Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.
Eat Pray Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Liz (Julia Roberts) decided that she wanted a divorce from her husband (Billy Crudup), with the support of her friend (Viola Davis), she bought tickets to Italy, India and Bali in hopes of finding true happiness. In her journey, she met many interesting people who, like her, were going through their own quest to find self-love and forgiveness. Italy appealed to the stomach, India to the mind, and Bali to the heart. Most audiences’ critiques I read about this film was that they felt like the story was painfully self-centered. I expected to Liz to be a spoiled, uncultured American who had no genuine reason to complain about her life. That wasn’t the case at all. I thought she had a brain and I liked the fact that she wanted something more than spending the weekends buying material possessions on credit. Instead of wallowing in her problems and not doing anything about them, she decided that she wanted to take control of her life and to be open to new kinds of perspectives from individuals who grew up in various customs. Of course, not everyone has the means to travel across the globe to sort out their problems, but I believe that a lot of married people are unhappy with the way things are. Most of them just won’t admit to it. Or worse, some of them have accepted that unhappiness is the norm and there isn’t a thing they can do to get out of a bad marriage. Adults, perhaps more female than male, will most likely find themselves able to relate to Liz’ identity crisis from body image to society’s expectations about what makes a convenient versus a happy marriage. We saw the story through Liz’ eyes so why shouldn’t the film have the right to be self-centered? I found the performances to be subtle and involving. Roberts was radiant as she played a character who felt like she had to fill a hole inside her in order to feel like she was truly alive. She had such ease weaving her character in and out of various places and dealing with polarizing personalities. I did not expect her to have much chemistry with James Franco but they were able to pull off their doomed relationship quite swimmingly. Even when Roberts was just in a scene by herself, I couldn’t help but smile. For instance, when she ate those saliva-inducing Italian food in slow motion, I could feel her having fun in her role. I wish she was in starring roles more often, especially these days, because there aren’t a lot of actors who can balance control and reckless abandon so beautifully and elegantly. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” directed by Ryan Murphy, is ultimately about the big questions more than the answers. Liz may have gotten answers fit to her lifestyle. By providing them a possibility, perhaps adults stuck in unrewarding marriages would be inspired not necessarily to leave the country and live the life they’ve always imagined but to find something better than what is.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The search for Voldermort’s horcruxes, artifacts which housed pieces of his soul and granted him immortality, continued as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) visited familiar places in J.K. Rowling’s glorious saga of witchcraft and wizardry. Directed by David Yates, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” was, for the most part, a satifying conclusion. What it did best was to capture a sense of nostalgia from the trio’s adventures in the past. For instance, when they visited the Chamber of Secrets to destroy a horcrux, while the place looked like the way it was from the second installment, we were reminded of the intense images when Harry battled the giant snake which had the ability to turn living beings into stone. Somehow, that rather important duel felt significantly small compared to the heart-pounding affront Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) led toward Hogwarts–once a safe haven now reduced to rubble. During the first hour, each scene was exciting. From the way Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) stood up against Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) to the manner in which certain key characters met their fates, I was engaged because these were characters we’ve followed for more than a decade. The special and visual effects looked breathtaking. I loved the scene when a majestic fire engulfed the Room of Requirement as our protagonists, Draco (Tom Felton), and his sidekicks scurried across towers of treasures and junk. But the effectiveness of the visuals weren’t limited to the intricate details in the room. It also worked for areas with not a lot of decoration. The prime example would be the scene in which Harry conversed with Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at a train station. Pretty much everything was white and covered with mist. The barren look forced us to focus on the special bond between Harry and his mentor. It highlighted the fact that even though we’ll eventually, inevitably, lose people we love, nothing can take away what they’ve left us. But the film had its share of awkward moments which could be attributed to its rather short running time of just above two hours. For instance, when Aberforth (Ciarán Hinds), Dumbledore’s brother, appeared in the midst of battle to repel the Dementors using a Patronus charm, he greatly resembled the fallen wizard. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the emotional impact it should have had because we didn’t know a lot about Aberforth and his family. There was only one scene prior dedicated to Aberforth and his feelings toward his deceased brother. Another element that came out of nowhere involved Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a prominent figure in the earlier films, not given much to do other than being held capture by the Death Eaters. Hagrid was the first magical person Harry met when he turned of age. Remember when he said, “You’re a wizard, Harry” and Harry looked at him in utter disbelief? We all do. Not showing Hagrid participate in the Battle of Hogwarts was a crucial miscalculation. Nevertheless, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” though not the best of the series, was still a success in its own right. It provided closure without being sentimental. Sometimes the art of holding back is magical, too.
Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” followed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) to a space station orbiting a planet that had the strange ability to create bodies of human beings based on one’s memories while sleeping. I saw Steven Soderbergh’s film prior but there were very few similarities between the two. While both were purposely slow in pace, the classic “Solaris” was more concerned about specific details that aim to creep out its audiences. Despite its close to three hours running time, I was consistently fascinated with what was happening because of the images it had to offer. The first kind of image was what the audiences saw on screen. There was something genuinely unsettling about the planet’s human version of us. In this case, Kris’ wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who passed away years prior, was extracted from Kris’ memory more than once. Although she initially did not have any memory of who she was (she didn’t even know what she looked like until she looked in the mirror), she was a learning being, eventually able to mimic certain behaviors like sleeping or feeling guilt. She tried to be human but she simply wasn’t. She was eventually able to copy very human characteristics like selflessness but does that make her human? I noticed that even though the planet had the ability to replicate images from the mind, it managed to create incorrect details like a dress not having a zipper or a lake’s water not moving at all. The second kind image was in the stories the characters told. In the beginning of the film, a pilot described his experiences while exploring the planet. The way he talked about the evolution of the planet’s water and his eventual encounter with a giant baby was frightenening. His words were so alive, I felt like I was there with him. Directed by Andrey Tarkovskiy, “Solaris” successfully tackled questions about humanity through encounters that defied the norm. The filmmakers had a great challenge because they had to keep the material creative while not simply giving easy answers. In the end, I still had questions such as the filmmakers’ use of black and white in some scenes, their purposeful way of defying the laws of physics in specific scenes when we knew what was happening was occuring in reality and not in the mind, and the fates of the crew like amicable Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and practical Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). Despite my unanswered questions, I could not help but respect the film because it, too, treated me with respect. I watched it with a careful eye and it rewarded me with possibilities. Who’s to say that a planet like Solaris isn’t out there in the universe just waiting to be discovered?
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Emilia (Natalie Portman) had a massive crush on Jack (Scott Cohen), her married boss. Their relationship was kept secret until she became pregnant. The two got married and had a child, but the infant passed away after only three days. It was especially difficult for Emilia. For reasons initially unknown to us, she couldn’t seem to move on from grieving. Her relationship with Jack’s precocious eight-year-old son, William (Charlie Tahan), was rocky at best and Jack’s ex-wife (Lisa Kudrow) had no problem expressing her hatred toward Emilia. Based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” had patches interesting perspectives about a mother’s grief toward losing her child but the way it unfolded left a burning question mark in my mind. In its desperate attempt for us to identity with Emilia, the filmmakers knowingly made her a scapegoat. I got the impression that the director, Don Ross, didn’t have the confidence to show Emilia as she was despite the fact that, yes, she was initially the other woman who broke up a family. People claimed she was very unlikable. But I disagree. I thought she had the right to be sad and get angry once in a while. The majority of the film’s tension was generated from Emilia and William’s interactions. For instance, early in the film, William suggested that Emilia should sell the baby’s stuff on eBay because there was no baby. He kept repeating the fact that there was no baby and it was crazy it keep things that were not being used. Naturally, Emilia got upset at the child. Later, there was a scene in which Jack, in an underhanded way, tried to get Emilia to apologize to her stepson for being upset. Much later in the film, Emilia was accused of being cold toward William. The director ignored the obvious: the kid was a brat. I’ve had prior experience working with children around William’s age and I can say that no matter how beyond their age they seem to be, they know when they’re being hurtful. Children, as early as infancy, are trained to respond to body languages and facial expressions. Ignoring William’s transgressions seemed like it was done for the sake of convenience–to make it seem like it was Emilia versus the world. We didn’t need to feel sorry for her to identify with her. What I enjoyed most about the film was Portman and Kudrow’s performances. Portman had a good handle in terms of changing from warm to detached, vice-versa and everything in between, which often occurred in one scene and Kudrow had fun portraying a Type A mom who seemed to lash out on everyone she encountered. Unfortunately known as “The Other Woman,” which unfairly judged our protagonist, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” engaged me and it made me think about the dynamics between the characters. However, it could have been something deeper in the hands of a more confident direction.
I Am Number Four (2011)
★ / ★★★★
John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) was an alien passing as a normal teenager. John and Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his guardian, led a nomadic lifestyle because the Mogadorians, an alien race that destroyed their planet, were on the hunt for the nine chosen ones. John happened to be number four on their list. John and Henri moved for Paradise, Ohio and it seemed like any other town in the middle of nowhere. But when John met Sarah (Dianna Agron), he found a reason to stay. “I Am Number Four,” directed by D.J. Caruso, could have been an interesting if the filmmakers had paid more attention to the characters instead of the CGI. When the best part of the film consisted of a battle between two giant CGI monsters, that is usually not a good sign. Casting was partly to blame. Pettyfer lacked enough dimension and angst for us to want to get to know him. The deadpan delivery of his lines worked against him because the script was already so thin. He was charismatic when he smiled but that was about it. There were some shots where I thought his pose could’ve made a great American Eagle summer ad, especially in the beginning when he was at beach, but I wasn’t interested in John’s story. I found myself more interested in the stronger actors like Sam, John’s friend who was bullied at school because he was interested in aliens, played with wit by Callan McAuliffe. Since he was pushed around like a nobody yet never seemed to fight back, most of us could easily relate to him. We wanted him to throw a punch or try to pull off a mean prank against his tormentors. He said cheeky things like his life being one big episode of “The X-Files.” But as the picture went on, Sam wasn’t given very much to do, perhaps because he didn’t have any superpowers. Instead, he ended up babysitting John’s dog. The picture had serious issues in terms of its pacing. It took too long to get into the meat of the story. I found it too preoccupied with delivering clichéd images like someone, in slow motion, strutting away from a massive explosion. Questions such as why the Mogadorians wanted to kill the nine, the importance of the rocks Sam’s father collected, and why Number 6 (Teresa Palmer) was intent on finding Number Four were awkwardly tacked on during the last forty minutes. Lastly, the villains were completely forgettable. All of them looked alike–bald and with teeth in desperate need of braces. If one stood out as a character foil against John, it would have been far more interesting. Based on the novel by Pittacus Lore, “I Am Number Four” was too much computer and not enough imagination. It felt like a very rough sketch of a television pre-teen flick on the CW.