Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
Crazy Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb and directed by Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart” told the story of a 57-year-old musician named Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) who traveled from one small town to another to perform songs that people loved back when he was in his prime. Completely trapped in the habit of smoking and alcohol, he slowly began to change his ways after meeting a charming music writer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son. Bad Blake also had to deal with stepping out of the shadow cast by an artist he used to mentor (Colin Farrell), reconnecting with his 28-year-old son and writing new songs so he could stop living from paycheck to paycheck. The thing I liked most about this movie was its simplicity even though it was a double-edged sword. Between scenes with other actors, we got to see Bridges perform with his guitar and bare his soul. While the songs were definitely easy to listen to (and I’m not much of a country fan), I felt that it was meaningful to Bridges’ character because he had a look in his eye that he actually lived through the events that he was singing about. So I thought Bridges did a great job serving as an intermediate between the songs and the character’s life experiences. However, I wished that the film had spent less time building on the romance between Bridges and Gyllenhaal because I felt as though the whole thing became redundant (and sometimes forced). I understood that Gyllenhaal’s character was the key to Bad Blake’s redemption into getting his life back on track but some of the courtship rituals, though it tried to be not as typical as Hollywood movies, still felt typical in an independent movie sort of way. Instead, I felt like the movie would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Bridges and Farrell because they shared a common history. It would have been nice if Farrell’s character had talked about how his mentor was like before becoming a faded musician. When those two interacted with each other, I felt real tension between them; I felt a strange mix of anger, jealousy and respect between the two which culminated when they shared the stage in front of 12,000 people. As I mentioned before, “Crazy Heart” is a simple film so it’s understandable why most people won’t initially recognize why it’s essentially a good film. Yes, it was sometimes predictable because we’ve all seen movies about washed-up musicians before. However, at least for me, with a movie like this, it’s all about the acting and I believe it ultimately all came together because I made a connection with the lead protagonist.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.
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.
Rois et reine (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rois et reine” or “Kings and Queen” tells the story of a man and a woman who were going through their own problems in life. Initially, the two camps seemed to be unconnected because of their predominantly disparate tones–one comedic and one tragic. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who lives with her third husband-to-be, visited her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and father (Maurice Garrel). After Nora’s father confessed to her that he has been having some stomach problems, she took him to the hospital and found out that he was terminally ill. This caused a great interruption on the life she desperately wanted to believe was going great because she now had to deal with where to put her son because he and the third husband do not get along. She also had to deal with her sister who only used their father for money and what the father really thought of Nora. On the other hand, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) was sent back to the mental hospital against his will. In there, he found amusing ways to cope such as finding romance and discussing his psychology with a psychiatrist. Although this film was about a many things at once, it impressed me because in a span of about two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to balance comedy and drama throughout. What’s more impressive was Arnaud Desplechin’s, the director, ability to cut to one genre to another when things began to feel suffocating. So, in a way, it worked as two different but good films but the connections that the two had made it that much more enjoyable. Just when I thought everything was going to wrap up in a neat little package when Devos and Amalric finally had a scene together, more problems began to appear because two had a history. Many questions were then brought up such as when one’s responsibility should end when a relationship has been mutually agreed upon as over, whether the mother is doing the right thing by indirectly choosing her third husband over her only child, and the pros and cons of keeping a certain knowledge a secret when the burden is too much to bear. There was a certain organic feel in the film which made me believe that the events portrayed could have happened in real life. I thought one of the strongest scenes in the movie was its ending–the conversation between Amalric and Lelong–because it remained true to itself: with every negative comes a positive (and vice-versa). “Rois et reine” is the perfect film for those who love character studies of individuals who have many imperfections but still have certain reedeming qualities.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, out of the “Three Colors” trilogy (“Blue,” “White” and “Red”–colors of the French flag that mean liberty, equality and fraternity, respectively), I believe this one is the strongest. Right from the very start, the thesis regarding strange connections between people who want some sort of communication, meaningful or not, with another person is established. I was blown away by Irène Jacob’s performance as a model who one day runs over a dog that belongs to a retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Although at first the two seem to have nothing in common, the more time they spend together, the more they realize that they probably belong to each other despite their significant age difference. Jacob was the star here and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was even more mesmerized by her whenever her photos are being taken by a photographer or whenever she was walking on the runway. There was an air of sadness (with a little bit of strength underneath it all) about her that I really wanted to explore. I also was at awe when it comes to Kieslowski’s use of color. The color red was all over this film yet each one signifies a different feeling or symbolism. Combined with its excellent use of pacing, I felt like I was in a dream where everyone and everything has a purpose. Lastly, I have to mention the final scene when all the three leads (and some side characters) from the whole trilogy appeared. It gave me serious goosebumps because I got to know each of those characters prior to this installment. It was weird seeing them again after thinking that their stories were over when the credits rolled in their respective installment. That scene and the few scenes before it are able to say something meaningful about destiny to the point where I looked at each of the characters from “Red” in a completely different light. Kieslowski’s craft just blew me away and I have absolutely nothing negative about this picture. What a perfect way to end an ambitious project.