Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.
“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.
Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.
The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.
The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.
Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”
Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.
“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) wished to write a book about British playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) so he set up an appointment with Orton’s friend and agent Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave). Initially, Peggy hid Orton’s diary, which consisted of important details about his life as a homosexual and relationship with a lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), but the theater critic eventually won her over. As John and Peggy discussed Orton’s life and accomplishments, we were allowed to observe the elements that led up to his brutal murder. Based on a the book by John Lahr and written for the screen by Alan Bennett, “Prick Up Your Ears” captured the painful reality of the past in having to hide one’s nature from society that deemed homosexuality was not only immoral and a sin but a disease that had to be purged. I noticed that a lot of the characters hid their fears and failure/unwillingness to understand homosexuality by not wanting to talk about it or, if the issue came up, rerouting the conversation into a more “acceptable” topic. The adults certainly didn’t want children to hear what being gay meant just in case the word itself could “turn” kids into degenerates. It was interesting that the physical act of gay bashing wasn’t there but the words and intonations in the characters’ voices when sharing how they felt about homosexuality didn’t make the experience any less maddening. For me, although the film was a biography, the tone inspired me to focus on feelings such as anger and rebellion with occasional humor right around the corner. These feelings were personified in scenes when Joe and Kenneth shared their first sexual moment while watching the Queen being officially given power to lead her country on television. To rebel was to be free and Orton knew this well. Despite being in a committed relationship, he felt the need to seek excitement in men’s restrooms. Orton, so focused on his needs as a man and who relished in being constantly under the spotlight, ignored the fact that his lover was deeply unhappy. Orton’s lack of perceptiveness provided a rich human drama without relying on too much sentimentality. As the picture went on, it became obvious that their issues could be applied to all couples. Molina was very convincing as a troubled man who didn’t feel appreciated. His neediness got on my nerves and I think that was the point. Kenneth knew that Joe thought he was, essentially, a joke. For example, when Kenneth decided to buy a wig due to an early onset of baldness, Joe mocked him. They were cruel to one another and, for most of the time, it seemed like they only needed each other for sex. So it begged the question why they were in a relationship in the first place. The answer was embedded when they would laugh together, when they both were on the same level of happiness in a specific moment in time. I was convinced that they shared a history, that when they met they were a good fit for each other, and despite their rotting relationship, they still loved each other in the most rudimentary way. Directed by Stephen Frears, “Prick Up Your Ears” offered multilayered performances from Molina and Oldman. In a way, it showcased potential problems that could arise in all relationships. In the end, I couldn’t help but wonder why some couples who used to look into each other’s eyes with nothing but love and adoration could turn into a couple with nothing but disdain for one another.
★★ / ★★★★
Nathan (Taylor Lautner) was led to believe that he was any other teenager raised in suburbia: He went to parties with his friends (Denzel Whitaker, William Peltz), got into trouble for not coming home until the next morning, and had a crush on his neighbor, Karen (Lily Collins), who happened to have a boyfriend. When Nathan and Karen’s sociology teacher assigned them to work together on a project, Karen stumbled upon a website that listed people who were missing. One of the photos of the kids resembled Nathan. This instantly grabbed his attention because it explained why he didn’t feel quite right when he was around his parents (Maria Bello, Jason Isaacs). Upon further examination of the picture, Nathan noticed that he and the kid had the same shirt with a stain on the exact spot. “Abduction,” written by Shawn Christensen and directed John Singleton, exhibited solid control as it moved from soapy teen flick territory to heart-pounding possible government conspiracy. I enjoyed that even though the protagonist was capable of defending himself using boxing and various martial arts, not once was he required to pull a trigger to kill his attackers. It was interesting because although there were action sequences, I wasn’t watching an action star at its center, but an actor who had the potential of someday becoming an action star. There was a commitment and enthusiasm I enjoyed from watching Lautner. His bruise-inducing punches, bone-crunching kicks, and wild somersaults were executed with energy so I was invested in what was happening and why certain things unfolded the way they did. More than a handful of them were convenient but I didn’t mind; I was having a good time. However, the picture featured supporting characters that I wished we knew more about, particularly CIA Agent Burton (Alfred Molina), Nathan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver), and the villainous Kozlow (Michael Nyqvist). I felt as though they were forced to take the backseat in order to make room for supposedly romantic scenes between Nathan and Karen. The material was crippled when the two traded extremely cheesy lines. For instance, as the couple shared a passionate kiss on the train, Karen claimed Nathan was a much better kisser than in the eighth grade. The response was somewhere along the lines of, “That’s because I didn’t know what I was doing back in the eighth grade.” I had to cringe; I think I even did a face palm. They were awkward enough with each other and the script didn’t help to alleviate the bad chemistry. I understood that the filmmakers needed to have less adrenaline-fueled scenes in order to allow the film to breathe, but they didn’t need to slap us upside the head with egregious dialogue and, yes, of the duo delicately holding hands and trading knowing smiles. “Abduction” was occasionally inconsistent but entirely watchable given the parameters it set out for itself.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Many years prior, Merlin had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina), and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). However, Horvath decided to team up with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and take over the world. Veronica decided to sacrifice herself, through a series of magical spells, by emprisoning Morgana’s soul in her body. Fastforward to the 21st century, Balthazar recruited a geeky Physics student (Jay Baruchel), Dave, who he believed to be the so-called Prime Merlinian, Merlin’s successor, to prevent the release of Morgana and defeat Horvath once and for all. Naturally, nerdy Dave had other things on his mind like romancing a girl he knew when he was still in grade school. There was a lot of unnecessary backstory in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and it did not have a lot of payoff. Special and visual effects were abound, some were, admittedly, impressive (I highly enjoyed the scenes when statues would come to life and attempt to kill the protagonists), but what it lacked was a strong and defined emotional core. As much as I like the adorable Baruchel as an actor, I believe he might have been miscast because he failed to inject multidimensionality to his character. Yes, Physics and the girl were very important to him but what else was he passionate about? When he found out he was supposed to be the next Merlin, there was no sense of wonder and I did not feel a conflict moving enough to keep me wanting to see how things would unfold. Furthermore, I felt as though Cage was too campy for the role and most of his one-liners fell completely flat. It was almost desperate. The writers should have trimmed the parts when Cage made heavy-handed speeches about embracing destiny and focused more on the twenty-year-old who was supposed to wield a great power but did not know what to do with it. Considering that the picture was essentially a Disney film, perhaps it felt the need to cater toward children and that was the reason why pretty much everything was oversimplified. However, I think a bit of edge could have greatly benefited the movie in terms of tone. Not for a second did I believe that the bad guys had the upper hand over the good guys. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” delivered many action-packed adventures all over New York City but, other than occassional thrills, it lacked a range of other emotions. Its references to “Fantasia” were highly enjoyable but since the filmmakers did not take the material to the next level, I’m not quite sure if modern audiences (especially younger kids in which it catered toward) will recognize the allusions.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Three Persian princes (Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Coyle, Toby Kebbell) invaded a holy city protected by a princess named Tamina (Gemma Arterton) because their royal intelligence led them to believe that the city provided weapons to Persia’s enemies. In truth, the false information was created and spread because someone wanted a special dagger that had the ability to turn back time. Based on the video game of the same name, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” directed by Mike Newell, plays out like a typical video game: the main character Dastan (Gyllenhaal) was heroic and had a heart of gold, he met villains-turned-friends (Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint) along the way, and the identity of the big bad was eventually dramatically revealed even though we could see it coming from a mile away. But prior to watching the film, I decided to have an open mind and not take it too seriously. Surprisingly enough, I quite enjoyed it because its energy reminded me of Stephen Sommers’ action-adventure “The Mummy” although not as funny and creative with the action sequences. I thought the film worked best when it showcased the fighting scenes such as when Dastan would try to evade the enemies by jumping from one roof to another à la Jason Bourne in Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum” only with more sweat and sand. However, I have to admit that the bickering between Dastan and Tamina did get under my last nerves. I knew that they were going to end up in each others’ arms eventually so I kept wondering when they would actually be useful together in order to finally drive the story forward. Perhaps Arterton was to blame because although she was beautiful on the outside, the way she played her character lacked charm. I thought she could have played her character with more cheekiness and far less self-righteousness. I didn’t understand why Dastan would fall in love with her because she acted like a spoiled brat for the majority of the time. When she wasn’t, she acted like a common damsel-in-distress. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” ticks all the boxes in terms of what makes a good and entertaining action flick. I especially liked the visual effects toward the end when Dastan and the princess went under the holy city and danger was literally found in each step. However, I wish the filmmakers would’ve challenged themselves more (or, more importantly, challenged us more) by toning down certain evil looks by characters that had murky allegiances so that it would have been less predictable.
An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A Puerto Rican family gathers during the holidays and a lot of their secrets come pouring out at the dinner table. If this movie didn’t remind me of “The Family Stone” a little too much, I would’ve liked it a little more because I constantly found myself comparing the two. While “The Family Stone” had real dramatic weight to it, “Nothing Like the Holidays,” directed by Alfredo de Villa, only injected the drama just so that it would feel sad on the surface. Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña were having marriage problems, Freddy Rodríguez just arrived from Iraq and everyone thought we was some big war hero, John Leguizamo wanted to have kids with his wife (Debra Messing) but she considered her career as more important, and Roxanna Rodriguez was viewed by her family as a big Hollywood actress but she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was quite the opposite. I quickly grew tired of the big arguments and everyone being loud. At least when I’m with my family, although it may be loud and everything seems to be happening at the same time, things are interesting and we feel united. In this picture, we don’t get that certain feeling of warmth because their liking for each other doesn’t seem all that genuine. It’s as if the actors didn’t connect with one another or their characters; they’re just different people placed in a room and are forced to interact with each other. It was painful and awkward for me to watch. When the characters don’t have anything to say, the movie features a whole lot of dancing scenes as filler. I found myself constantly looking at the clock and asking myself when it was going to be over. The side journeys that each character took didn’t resonate so I felt like the lessons they learned were very contrived. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is definitely nothing like the holidays (my holidays anyway) because it lacked one of the most basic things: being fun. It suffered greatly because it was too formulaic. It actually didn’t need the sappy drama because the key lies in the human interactions and comedy that comes with the attractions and repulsions of each varying (sometimes histrionic) personalities.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.