Annie Hall (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Annie Hall,” written, directed and starring Woody Allen, is considered one of the best romantic comedies in film history even though the couple did not end up together in the end. Alvy (Allen) wanted to determine what went wrong in his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) so we were taken back in time and given the chance to observe the major and minor events in their journey. The film was undoubtedly quirky but its intelligence and insight about how it was like to be in a relationship was what took this film from greatness to being a pop icon classic. My favorite scenes were when Allen decided to use elements that could have disrupted the narrative. For instance, I had loads of fun with the split-screen when the director wanted to compare Annie’s WASP family to Alvy’s Jewish family during a meal. The former was reserved, everyone masticated with their mouths closed, and had perfect posture at the table. On the other hand, the latter, like my family, consisted of many overlapping voices, gossip became a source of entertainment, and all sorts of etiquette was thrown out the window. Allen’s willingness to take risks showed me that he was confident about his project and that’s a key ingredient to make a successful picture. I also admired the film’s many references to pop culture and literature and the energy that drove them forward. I did not live in the 70s nor do I read a lot of classic novels. I did understand more than half the jokes but when I did not, I did not feel dumb or left out. That was when the energy became essential because there were about ten jokes in under a minute so I didn’t have a chance to linger on the fact that I did not “get” something. Furthermore, I loved that the director injected various types of comedy in the material. Some of the comedy were slapstick (the lobster scene), anecdotes (when Alvy vividly described his childhood experiences), blunders (a Freudian slip by Annie), and even some repartee between the two leads in the bedroom and the issue of sex and gender roles were put under the spotlight. Alvy and Annie could have easily been caricatures in less capable direction. Instead, the protagonists had great depth. They surprised us because of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, they kept us watching because they spoke of and did things we, one way or another, had thought of and done, and they moved us because it was like watching two good friends deciding to go their separate ways. Clever in its approach in which irony penetrated every scene, “Annie Hall” was not simply as ode to romance but also an absolute love for creative and inspired filmmaking.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) decided that he was going to be true to who he was after getting in a major car accident. He got a divorce from his wife (Leslie Mann), moved to Florida, met a new beau (Rodrigo Santoro), and lived the fabulous life. But money didn’t grow on trees. This was particularly a problem because he didn’t have a college education. So, he turned to a life of crime pretending to be a litigator, a chief financial officer of a major company, among many things. Steven’s illegal actions landed him in prison where het me the love of his life–blonde-haired, blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). I don’t understand why this picture was shelved for so long. Not to mention it still hasn’t gotten a wide release nor do I hear and see much advertisement for it. I thought it was clever, funny, and completely unbelievable even though it was based on a true story. This was Carrey’s best performance in quite some time. His character’s histrionics suited him well and he probably was the best choice to play such a larger-than-life person. Carrey was smart to inject a healthy dose of charm in his character because being intelligent could only get someone so far. The real Steven Russell wouldn’t have pulled off so many scams if he wasn’t a people-person, the kind of guy we can’t help but trust the first time we meet him. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors, successfully helmed a whimsical love story even though there were times when I was frustrated with its tone. The film was at its best when it was purely comedic. When Steven and Russell were together, I was drawn to them because it was obvious to me why they were perfect for each other. They looked at one another as if they already knew it wouldn’t last. However, it stumbled when it attempted to be a little more sensitive. There were far too many scenes when Steven would declare his love for Phillip. Once or twice was enough. Did the filmmakers run out of ideas to entertain? Neverthless, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in “I Love You Phillip Morris.” For instance, once the male organ joke was introduced, I found it strange that I felt like I saw phallic symbols everywhere. Just before the film ended, it stated that Russell was sentenced for an unprecedented number of years. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. For a guy who didn’t physically hurt anybody during his wild escapes (when he easily could have), I couldn’t help but feel like his term was a bit too harsh. Sure, he stole thousands of dollars from a company but even criminals who’ve committed the same crime received far lighter sentences. Steven treated the justice system as a joke. Perhaps there’s truth in jest.
The Invention of Lying (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, “The Invention of Lying” took place in a world where no one could lie. Everybody told the truth no matter how painful it was and people learned to adapt to the sharp comments thrown at them. They were so stuck in the truth that life essentially became boring. Even “movies” were simply a man telling the audiences historical events. That is, until something in a screenwriter’s (Gervais) brain allowed him to lie after being fired from his job, told by a date (Jennifer Garner) that he was not good enough for her, and been kicked out of his apartment. It’s unfortunate that the second half of this movie did not quite hold up against the first half because I thought the first forty-five minutes was hilarious. Some people may not get it because the comments that the characters made to one another were mean, but the dry humor was exactly what I liked about it. The honest things that people told each other, one way of another, have occured in my head (and some I’ve successfully/shamelessly vocalized). The pacing quickly faltered when Gervais and Robinson injected some religious anectode about “a man in the sky.” It just did not work for me because they got stuck on that joke and the film became severly limited. It was the antithesis of the first half–the first few minutes felt like anything was possible, especially with cameos from Tina Fey, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, the movie did have its moments of brilliance such as the sensitive scene when Gervais told Hill that it was not a good idea to kill himself and the scenes involving Garner’s obsession with being someone who was financially successful and “genetically superior.” Even though her character was ridiculously shallow at first glance, I think it was the truth: a lot of people (including myself) have this idea our partner should be at an equal or better footing than us. Granted, after seeing this film, my position about what I want in a partner did not change but I thought it was nice that the movie pointed a finger to its audiences and tried to make fun of us. “The Invention of Lying” could have been so much better if the second half did not slow down its momentum but I still say it’s worth watching because it made me laugh and it was clever. I love the not-to-subtle product placements and it made me wonder how the C.E.O.s of products featured managed to agree to have thier products in the movie since the comments about the products were not exactly flattering.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.
Up in the Air (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jason Reitman directed this tale about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) whose job is to fly to various cities across America and fire people who work for different corporations. Ryan enjoys being constantly on the move, collecting frequent flyer miles, and values the isolation and sense of pride that comes with his work. His way of life and mindset are challenged on two fronts: when he met a woman version of himself named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and a plucky twentysomething named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to revolutionize the way the company works. That is, instead of firing people face-to-face, she argues the corporation can save a lot of money by firing people via a computer. Ryan then has to balance his budding romance with Alex as well as helping Natalie realize that there is a real value in having the courage and putting in the time to actually face the people to tell them that they have lost their jobs. In a grim American economy, I thought this film could not have arrived at a more perfect time because not only did it have a real sense of drama, it had a sense of humor, intelligence, and heart when it comes to the lead characters as well as to those who are recently unemployed.
I thought the director’s decision to actually put real-life people in front of the camera to express how they felt when they got fired was a wonderful idea. It felt that much more real and heartbreaking. Instead of a movie featuring a corporate person (the bully) and the person being fired (the bullied), which is one-dimensional, there was a certain sense of understanding between the two camps even though the people who were being fired were angry and sad when they heard the terrible news. I enjoyed the conversations between Clooney and Kendrick because they were so different. There was real humor when it came to the generational gap, their outlook on marriage and how to deal with people. I’m very happy with the fact that the movie did not result to Clooney being the teacher and Kendrick being the student. They actually learned from each other even though neither of them was a picture of perfection. Even though they were very different, I felt a certain level of respect between them. I also loved the one conversion that Farmiga and Kendrick had concerning what they wanted in a man. That conversation has got to be one of my favorite scenes in the entire film because, in essence, it’s the same kind of question that my friends and I try to answer. It got me thinking about what I really want in a partner ten years from now instead of just focusing on my wants for the present. It also got me thinking about whether I really want to be married. Before watching the film, I thought I knew my answer but now I’m more unsure. I don’t consider that a bad thing at all because the picture really challenged the way I saw certain aspects in being a committed relationship. I saw myself in each of the characters so I was invested throughout.
“Up in the Air” is an ambitious film with great writing and heartfelt performances. Even though the film is essentially a comedy (some unfairly label it as a romantic comedy), it really is about the big questions we have about our life, where it was, where it is now and where it is going. It’s not the kind of movie that tries to be quirky just to feel different. In fact, it follows some of the same structured formula of Hollywood filmmaking. But the material is so rich to the point where it didn’t matter. It felt natural so I thought the characters didn’t feel like they were just characters in a movie. When I look back on the movies that came out in 2009, “Up in the Air” is really one of those pictures that really got it right in terms of reflecting real life.
Road Games (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stacy Keach plays a truck driver who likes to play games on the road with his dingo companion in order to eliminate some of the boredom of long drives across Australia. After hearing about a serial killer on the loose who cuts up and disposes bodies all over the place, Keach begins to suspect a man who drives a green vehicle. Since the two stopped in the same area for the night, Keach sees the mysterious potential killer watching the garbage being collected very early in the morning. (As his dog sniffs the garbage bag of interest in an attempt to get food.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the hitchhiker who Keach picks up and who is eventually taken by the killer. I’ve read from other reviews that Richard Franklin, the director, was a very big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan myself, watching this movie was that much more fun for me because I actively looked for certain shots and twists in the story that could reference to Hitchcock’s works. But even if one is not familiar with Hitchcock’s movies, one could still enjoy this psychological thriller because of the suspenseful false alarms and eventual real dangers that the characters had to face. I thought “Roadgames” was very different from other movies about killers on the road (especially American movies of the same set-up). Franklin took the time to establish Keach and Curtis’ characters before really getting into the scares. They talked and formed a genuine connection, so when the two were finally on the killer’s tracks, we couldn’t help but care and wonder whether they really were on the right track and whether or not they would eventually get caught. My favorite scene was when Keach investigated the number of meat in the back of his truck. That scene was done so well because at first I had no idea what he was thinking. But when I finally caught up on why he was so worried, I was so disturbed and I could remember saying out loud that he should get out of the truck as soon as possible. My heart raced so fast because the camera just lingered there as if something was about to go seriously wrong. The scene after that was also very impressive–very Hitchcockian–the way the character got into his own head and trying to persuade himself that everything was alright (which, of course, was not the case). “Roadgames” is now considered a cult classic cat-and-mouse movie and I believe it still holds up today. I wish more people would see this because it did many things that were so unexpected. Instead of simplifying things for the audience, it actually tried to outsmart us which I found to be very refreshing even though it was released back in 1981.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I decided to see this horror-comedy about demonic possession and female sexuality not because of Megan Fox but because it stars Amanda Seyfried (“Mean Girls,” “Mamma Mia!”) and it was written by Diablo Cody (“Juno” and columnist on “Entertainment Weekly”). Seyfried must defend her town from a man-hungry Fox after an emo band (led by Adam Brody) who dabbles with the occult kidnaps her. At the same time, she must deal with her sometimes jealous boyfriend (Johnny Simmons) because he thinks there’s something unhealthy about his girlfriend’s relationship with Jennifer. The set-up is very simple and very clean but the journey to the finish was quite rough and sometimes unconventional (but in a good way). Apart from the whippersnapper and often downright clever and funny dialogue, “Jennifer’s Body” reminded me of the horror movies from the 1980s because it had a certain B-movie quality to it. Not to mention that the climax happened during a school dance. At times, it did surprise me because it offered certain insight regarding the dynamics between best friends; how one needs the other in order to feel better about herself, which begs the question on whether they were truly friends or if they were more like “frenemies.” The movie straddles that line really well so then there was this constant conflict between the two best friends even before Fox was turned into a demon. But the star here is not Fox (or her body), but Seyfried. She was able to be this character who was kind of a loser but a great person at heart, be sensitive and tough all at once. One main concern about this movie is that audiences will simply choose not to see it because they either hate Megan Fox for whatever reason (I think she’s one of the worst actresses in Hollywood right now but that’s not news) or label it as another “Juno” because of the modern pop culture dialogue. It’s really more than that because it’s a horror-comedy with a brain, which is very unlike straight (supposed) horror movies like Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II” or Patrick Lussier’s horrid “My Bloody Valentine.” If I were to throw out one major problem I had with this movie, I say it wasn’t scary enough to truly make classic horror fans to be impressed with it. Nevertheless, I still think “Jennifer’s Body,” directed by Karyn Kusama, is a good popcorn flick that lives up to its first line: Hell is a teenage girl.