Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.
The White Ribbon (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” stars Taraji P. Henson as a nightclub singer who had to take care of her nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar) and niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) when Madea (Perry) brought them to her doorstep after catching them trying to steal home appliances. Henson did not take kindly to the idea because she was so used to only thinking about herself and the current man (Brian J. White) in her life. But when a kind-hearted man (Adam Rodriguez) from Colombia arrived in her life, all her resentment and defenses slowly faded away. Upon watching the first half of this film, I was so convinced I was going to give it a recommendation because not only was it hilarious because of Madea, it had a real dramatic gravity because of the kids who were dealing with serious issues of abandonment. I didn’t mind the melodrama and the clichés because the story kept moving forward. However, the second half had a very noticable change of momentum to the point where I felt like I was attending church (I haven’t been to church in years but it’s fresh in my mind how tedious and hypocritical it is) because of all the sermons and singing. I mean, I understand that music and religion were important to the characters but I constantly took into consideration the possibility that Perry was taking the easy way out both as a writer and director. There were more subtle ways for his characters to realize the errors of their ways; in reality, it’s mostly about the little things we notice, such as the silences while we’re doing something important, that eventually force us to wake up. It’s not necessarily about the big musical numbers and dropping in at the perfect moments of a sermon. So I found that a bit disturbing because of its very contrived nature. I do have to credit Wilson as the sister who was so used to having to put up an angry front because she essentially had to be a mother. The way she delivered her lines broke my heart because I’ve known people like her growing up. And, to be honest, many people like her character end up in terrible situations. Unlike this picture, Wilson knows how to be subtle yet still go for the jugular when necessary. I’m interested with what project she’s going to tackle next. “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is not a bad film. It just needed to take more risks and not get too caught up on the message it wanted to get across to the point where it becomes heavy-handed. Still, it’s worth watching because of Madea’s incredibly hilarious grab bag of biblical stories alone.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of a man on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes his request to be his spiritual advisor despite people’s attempt to dissuade her from doing so. I thought this film was particularly effective because it was able to provide multiple insights regarding the issue of capital punishment, while at the same time I was curious whether or not Penn’s character really did pull the trigger that resulted the death of the two teenagers. Not only that, we really got to know the grief of the teenagers’ parents (Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston); that their rage and hatred do not come out of nowhere and that some of them might even be willing to move on. I was really touched by this film in its entirety because I felt like I was watching real people instead of actors merely playing their parts. The interactions between Penn and Sarandon–especially the close-up scenes–got me so involved to the point where I found myself beginning to truly understand the convict’s fear of death even though he is a racist, disagreeable, unfriendly man. Whenever they argued, I felt genuine tension between the two but I still could feel that Penn needed her and Sarandon cared for him. The issue of redemption was also explored. I’m not a big fan of religion but even I have to admit that it was effectively used in this film. Robbins managed to avoid telling a story that was self-righteous and manipulative, which I think was a difficult task because the picture ultimately geared us to sympathize for the convict. As a person who do not support capital punishment, I thought “Dead Man Walking” was able to both entertain and educate (and even enlighten, which is on a different level altogether). This is a strong film with so many layers to it so, naturally, I’m recommending it to anyone–even to those who do not have an opinion about the death penalty.
The Edge of Heaven (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though I did hear a lot of critical acclaim about this motion picture, I didn’t expect much coming into it. However, after finally watching it, I must say that I was absolutely blown away because of the way Fatih Akin, the writer and director, told such a human story about devastating losses and partial recoveries. The first part was about an aging father (Tuncel Kurtiz) making a deal with a prostitute (Nursel Köse) to live with him and only sleep with him while paying her the same amount of money she would make in one month. I saw the father’s situation as a way to gain control of someone because of his own frustration with his son (Baki Davrak) even though it’s apparent that they genuinely love each other. The second part was about Köse’s daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay) escaping to Germany because she’s wanted by her country’s officials for “terrorism.” She meets Patrycia Ziolkowska and the two become friends and lovers. Eventually, Yesilçay pushes Ziolkowska’s mother (Hanna Schygulla) to the edge because the mother believes that Yesilçay is preventing the daughter from achieving her education. The third part is the most powerful because the film shows that all of the six characters have impacted each other more than they ever thought possible. Although this film does intersect the six lives, it’s not one of those preachy movies with a twist in the end in order to accomplish some dramatic irony. Everything is naturalistic yet bizarre but it never lets go of the fact that it’s grounded in reality. It has enough coincidences to show that life is still magical despite the political battles, strained relationships between children and their parents, and lovers that are never meant to be. To me, the most powerful scene in the movie (among many) was when Schygulla and Yesilçay finally settle their differences. I found it beautiful that, despite all the anger and sadness, a person can look past all those negative emotions and embrace forgiveness. I was also impressed with Davrak as the son who pretty much has nobody even though his father is still around. Their interactions are somewhat cold (but as I said before I think they do love each other) but he still manages to radiate this warmth and craving for knowledge. This is not a simple film that ties up all the loose ends by the time the credits start rolling. This is, in a way, a slice-of-life picture designed for audiences who want to see fascinating characters dealing with realistic situations and deeply affecting outcomes.
★★ / ★★★★
This picture started out beautifully but as it went on, it got too wrapped up in its own soap opera. I’m not sure whether the original material was the problem (it was based on “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth) or if it was Isabel Coixet’s style of direction, but what I do know is that it should have been a more effective character study. Ben Kingsley, a cultural critic, falls for Penélope Cruz, one of his students. Kingsley’s character is very obsessive, insecure about his aging body and has a lot of fears about not being accepted by certain people. Cruz’ character is beautiful but she’s also very smart and she sees something in Kingsley’s character that not a lot people do. So, in a way, they’re a fit for each other despite the thirty-year age difference. I also liked Patricia Clarkson’s character and her “purely” sexual relationship with Kingsley. I say “purely” because even though the two desperately want to believe that what they have is merely sex, I could tell by their actions and silent moments that there’s something more about that relationship. Clarkson provided a much needed break between Cruz and Kingsley’s sometimes suffocating (but stirring) conversations. What didn’t work for me was Kingsley’s relationship with his best friend (Dennis Hopper). Not only was Hopper’s character underdeveloped, the tone changed whenever he was on screen so I was constantly taken out of that solemn atmosphere that the film tried to consistently attain. When I look at the bigger picture, I feel like I’ve seen it all before: the strained relationships, the regret and anger that comes with self-doubt, and the man falling in love with a much younger woman. I did like the conversations because they had real emotions and intelligence. However, I can’t recommend this movie because it didn’t quite reach the level and staying power that the first few scenes had promised to achieve.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.
Save Me (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I knew that there was no chance in hell that I was going to change my mind about these so-called institutions that aim to “correct” people’s homosexuality. I’ve had friends that were sent to these morbid places and I can attest that they do not work. Correcting homosexuality is like trying to will your body to not to respond to pain when you touch an extremely hot surface; nature is not something that you can simply “correct” no matter how hard you pray. It took me a while to get used to this picture because the first few scenes show gay people only in a negative light–that they’re all about sex with no strings attached and hard drugs. Eventually, though, we see characters that are complex and worthy of screen time so I somewhat forgave that distasteful first few minutes. Chad Allen and Robert Gant may not have that much of a chemistry, but they tackled their characters with enough dignity to the point where I was interested in their own personal battles instead of the forces that keep them together. One of those forces is Judith Light as one of the leaders of the ministry. Even though I thought her character was never someone that I would ever get along with, I still felt sorry for her because she desperately wants redemption for the way she treated her son after he told her that he was gay. Since her son died in his teens, she tries to find a way to forgive herself by taking in homosexuals and “correcting” their proclivities. I thought Light was the best thing about this flawed film mainly because of her acting. I thought it was true to life how she’s friendly and approachable when she’s around other people but judgemental (not to mention extremely homophobic) when she’s alone with her husband. For a character that I can immediately dislike, Light was able to get me to care for her even just a bit. I think this film would’ve been stronger if the romance aspect was completely written off. The topic of redemption was not really at the focus most of the time because the movie had to spend time shaping Allen and Gant’s relationship. For a subject this controversial, you don’t need a romance angle for people to find it interesting. Whether one supports homosexuality or not, one will have something to say after watching this film.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie contains a powerful story supported by powerful performances. Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. are great as younger and older Dito, respectively. LaBeouf proved to me that he can carry dramatic pictures as well as action pictures. I really felt for him as a teenager who wants to spread his wings and fly–to actually become someone he can be proud of–but cannot do so because his family and friends tie him down whether they are aware of it or not. Downey Jr. is electric when he conveys his character’s frustration and anger toward his parents (Chazz Palminteri and Dianne West). As a teenager, Dito’s father never really paid attention to him. In many scenes, Palminteri seems to want to get to know about his son’s friend (Channing Tatum) more than his own. And it’s really heartbreaking because LaBeouf couldn’t tell if his father truly loves him. Melonie Diaz as young Laurie and Rosario Dawson as the older Laurie are wonderful as well. It’s interesting because Diaz always reminded me of Dawson, so I found it funny that they actually played the same person. Diaz and Dawson have this uncanny ability of making me smile whenever they’re on screen. They’re so good at embracing their characters and the audiences get to really feel for their plight. Although there are many elements that this movie tried to tackle (some argue that it’s unfocused), I thought it was effective because all the confusion and unanswered questions reflect the craziness of the characters’ lives. But the scenes that really got to me were the parts during LaBeouf and his Scottish friend, Martin Compston, would talk to each other. LaBeouf’s character never really got to be himself around his other friends because it is implied that sensitivity is a weakness. With Compston, they are able to talk about each other’s needs, wants, and dreams. One can definitely translate their relationship in a romantic angle but ultimately I thought it was friendship at its finest. It was so touching whenever they’d talk about running away to California with their band. Although it’s hopeful, it’s also really sad because I could sense the desperation of the characters–to get out of where they currently live. Directed by Dito Montiel (yes, it’s based on real life), this film surpassed my expectations. I thought it the picture would be just about tough neighborhoods but it’s really about wanting to become someone… more.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.