★★ / ★★★★
Cory Finley’s first feature film “Thoroughbreds” is a black comedy so bleak and straight-faced that it is likely to be mistaken for a thriller. After all, it involves a plotting of a murder by two former friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), recently reunited at the end of their final year of high school to study for college entrance exams. The latter is notorious as the girl who killed her family’s horse and she is now awaiting sentencing for animal cruelty. It is a daring project, which may work for some due to its occasional bouts of originality, but looking at it as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly its tale is not as fully realized as it should have been.
Nothing more can be asked of Taylor-Joy and Cooke because they play the characters with moment-to-moment intriguing vivacity. They manage to sell every line even though a handful of them sound like dialogue in a play. They are in command of how their characters express themselves, how they take up space, how they approach challenges or what they perceive to be challenges. The problem is, I think, the screenplay, the manner by which these characters lack a requisite arc in order for the story to come across genuine and for the audience to feel some sort of satisfaction when all is said and done. I felt no emotional connection to it, let alone emotional investment.
We are provided a template that Amanda is the unfeeling half, completely foreign to a range of feelings like happiness, sorrow, regret—some might say the very elements that separate humans from animals. Lily, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: too feeling, sensitive, consistently apologetic even during her moments of honesty. We are excited for how might the two will clash and complement one another during their conspiracy. I enjoyed that it tackles the question of how two people who lack empathy might relate with one another. Keeping their natures in mind, we dissect which emotions are real and which are convincing fabrications.
The heavy-handed dichotomy shoves the viewer in a state where one notices immediately things that do not quite belong. Despite the solid portrayals of Amanda and Lily, it doesn’t appear that they exist within a convincing environment. For instance, during intense exchanges between the girls, we hear a line or two that sounds like it should have been uttered in a play rather than a movie. It knocks us off-guard.
Although the scene recovers, the distraction is consequential enough for us to look away from the focal images and toward, for example, the presentation of a kitchen—not just how it is spotless, but also in how it appears to never have been used. Untouched utensils begin to look like props. Is the faucet even connected to a water line? The set looks like a set and we are reminded of it repeatedly. This is bothersome because the story unfolds indoors most of the time. There is an overall fragility and artificiality here that is alarming when one thing looks or sounds out of place—enough to take one out of a would-be intense experience.
I have always stated that dark comedy requires surgical precision. While an above average effort as a whole and some elements do work, “Thoroughbreds” is perhaps a kind of story that a filmmaker ought to make after he or she has made three or four strong films. Still, I admired writer-director Cory Finley for attempting to bring a challenging piece to life and so I look forward to his next project. I am convinced there is at least one great movie in him.
Green Room (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a meticulous thriller that is not about plot or characters but about an exercise in tension. “Green Room” presents a situation which involves being stuck in a particular place and over time we begin to wonder what the key players are willing to sacrifice in order to extricate themselves out of an increasingly complicated—and messy—affair. It is composed of performers who sell their roles with authenticity.
The circumstance is this: four hard rock bandmates (Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner), desperate for money, accept a job to play at a club located in the woods of Oregon. The catch: the patrons are neo-Nazi skinheads. Although the show goes shockingly well despite the opening cover song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys, which offended some of the audience, Pat (Yelchin) stumbles upon a murder scene in one of the rooms while his friends are on their way out to the van. The bouncers forcibly put the band members in the same room as the corpse until the cops arrive.
Notice how little we get to know the characters. In a survival thriller involving a group of people, such a technique works because it puts us on edge. Typically, in more mainstream thrillers propelled by painfully ordinary visions, usually the character, or characters, who talks the most or shares a handful of one’s life stories is likely to be the sole survivor.
Here, we grow anxious, sometimes in an underhanded way, because we expect to grow attached to least one of them through expected motifs but they rarely, if ever, arrive. Sometimes a character begins to speak in a serious tone but then it turns out to be a misdirect. Action intervenes. The dynamics of the plight changes. We realize that anybody can drop dead at the drop of a hat. And that’s exciting.
Like in Saulnier’s previous feature films, “Murder Party” and the highly underrated “Blue Ruin,” the writer-director is not afraid to deliver the necessary brutality but also not afraid to use such violence to involve rather than to disgust the audience. For example, when a person’s arm gets stuck at a door and there is an assailant on the other side, the camera lingers an extra beat or two. A second or two may not sound like a long time, but the longer it stayed in that position, I found myself willing the camera to look another way or for the director to break the shot. Saulnier delivers these fresh choices with consistency. It is such a joy to relish his work because we can feel his love for the thriller genre through his control of the craft.
Equally in control is Patrick Stewart who plays the owner of the neo-Nazi bar named Darcy. There is a smooth calm about him that is particularly eerie. Darcy doesn’t scream or yell but you know that when he wants something done, it had better be done correctly, exactly how he wanted it to be accomplished. Stewart makes an interesting choice of wearing almost one expression the entire time. What changes, however, are his eyes. He is like a bomb with red numbers counting down; we cannot help but stare at those eyes, desperate for a glint of humanity or mercy, but the numbers don’t care. They just are.
★★ / ★★★★
After a school shooting and their college-aged son, Josh (Miles Heizer), ending up dead, Sam (Billy Crudup) and Emily (Felicity Huffman) get a divorce because they are largely unable to move on from the loss and trauma. Josh was quite a singer-songwriter and, two years later, Sam decides to pass his deceased son’s songs as his own. Impressed by Sam’s performance at a bar, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a musician, approaches the man and suggests that they collaborate to make the songs even better, thus reaching out to even more people. If they are lucky enough, maybe they might make it big.
I wished “Rudderless,” written by Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison and William H. Macy, were a better dramatic film because the songs are so amazing at times, I could not help but think about certain Oasis songs about half a dozen times. Notice that if one were to take the songs away, what results is a deeply unfocused picture with only skeletal-level characterization—if that. It is a disappointment from a storytelling perspective.
Details of the dissolution of Sam and Emily’s marriage is absent which is a problem because there are two would-be moving scenes between the former partners. I felt close to nothing during their interactions because a history between them is not established. I tried to imagine how they must have been like together prior to their son’s death but it is a challenge not only because the screenplay fails to establish the tracks but also because Crudup and Huffman, who are good actors, share little chemistry. It is difficult to believe their characters were married in the first place.
The relationship between Sam and Quentin, who is not coincidentally around Josh’s age, leaves us cold for the most part. Although it is admirable that the material does not go for the expected father-son dynamics, it does not traverse an avenue worth exploring. They are neither friends because of the age difference nor are they sort of a family because Sam is still in deep mourning. So what are they? One gets the impression that by the end they remain strangers. There is no discernible, tangible arc in what they come to share.
When the talking stops, musical instruments are picked up, and singing starts, the movie comes alive. While many of them have an inherent sadness, there is still variation to each of them so not one comes across as repetitive. There are instances when I lost track that I was watching actors performing on stage. Observing them is like being in a real bar and just enjoying the experience of spending time with friends and there happens to be great music being played live.
It must be kept in mind that “Rudderless,” directed by William H. Macy, is a dramatic picture first. The music comes second. Perhaps with a little bit more time drafting the screenplay in order to come up with complex, elegant, and convincing character development, it could have met or even surpassed its potential to entertain and move the audience as a movie, not simply as a soundtrack.
Odd Thomas (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), a short order cook, sees dead people. Only two people know of his abilities: his girlfriend, Stormy (Addison Timlin), and Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who has grown to trust Odd for his knack for finding clues and tracking bad guys. Lately, however, creatures called the Bodach, invisible to those who lack the special sight, have begun to follow residents of Pico Mundo. These shadow-like creatures crave the scent of people who are about to die. Odd becomes convinced that someone is planning to execute a mass killing.
“Odd Thomas,” based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, is a fast-paced mystery-thriller but despite its very hip and modern embellishments, from the rapid cuts and editing meant to exude cool to the quirkiness of the dialogue between Odd and the girl with whom he thinks he is meant to be with forever, it never moves beyond mild entertainment. The mystery lacks a level of urgency despite the possibility of hundreds of people being killed and so the investigation is not all that interesting. Some of the quirkiness gets in the way of building a forward momentum and thus lacking the building blocks for suspense.
Yelchin and Timlin create a cute screen couple presence but Stephen Sommers, the person in charge of shaping the screenplay and directing, seems to forget that this is not a romance picture. After finding just about every piece of the puzzle, Odd and Stormy must engage in either a light banter or expressing how they care for one another—on the phone or in person. These two are attached to the hip and it does not work. So, it quickly becomes a challenge to enjoy the film as a supernatural detective story.
There is far too much visual effects. A lot of it do not look first-rate—which is not a problem if the concept or story is strong enough to keep us engaged. Here, since the tone is a mixture of action-adventure, mystery, and comedy, adding the visuals on top of an already busy plot makes the picture look cheap or trying too hard to be impressive. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better if Odd were the only one who was able to see the Bodach. This way, it might have inspired us to imagine how these creatures look. Seeing them leaves nothing to the imagination. I did not find them scary.
Standout performances include Dafoe and Yelchin. If the screenplay had been sharper, it would have placed the father-son dynamic between Porter and Odd front and center. To me, the partnership between the cop and his aide is the heart of the picture because when Porter’s life ends up in grave danger, I found myself not wanting to miss a blink. I wish I can say the same about Stormy. She is sweet and has some nice lines but there is no depth to her.
The problem with “Odd Thomas” is that it feels too much like a TV show that can likely thrive on the CW—maybe the WB when their standards were different. Take a two-hour pilot episode and a two-part season finale of a solid—but not impressive—show in its first year and this is the result. Quite frankly, the movie reminded me of the first season of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Its knees may be wobbly but the potential is just waiting to be let out of the box.
Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ever since the death of her father during the Korean War, a sadness resides in Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) that she finds unable to shake off. To keep her mind off the questions and thoughts that plague her, she devotes her time balancing schoolwork and managing grandmother’s business. Her comfortable routine begins to change, however, after she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), an energetic classmate with whom she believes to have written a poem about her in the school paper. Together, they work to save a clubhouse called the Latin Quarter, student organizations’ meeting place, from getting demolished prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics. The majority think that the building is a simply an eyesore—an embarrassment—to foreigners who will inevitably come to visit.
Since ““Kokuriko-zaka kara,” also known as “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is from Studio Ghibli and directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, many people expect a high level of fantasy and magic to course through its veins. And since it lacks such qualities, it is unfairly labeled as a mild disappointment—completely overlooking the fact that the story’s magic lies in its realism and that animation is being used to tell a dramatic story with plenty to say about the importance being connected to one’s past but at the same time not being afraid to move forward and continue living.
We get a real sense of the simplicity and elegance of the Japanese culture’s bygone era. I enjoyed that it dares to have a plot that one might consider to be minimalistic. While plot is necessary to push its story forward, I think one of the major goals of the picture is rumination. With Umi in the middle, comparisons can be made, for instance, between her life at home and her life at school. In addition, one can observe the youth’s relationship with adults. When I think about the Japanese culture, “respect” is a word that quickly comes to mind. That word is beautifully canvassed here not just in terms of community but also in how a sensitive topic or issue is addressed.
The hand-drawn images, accompanied by sublime music, open up the material in such a way that we want to know or connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. With each day that Umi wakes up, prepares a meal for her family, attends to school, socializes with her friends, and takes care of whatever chores need to be finished before bed, we get a chance to understand what kind of person she is without the screenplay relying on a supporting character as a sounding board to her thoughts and feelings. There is almost a crippling sadness to her and she deals with it by consistently providing to others. Meanwhile, day in and day out, because she does not give enough to herself and everyone assuming that she is fine since she appears to be very happy on the outside, she is unable to move on from what pains her.
This is why one of my favorite scenes in the film—compelling from the opening credits right up to the very end—lasts about three seconds and only one line of dialogue is uttered. Walking home after buying meat at the market with a snack in hand that was given by Shun, she expresses genuine happiness to herself. (Even though she is running late to prepare dinner.) It is a small but important turning point: a simple thing like a schedule being interrupted allows her a bit of time to feel and really absorb the life she is missing.
I see a lot of movies every year but only about a dozen—maybe less in some years—are able to move me in such a way that they force me to think about how I am living, to ask questions like if I am okay, and whether I like where my life is going. It is a shame that many people prefer to see overt enchantment, especially when it comes to animated movies, rather than experiencing and striving to find the magic in the unexpected.
Star Trek (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
While investigating reports of lightning storms in space, U.S.S. Kelvin, a Federation vessel, is attacked by a gargantuan Romulan ship. Nero (Eric Bana) demands the U.S.S. Kelvin’s captain (Faran Tahir) to reveal the location of Ambassador Spock. Meanwhile, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is assigned to oversee and ensure safe evacuation of the ship. As luck would have it, his pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison) goes on labor.
Infused with wild energy, charming performances, and an imaginative script, “Star Trek,” directed by J.J. Abrams, made me pay attention to a franchise I had no interest in whatsoever. It understands the art of intrigue. While names like “Kirk” and “Spock” are easily recognizable names, it is a curiosity–to non- or semi-fans anyway–how these characters so opposite in personalities will learn to set their differences aside and form a team that saves lives both human and alien.
After a moving opening sequence, a parallel is immediately established between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). They struggle to keep their emotions in check, an element that they must learn to reroute and control if they were to successfully become leaders and partners in the U.S.S. Enterprise. As a child, it is suggested that Kirk has a lot of anger due to not having a stable father figure. Over time, he drinks and gets in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Spock is bullied for being a half-blood, his father a Vulcan and his mother a human. His anger for being considered less than festers within.
Despite the non-stop action after revving its engine and flying into the depths of space, the script has enough humor to keep it grounded, from Jim pursuing Uhura (Zoe Saldana), an ace xenolinguist, to physical stunts that go awry somewhat or completely off the rails. The comedy usually functions as release during the more intense sequences. The scene involving three characters diving through the atmosphere and attempting to land on a drill that works as a signal jammer has an excellent balance of thrill and laughter.
The more overt visuals are spectacular, but I was most impressed during the early scenes that take place on Earth. I liked the way a flying cop vehicle feels so right chasing a kid driving a car clocking in at over eighty miles per hour–with the Beastie Boys blasting from the speakers, no less. There is also a bar where humans and aliens can go to have drinks. A feeling of integration, I think, is crucial if we are requested to buy into a universe where humans can time warp and explore various alien worlds and cultures.
It might have benefited from establishing a more interesting villain. Nero does a lot of snarling and bossing around but at times I was bored by him. The talk about his planet and family–yada-yada-yada–get old after a short while. Not once do we see him step off his ship and actually do what he needs to be done. If I wanted to hear more yelling, I would rather watch more in-fighting within the U.S.S. Enterprise, the power struggle between Spock and Kirk.
“Star Trek,” written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, emphases how disparate characters come together to form a team that we, as intelligent audiences who care about motivations as well as stellar sci-fi action, can stand behind and root for. We remember the adventures not because things explode–since those are a dime a dozen–or implode–less common–but because we understand and feel the chemistry among the key players.
Beaver, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) had been suffering from major depression for two years. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), could no longer put up with his illness because it began to affect their kids, Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), so she decided to kick him out of the house. Right after a failed suicide attempt, Walter began to speak through a hand-puppet called The Beaver. With a promise to make his life better, Walter agreed to all of Beaver’s demands. Written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, “The Beaver” was an honest look at how depression could demolish even the strongest families. It was challenging because we were asked to identify with a character who took the puppet everywhere, British accent and all, and somehow take him seriously. It could have been a disaster in less capable hands. However, the writing and direction were focused on the human elements rather than the inanimate object. Foster was wonderful as the wife and mother who clung onto any hint that maybe her husband was getting better. We stuck with her because we knew as well as she did that, deep down, Walter’s condition was getting worse as long as he had the puppet in hand. Denial was her greatest coping mechanism. Foster excelled in reaction shots in which she had to shift from one side of the emotional spectrum to another. For instance, the happiness she felt when she saw her husband finally spending time with their youngest up until she realized that trigger of the sudden change in Walter wasn’t quite normal. I wouldn’t necessarily have made certain decisions she took on, but it was difficult not to be reminded that she was an exhausted wife and mother and perhaps she needed to escape. There was subplot that involved Porter, very angry but a smart and sensitive young man, and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the valedictorian of their graduating class. Although interesting because of their atypical chemistry, their relationship was less powerful and less urgent than the family that was essentially rotting from the inside. When the film switched to the teenagers’ emotional struggles, I questioned where it was ultimately heading. Though the reward was present at the finish line, we received it too late. Perhaps if Porter and Norah were not always front and center, the material’s momentum would not have staggered. Furthermore, the heavy symbolism weighed down an already astute material. Images involving a broken wall, roller coasters, and someone floating passively on water felt forced. It might have sounded great on paper but it verged on melodrama on screen. “The Beaver,” Gibson’s notoriety aside, deserves to be commended because of its strong performances and its fearlessness in portraying depression as a contagion. That is, if gone untreated, a downward spiral was inevitable. A snide “Get over it” doesn’t help anybody.
Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
Middle of Nowhere (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Middle of Nowhere” was an indie drama about two teenagers who wanted to escape their lives. Dorian (Anton Yelchin) was sick of his wealthy family and their expectations of his eventual responsibility of running the family business. A problem child, he was sent to his uncle to learn discipline. Grace (Eva Amurri) wanted to go to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor but was unable to get financial aid because her mother (Susan Sarandon) took out unpaid loans under Grace’ name. The mother claimed that the answer to all of their problems was for Grace’ younger sister (Willa Holland) to enter the modeling industry. Dorian and Grace worked at a waterpark and eventually became partners in selling cannabis. I enjoyed the film mostly because of the performances. Sarandon was great as the mother who didn’t quite know how to be a responsible parent. I understood the many predicaments she was in, especially her financial instability, but I didn’t pity her because she was supposed to be the leading figure in the family. Unlike her eldest daughter, she wasn’t focused in accomplishing something she was responsible for. Yelchin and Amurri were equally interesting as teenagers whose lives were in a standstill. I admired that the script infused sexual tension between them but they never got together in a sexual way. That was important because their relationship was about business first, friendship second, and everything else was tertiary. Instead, a potential beau (Justin Chatwin) for Grace entereed the picture. They seemed like a perfect fit because he was worldly, smart and had substance. But was he too good to be true? As usual, I enjoyed Yelchin’s cooky side. A less charming actor would have looked like a complete fool while dancing in a laundomat. Amurri successfully made me want to root for her character. Although she was tough and sometimes cold, I understood that she had to be because she learned at an early age that nobody would ever just hand her what she wanted. I saw some similarities between the two of us but she definitely had a more unpleasant background. Unfortunately, the film hit a few bumps on the road. Half-way through, I began to feel as though the melodrama had completely taken over. I kept waiting for the tone to change up, surprise, and offer some laughter, especially during the scenes of Grace and Dorian’s odd occupation, but it remained painfully one-note. Written by Michelle Morgan and directed by John Stockwell, “Middle of Nowhere” had a good amount of intelligence and heart but I wished it was more playful with its tone because with such a somber material, the line between self-reflection and narcissism was often crossed.
New York, I Love You (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released in theaters for more than a year so I was really excited to see it when it finally was. Unfortunately, out of the ten segments (presented in order of appearances on screen–directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin and Joshua Marston) only about five worked for me–the second (starring Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan), the third (Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci), the fourth (Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q), the fifth (Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, James Caan and Blake Lively), and the tenth (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman).
I really wanted to love this movie as much as “Paris, je t’aime.” What made the first one so great is the fact that even though we encounter so many different genres and tones throughout the picture, it felt cohesive because we truly get a sense of who the characters were in under five to seven minutes. In “New York, I Love You,” it all feels a little bit too commercial. I felt as though it wanted to impress all kinds of people so much to the point where it held back emotionally and avoided taking risks. I’m also astounded by the fact that there were no homosexual storylines, barely any segments consisting of African-American or Latino characters, and most of clips consisted of a person falling in love or lust with another person. There are many dimensions of love (love for the city, love for a pet, love for oneself…) but it didn’t quite think outside the box. Those missing qualities are crucial to me because New York is supposed to be a melting pot of ethnicities, sexualities and mindsets yet we got to see the same kinds of people time and again. With “Paris, je t’aime,” we get diversity and in more than half of them, there was not a happy ending, which I thought was closer to real life than the stories presented in this film.
The five segments that I thought were standouts had a certain passion in every single one of them, whether it’s about a woman who doesn’t quite feel comfortable about getting married; an artist struggling to read one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s books and whose curiosity of a woman he’s only met through the phone bothered him to the core; a man who thinks one way about a woman turning out to be someone completely different than we all expected; a teenager who goes to prom with a blind date unknowing of the fact that his date is unlike anyone he expected; and a couple celebrating their marriage that lasted for more than sixty years. Those are the kinds of stories I want to tune into and dissect because hidden layers are embedded in them. What I don’t want to see is someone supposedly falling in love unless he or she has something truly significant or different to contribute. The other five segments that I didn’t quite like should have been taken out and replaced by stories from other genres such as horror or science fiction, or they could have had a different mood or perception such as in a black-and-white reality or featuring a person so wasted in drugs–a way in which we could see the world through their eyes. That would have made more sense to me because we are essentially a drug culture. Or it could have featured at least one fashion model or a fashionista because New York is one of the biggest fashion capitals in the world. Instead of really embracing to tackle issues mentioned previously, the movie was way too safe with those other segments.
Having said all of that, I have to admit that I’m particularly hard on this picture. Since I don’t do half-star ratings, it must be said that I consider this a solid two-and-a-half star movie. When I came out of the theater, I was certain that I was going to give it three stars out of four but after thinking about it a little bit, it made me realize how much potential it didn’t use to create a truly magnificent project. For such a fascinating place like New York City, you just can’t play everything safe and get away with it. At least not with me because I’m big on seeing diversity and reality in certain kinds of films, especially in slice-of-life cinema. I’m not saying at all to not see this in theaters. By all means, please do to support a film released only on limited release. But what I want you to take away from this review is the awareness that what’s being presented on this film is not the gritty and dirty New York but the clean, nice New York we see on a prime time television shows.
Hopefully, the next project from this film series would not be as afraid to branch out.