Dear John (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) met over Spring Break and it was love at first sight. Savannah had dreams of opening her own summer camp one day, while John was a soldier who felt like the battlefield was more like his home. In the early stages of their relationship, they promised to write letters to each other and tell each other everything. But over the years, their love for one another (at least from a romantic angle) dissipated because of distance and circumstances. Or maybe they just matured emotionally. I didn’t read Nicholas Sparks’ novel from which the picture was based on but I think the movie was strong as a stand alone. I understand why people (especially fans of the novel) didn’t like the picture either because it didn’t remain loyal enough to its source or they expected that they were in for a typical romantic movie but it turned out to be a depressing journey. But that’s what I liked about it–it still had elements of sappy romance but it was very sad in its core because the characters made certain decisions which they could never take back. I’ve forgotten that Seyfried was the hilariously clueless girl from “Mean Girls” and Tatum was an actor I didn’t particularly care for. I was invested in their characters and by the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen next. I loved watching the characters change over the years and I believed every major change that happened in their lives. Savannah changed from an idealistic young woman seemingly ready to tackle the world to someone who became sort of defeated and almost closed down. Even though we didn’t see her go through difficult times in her life, the way Seyfried played her character made it unnecessary. Meanwhile, John changed from somebody who would rather surf and not talk to anybody (basically, your stereotypical stoic man) to making a real effort in connecting with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins). Although I didn’t care much about the scenes in the army, there were real touching moments especially when John explained to Savannah, through handwritten letters, why he was like a coin and why his relationship with his father was so strained. Fans of movies like “The Notebook” will most likely be disappointed because “Dear John” is not as romantic. In a way, “Dear John” is more of a story of friendship than a story of lovers. I enjoyed “Dear John” because it was so different from what I expected and it had an honesty that made it feel like I was watching a relationship based on something that could potentially happen in real life.
★ / ★★★★
“Lymelife” is about teenagers and adults in suburbia and their differing levels of unhappiness. I failed to enjoy this movie because I couldn’t find a connection with any of the characters. All of them were very damaged in some way and the tone was too depressing for its own good. There was not one well-adjusted character that could provide some sort of relief from all the drama and depression that the other characters were going through. Like typical melancholy stories about suburbia, everyone here was interconnected in some way. Alec Baldwin was cheating on his wife (Jill Hennessey) with Cynthia Nixon. Nixon’s husband (Timothy Hutton) was diagnosed with Lyme disease but was not unaware of the cheating that was going on. As for the young adults, Rory Culkin, Hennessy’s son, was in love with Emma Roberts, Nixon’s daughter, but the feeling was one-sided. Things got even more complicated when Kieran Culkin returned home from the army. I thought this movie was lazy when it came trying to figure out who the characters really were in their core. They were often one-dimensional which frustrated me so much because I felt like the actors could have done better with a stronger storytelling and script. I felt like the whole theme about hiding intentions was simply a set-up for the big argument near the end of the film with a lot of cussing and screaming. It really left a bitter taste in my mouth and in the end, I thought maybe all of the characters deserved to suffer because they were so afraid to break free from their own chains. There was one character I almost rooted for, which was Kieran Culkin’s, because even though he was abrasive and had a tortured soul, there was a certain self-restraint in his actions (especially in his key interactions with Baldwin) which suggested that he was not afraid to take control and avoid actions that might not have been worth it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the picture much. Writer and director Derick Martini should have added some sort of light on the journey toward leaving a dark period in these characters lives. Without that small glimmer of light, I often wonder why I’m watching something, which is almost always not a good thing because it means I’m not buying the situations being presented on screen. Some people might enjoy “Lymelife” if they find some sort of connection with the characters. Unfortunately for me, despite how long I waited, it never happened.
The Informers (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Set in the early 1980’s Los Angeles, “The Informers” based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, was about the emptiness of multiple characters who would rather try to escape their problems in hopes that they would eventually go away rather than tackling them head-on. Although there were five to six storylines, only about two or three worked for me. I wished that Gregor Jordan, the director, instead focused his energy on those three and really explored why the characters chose to make certain decisions. Kim Basinger, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke and Winona Ryder are the big names who I thought would elevate this picture. However, their storylines were so uninteresting, they might as well not have appeared in it. What did work for me was Jon Foster as a rich twentysomething who seemingly had it all but he chose not to use his priviledges to his advantage. Instead, he decided to deal drugs and hang out with people who really did not care about him–people who only cared about drugs, sex and living the luxurious life. I was really engaged with his scenes because little by little he realized that he was just being used, especially how his girlfriend didn’t care about him as much as he cared for her. I also liked the dynamics between Foster and his sister and how they felt about their parents’ (Basinger and Thorton) decision to move in together after they’ve been separated. Unfortunately, that bit was very underdeveloped. Lastly, I thought the scenes in Hawaii with Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci–father and son, respectively–was pretty well-done. It was somewhat humorous to me because it was a classic desparate father-son bonding where everything pretty much went wrong. But it could also be seen through a dramatic lens because the son hid this true hatred toward his father since the father only cared about himself. I really believe that critical adjustments such as a different director, sharper and bolder writing, eliminating storylines and expanding others (like the rising unknown disease now known as AIDS), this movie could have become a totally worthwhile experience. After all, the material was based on the works of a writer a really enjoyed such as “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction.” “The Informers” could have provided insight on how it was like to live life without any sort of internal locus on control and how that manner of living could drive us to the ultimate levels of boredom, unsatisfaction, and madness.
Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Gaël Morel, “Three Dancing Slaves” was about three brothers who tried to cope from the death of their mother. The story started off with the middle child (Nicolas Cazalé) who got caught up with drugs and thugs who want their money. They wanted payback in the most cruel way possible. Also, his ever-growing lack of respect toward his father began to shake the foundation of the family. The middle portion of the picture was about the eldest son (Stéphane Rideau) who recently got out of prison. Unlike the middle child, he was done with partying and hanging out. He actually wanted to turn his life around so he could serve as a model for his brothers and ultimately be proud of himself. Last but not least was the youngest son (Thomas Dumerchez) who tried to keep his secret hidden. He seemed tough at first glance with all his tattoos but he actually turned out to be one of the most sensitive characters. I’ve read a number of critiques about this film and a lot of them mentioned its potential but it didn’t quite deliver. I disagree; I think it did deliver by showing us what each of three characters were going through at specific periods of time. In a nutshell, this was another one of those slice-of-life pictures that most people find difficult to get into because its seemingly lack of strong consistent storyline. It worked for me because it had an emotional core: the death of the mother and how the three brothers responded to it. They may have had other things going on in their lives but it never lost track of that center. I also liked that the tone changed whenever it switched its focus from one brother to the next. The first one felt enigmatic and dangerous, the second felt both depressing and hopeful, and the third felt sensitive and reflective. And justifiably so, the respective tones matched each of the brothers’ dominating personalities. I just wished that the third act could’ve been explored more because it was the shortest. I’m giving this film a strong recommendation because I was interested in it from start to finish. I thought the direction was insightful and I was happy that not everything was spelled out for the audiences.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to give Michelle Williams kudos for starring in this really small, bare bones of a film. Her performance is so visceral and she fully embodies the ever-growing desperation that her character is going through. “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, tells the story of Wendy and her dog Lucy as the two try to go to Alaska so that Wendy can earn her money at a fish cannery. Things do not go quite as they had planned because Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, gets arrested for shoplifting dog food (she only had about $525 which was barely enough), and Lucy is nowhere to be seen when Wendy finally gets out of jail (Wendy left her dog tied to a rail in front of the store where she shoplifted). When Williams started looking for that dog, I felt like I was watching a mother trying to look for her child. It was really sad because things get from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and the hope of Wendy finding the dog grows dimmer and dimmer. Even though I really identified with Wendy’s situation, at some point I thought about just leaving the dog and going on ahead to Alaska. As cruel as that sounds, I think it’s justified because Wendy keeps spending money as she tries to keep looking for the dog. I get that Lucy is her only companion but, at least for me, the practical thing to do is to stop looking for the dog. Williams has come a long way since I’ve seen her first in “Dawson’s Creek” because she really uses her acting chops to carry this picture from beginning to end. I also have to give Reichardt credit for showing us a side of America where it’s not so glamorous. In fact, the places featured in this movie are downright depressing. Although the movie is about Wendy and Lucy’s friendship, sometimes I tried to pay attention to people on the background; some of them look like they’re sleepwalking through life. I find that particularly accurate because, though I didn’t grow up in a small town like the one in this movie, the area I grew up in was small enough to notice those kinds of people. Casual moviegoers may not like this film right off the bat or superficially consider it as “sad.” But film lovers should be able to look at it more closely and analytically and realize that it comes close to becoming something really special.
City of Ember (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of film that would’ve benefited if it had a longer running time and a bit less family-friendly so it could explore its darker undertones. Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway star as Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, respectively, who try to find a way out of Ember, a city illuminated by artificial light. After two hundred years, the generator was beginning to fail so the two must find a way out or everyone in Ember will perish in darkness. Although the premise sounds adventurous, I don’t think Jeanne Duprau’s book was fully realized on screen. I felt like Gil Kenan, the director, held back a lot of the time in order for younger kids to enjoy the film as much as the adults. As a result, we get a motion that looks grimy, menacing and depressing but when one takes a look at the big picture, it’s ultimately safe and empty. Although I did like the partnership between Ronan and Treadaway, it’s hard for me to like the movie as a whole because it doesn’t have much heart since it’s afraid to take risks when it comes to tackling certain emotions. Even the presence of Bill Murray (as the corrupt mayor) and Tim Robbins (as Doon’s father) did not make up for the movie’s shortcomings. I felt like there were a lot of details in the book about these two characters that didn’t quite make it or translate on film. With a longer running time, I felt like the two characters would’ve been established stronger, such as their motivations and their roles when it comes to knowing (or not knowing) information about Ember. Overall, this is a disjointed fantasy adventure that could’ve been so much better if more details were incorporated from the book. This is a prime example of a money-driven movie studio having more influence in the project than people (such as the book’s author) who actually care about the story being accurately executed from the primary source.
No Regret (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hee-il Leesong, the first openly gay director in South Korea who leads a gay-themed film, is someone to watch out for. “No Regret” is about a recently-turned-eighteen orphan (Young-hoon Lee) who leaves the orphanage and heads to Seoul to find a job. Unable to balance school and several low-paying jobs, he decides to work as a male prostitute with the hope of earning enough money to go back to school. The main character meets a rich upcoming businessman (Han Lee) several times including the strip club where he works. Eventually, after a plethora of inner and outer conflicts between the two, they finally fall for each other. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. What I love about this picture is that it didn’t glamorize male prostitution. It managed to paint a picture that people who are involved in such underground jobs are miserable and messed up yet still have human longings that are almost never achieved. They keep telling themselves, “If I earn enough money, I’ll get out of this place and lead a better life” but insecurities of not being good enough for “normal” society soon take over and they get stuck from moving on. Young-hoon Lee impressed me because he can brood really well. When he cried (and he did several times), I felt the sting of his depression and desperation. The moment when I could identify with him the most was when he expressed his insecurities to his lover; mainly that he’s poor and not well-educated. To me, that explains why he initially did not want to get in a relationship with Han Lee’s character. The lead character’s lover is rich, educated and has several options with his life. When they finally get into a relationship, that jealousy never really goes away and it sucks them into a negative spiral. I also thought that the lead character feels guilty for taking away his lover’s opportunities just to be with him. That negative spiral is then aided by Han Lee’s family because they want him to marry a girl despite finding out that their son is a homosexual. The complexity of the situations and morals of these characters are well-integrated in the script so I enjoyed watching the story unfold. However, my biggest problem is the film’s last twenty minutes. The events that transpired were so out of character, I thought the whole sequence was a dream (or a nightmare?). Though the ending did make me laugh in some sick, twisted way (one either loves it or hates it, I suppose), I feel like it could’ve ended better. I felt like the moral implications that pervaded the rest of the film were thrown out the window and, I must admit, I felt a little cheated. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a recommendation because the acting, script, and story are commendable. I’m looking forward to Hee-il Leesong’s next film because he proved to me that he is very capable of telling stories that are both rewarding and unpredictable.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie left me emotionally drained because I was able to feel a whirlwind of emotions as it unfolded. At first it was about Andrew Bagby’s murder in the hands of the psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner but then it changes gears twenty minutes later. It then begins to document the struggles that David Bagby and Kathleen Bagby went through in order to take care (and gain custody) of Zachary Bagby, Andrew and Shirley’s son, while at the same time trusting the law to do its job by putting Shirley away for the overwhelming evidence of pre-meditated murder. As the film went on, the rug was pulled from my feet once again and the documentary-family portrait becomes something so much more profound and heartbreaking. I can see how some people could point out and claim that the film is a bit amateurish and shouldn’t be trusted fully because it comes from a close friend of the Bagbys. But considering the many years of custody battles and emotional rollercoasters, I thought the way Kurt Kuenne, the director, told the story was very personal (and sometimes too personal; there were some interviews that made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching or hearing what they’ve got to say) and the amateurish production reflected that. It’s also effecient because I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, the audiences get to learn something new and reevaluate the things that were explored prior to that point. As for the criticism regarding its lack of objectivity, being fair is not the film’s purpose at all. Its purpose is to show how much the Bagbys are loved and Canadian government’s inaction regarding a woman who they claim to be “not a danger to society.” Although I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a friend in the hands of another, I found it easy to relate to the people in this documentary via imagining myself in their situation. Those scenes when David and Kathleen were willing face the murderer of their son just so that they could spend time with their grandson really got to me. I honestly don’t know how they got through it or if I could ever go through it if something similar happens to me. I thought this film was impressive in many respects and it reminded me of the revelatory “Capturing the Friedmans.”
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.
Hallam Foe (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the get-go, the film establishes that the protagonist (Jamie Bell) is a strange but very sad character because he doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s death. He acts out by spying on people, breaking into people’s homes and going through their things, all the while jotting down what he has seen, felt, and done after such actions. He also happens to believe that his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary, killed his mother. That first part of the film was compelling because Bell was able to make the audience feel for him even though the things he does are creepy and borderline criminal. I found it difficult to blame the protagonist because not only is he really young and not aware of the consequences of his actions, I could tell that he really did love his mother… or maybe he loved her too much to the point of utter dependence. Taking that important parent figure from his life at such a young age damaged him emotionally and psychologically so I found his flaws to be reasonable if not relatable. The second part of the picture when Bell moved to the city and met a look-alike of his mother (Sophia Myles) was a bit less compelling because there were so many distractions that slowed the plot down (the scenes during his job which was supposed to serve as an escape, his nightly adventures in the streets, et cetera) .The only thing about the second act that I found to work in all levels was his sexual attraction to his look-alike mother (and how he stalked her at first). It says a lot about his desperation and the lack of closure regarding his mother’s death. The last act when Bell returns home was jawdropping and heartbreaking at the same time. By the end of the film, I felt like the main character grew so much despite still being a bit flawed and fragile. The story doesn’t tie everything up regarding the characters’ lives but offers hope that there’s a light at the end of the interminable tunnel of bleakness and confusion. This film provides an interesting character study and I only recommend it to those that are interested in how a character evolves over time.