Making Love (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Zach (Michael Ontkean) and Claire (Kate Jackson) had been married ever since they were twenty-two. Zach, a physician, and Claire, a television producer, shared a lot of things in common: they enjoyed listening to the same music, watching the same classic movies, and discussing things that bothered them whether it be about work or each other. But Zach had a secret which eventually led Claire to suspect that he was having an affair with another woman. As it turned out, Zach was seeing another man named Bart (Harry Hamlin), a novelist whose hobby consisted of picking up nightly tricks. “Making Love,” written by Barry Sandler and A. Scott Berg, treated its characters with respect. Zach and Claire’s very close bond could easily have been syrupy and annoying, but we slowly learned not only how much they valued each other but why. Since the picture took the time to examine both sides, I felt that their relationship was real. The stakes were high for these two people because their relationship was rooted in deep friendship. We all knew that there had to be a point in which Zach would finally gather up the courage to tell his wife that he was a homosexual. However, the drama did not rest on that one significant scene. The rising action provided the necessary details and different angles so we were able to see ourselves, regardless of our own sexual orientation, in Zach, Claire, and Bart. Furthermore, it was unexpected that Zach’s affair with Bart wasn’t shot in a romantic way. Instead, their scenes together felt more like a rite of passage, something that had to be done in order to explore the picture’s more important themes. We observed the way the two men met, flirted with one another, shared drinks, had sex, and separated. Even though the two saw each other multiple times, there was nothing romantic about their secret meetings because it was established early on that Bart, despite his best efforts, just wasn’t the kind of man who loved the idea of settling down. Being a novelist, he felt the constant need to have his own space. Zach was the exact opposite; he almost wanted a male version of Claire. With each scene where Bart treated Zach dismissively, I was more convinced that it wasn’t going to work out between them. However, the impressive thing was, it was difficult to detest Bart and his actions because I was able to sympathize with his issues as a child, especially his relationship with his father, and I respected, as well as shared, his pride in being single. I was glad no one was treated as a villain–that the material was honest in portraying the three characters as people who were capable of insightful thoughts, smartly dealing with negative emotions, finding a way to move on, and thrive. “Making Love,” directed by Arthur Hiller, was, at its worst, melodramatic at times but, at its best, quite moving and raw, especially when Claire tried so badly to understand why she didn’t see that her husband harbored feelings for other men. Most coming out movies almost always show the pain solely from the perspective of the gay person. I admired the film because, in real life, there is also pain and initial feelings of betrayal felt by those who heard the news.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Helena (Gemma Jones) decided to see a fortuneteller (Pauline Collins) after the divorce between her and her husband (Anthony Hopkins) had been finalized. She claimed she needed direction, but we quickly realized that she was clingy, didn’t know how to keep certain opinions to herself, and was hopelessly gullible. Maybe the divorce was a gift or a breath of freedom for her husband. Sally (Naomi Watts), Helena’s daughter, was also having trouble with her marriage. Roy (Josh Brolin), Sally’s husband, was having a difficult time finishing his book and was weighing the possibility of having an affair with a beautiful woman in red (Freida Pinto), his muse, across their apartment building. On the other hand, Sally was considering to have an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) while working in an art gallery. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” written and directed by Woody Allen, was a missed opportunity. The story was interesting, the coincidences didn’t feel heavy-handed and the various ironies between and around the characters were accessible. However, the film felt like a satisfying but incomplete novel. Just when Allen needed to deliver the punches involving the consequences that the characters had to live with due to their unwise actions, the screen abruptly faded to black. It left me wanting more but not in a good way. The picture’s lack of resolution highlighted its flaws, especially its highly uneven tone. Allen spent too much time trying to convince us that what we were seeing was comedic. As a result, he was stuck in highlighting the characters’ quirks instead of exploring other dimensions that would make us want to get to know more. For instance, the relationship between Hopkins’ character and his young girlfriend (Lucy Punch) was mostly played for laughs. The former’s quirk was, despite his age, he was convinced that he was still in his thirties. Like his ex-wife, he was inclined to self-delusion. The latter was a classic golddigger who loved to buy expensive clothing and accessories in exchange for sex. She was a former callgirl but, in reality, she never left her profession. The film only turned darker toward the end when Hopkins’ character, after the woman revealed that she was pregnant, threatened her that the baby better have been his or else. The comedic element was gone and we were left to stare at the character’s desperation, hurt, and anger in his eyes. Unfortunately, that was the last scene between the old man and the golddigger. The same hustle-and-bustle applied to the other characters and were left in the dust wondering what happened next. Not unlike Helena, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” needed a strong direction with clear vision. The important questions it brought up about life were cheapened and it ultimately felt like Philosophy 101.
The Square (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Ray (David Roberts) was having an affair with a much younger woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). One day, Carla found a bag full of cash in the attic which she knew belonged to her husband (Anthony Hayes) and his crooked friends. Ray and Carla planned to get the money, burn the house to the ground, and run away together with the help of a hot-tempered third party (Joel Edgerton). Naturally, the plan didn’t go the way the cheating couple expected. “The Square” took a lot of risks with its tone and various twists in the plot. It reminded me of the Ethan and Joel Coens’ masterful “Blood Simple.” but far less realized as a whole because it stumbled on its way to the finish line. Rising action was abound. Ray became increasingly desperate as the body count started to rise around him. It didn’t help that someone kept sending him cryptic letters involving blackmail. Unable to confide in anyone, he needed an outlet to his frustrations. It was like watching someone playing Tetris. It’s a very practical game (as practical a simple stealing can be) but one mistake can lead to another especially when panic sets in. Carla was frustrated as well because Ray was reluctant to leave his increasingly suspecting wife. She also had to mollify her guilt due to an accidental murder in which she was directly related. But a great rising action is only as great as its payoff. Toward the end, I began to feel confused with the way Nash Edgerton, the director, tried to steer the characters away from their respective predicaments. The strand about the blackmailer was immediately dismissed when it should have been tackled head-on because the picture spent a solid amount of time luring our curiosity to the person sending the letters. In a way, I felt slightly cheated. I felt as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to sufficiently end their story so the project eventually imploded. The characters failed to think critically and act practically. There was not one person I wanted to see succeed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an archetypal good guy but I wish I didn’t feel so detached during the final few scenes and apathetic when it ended. “The Square” was a modern noir with a somber tone that started off with a roar but ended with a barely audible whimper. It needed to work on its themes regarding tragedy, guilt, and betrayal. It dealt with such themes separately but the more important exploration was how the three were interconnected and the pressures our characters went through that could explain why they played the final hands they’ve been given the way they did.
The Graduate (1967)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Graduate,” directed by Mike Nichols, became a pop culture icon since its release so I just had to see it. I wasn’t impressed with it but I was satisfied because it had moments of genuine sadness inside of the comedic happenings on the outside. Dustin Hoffman stars as a recent graduate who we came to meet during a graduation party that his parents threw for him. He was deep in thought about something but we didn’t immediately know why. What we did know, however, was the fact that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) wanted to have an affair with the twenty-year-old after he took her back to her house and had a drink with him. I didn’t expect this picture to be as mature as it was. In fact, I was expected it to be a slapstick or a gross-out movie of sorts. I really admired the way Nichols used Hoffman’s alienation to drive the story forward, often in unpredictable (and sometimes jarring) directions. When Nichols placed Hoffman’s character in that scuba diving suit, it was such a bold statement; even more daring was the decision to place the audience in the lead character’s point of view as he saw the world and familiar faces with such disconnect and great frustration. From that moment, even though I thought Ben was pathetic because he often whimpered his way through strange situations, I wanted to root for him. That scene was a stand out because it really captured the loneliness and the confusion that Hoffman was going through from the minute the film started to the subtle but brilliant final sequence on the bus. What didn’t work for me was the “romance” between Hoffman and Katharine Ross. I can understand that maybe it wasn’t supposed to feel real because the characters were young and perhaps didn’t know what they really wanted. It’s just that I think the movie would have been more effective (and I certainly would have cared more) if the passion felt genuine instead of just feeling like Hoffman was stalking Ross all over campus. Still, I thought the movie was strong because it was able to articulate the internal and external battles that the main character was going through. It was also difficult not to love the perfectly-timed soundtrack and it enhanced the experience instead of serving as a distraction like in a lot of coming-of-age movies nowadays that try too hard to be hip or cool. It’s easy to classify “The Graduate” as the movie where the main character had sexual affairs with a much older woman. I think it’s so much more than that; to me, it’s more about the temptations that the protagonist surrendered to because he ultimately didn’t know who he was. Since he didn’t know who he was, no matter what he did or what he accomplished, he couldn’t seem to feel happiness even at the most basic level.
Far from Heaven (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” was set in the 1950s somewhere in the suburbs of Connecticut. Julianne Moore played a housewife who had to deal with two big problems: her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) affair with another man and the community’s distaste in relation to her friendship with an African-American (Dennis Haysbert). Moore played her character with some composure yet remain very complex which was reflected on how she acted when society was peering over her shoulder and when she was with someone who she truly trusted. For me, Moore carried this film all the way through and if I did not feel as connected with her, I probably would have been more unforgiving with this picture because it did at times borderline the Lifetime route. I loved the way the film highlighted the vibrant colors of the houses, the decorations and the clothing yet the script was about the hatred of one’s self and most of society’s passive agreement to inequality. I also loved the fact that even though Quaid was a homosexual struggling to come out of the closet, I didn’t sympathize with him because of the way he used his wife as a crutch time and again and dismissed his children when they enthusiastically greeted him from a long day’s work. There was something about him that I thought was just ugly and selfish. Despite his hardship, the way he treated others was uncalled for. Violas Davis played the housekeeper and I wished they used her more because she really made the best of the scenes she was in. There was something very warm about her and I wanted to get to know her character more. The same goes for Patricia Clarkson as Moore’s best friend and confidante. The element that prevented me from loving this picture was its inconsistent pacing. The first and last twenty minutes were fascinating but the story somewhat dragged on in the middle. Deep in the film, the moments I enjoyed most were when Moore and Quaid really showed their range in acting by arguing not in an in-your-face manner like in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” but in a quiet, almost maddeningly suffocating way to the point where you just wanted to scream for the characters. After all, it was the 1950s and everybody had this idea of perfection regarding how to be a “proper” family in the judging eyes of others, how to act like a “proper” wife, and how to act like a “proper” friend. Half-way through the film, I started realizing that I would never have survived in the 1950s because everything was just so repressed. That’s why I think this film ultimately succeeded: it managed to capture that era not just in terms of clothing and set design but, most importantly, the varying mindsets of its characters.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” is a top-notch thriller about a husband (Ray Milland) who plots to kill his own wife (Grace Kelly) so that he could inherit all of her money. The wife is having an affair with a writer (Robert Cummings) and the two are so close to telling the husband about their relationship, totally unaware of the fact that the husband has his own suspicions. I love how meticulous this film was when it comes to its pacing and detail so that everything made sense in the end. I noticed that the movie was divided into three parts: the first thiry minutes was how the husband essentially forced another man (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife, the next thirty-five minutes was the actual murder and the first couple of twists in the story, and the last thiry-five minutes was how the good guys tried to capture the villian of the story. The question is, considering this is a Hitchcock film, will they succeed? Most of the picture was shot indoors, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s other film called “Rope,” but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, I think it worked in its favor because the audiences really got the chance to not only get very familiar with the scene of the crime but also play detective when one very curious and astute inspector (John Williams) suspected foul play. I also enjoyed the fact that Milland’s character was very smart so catching him was no easy feat. With most thrillers nowadays, they succumb to big chase scenes with violence (which can be pretty entertaining) but this one relied more on the subtleties of the characters’ actions and the dialogue between them. There were times when even I was lost because I kept trying to keep up with what a particular character wants to prove or suggest to another. Eventually, however, everything comes to light and there was a nice twist in the end that even I didn’t see coming. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s pictures and I have to say that this one is one of the most fun to watch because I really do love movies with a lot of talking. It also helped that the film had a certain sureness about itself so I was absolutely fascinated with how it would all turn out. If you love Hitchcock’s films and have not seen this one, do yourself a favor and watch it now.
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Amy Adams stars in “Sunshine Cleaning,” a story about a woman who was in desperate financial situations so she took up a job, along with her sister played by Emily Blunt, cleaning up after crime scenes and suicides. I expected this movie to be more on the comedic side than the dramatic side but it was a nice surprise because it ended up to be a good balance of both. I really got a sense of Adams’ strong female character who, despite her flaws, was willing to go on when life throws an unsuspecting blow to her upward momentum. It was really easy for me to root for her because she was fighting various elements: her rocky relationship with her sister, her son (Jason Spevack) who kept getting into trouble in school because of his strange behaviors, her fling with her high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) who happened to be married, and her insecurities concerning her thoughts about peaking in high school as her classmates went on to get married and live in nice houses. The only negative I can think of concerning the film was I thought it could have had more scenes to strengthen the two daughters’ relationship with their father (Alan Arkin). Although he was a nice guy, I didn’t feel as though I knew him as well, which was not a good thing because the film’s crux was the way the family as a unit helped each other out when circumstances got difficult. In a way, “Sunshine Cleaning” somewhat worked as a slice-of-life picture where the audiences are transported into the family’s lives and left things in a not-so-perfect way. There were many bittersweet scenes involving the death of their mother and darkly comic scenes when they had to clean up blood and guts off the walls. Directed by Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, “Sunshine Cleaning” wears its indie feel on its sleeve but it was strong enough to go beyond the quirks and damaged characters. In a strange way, it was quite empowering.
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Steven Shill, “Obsessed” was a whole lot of nothing. The supposed story was that a temp named Lisa (Ali Larter) started to flirt with her boss (Idris Elba), but he didn’t realize that she was essentially a crazy stalker. At first it was sort of harmless–a look here, a glance there–but it eventually turned ugly–date rape drug here, attempted suicide there. Elba’s character stupidly kept everything that was happening around him a secret from his wife (Beyoncé Knowles) so he looked guilty when everything came out in the open. I honestly did not care less about the drama behind the characters’ lives. I just wanted to see Larter and Knowles fight it out in the end. Almost all of the characters here were unlikable: Elba, arguably, did send the wrong signals to Lisa which prompted her to think that he wanted her so he was not entirely blameless, Knowles was a suffocating and clingy housewife, Elba’s co-workers and supposed best friend did not know when to be serious and I felt like I was watching a bunch of high school pricks whenever I saw them on screen, and, well, we were supposed to hate Larter because she was the villain, but I hardly think she did that much of a good job either. As far as comparisons to “Fatal Attractions” goes, Larter did not come close to Glenn Close’s level of delusion and insanity. In some parts, I thought it almost became a farce of lunatic femme fatales because of all the unintentionally funny one-liners. I think it took itself way to seriously to the point where it collapsed on its own attempt to entertain. But even I have to admit the the trailers got me interested; it looked intense and it seemed to have a lot going for it. It goes without saying that I’m not going to give this a recommendation. Even then I think I’m being lenient on it because I’ve seen really good films prior to watching it. I can just imagine what I would have written if I saw “Obsessed” on a bad day.
Blood Simple (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Blood Simple,” directed by Joel Coen and written by the Coen brothers, is my definition of a great film. From start to finish, I was absolutely blown away because of its ability to take a genre on its head and create something truly original, or at least a breath of fresh air. Labeling this picture as a thriller may not do it justice because it contained darkly comedic scenes, horrific montages, and touching moments. To be released in 1984 and still remain that great to this day is an achievement that most pictures do not quite accomplish.
Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator named Loren (M. Emmet Walsh) to observe his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) having an affair with Ray (John Getz), a man who works in Marty’s bar. Driven to extreme jealousy and heartbreak, Marty eventually orders Loren to kill the new couple for $10,000. Little did Marty know that Loren is a calculating, risk-avoidant man and that he has a plan on his own to get the money without killing Abby and Ray. A series of strange coincidences and assumptions are added to the seemingly simple equation which eventually makes a stylish film that is able to bring up moral questions, as well as what a person is willing to do to get away with something–whether that something is to benefit one’s self or others.
First of all, I have to commend all of the four leads because I felt like they each brought something special to the table. Each of their character was multi-layered in his or her way to the point where I did not know how they would react to certain situations when certain variables were changed. Each of them was intelligent, capable of good and evil, and has a good sense on how to survive when faced with certain challenges. This being a thriller film, I knew that not all of them would survive by the end. But the interesting part was trying to figure out who would outsmart who; it was kind of like watching sharks battle it out in order to ultimately be on the top of the food chain. I must also give recognition to the Coen brothers, especially Joel, for giving the audiences one memorable scene after another. While the conversations were smart, Joel Coen was able to use colors and sound to maximize the effect of certain scenes. In most thrillers of today, the soundtrack could get so distracting that it tends to take away the power of simply observing a character move in silence. Like a good novel, the use of foreshadowing was implemented in just about the right moments so when we actually get to the crucial scene, we are swept off our feet without feeling cheated. Lastly, I mention the genre-defying tone of the movie. There were some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout but there were also some that left me cowering in a corner and wondering what I would have done if I was placed in the same position. The last thirty minutes or so were post-noir (arguably my favorite subgrenre) in its core and I relished every second of it because it was so well done.
I wish I had seen this film sooner. When I saw “Fargo,” I thought the Coen brothers would not be able to top it even if “No Country for Old Men” came quite close. However, having seen “Blood Simple,” I think it is possibly my favorite of the movies by them so far. I’ve seen a great number of fascinating motion pictures but I think this one deserves to be at least in my top twenty. The dripping ironies were just too impressive to resist (pun intended).
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.