of labial reconstruction surgery, S&M in which Tess (Sanna Bråding), a girl from the streets who wanted to be a successful pornographic actress in America, wasn’t informed of, and sex involving food and vomit. But what was it all supposed to mean? With its style of manic editing, the connection between shocking images and the meaning we were supposed to extract from them weren’t established. While it did have quieter moments of Eric wanting to escape his toxic environment but ultimately couldn’t do anything to get away from his father (he didn’t seem to have many friends), it was difficult to sympathize with him at times. For instance, when his dad was sleeping, Eric woke him up and claimed that the kitchen was on fire when it really wasn’t. And when his dad asked for water to drink, Eric took it from the toilet. It was disgusting behavior which was almost unwatchable as Rickard and Geko pressuring Eric to fire an air gun so that he could feel more like a man. I felt humiliated for all of the characters. Just when I felt a glimmer of hope during Tess and Eric’s conversation, the material jumped back to its repetitive technique of barraging its audiences with strong images but with little meaning. Toward the end, a fact was revealed about Rickard which was supposed to explain his fixation toward pornography and violence. However, since the journey toward the revelation was deeply unfocused, it felt more like an excuse than an explanation. “A Hole in My Heart,” directed by Lukas Moodysson, is easy to criticize because of the way it was shot and edited. Perhaps it was done on purpose because it strived to comment on our consumption of reality television. In any case, I don’t mind the technical aspects as much as long as it had a defined center. Its approach was bold and it took some wild risks in attempting to explain how one person’s dysfunction could enable other people’s dysfunction. But without exploring the increasing distance between the tragic characters, especially the lack of bond between father and son, either we don’t feel closer to them in the end or we end up just not caring about them.

Get Him to the Greek


Get Him to the Greek (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) was a rock star at the peak of his career but the negative reviews of his most recent album called “African Child,” labeled as offensive and racist, forced him to retreat from the spotlight. Enter Aaron (Jonah Hill), an intern for a major record company, when he was assigned by his boss, the tough Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), to take Aldous from England and accompany him to the Los Angeles Greek Theatre for a comeback concert. This proved to be a difficult task because Aldous loved to party, do drugs, and deviate from the original plan. “Get Him to the Greek,” directed by Nicholas Stoller, was hilarious during its first thirty minutes. Celebrity cameos seemed to come from everywhere; I liked it best when I didn’t know what hit me and I was forced to think, “Did that just really happen?” Unfortunately, the rest of the picture failed to measure up. Although there was mayhem left and right, the chaos wasn’t interesting because it had the same type of humor all the way to the finish line. I didn’t mind that it was raunchy. I laughed at some scenes like when Aaron felt forced to become a drug mule at the airport. I understood that it wanted to poke fun of stars like Britney Spears with their intense relationship with the media and their fans. It also wanted to make fun of us for liking bad pop music reflected by Aldous’ ridiculous song lyrics. Eventually, I realized there was something missing. The picture had to draw a line between fun and serious issues. It had the capacity to change things up as Aaron was forced to be in increasingly uncompromising situations. A person recently plucked from an ordinary life, despite the glamour of the world of celebrity, would eventually question whether it was ethically and morally right for him to enable an artist struggling with an addiction. Toward the end, it attempted to tackle the issue but it felt forced because the journey that Aldous and Aaron took together wasn’t particularly meaningful. They shared some drugs and they eventually learned (or thought they learned) to be comfortable with each other to the point where they agreed to a threesome, but there was not one conversation when they connected as equals. It was always about Aaron catering to Aldous’ fragile ego and that wasn’t friendship. It didn’t even work as a story about a fan and the person he looked up to because moments after Aaron met Aldous, he was perfectly aware that the Aldous in his records didn’t reflect reality. He came to terms with it right away. “Get Him to the Greek” would have been a stronger film without the redemption arc involving the rock star supposedly overcoming his addiction. Because when it tried to be sensitive, it just didn’t feel genuine.

Requiem for a Dream


Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.

Limitless


Limitless (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was a struggling writer in New York. He claimed he had ideas for his book but he was at a loss on how to put them together. He spent most of his days staring at the computer and accomplishing nothing. But his luck turned for the better when he ran into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon, a former drug dealer, handed Eddie a pill called an NZT48 which allowed the person to use his brain in full capacity. Eddie finished his book in no time but that wasn’t enough. He realized he needed more of the magic pills so he could earn enough money and be set for life. “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields,” was an entertaining fantasy for about half of its running time. It posed interesting questions about what one man would do if he was given the chance to become the smartest man on the planet. Naturally, finding a cure for diseases like AIDS or finding a solution for world hunger was not one of his priorities. Instead, he decided to borrow money from a thug (Andrew Howard) and forgot to pay him back, got involved with a cunning businessman (Robert De Niro) who was willing to go great lengths to remain at the top of the food chain, and win back the girl who dumped him when he was at his worst. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as the drug led him to believe. While the picture remained energetic throughout, I noticed that half-way through, I began to think about the technicalities involving the drug in question. For instance, what chemical compounds was it made of? Eddie recruited a scientist to make more of the pills and I got the impression that it was relatively simple to make. And given that the drug was able to bind to more receptors in the brain, how was the body able to compensate for the overdrive given that Eddie was consuming the pills like Nerds candy? In the least, I expected him to eat more because the brain needs glucose to function. I understood that it was supposed to be science fiction. However, I wouldn’t have focused on the technicalities if the filmmakers had chosen to stray from the formula they’ve grown accustomed to. Every time Eddie took the drug, the scenery looked happier and brighter. The soundtrack was more upbeat. The temporary happiness was countered by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who stalked Eddie. The same set-up was used about five or six times. It was tiresome, lazy, and, most importantly, it didn’t always move the story forward. Characters like the mysterious man and the murdered woman in the hotel were left on the sideline. A handful of questions were left unanswered. The film lightly tackled some of the repercussions of addiction but it ultimately glorified it. On one hand, I thought it was refreshing. Admittedly, when our protagonist was on a high, I laughed at the ridiculous things that happened to him. On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face of real people struggling with drug addiction. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale but it lacked the gray areas of ethics and morality.

The Fighter


The Fighter (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) were half-brothers who had a talent and heart for boxing. Dicky was the older one who spent his time reliving his former days of glory. His family, led by Melissa Leo as the matriarch and manager, believed Dicky could make a comeback as they turned a blind eye toward his drug addiction. Mickey, after his family guilt-tripped him into fighting a boxer much bigger than him and being beaten to a pulp, began to think about accepting an offer for a year-round training, with pay, in Las Vagas. This didn’t rest well with the rest of the family except Mickey’s father (Jack McGee) and new girlfriend (Amy Adams) who offered full support. Directed by David O. Russell, “The Fighter” had all the elements to make a truly inspiring film about a man eventually overcoming all odds, but it fell short because Mickey was overshadowed by those who surrounded him. With such spicy personalities offered by Bale, Leo, and Adams, Wahlberg’s character was simply there instead of shining above the rest. He played the mediator, someone who held his tongue just in case someone would get offended by what he had to say, so he ended up boring. He was a bland wall; everyone else were colorful spots on it. I wasn’t convinced that Wahlberg had found a way to make Mickey’s silent suffering relatable or endearing. Some critics’ comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of the intensity and realism of the boxing matches were hyperboles. I suggest the same critics watch Manny Pacquiao’s boxing matches if they want to experience first-rate edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The boxing sequences in this film were commercial and the emotional impact was diluted by quick cuts and obnoxious soundtrack when it should have been primal. I kept waiting for the many distracting elements to subside, especially during the key final match, but the director opted to assault our senses. Sometimes less really is more. I thought the drama behind the scenes, particularly the mother’s increasing awareness that she could no longer manage (or control) her son’s career, were far more interesting. Furthermore, I found Adams’ performance magnetic as she tried to stand up for herself and Mickey against the family matriarch and sisters who had a pack mentality. I’ve never seen her so edgy, so stripped down. Lastly, Bale was excellent as someone who was torn between his addiction and complete adoration for his brother. He was perhaps the most complicated character because there was no doubt in our mind that he wanted the best for Mickey, yet the decisions he made were not always smart. It’s too bad his addiction was more often played for laughs. “The Fighter” was very good in terms of acting but it desperately needed to find focus on the themes it wanted to tackle. It didn’t feel like a complete work.

Dark Habits


Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★

“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.

Dirty Harry


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.

Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb and directed by Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart” told the story of a 57-year-old musician named Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) who traveled from one small town to another to perform songs that people loved back when he was in his prime. Completely trapped in the habit of smoking and alcohol, he slowly began to change his ways after meeting a charming music writer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son. Bad Blake also had to deal with stepping out of the shadow cast by an artist he used to mentor (Colin Farrell), reconnecting with his 28-year-old son and writing new songs so he could stop living from paycheck to paycheck. The thing I liked most about this movie was its simplicity even though it was a double-edged sword. Between scenes with other actors, we got to see Bridges perform with his guitar and bare his soul. While the songs were definitely easy to listen to (and I’m not much of a country fan), I felt that it was meaningful to Bridges’ character because he had a look in his eye that he actually lived through the events that he was singing about. So I thought Bridges did a great job serving as an intermediate between the songs and the character’s life experiences. However, I wished that the film had spent less time building on the romance between Bridges and Gyllenhaal because I felt as though the whole thing became redundant (and sometimes forced). I understood that Gyllenhaal’s character was the key to Bad Blake’s redemption into getting his life back on track but some of the courtship rituals, though it tried to be not as typical as Hollywood movies, still felt typical in an independent movie sort of way. Instead, I felt like the movie would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Bridges and Farrell because they shared a common history. It would have been nice if Farrell’s character had talked about how his mentor was like before becoming a faded musician. When those two interacted with each other, I felt real tension between them; I felt a strange mix of anger, jealousy and respect between the two which culminated when they shared the stage in front of 12,000 people. As I mentioned before, “Crazy Heart” is a simple film so it’s understandable why most people won’t initially recognize why it’s essentially a good film. Yes, it was sometimes predictable because we’ve all seen movies about washed-up musicians before. However, at least for me, with a movie like this, it’s all about the acting and I believe it ultimately all came together because I made a connection with the lead protagonist.

The Cooler


The Cooler (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Cooler” was about a man (William H. Macy) so down on his luck that he made his negative energy into a career as a cooler, a person who stands or walks by someone who’s on a winning streak in a casino ran by a mob boss (Alec Baldwin). But one night, his luck changed for the better when he met a waitress (Maria Bello) who seemed to like him despite his negative self-image and the fact that he was years older than her. What I loved most about this movie was that even though it was set in Las Vegas, it didn’t get caught up in all the glamour and violence. It chose to take the more introspective route as it focused on the relationship and friendship between Macy and Bello and the rising tension between Macy and Baldwin because it seemed as though the happier Macy became, the more he lost his ability as a cooler. In a way, that route made the movie feel small but at the same time it was that much more personal. Furthermore, I loved the use of music because it really captured the changing times and the way the characters desperately hung on to the old ways. I also liked the fact that I got a chance to see Baldwin in a serious role. I read in a magazine that he eventually wanted to stop acting because he believed that none of his works were successful. I disagree with him because I felt like he held this film together; despite his actions, he wasn’t just a mobster who craved nothing but money. The way I saw it was his character didn’t want Macy to go because it meant losing a friend. The way he balanced his toughness and vulnerability was very interesting. Even though there were some distracting elements such as the appearance of a couple somewhere in the middle, the moments where the characters decided to just sit and talk and share secrets about their pasts more than made up for it. Much of the film had an unsurprising sadness and I couldn’t help but stayed glued to the screen. Written and directed by Wayne Kramer, “The Cooler” was essentially a story of fluctuating luck and the way people responded to the circumstances that faced them. The movie had a nice balance of comedy, drama and darkness while the three leads were at the top of their game. I only wished that the distracting elements were fleshed out so it could have more room to explore the only multi-dimensional characters who never failed to surprise.

A Serious Man


A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.

Gia


Gia (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

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.