Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.
“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.
Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.
The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.
The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.
Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”
Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.
“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.
Super Dark Times (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
There are glimmers of great ideas underneath the somber, nearly inaccessible overcoat of “Super Dark Times,” a paranoid dramatic thriller begging for stronger writing so its story could be taken to the next level. While capable of putting the audience in a specific mindset, of a teenager involved in cover-up after an accidental murder of a classmate, what results is a work that comes across as student-film at times with its heavy-handed symbolism and static shots of quiet desperation. Even those looking for character studies will be challenged.
Performances by Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, who play best friends Zach and Josh, respectively, are highly watchable. They look and act like real teenagers living in upstate New York who just so happen to find themselves in a tragic, unfathomable situation. The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski requires the actors to play quiet, almost reclusive types but still remain distinct individuals. Notice how Zach and Josh speak as though they are whispering sometimes, often looking down or avoiding eye contact, as to mask their true selves from one another despite the fact that they are nearly inseparable. They think they know each other, but facing death together shakes their most basic foundations.
Less enjoyable are the attempts to look inside Zach’s nightmares and hallucinations. While visually creative and offering genuinely creepy images on occasion, one cannot help but wonder why we need to see what goes on inside the protagonist’s mind when it is apparent he is tortured by his guilt that stems from inaction. As a result, these scenes feel as though they function as padding, something I expect from tyro filmmakers who do not yet possess a confidence in the way they have established their characters. This approach can work in more experienced hands with a far richer, more elegant script.
The photography is quite confronting. For example, right from the opening scene we observe a classroom in a chaotic state: broken glass all over the floor, chairs and desks out of place, droplets and trails of blood leading up to a carcass. As the room is filled by authorities, we hear nearly nothing. Instead, close-ups fill the screen. We look at the teachers’ and students’ eyes, how emotions contain a mix of fear and excitement. We look at authorities investigating the scene of a crime, their utter disbelief that something like this could happen in their tranquil suburban bubble. Is it a sign of things to come?
For a first-time director, Kevin Phillips has made a decent picture with interesting ideas about male friendships, loyalty, and self-preservation. However, these ideas are not explored in such a way that is meaningful and engaging throughout—at least not on the level of great pictures such as Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” and Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” where escalating tension comes hand-in-hand with razor-focus character studies. Phillips, however, has an aptitude for establishing a certain look and mood. I look forward to his next foray.
★★★ / ★★★★
Growing up, I had a strange relationship with animals. While my neighbors and cousins that lived within the area kept typical household pets like dogs and cats, I searched every nook and cranny of the house for spiders, plucked caterpillars off our calamondin tree, and chased dragonflies in an ice plant’s giant lawn which was conveniently situated in front of my parents’ house. (My favorite specimen were hissing beetles but they weren’t always in season.) With the help of an anatomy book that I rescued from garbage collectors during my seventh birthday, I performed “experiments” on these bugs, often carefully controlled (or so I thought) but at times a bit gruesome. I was a very curious kid and this was the reason I related immediately to Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) even before his dog, Sparky, ran across the street to fetch a ball and got ran over on his way back. Unable to move on from the death of his only friend, Victor decided to dig up Sparky’s body from the cemetery and bring it back to life. “Frankenweenie,” directed by Tim Burton, was beautifully photographed in black and white which made the experience similar to looking inside a memory or a dream. I loved examining every character’s facial features and body type because each of them was unique. Take, for example, Victor’s classmate who was obsessed with psychic predictions (Catherine O’Hara) made by her cat. Her eyes were gargantuan flying saucers, as if they were in a permanent state of shock, and just underneath them were wrinkles that suggested she probably didn’t sleep much. Another one I couldn’t help but stare at was the lanky and flat-headed Nasser (Martin Short), his look inspired by Frankenstein’s monster. But unlike the image that inspired his look, Nasser was very much alive and would do absolutely anything to win the science fair. Equally interesting were the camera angles utilized to tell the story. In its default state, the camera seemed to be just below eye level, only moving drastically above or below it if something important was about to happen or was already happening. An angle classically used in horror films, I was surprised that it still worked even though genuinely scary scenes were scarce. It kept my curiosity intact especially when Victor had to find ways to hide his recently resurrected dog from his parents (O’Hara, Short) and classmates. We knew that people would have to find out about Victor’s secret sooner or later but that knowledge did not get in the way of the tender interactions between a boy and his dog. Unfortunately, two characters were not developed to their full potential: Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), the eccentric substitute science teacher, and Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), the girl who lived next door. The scenes set in the classroom were very funny. Mr. Rzykruski was so passionate about science that at times he came off as very intimidating. The lesson he had to impart about science, how it can be used for good and bad depending on the variables, was perfectly delivered by Landau and I believe that his words of wisdom will speak to children who have an interest in the subject. On the other hand, Elsa’s appearances were quite random. Other than the fact that her dog and Sparky shared a special connection, it wasn’t quite clear why she was necessary. However, I took comfort in the fact that the screenplay by John August avoided the cheap and easy way out by making her as Victor’s object of desire. “Frankenweenie,” paying homage to the simple storytelling and look of classic monster movies, was still a buffet of fun. If it had been longer by giving more time for its more important supporting characters to develop, it would have felt like a more complete experience.
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.
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.