Sidewalks of New York (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Sidewalks of New York,” written and directed by Ed Burns, is the kind of picture for audiences who love to listen to interesting people talking about their lives—specifically, what they think of the idea of love versus what it actually is; how they perceive relationships and how it ought to work; how they define sex and how it relates to their own definition of happiness or contentment. The work does not offer the expected three-act structure which is appropriate given its faux-documentary feel. Rather, it employs a freewheeling approach, warm and always welcoming, daring to draw a smile on those willing to look closely and listen. It is not demanded that we judge, but it asks that we relate.
Credit to the casting by Ali Farrell and Laura Rosenthal for choosing effortlessly charismatic performers who are also capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions especially during closeups when the camera aims to capture every bit of tic and twitching of facial muscles. Every person we meet is a curiosity in some way. Although there is interconnection among them, it is refreshing that they do not all meet by the end, forced into a ludicrous situation by a tired setup. Its restraint in handling how the story is presented is quite admirable. Similar works within the sub-genre has shown it is difficult to balance a laidback attitude while maintaining a consistent forward trajectory. Not once does it lose its way.
Particularly intriguing among the strong batch of actors is David Krumholtz, portraying a Jewish doorman named Ben who is convinced he has found love (Brittany Murphy) after having been divorced (Rosario Dawson). In a way, the character represents young idealism; he goes after what he perceives to be love with great enthusiasm and boundless energy, like a puppy given freedom to play and roam at a park on a holiday weekend. But observe closely and recognize his greatest fear: that his life would constantly be defined by the divorce that permanently destroyed a part of him. An important detail of the character is his penchant for music of the past. What is music but love in melody form?
Burns’ screenplay makes numerous smart choices. I enjoyed that even the most unlikable character, played by Stanley Tucci, is given dimension. Yes, the dentist is a womanizer, cheating on his wife (Heather Graham) with a nineteen-year-old waitress (Murphy) at every opportunity, so brazen and obvious about it that everyone at his workplace knows that his “lunch hour” is really a “quickie” trip to a hotel, but the character is shown under a tragic light, too. It is not necessary that we like him; however, it is crucial that we recognize the sadness not only in his situation, especially that he isn’t getting any younger, but also in his desperation. Clearly, he is not built to be in a monogamous relationship and yet he forces himself to fit within such a box. Griffith, so convinced he is always in control, is a product of his environment more than he realizes or care to admit. While some viewers may detest him for his actions, I felt pity for him.
The aforementioned extremes show why the movie works. It does not attempt to write a rulebook on relationships or its trials and tribulations. Rather, the picture is concerned with excavating details from underneath the surface, just like how Burns hopes that the audience comes to appreciate New York not just through its reputation or word-of-mouth but in actually looking at the small details like graffitis on walls, diverse groups of people walking down the street, the noises in the background. It is both a contemporary comedy and a love letter to a place and community that the writer-director clearly loves and respects.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) was not the type of popular girl who loved to bully those who were at bottom of the social ladder. She would rather spend her time shopping for designer clothes with her best friend (Stacey Dash). She was the type of popular girl who cared about her grades because her father (Dan Hedaya) kept her in check and her ex-step-brother (Paul Rudd) implicitly urged her to care more about the bigger issues in life. In her charmingly narcissistic way, she decided to give back to the community via giving the new girl in school (Brittany Murphy) a much needed makeover which led to a series of happenings that allowed her to realize who she was romantically in love with. As light and easily digestible the movie was, I was very entertained by it because the dialogue seemed simple on the outside but there was an intelligence and self-awareness in its core. I liked that the main character was an airhead but she had a defined perspective that she stuck with throughout which made her endearing and consistently interesting. For instance, when she was about to go out in skimpy clothing with the boy she really liked (Justin Walker), her father asked her what she was wearing. She responded by saying that it was a dress and Calvin Klein told her so. Furthermore, it was just refreshing to watch a popular girl not having to result to doing mean things to others just so she could get her way. Yes, she could be a brat at times but that trait did not define her. When her grades were low, instead of scheming of ways to blackmail her teachers (Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplan), she did the unexpected by playing matchmaker. Since she saw the world as a happy place, she believed that by helping others realize how good the world was, everything would come into place for her. Silverstone did a wonderful job playing the wide-eyed barbie because she made her character relatable, genuinely funny and, yes, even smart and witty (I love her scenes in debate class). The picture was honest with its title and it did not get lost in the satirizing the Beverly Hills high school kids when it could easily have been. Adroitly written and directed by Amy Heckerling, “Clueless” became a key figure in teenage pop culture because it was successful in its attempt to embrace the high school clichés but at the same time turning them upside down and pointing the fingers at us. Although we could not help but judge these kids as shallow and annoying, we laughed at (and with) them and maybe even cared about them. I think that says something about us.
Happy Feet (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
An emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) was born without a knack for singing, but his talent lies in tapdancing. His colony, aside from his childhood friend (Brittany Murphy) and mother (Nicole Kidman), doesn’t like the fact that he’s different and one of the oldest penguins believe that Mumble was a curse because ever since he was born, food became more scarce. (Talk about correlation does not mean causation.) Determined to prove that his tapdancing has nothing to do with the famine, Mumble, his short penguin friends and Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) went on a journey to search for the “aliens” (they were actually humans but they didn’t have the term for it) and kindly ask them through whatever means to stop taking their food. I like children’s movies but I hated the singing and dancing in this movie. I believe those elements took away some of the power (and time) to produce a well-developed story. The message about the humans’ destruction and disruption of the food chain was apparent but there were far too many extended singing and dancing sequences. (And it didn’t help that they weren’t that great to watch or listen to.) My favorite parts in the picture were the scenes that involved real danger for the penguins, such as being chased by a hungry seal, killer whales and birds. Yes, the animation was nothing short of spectacular but it doesn’t make up for its too light a tone about death and destruction. There were definitely some darker moments, especially in the second half when Mumble reached “heaven,” but I felt like George Miller, the director, could have pushed the envelope a little further by showing the audiences certain realities. After all, the point of the picture was the show that animals in the South Pole were struggling for survival. In fact, I think this film would have been far superior if it had ended in a bittersweet tone instead of a typical living-happily-ever-after note. Having said all that, I would have been harsher with this film if it was not intended for children. Given its flaws, it was still pretty entertaining because it had other messages such as tolerance, self-esteem and true friendships.