Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Happiness,” wrriten and directed by Todd Solondz, is one of the snarkiest dark comedies I’ve seen about a very dysfunctional family and several people connected to them. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) thought she had a perfect life but was completely unaware that her husband (Dylan Baker) was lusting over little boys, Helen (Lara Fylnn Boyle) was a successful author yet she could not find contentment within herself and had to turn to a creepy caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with serious sexual dysfunctions in order to feel better, and Joy (Jane Adams) was a struggling musician/saleswoman/teacher who decided to sleep with one of her foreign students in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, their parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) decided to separate. This film reminded me of a darker version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in terms of the amount of characters it had to put under the spotlight. However, I had more fun with this movie because, while it was not as elegant and subtle in establishing themes, it was quicker and sharper in pointing its fingers at both the audiences and the characters. “Happiness” puts life-in-suburbia movies like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” to shame because it is far less pretentious but funnier because it actively argues that all of the self-denial, sickening realizations, self-hatred were a part of human nature. While it does make fun of those attributes, there were sensitive moments when the characters felt real pain, such as when the father finally admitted to his eleven-year-old son that he molested other children, between the black comedy punchlines. I thought the movie was daring because it was not afraid to push the audiences into watching uncomfortable scenes, slapping us around a bit with tricky verbal masturbation, and making us look and endure through the characters’ decisions–the very same decisions we probably would have chosen ourselves if we were just as desperate and suffocated. Fans of over-the-top social satires will most likely find “Happiness” delectable although I am not quite certain they will be craving for more after two-and-half hours of misery, isolation, and even exploitation. Generally, I have a positive outlook of the world but I love movies that ooze of negative emotions and self-deprecating characters. I’m not sure if most people who share similar outlook will fully enjoy the movie because it is at times difficult to sit through given its many taboo subject matters (there’s also a twisted murder mystery which I wish the picture explored further). However, it cannot be denied that Solondz’ “Happiness” pushed the envelope beyond the laughs and hopelessness.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, “Heathers” was an addictively delicious dark comedy starring Winona Ryder as Veronica, one of the four most popular girls in school (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker–all named Heather), who suddenly began to question her friends’ actions toward the less popular and less accepted. She eventually met the appropriately named J.D. (Christian Slater), a charming rebel who I thought represented Veronica’s id. During their time together, they came up with ways to murder those who made everyone’s life in high school a living hell. What they did not expect was, due to the poignant suicide notes they wrote, the dead teenagers became more popular than ever. My favorite element that defined the film was the laugh-out-loud one-liners. I just couldn’t help but laugh after hearing them because, despite the lines spelling out some gruesome imagery, they sounded natural (especially if they’re being spewed out by mean girls) and we remember them over time because we don’t hear anyone normally talking like the way they did. I admired the writer and director’s audacity to show the stupidities of all students (including our protagonist) and how unprepared/insensitive the faculties were when a student committed suicide. I thought “Heathers” was honest despite its histrionics. In high school, when someone from our school died, we held discussions in classrooms after morning announcements and sometimes acknowledged “the situation” during assemblies. But in the end, only a handful of people genuinely cared while others just couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so they (or we) would be dismissed. Talks of how “sad” the majority of students were about “what happened” was just something we felt we had to do either to pass the time or we felt as if it was the appropriate social response. However, my main problem with “Heathers” was it eventually began to lose focus of the big picture. Doherty’s boldness to eventually capture the newly available throne (even the “Heathers” clique had a hierarchy) was a little too late for me. I would have liked to have seen more scenes of her demonstrating how toxic and vile she could be especially to those who she considered her “friends.” Nevertheless, the movie managed to regain its focus toward the end when our protagonist finally decided to face (but not necessarily correct) her mistakes. I concur when others claim that “Heathers” is one of the best dark comedies about high school. Teen movies that aimed to copy its success could only admire from afar the essence of its vitriolic dialogues and metaphorical imageries.
Dark Habits (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
The Butcher Boy (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.