★★ / ★★★★
The first shot of the movie, at least from our perspective, showed a group of people looking at a painting. After a split-second, it was revealed that the individuals were simply waiting for the elevator in which the painting happened to be next to. I wish the entirety of “(Untitled),” written and directed by Jonathan Parker, was more like the opening shot because it took advantage of our expectations and what we were seeing. The film happened to hit good and sour notes. On one hand, I thought it was really funny. I laughed out loud at the scenes when the main character, Adrian (Adam Goldberg), would play avant-garde music with his band and the audiences in the picture were simply shocked with what they heard. Or worse, that they actually paid to listen to it. The music Adrian and company played was like a group of toddlers randomly banging kitchen utensils. It was painful to the ears and most people would just wish for it to stop. Another reason why I thought it was funny was because the lead character took himself so seriously. He had real insight about his place in the art world and I thought his ideas were revolutionary. On the other hand, the romantic angle between Adrian and the posh art gallery dealer (Marley Shelton) felt forced. Their interactions felt too convenient; it felt like an awkward tool that served to keep the plot running along. I thought it was odd that the characters talked about hating commercial work but at the same time the movie they were in, whenever it focused on the romance, felt exactly like a quirky romantic comedy. Instead, I wish the movie had spent more time exploring the sibling rivalry between Adrian and Josh (Eion Bailey). Not just because both men liked the same woman but also because of their style of art. It would have been more fascinating because Josh was everything Adrian was not. I was interested in their history such as the environment from where they grew up in and the various inspirations they embraced that shaped their respective artistic endeavors. As a satire, “(Untitled)” marginally succeeds. Unlike Duncan Ward’s insular “Boogie Woogie” that tackled essentially the same issues, “(Untitled)” was equally about the images and sounds we saw or heard and the people that produced them. Even though everyone was flawed, I understood where they came from and I felt the passion toward their work. There was a wonderful scene near the end when Adrian attended a concert and later he was inspired to actually make progress concerning his own project. The inspiring moments were small but they resonated. I enjoyed at film in a number of ways and I hope others will take a chance to see it.
Once Around (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Renata (Holly Hunter), despite being thirtysomething, still lived with her parents (Danny Aiello, Gena Rowlands) and she seemed to lack direction in life. The first scene of the film was Jan’s (Laura San Giacomo) wedding, Renata’s sister, which was happy on the outside but its purpose highlighted the fact that Renata was lonely, if not almost desperate to have someone she can call her lover. But her insecurities were seemingly thrown out the window when she met a successful salesman named Sam (Richard Dreyfuss). There was an obvious age difference between the couple but Renata decided to continue the relationship because Sam made her genuinely happy. But more problems ensued when Sam overstepped his boundaries within the close-knit family. What I loved about this picture was its focus involving the principle of “Once around, always around.” The scenes of Sam trying to wriggle his way into situations that didn’t concern him made me angry and uncomfortable because I really identified with the family. He was a social man who liked to joke around (dirty jokes especially) and sing songs but he wasn’t used to filtering his words and wasn’t aware that sometimes he could be very offensive to certain people. In a way, we all know people like him whether it be with our own families or group of friends. Or maybe it’s us but we just aren’t aware of it. I admired that Lasse Hallström, the director, didn’t frame the family as a group of eccentrics sickeningly common in movies of the 2000s. They were essentially a normal family but their worst were at the forefront when Sam was in the room with them. It was fascinating to observe the way the characters responded to each other because the reactions weren’t always predictable. When I thought a situation would end up being sad, it ended up being funny. When I thought a situation would end up funny, it would end up being bittersweet. Hallström had control over the material’s mood and I felt like each scene had a purpose with stakes that became increasingly higher. Best of all, “Once Around” was relatable. In my family gatherings, I like to observe people while I eat. Most of the time the in-laws keep a certain distance while the core family members are not afraid to make fools out of themselves. (Filipinos love to karaoke… most of the time while drunk.) But sometimes the in-laws lose a bit of control and everybody could feel a difference in atmosphere. That’s why I thought “Once Around” was very smart. It was able to pinpoint that familiar awkwardness and successfully built a story around it.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene established Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) to be an observer. While she ate lunch inside a classroom because she didn’t have any friends, she noted that everything had order and everyone belonged in a circle. Except for her. Esther had her own way of dealing with loneliness such as befriending a baby duck. At home, we found out she had a twin brother (Christian Byers) and their lives were always under a microscope as their parents (Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra) observed them from behind the lens. “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger,” written and directed by Cathy Randall, was a different coming-of-age story because it was about children who acted out since they received too much attention. Esther meeting Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a girl from a public school, was a catalyst for Esther’s evolution. As a whole, I enjoyed this movie because it had a bona fide sense of humor and the character, despite turning somewhat into a mean girl, was easy to root for because, essentially, she was an ugly duckling. However, this film was its own worst enemy. In its attempt to impress its audiences, it felt the need to deliver too much of everything. It got to the point where the quirkiness became a distraction and it did not lead to any place where the lead character could discover something new about herself. Instead of the superfluous awkwardness, I wanted to know about the dynamic and the fragility of Esther and Sunni’s friendship, Esther in a public school versus Esther in a private school, and the family seeing a shrink in their attempt to mend what they thought was broken about them. I also thought there was something poignant between Esther and Sunni’s mom (Toni Collette). She was the “cool mom” who rode a motorcycle, let them stay up late, used her body as an instrument and laughed at Esther’s jokes–the complete opposite of Esther’s biological mother. I felt sadness in Esther’s eyes as she questioned herself why she wasn’t lucky enough to get Sunni’s mom. Lastly, the ending did not quite work for me because I felt that it was done mainly to shock us. I didn’t think it was necessary at all; it almost felt exploitative. However, I was glad that Esther did not revert to being a loser during the final scenes. Her evolution, with all the good and the bad, remained intact and I appreciated that honesty. In a span of an hour and forty-five minutes, we watched her grow up even just a little bit. Sometimes small steps are worth it.
Youth in Revolt (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) was obsessed with losing his virginity to the point where his id, appropriately named Francois Dillinger (also Cera), pitied Nick and decided to take matters into his own hands. Nick, his mom (Jean Smart), and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) decided to temporarily move away in order to escape angry sailors who wanted their money back. Convinced that he would not have a good time during his mini-vacation, Nick was surprised when he met Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a girl who had substance and had similar interests as him such as foreign films and music. “Youth in Revolt,” based on the novel by C.D. Payne and directed by Miguel Arteta, was one of those films I decided not to see after watching the trailer for the first time because it just did not make any sense. From the trailers, I somehow got the impression that Francois was some sort of an evil twin. I’m glad I decided to give this movie a chance because it actually entertaining and the characters, though not fully explored and some were more like caricatures, exhibited intelligence unlike most teen flicks about losing one’s virginity (Sean Anders’ “Sex Drive” immediately comes to mind). The strongest part of the picture for me was the first twenty minutes prior to the appearance of Francois. Though I did somewhat enjoy the conceit regarding the alter ego, there was something very refreshing about the unpretentiousness of two lonely souls meeting and sharing something special, which may or may not be love. Cera and Doubleday did have chemistry but the picture did not rely on that initial and lasting spark. The material bothered to show more tender moments between the couple and I felt like I connected with them even though it was instantaneous. The rest of the picture, on the other hand, was not as strong. It used Cera’s very awkward mannerisms as a crutch instead of using his acting skills as a base to present terrific material that was focused but unpredictable, funny yet sensitive in its core. Although the film did have its darkly comic moments, it was too obvious with its comedy such as Justin Long drugging everyone in his path and Jonathan B. Wright, as much as I love him, finding ways to make Nick’s life unbearable. It was too safe and safe, in this case, was boring. The only side character I thought had potential was Nick’s dad played by Steve Buscemi. I wanted to know more about him and I wished he and Nick had more scenes together because I saw the son’s qualities in his father. If “Youth in Revolt” had a lot more edge and darkness, it would have been a much more memorable film. Although a part of it was slightly different than Cera’s other roles, the majority of it was more of the same.
Good Guy, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I had a feeling that “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” directed by Chris Columbus, tried to summon those great teen ’80s flicks but instead of being nostalgic, the film fell flat on its face because it ultimately lacked intelligence in its script and its characters. During his speech, the high school valedictorian (Paul Rust), predictably an awkward nerd, decided to declare to the whole school that he loved Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), predictably one of the cheerleaders, from the moment he laid eyes on her through the years when he sad behind her in class (creepy). Along with that declaration, he put the spotlight under the mean girls and mindless jocks and claimed that they were losers and they would remain losers after high school. Naturally, our protagonist and Beth Cooper ended up talking to each other after graduation, got into a number of misadventures and learned that first impressions weren’t always accurate. Just typing all of that made me bored because I’ve seen it all before. There was nothing original about this movie that I can specifically point to and say that I was impressed with. In fact, I was just annoyed with it especially when the lead character’s best friend who happened to be a film geek would make the most random movie references. That character made people like me look bad; just because we’re film buffs (or getting there), it doesn’t mean that we’re going to reference to every single movie that existed every other second, especially to people we just met. It’s just ridiculous and not funny. I think that was this movie’s problem: it tried too hard to impress when it shouldn’t have because the flaws became that much more glaring. Everything was loud and obnoxious especially the jocks who, I must say, had antisocial personalities and needed serious psychological help. Each character was one-dimensional and it was no fun watching the movie because it lacked depth. Teen movies like “Superbad” or “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” have proven that substance and comedy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. With movies like “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” obviously I expect certain things like plotlines involving losing one’s virginity, sex jokes and even gay jokes. However, can’t help but love the subgenre because it does have the potential to surprise and even inspire. Unfortunately, “I Love You, Beth Cooper” was a disaster and a total waste of time.
Little Ashes (2008)
★ / ★★★★
“Little Ashes,” written by Philippa Goslett and directed by Paul Morrison, stars Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí, a tortured artist who is not afraid to express his political beliefs yet he tries so hard to resist the sexual attraction between him and a poet named Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán). From the synopses I read, I got the impression that this film was primarily about Dalí and his work as an artist and the romance was seconday. I was taken aback because it was really more about the romance between a poet and an artist and barely any of Dalí’s work was shown on screen. What’s even stranger is the fact that Beltrán is in front of the camera more than Pattinson. I do have to say, however, was I bought Beltrán’s performance more than Pattinson because the former had strength in his eyes even though he looked sad, confused, shocked or insecure. With the latter, it was the same note despite the emotion and the drastic physical changes. (Still stuck in “Twilight” phase, perhaps?) His look was intense but with such a complicated and volatile character he tried to tackle, he should have delivered more color and vigor. Another problem for me was their lack of chemistry. Maybe it was the writing or direction but I didn’t understand how someone like Lorca could fall for someone like Dalí. Yes, they both had talent but the way they interacted seemed forced and sometimes quite awkward. There were times when I just felt uncomfortable. Story-wise, it took me a while to get into it but I eventually did. However, it wasn’t particularly strong; in fact, it felt quite empty considering the fact that the two lead characters were so rich in personality and the political backdrop was fascinating. Maybe it tried too hard to appeal to younger audiences, especially younger girls, so that’s why it wasn’t deep or insightful enough. I could only withstand so many hidden kisses and flirtations. “Little Ashes” desperately needed a force to push it forward so that the audiences could feel something. Unfortunately, it was lazy and I felt like my two hours was wasted. With a stronger, more focused writing and a more versatile leading actor, maybe this movie would have worked. I say don’t waste your two hours unless you’re a die-hard Robert Pattinson fan.
Date Night (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as a married couple who decided to go to the city on their date night to get away from the ennui of their busy schedules which mostly revolved around work and their kids. To spice things up a bit, they decided to go to an exclusive fancy restaurant which required reservations months in advance. Since they didn’t make one, Carell and Fey decided to pretend to be another couple–a couple involved in theft and currently being pursued by corrupt cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who seemed to work for the mob of some sort. When I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I had to watch it because casting arguably the funniest people in Hollywood right now is genius. What I loved about this movie most was not because of the story–mistaken identities, a couple feeling like their marriage lacked spark; I’ve seen it all before–but because of the chemistry between Fey and Carell. They matched each other’s awkwardness and both had great comedic timing. The two actors managed to pull off genuinely tender moments between them where I couldn’t help but feel touched. They were a believable couple and that’s why I cared about their characters. Written by Josh Klausner and directed by Shawn Levy, the script and the filmmakers allowed the two leads to play on their strengths and let the awkwardness linger to the point of saturation. But “Date Night” was as funny as it was exciting. The scene when the two cars (one owned by constantly shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a conceit I was glad that the actor embraced) couldn’t uncouple from one another was a definite standout. It was so much fun to watch, I wished that I was in that car with them. However, I did wish that the side characters had more screen time. For instance, Leighton Meester as the babysitter, Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as the couple about to get a divorce, Taraji P. Henson (who I love in those “Tyler Perry” movies) as the honest detective, and James Franco (doing his “sparkly eyes” thing that I’m always impressed with) and Mila Kunis as the weird but hilarious couple involved in blackmail. Nevertheless, the movie was so much fun and the adventures all over New York City reminded me of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Those who are in the mood for good-natured comedy with a spice of action will definitely enjoy this movie, while fans of Fey and Carell will undoubtedly be happy with it.
She’s Out of My League (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I just realized that the more I watch Jay Baruchel, the more I like him. There’s something very geek-chic about him that’s just adorable–I don’t know if it’s the voice or the awkward body language but he manages to pull it off with such ease. In “She’s Out of My League,” directed by Jim Field Smith, he plays an airport security agent with dreams of becoming a pilot who one day meets a really good-looking girl (Alice Eve). After some coincidences and strange (but amusing) circumstances, she ends up asking him out on a date, leaving the lead character’s friends (T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Nate Torrence) shocked and confused. I enjoyed watching this movie as a whole but I think it could have been edgier and it could have used more focus in terms of the odd couple’s romance. I think the movie spent too much of its time with the highly obnoxious family (I think if I met them I would run the other way) and in a way, I saw it as an excuse to deliver the gags so it wouldn’t have to tackle the deeper psychology of an insecure man as often as it should have been. And although I did think that the main character’s friends were funny, they couldn’t just accept the fact that their geeky friend was going out with a gorgeous woman. Their sometimes lack of support irked me and it made me question whether they were really good friends. Perhaps the picture was trying to show the friends’ own insecurities through denial but it would have been nice if they didn’t make fun of the lead character as much. The bit with the ex-boyfriend (Geoff Stults) was also another distracting element that didn’t need to be there. Nevertheless, as a romantic comedy, I think the picture worked; it may have been pretty standard most of the time but there were nice moments when I felt like Baruchel and Eve had a good connection. I think the film was at its best when the two characters were just engaging in conversation about their dreams and failures with all jokes aside. We’ve all seen couples that make us think, “What the heck does she see in him?” This movie was essentially that little (sometimes nagging) thought in our heads. The lessons might have been obvious (beauty on the inside matters) but it’s nice to be reminded of it because there’s a universal truth to that lesson. “She’s Out of My League” has both laugh-out-loud and cringe-worthy moments (mostly with that annoying family) but I think it’s worth watching for its own merits.