The Guard (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a man was found dead in an apartment, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), along with McBride (Rory Keenan), a cop from Dublin on his first day of work in the small town, was called in to investigate. Boyle surmised that the murder involved the occult due to the mysterious number painted onto the wall next to the body and a pot placed between the man’s groin. Meanwhile, an FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) was brought in from the United States to stop crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) from intercepting five hundred million dollars worth of cocaine. Inevitably, the two crimes were related so Boycle and Everett were forced to work with each other despite a very offensive and awkward first impression. Written and directed by John Michael McDonah, “The Guard” was uproariously funny mainly because of Boyle’s foul mouth. He was unable to keep his thoughts in his brain as long as he felt he had something to say. His racist remarks were very offensive, like publicly saying that he thought criminals only consisted of black people, but since he lived his entire life in a relatively isolated town in Ireland, he wasn’t even aware of his indiscretions. Yet his ignorance was no excuse. From the way the comedy was executed, we laughed at him because he didn’t know any better, not because his claims necessarily had merit. On the other hand, Everett was the humorless straight man who just wanted to get the job done. He was professional, charming, and patient but such qualities were tested whenever Boyle was around. Imagine being forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you need that person to achieve the same goal. As the Irishman and the American engaged in verbal sparring over drinks, the criminals almost did all the work so that they would eventually get caught. Because of this, the picture adopted an unconventional pace. We knew that the criminals’ and cops’ paths would eventually cross. Interestingly, it was actually the criminals who found Boyle first instead of the other way around. What I liked was the fact that the crooks weren’t just bad. They were bad and very funny. The small surprises made a lasting impact without coming off as forced. The film was also effective when the unlikely duo was apart. While Boyle’s interactions with the little boy (Michael Og Lane) with a pink bike and dog was rather whimsical, the scenes with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who lived in a care home, were funny and at times heartbreaking. The time they spent together showed us where Boyle got his fiery personality from and his overall capacity to do good. Just because he had a proclivity for spitting out racial slurs, it didn’t mean that he was incapable of being good person and a good son. What “The Guard” needed to be truly incendiary were more scenes of uncomfortable tension. When one of the cops accidentally encountered the bad guys, the camera remained a few feet away. The lens should have been up close to the cop’s face because he knew as well as we did that there was no possibility that the crooks would let him walk away alive. They had half a billion dollars to lose. Many men kill for much less.
Get Him to the Greek (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) was a rock star at the peak of his career but the negative reviews of his most recent album called “African Child,” labeled as offensive and racist, forced him to retreat from the spotlight. Enter Aaron (Jonah Hill), an intern for a major record company, when he was assigned by his boss, the tough Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), to take Aldous from England and accompany him to the Los Angeles Greek Theatre for a comeback concert. This proved to be a difficult task because Aldous loved to party, do drugs, and deviate from the original plan. “Get Him to the Greek,” directed by Nicholas Stoller, was hilarious during its first thirty minutes. Celebrity cameos seemed to come from everywhere; I liked it best when I didn’t know what hit me and I was forced to think, “Did that just really happen?” Unfortunately, the rest of the picture failed to measure up. Although there was mayhem left and right, the chaos wasn’t interesting because it had the same type of humor all the way to the finish line. I didn’t mind that it was raunchy. I laughed at some scenes like when Aaron felt forced to become a drug mule at the airport. I understood that it wanted to poke fun of stars like Britney Spears with their intense relationship with the media and their fans. It also wanted to make fun of us for liking bad pop music reflected by Aldous’ ridiculous song lyrics. Eventually, I realized there was something missing. The picture had to draw a line between fun and serious issues. It had the capacity to change things up as Aaron was forced to be in increasingly uncompromising situations. A person recently plucked from an ordinary life, despite the glamour of the world of celebrity, would eventually question whether it was ethically and morally right for him to enable an artist struggling with an addiction. Toward the end, it attempted to tackle the issue but it felt forced because the journey that Aldous and Aaron took together wasn’t particularly meaningful. They shared some drugs and they eventually learned (or thought they learned) to be comfortable with each other to the point where they agreed to a threesome, but there was not one conversation when they connected as equals. It was always about Aaron catering to Aldous’ fragile ego and that wasn’t friendship. It didn’t even work as a story about a fan and the person he looked up to because moments after Aaron met Aldous, he was perfectly aware that the Aldous in his records didn’t reflect reality. He came to terms with it right away. “Get Him to the Greek” would have been a stronger film without the redemption arc involving the rock star supposedly overcoming his addiction. Because when it tried to be sensitive, it just didn’t feel genuine.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.
Love and Other Drugs (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charming sales representative Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) was fired from his job because his manager caught him having sex with a woman, who happened to be the manager’s girlfriend, at their work place. Belonging in a family with connections, Jamie didn’t stay unemployed for long. Jamie’s brother (Josh Gad) almost immediately snagged him a job as a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer. While Jamie was busy handing out drug samples to various clinics, he met Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a woman inflicted with Parkinson’s disease. At first, it seemed like what Jamie and Maggie had was like any other one-night stand both of them were accustomed to. Eventually, they had to face the fact that maybe their relationship was heading somewhere deeper than they had expected. Based on a book by Jamie Reidy and directed by Edward Zwick, “Love and Other Drugs” was borderline unlikable because I almost found it pretentious yet eager to please. Let’s take the scenes that involved nudity. First and foremost, it felt nothing but a gimmick to attract younger people to go see the movie. The movie showed breasts and buttocks. Everything else was strategically hidden either by another body part or a nicely placed camera angle. It was distracting. Instead of being in the moment, I ended up thinking about its techniques’ false progressiveness. I have no problem with nudity, so if the filmmakers were to have a dozen scenes that ranged from meaningless sex to making love, they should be fearless in going all the way and leaving commercial reservations out the door. Instead, there was an awkward feel to the film. I had a feeling that it wanted to be a mix of an art house drama and a very commercial romantic comedy and it was neither. To a lesser degree, there were some scenes that I thought needed to be reshot because there were times when the acting felt disingenuous, especially by Hathaway. I’m not sure if she felt uncomfortable or she was just trying too hard. Either way, it didn’t feel natural. But the picture had bright spots. I appreciated the smaller and quieter moments like when Maggie asked Jamie to name four positive things about him. He couldn’t do it and there was a sadness that permeated from the screen. Some people just don’t know what they offer the world and that’s unfortunate. Another standout was when the film showed us how Maggie was really like without the drugs that masked her condition. It was a true turning point for the two lovers. “Love and Other Drugs” was like all pills: It had positive qualities but it also had pesky side effects. If it had trimmed its running time by getting rid of most scenes that involved the annoying brother and Jamie sweet-talking his way into women’s panties (we get it–he’s a stud), its heart would have been more defined.
★★ / ★★★★
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was a struggling writer in New York. He claimed he had ideas for his book but he was at a loss on how to put them together. He spent most of his days staring at the computer and accomplishing nothing. But his luck turned for the better when he ran into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon, a former drug dealer, handed Eddie a pill called an NZT48 which allowed the person to use his brain in full capacity. Eddie finished his book in no time but that wasn’t enough. He realized he needed more of the magic pills so he could earn enough money and be set for life. “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields,” was an entertaining fantasy for about half of its running time. It posed interesting questions about what one man would do if he was given the chance to become the smartest man on the planet. Naturally, finding a cure for diseases like AIDS or finding a solution for world hunger was not one of his priorities. Instead, he decided to borrow money from a thug (Andrew Howard) and forgot to pay him back, got involved with a cunning businessman (Robert De Niro) who was willing to go great lengths to remain at the top of the food chain, and win back the girl who dumped him when he was at his worst. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as the drug led him to believe. While the picture remained energetic throughout, I noticed that half-way through, I began to think about the technicalities involving the drug in question. For instance, what chemical compounds was it made of? Eddie recruited a scientist to make more of the pills and I got the impression that it was relatively simple to make. And given that the drug was able to bind to more receptors in the brain, how was the body able to compensate for the overdrive given that Eddie was consuming the pills like Nerds candy? In the least, I expected him to eat more because the brain needs glucose to function. I understood that it was supposed to be science fiction. However, I wouldn’t have focused on the technicalities if the filmmakers had chosen to stray from the formula they’ve grown accustomed to. Every time Eddie took the drug, the scenery looked happier and brighter. The soundtrack was more upbeat. The temporary happiness was countered by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who stalked Eddie. The same set-up was used about five or six times. It was tiresome, lazy, and, most importantly, it didn’t always move the story forward. Characters like the mysterious man and the murdered woman in the hotel were left on the sideline. A handful of questions were left unanswered. The film lightly tackled some of the repercussions of addiction but it ultimately glorified it. On one hand, I thought it was refreshing. Admittedly, when our protagonist was on a high, I laughed at the ridiculous things that happened to him. On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face of real people struggling with drug addiction. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale but it lacked the gray areas of ethics and morality.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A seventeen-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) had to take care of her younger brother and sister (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) because their mother had reached a mental breakdown and therefore could not take care of them. Their situation turned for the worse when their father, who recently spent time in prison for making illicit drugs, skipped bail and put their house as collateral. With nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, the eldest child started asking her relatives about the whereabouts of the father but no one was willing to come forward and divulge information. When you live in a metropolitan area in America, it is easy to forget people like Ree and her family who had to cope with extreme poverty. As heartbreaking to see the children suffering from not having enough food day in and day out, I admired that the film did not rely on pity to tell a compelling story. The material had a defined understanding behind the meaning of this family’s specific circumstance. Ree was probably one of the bravest film characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. I immediately rooted for her because of the way she, if necessary, put herself in harm’s way so that she would be able to continue the already difficult task of raising a family. She was smart, resourceful, and determined but those were not positive attributes from the perspective of a community that used drugs to make a living. Even though the many families in question had a strict code of silence that prevented Ree from arriving at certain truths, I did not hate them because I knew that they had to look out for their own survival as well. Like Ree, they, too, had families. Two key supporting characters were the intimidating uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes) and an older but strong woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). The most touching moments were the simple ones. When Ree interacted with her brother and sister, such as teaching them how to shoot a gun or how to skin a squirrel, there was so much love even though their living conditions were far less than ideal. The kids looked up to her and they should because their big sister constantly tried to set a great example. One of the most memorable scenes was when Ree tried to enlist in the army. Lawrence did a fantastic performance especially in that scene because I felt beyond her pain and desperation. I also felt her fear of getting into something that she was not quite sure was truly about. Written and directed by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” painted a memorable portrait of people living in rural America. It showed that sometimes the smart decision is not necessarily the right one.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” was about a cop (Keanu Reeves) who was assigned to spy on his group of friends in order to capture a guy named Bob Arctor. But it turned out that the main character and the man that the cops were interested in was the same person; Bob, like many people, was addicted to a drug called Substance D which supposedly induced multiple personality disorder. Directed by Richard Linklater, “A Scanner Darkly” is one of those movies that is full of promise but it gets in the way of itself because too many questions were asked but very few (if any) were answered in a clear way so I couldn’t help but feel cheated. For instance, I was curious about the real underlying effects of the drug in question. Some addicts experienced hallucinations such as bugs taking over their bodies, others experienced drunken stupor, while some were always on the verge of euphoria. It then begs the question whether the drugs’ effects were somehow connected to our personalities. I wanted to know more about the science and the effects of the drug in the brain. There were scenes that tackled the drug’s effects on the brain (I liked how it related the whole phenomenon to split-brain patients) but they were superficial at best. Maybe it wasn’t that shocking to me because I’ve seen split-brain experiments in real life. I didn’t care much about the friends (one of which was played by Robert Downey Jr.) acting stupid and asking “insightful” questions that led nowhere. The scenes with the friends made me feel like the movie was way into itself; instead of trying to pull me in, it made me question whether the story was really going anywhere. I do have to say that the animation was enjoyable because it added an extra dimension to the project. Everyone pretty much led their lives half-awake so that lucid tone made me feel like I was one of them. I liked that the animation was there to highlight certain facial expressions and quirks to convey certain truths behind the dialogue so it didn’t feel much like a gimmick. I thought the animation worked especially well in scenes where characters experienced hallucinations. Nevertheless, I wish the movie spent more of its time in engaging us instead of teasing us with its vast ideas. It was borderline pretentious. I felt like there was a disconnect (when it should have been clearly connected) in exploring the relationship between the drug world/addicts and the very same people who wanted to eliminate the drug off the streets. The main character embodied both worlds but the way the story unfolded left me hanging, somewhat confused, and frustrated. It’s definitely a different movie experience but I think it makes a good double-feature with Linklater’s other film “Waking Life.”
★★★ / ★★★★
What I loved about this film the most was its structured storytelling, yet it still felt organic because each of the character involved was like a mouse trying to find the way out of a maze. Steven Soderbergh, the director, presented three main fronts: Michael Douglas as a judge who became a recent leader against drugs in America, unaware of the fact that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is becoming an addict (with Topher Grace as the friend/boyfriend); Benicio Del Toro as a cop trying to catch cocaine shipments in the Mexican border, only to realize later the thin line between an ally and an enemy; and Catharine Zeta-Jones as a housewife who must make a decision on whether or not to aid her recently arrested husband for distributing drugs under the eyes of two cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) who keep following her everywhere. Each of those vignettes were equally interesting so I was excited whenever the picture would jump from one to another. I also noticed Soderbergh’s excellent use of warm and cool colors. At first I thought whenever the cool colors appeared, it meant that we were seeing the story from a good guys’ perspective and the warm colors meant from the bad guys’. But I was proven wrong just as quickly that it wasn’t that simple because, whenever it came to drugs, the good guys must confront their inner demons and choose the difficult choices over the right choices. The moral implications of each characters’ decisions kept piling up to the point where I was somewhat overwhelmed (in a good way) and it was hard for me to root for anyone for that matter. There’s a sense of realism about these characters and I was impressed because most pictures I’ve seen about drugs themselves or the war on drugs mostly involve crooked cops and gun-wielding, savvy-talking gangsters. In here, Soderbergh let his characters be actual people and there was a certain unpredictability to it. I think with another viewing in the future, I’ll come to love this film that much more. Although there may have been some things that I didn’t understand, such as some of the legal concepts and the intricacies among the hierarchy of drug bosses and henchmen, I can admit that this was a rich, extremely layered picture worth viewing at least once.