Big Night (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) were Italian brothers who ran a struggling Italian restaurant. On the verge of foreclosure, Secondo took Pascal’s (Ian Holm) offer, a fellow restaurant owner, of inviting a celebrity who he claimed to be his friend in order for the brothers’ place to gain a bit of popularity. The big night consisted of a wild party with a mix of great food, good friends and influential people. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, the film was a delectable piece of work. It successfully captured passionate people who happened to lead a struggling business without having to result to the audiences having to feel sorry for them. Instead, the movie simply showed that Primo and Secondo had a great combination of talent and excellent palate, but the one thing they needed was a good word-of-mouth. Typical Americans just couldn’t appreciate the way they served their food. Primo wanted to make genuine Italian food but most Americans were doubtful of the strange. Early in the movie, there was highly amusing scene of a woman and her husband not understanding why the pasta didn’t have any meatballs. I had to laugh at their confused looks and frustrated voices because I recognized myself in them. There’s just something comforting about the familiar and having to step away from it most often causes friction. The film was also about the women in the brothers’ lives. Phyllis (the alluring Minnie Driver) loved Secondo but maybe he just wasn’t ready to be in long-term relationship. Money was near the top of his priorities but Phyllis didn’t consider it to be all that important. On the other hand, Primo was interested in Ann (Allison Janney), who worked at a flower shop, but he was too shy to invite her to attend the party. The best way Primo could communicate was through food. Luckily, Ann liked to eat. What I admired most about the film was its fearless ability to hold long takes. My favorite scene was when Primo returned to the kitchen after he and Secondo had an altercation. Secondo was initially by the stove as he prepared a dish for the feast. As a gesture of forgiveness, the younger one slowly inched away from the fire and allowed his older brother to be at the place where was most comfortable. Not a word was uttered. There was something assured and powerful about the way the camera was held and the manner in which it framed the two characters’ movements. A similar technique was implemented in the final scene when the space between the brothers grew smaller. There was no doubt in our minds that they would keep moving forward together. “Big Night” was beautiful film but not just because of the mouth-watering Italian food. It unabashedly explored the love between brothers without the clichéd epiphanies.
Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Eleven Minutes (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary, directed by Michael Selditch and Robert Tate, was about Jay McCarroll, the winner of the first season of the internationally successful “Project Runway,” and how he and his crew (working with him for free) put together all the elements to make a fashion show. The fashion industry being a cutthroat world, the question was whether he would succeed or fade into obscurity. I have never seen an episode of “Project Runway” so I didn’t know who Jay McCarroll was. I decided to see this film because, even though I’m more interested in male and female models, I wanted to learn more about the behind-the-scenes elements and what it took to create such amazing clothes come fashion week. I must say that this picture did not disappoint because I felt like it really immensed itself in the many levels of frustration involving things like the right products not being ordered, working with difficult fabrics, people stressing out because nothing seemed to be going right, people flaking out, determining what was sellable and what wasn’t and a whole lot more. I think if I were put into their world, I would have no idea what to do or how to even start. Granted, I don’t have the amount of experience that they have but even if I did, I still think it would be a very daunting task to put together a fashion show, especially if it’s a designer’s first “official” collection. But I liked that the movie was also about McCarroll’s struggle to step out of the shadow of the show that put him on the radar. Even though McCarroll projected this huge, scandalous personality, there were moments when it was easy to see the panic in his eyes and the questioning whether he and his team would be able to pull through. The film was very dramatic and I loved it because it put me in the edge of my seat. Basically, this movie was eye candy for me because I loved clothes. I really wanted those pants with the hot air balloon designs and the huge alien sunglasses. I had a sneaky feeling that I could rock those walking down the streets. If one is interested in fashion but has not seen the show, I don’t think it would be a problem because the documentary’s goal was to show that McCarroll and “Project Runway” were two completely different camps (even though he clearly showed his appreciation toward the television show). I certainly learned a lot more than I thought I would such as the length of time to put together a collection, the importance of business knowledge in the fashion industry, dealing with the unknown elements and just rolling with the punches.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Jeremy Piven, Kathryn Hahn, Ving Rhames and David Koechner agreed to take on a job offer from a failing auto dealership business. What started off as an edgy, politically incorrect and very funny movie, after its thirty-minute mark, became an incomprehensible pot of tired jokes and poor writing. What I loved about the first thirty minutes was that it didn’t try too hard to be funny. Each character had his or her own sense of humor and they don’t apologize for it. But then when they finally get to the car dealership, Piven’s character became another man with a dirty bag of tricks who falls head over heels for a woman (Jordana Spiro) about to be married to a man in a boy band (Ed Helms). If Neal Brennan, the director, had taken control of the picture and avoided the sidequests and not focused so much on the so-called heart of the movie, this would have worked as a dark comedy through and through. The movie became so unfocused to the point where I thought of the things I could have done instead of trying to finish the film. I also didn’t appreciate the many cameos from actors and comedians because they absolutely had nothing to offer other than to make the movie that much more muddled and unconvincing. But there was one character that never failed to make me laugh, which was played by Hahn, because even though she’s not given a deep character to play, she carried the character with such aggressiveness and I couldn’t stop laughing every time she opened her mouth. I wish the movie had instead made her the lead character because I think a deeply narcissistic character is far more interesting than a man-boy discovering love. I don’t blame the actors because I think all of them are hilarious in other movies. I mostly blame the lazy writing because it rested on typicality when there are so many rich jokes that could have been told about cars, car dealerships, the people that work there and the customers. With a running time of just about ninety minutes, I assumed that it was going to go by quickly. I was wrong. “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard” started off well but it just didn’t have enough goods to keep me entertained.
Bottle Shock (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I decided to watch this movie because I was interested to learn more about one of the landmarks of the wine industry (even though I don’t know much about wine). That is, the creation of the perfect Chateau Montelena chardonnay. Alan Rickman stars as Steven Spurrier, the owner of Academie du Vin, who traveled to the United States in order to collect wine for the Judgment of Paris wine competition. One of the places he visited was Chateau Montelena which was owned by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a man who was buried in loans and frustration with the fact that his son (Chris Pine) failed to show interest or enthusiasm when it came to the family business. The weaker and less interesting part of the film was the romance triangle among a Hispanic worker (Freddy Rodriguez) in Chateau Montelena, a new intern (Rachael Taylor), and Jim’s aimless son. Another negative was that even though the story was supposed to be set in 1976, it didn’t feel like it was because of both the actors and the script. That sense of authenticity was important to me because I really wanted to be sucked into the time period. I also felt as though the picture played everything a bit too safe. With each scene everything just felt nice and breezy instead of revolutionary, which is a problem because the core of the movie was how the events in the vineyard impacted the wine industry. Randall Miller, the director, should have taken more risks instead of resting on the romance between the three younger characters. In fact, I think the movie would’ve been better off if about thirty minutes were cut off because it would have been more focused and the pace wouldn’t have felt as slow. Still, I don’t consider “Bottle Shock” a bad movie because there were moments of true wonder for the audiences, especially when the wine suddenly changed from clear to brown. I had no idea whether that was a positive or a negative thing prior so I certainly learned something from the film. And the exciting competition scene was quite amusing because the French judges tried so hard to discern which wines were from France and which ones were from the United States. The looks on their faces after the competition was priceless.
Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Over the years I’ve grown to love the fashion industry so watching this documentary about the legendary Valentino Garavani was a real treat. I was fascinated with watching him handle situations when people did not quite reach his vision. That frustration sometimes ended up in heated arguments and sometimes they ended up with a joke or a simple snide remark. The passion Valentino had about fashion sometimes took its toll with the people around him, especially his long-time business partner and lover Giancarlo Giametti, but if it weren’t for his persistence and perfectionist nature, his creations would not have been the same. I liked that Matt Tyrnauer, the director, took some of the picture’s time to go back into the past and tell his audiences where Valentino came from and how he met some of the most influential people in his life. I was so engaged when the legendary designer talked about the many inspirations he had from films and movie stars when he was around thirteen years old. And when asked by a reporter if he dreamed about being anything else other than designing for women’s clothing, there was something brilliant and amusing with the way he said his one-word answer. I’m glad that this documentary didn’t quite focus on all of Valentino’s accomplishments (although I wouldn’t mind watching that documentary if one decided to take on the project). The majority of it was about his final couture show, which was beyond extravagant, and the media’s ever-annoying questions on when he would finally retire. I’ve seen a few runways and shows but nothing comes close to the elegance of his models, the ravishing sets, and the inspired clothings. Every image of the film looked like candy I wanted to touch and relish. “Valentino: The Last Emperor” would most likely not reach the mainstream because it’s geared more toward fashionistas. However, if one is generally interested in beauty, or even better, the passion and effort to make something beyond exquisite and divine, this is definitely the one to see.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written, produced, directed by and starring the talented Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” is an astute, mutilayered movie driven by the core of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are about: how we choose to react when faced by people who see us as less than and how we perceive other people who are different than us. The bulk of the story of this picture was set in a very hot summer day where everyone was involved in their regular businesses, whether it came to working hard to maintain one’s job, being a bum in the streets, or just watching the day go by and hoping that the breeze will provide some sort of temporary comfort from the heat. As the day got hotter, tempers ran up until the climactic riot that transpired toward the end of the picture. A certain tragedy happened that sparked the riot but different people have different answers on who should carry the blame for what had happened. I think this film is very accurate and realistic because it actively avoids a typical happy ending via telling the audiences what simply is. I enjoyed the very vibrant characters such as the Italian family who owns a pizza place (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson and John Turturro), Lee’s sensibile sister who knows and is comfortable with who she is (Joie Lee) and the energetic DJ who runs a radio station (Samuel L. Jackson). Each of them had something valuable to offer to the table–a certain insight or an interesting point of view. I’m glad that there was a spectrum of African-Americans portrayed in this film. Most of the movies I watch nowadays, they’re either the violent one, the extremely gifted one (with some sort of a handicap or a traumatic past), or the funny one. Here, we get to see different sides of one character often in a single scene so it was a breath of fresh air. A lot of people consider this classic, especially if they grew up with it, and I can understand why. It has a certain resonance because “the right thing” is constantly changing–like Heraclitus’ idea of the impossibility of stepping on the same river twice–and therefore is arguably nonexistent, yet we still (or should) strive for it. I’m very interested in seeing this again because it has all the elements in a film that I look for.
New in Town (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those chick flicks where a seemingly cold business-minded character (Renée Zellweger) gets assigned to a small town and realizes that it’s not as bad as she initially thinks because the people (led by the hilarious Siobhan Fallon, followed closely by J.K. Simmons) are warm-hearted despite their many quirks. She also happens to fall for a handsome nature-loving guy (Harry Connick Jr.) with a sad past, which of course she initially has to dislike due to the embarrassment of mistaken identities over dinner. It’s all been done before and “New in Town,” directed by Jonas Elmer, unfortunately, does not have anything new to offer. It’s a shame because he has very talented actors under his belt but he failed to inject a certain edginess to the story. I think if the characters were a bit more unlikable, this would’ve been a completely different (and more interesting) picture. I felt like there were only two jokes in this movie: Zellweger’s reaction and adjustment to small town life and the quirky townspeople with funny accents. At first I thought it was cute but it quickly went downhill after thirty minutes because I kept hoping that another joke would come along. The factor that saved this movie was Zellweger’s acting. Even though her character somewhat reminded me of Bridget Jones, it was nice seeing her here because she’s completely aware of the fact that she’s not going to get nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, there’s a certain relaxed feeling about her character that I instantly liked even though she’s the kind of woman who is ambitious and not afraid to put people under the bus to get what she wants (initially). But like I said before, it would’ve been better if she remained that way or changed for the better only a little bit but not sugary and sweet as she was during the last ten minutes. If one is up for a film with gentle laughs and contains no inappropriate or offensive jokes, this is the one to see. However, for those who are looking for something a bit daring and multi-dimensional, I can’t quite recommend it.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson team up once again in “O Lucky Man!” a sequel to the exemplary “If…” McDowell plays Mike Travis, an ambitious and enthusiastic coffee salesman whose main goal is to attain financial success. I thought it was very interesting how he seems like a force to be reckoned with in the beginning of the film, but as it goes on and meets quirky, greedy and insightful characters, he seems so insignificant in comparison. Although its premise is a commentary on the evils of capitalism, the dry and dark humor are consistent. Although I didn’t understand some of the jokes because I don’t know much about business and economics, the ones I understand are clever and have a staying power that’s still relevant today; especially now that competition is at its peak and the American economy is not doing so well. This film’s strength lies in its surrealism: some of the actors play multiple characters (Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe…) and the events that unfold are extremely out of the ordinary and a bit random (such as the medical facility that use human subjects). I also enjoyed listening to Alan Price’s songs because they reflect what Mike Travis is going through yet at the same time comments on where he should be going. However, I felt like the film digressed too much. Despite Mike Travis’ adventures all over England, I feel as though he didn’t make any genuine human connection that could potentially warrant his change-of-heart during the film’s third act. Yes, he did have inspirations from poets and philosophers but I feel like those aren’t enough to change a person, especially a person who’s obsessed with climbing the economic ladder despite everything that’s put on his way to distract him from that goal. The most interesting character, other than Travis, was Patrcia (played by Helen Mirren) and I wanted to know more about her. In the end, I feel a certain disconnect from this picture–which is strange because, when it comes to films that run for about three hours, I usually feel a certain inclination for the project. “O Lucky Man!” is an unfortunate exception despite its intelligence and brilliant acting from McDowell.
Working Girl (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Mike Nichols, this romantic comedy has something to say or two about women in the work force. Set in the 1980’s, I was very amused by looking at people’s hair, clothes and the lingos they used. Even though those things are not that relevant today because they went out of fashion, there is one thing that persisted: Women are still considered less equal to men. Melanie Griffith plays Sigourney Weaver’s hardworking secretary who one day pitches an idea to Weaver. Even though Weaver promised Griffith that she will get some credit if Weaver’s boss liked her ideas, Weaver pitched Griffith’s ideas as her own. After an injury that left Weaver in bed for a couple of weeks, Griffith stumbled upon Weaver’s betrayal and decided to climb the corporate ladder. Even though this is a romantic comedy, it’s not an ordinary one because of the wit in its writing. Just when you think the story will unfold one way, it completely veers off another way and it surprised me (in a good way). Griffith is completely believable as an astute secretary who wants to be something more. Weaver did a great job as the boss from hell. It was hard for me to read her intentions because she’s so good at lying and manipulating everyone despite her sweet facade. Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack are also found here and they all have scenes where they truly shine. What didn’t work as well for me was the romantic angle. Sometimes, I felt as though it dragged the story down and shifted away from the business angle of the story. I can imagine this film being talked about in Women’s Studies courses because it has something to say about marriage, the workplace, and the home. The most interesting aspect in the film was even though Griffith wants to fight against a man-centered world of business, her enemy is a woman, just like herself. When I saw Weaver for the first time, my first instinct was Griffith and Weaver teaming up to climb the corporate ladder. I only realized later that it’s even better if they’re up against each other. As for its ending, it was so well-done. I was so touched because, in a way, it summarized Griffith’s journey in a different angle. This is a strong film by Nichols because it ultimately inspires.