★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
Switch, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) decided she was going to have a kid even though she had not yet found the man of her dreams. She told Wally (Jason Bateman), her best friend, her plans but he thought it was crazy idea. She went with it anyway and found a guy named Roland (Patrick Wilson) who was willing to donate his sperm for money. During Kassie’s artificial insemination party, drunk Wally accidentally spilled Roland’s sperm down the sink. His intoxicated mind thought he could get away with it by replacing the lost sample with his own. The next day, he didn’t remember a thing. “The Switch,” based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story called “Baster,” was a bit of a surprise because it had a surprising amount of humanity. It could easily have been about the gags–like sperm and the hardship of being pregnant and giving birth–but it made a smart decision to pay attention to the characters’ motivations. Even though some of the lines delivered felt disingenuous, especially when the characters felt like they needed to deliver a speech in order to get their point across, I enjoyed it because I extracted bits of meaning, accidental as they may be, in their attempt. Aniston and Bateman had an awkward chemistry that worked. I thought that specific type of chemistry was vital because their characters conceived a child named Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) who was adorable, equipped with sad eyes, pouty lips, and eccentricities like collecting picture frames and putting strangers’ photos in them. The movie did a good job highlighting the similarities between Wally and Sebastian, but I wish it had spent more time exploring the bond between the mother and son. I wanted to see their similarities, too. After all, it was Kassie’s idea to bring a child to the world. Her trepidation of her dwindling biological clock was not a good enough reason for me to like her. With her specific circumstance, what made her a good mother? She was good with her son when he had to go to bed, but the feminist message embedded in making the decision to raise a child without a man was somewhat lost. Nevertheless, the emotional payoff toward the end was effective because we knew that Sebastian had learned, without being too obvious, to depend on his father and vice-versa. I also wished Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, Wally and Kassie’s best friends, respectively, had more scenes. They delivered a different sense of humor, Goldblum with his dry and deadpan delivery and Lewis with her baffled expressions and snide remarks, which was a nice balance to more pedestrian comical situations. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, “The Switch” was a bona fide comedy that lacked complexity but it wasn’t one-dimensional. It was enjoyable because our expectations were met and sometimes that’s more than enough.
Whatever Works (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Boris (Larry David) was a cynical man. He was smart but he was lightyears from charming. He was a man without a filter; he took great pride in pointing out the phenomenal idiocy of mankind like their belief in the man in the sky, pretentious art, and the travesty we call modern culture. Nothing surprised him. Beating kids at chess and teasing them about him gave him pleasure. But his eccentric nature hit a detour when he met a Southern girl named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). It was her first week in New York City so she had nowhere to go. To our surprise, he allowed her to stay in his apartment until she found a job. Despite what he considered to be her utter lack of intelligence, often calling her an “inchworm,” he began to like her the more they spent time with each other. Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” consisted of some good performances but it failed to resonate with me emotionally due to its lack of focus on the lead character. I enjoyed the film when it was only Boris and Melody in one room. It was like watching a man with anger issues fire in a shooting range: Boris was the shooter and Melody was the target. As Boris complained about humanity and the like, Melody just absorbed each verbal bullet. I loved her because she was sunny and words didn’t get her down like most people. She knew that Boris’ verbal diarrhea was therapeutic for him and, for her, it was an opportunity to learn something different, something so far from the beliefs she was raised in. They were good for each other even if it was just for a while. But when Melody’s mother (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), Marietta, knocked on their door, it was a downhill race to the finish line because the story was no longer about Boris and his wild temperament. It became about Marietta’s evolution as an artist, her ménage à trois with our protagonist’s friends, and her desperate attempt to pluck her daughter out of Boris’ life and set her up with an actor named Randy (Henry Cavill). Another unnecessary piece of the puzzle was John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody’s father, and his mission to win back Marietta’s heart. Boris hated clichés and this film ended up exactly that. I kept waiting for the director to pull something different out of the bag but he didn’t. Excitement came as far as Boris talking directly to the camera to acknowledge his audience, to discuss the concepts of entropy and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Only about a quarter of the material was funny. The rest of the time I spent wondering why Boris was constantly yelling. We didn’t know much about his background, other than he was once considered to be awarded a Nobel Prize, so why was he such an angry, hypochondriac misfit who saw himself as better than everyone else? “Whatever Works” was an appropriate title because it was mishmash of third-rate material from Allen’s other projects.
Get Low (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
A reclusive man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) retreated into the Tennessee woods forty years ago for an unknown reason. Friends didn’t visit him, he never had a family, and the people in town either looked down on or were completely afraid of him. Nasty gossip such as Felix being a cold-blooded killer was the talk of the town. His only companion was a mule. It was rightly so because he was as stubborn as. After decades of being a hermit, he walked into a funeral parlor led by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant (Lucas Black). Felix said he wanted to throw a funeral party for himself. He wanted to hear the many colorful stories people heard about him over the years. In order to attract people, there was to be a raffle after the party and whoever’s ticket was chosen would own Felix’ acres of land when he died. Half the fun of the film was watching Duvall and Murray interact. Duvall is an expert in playing mysterious characters but with surprising amount of heart. His interactions with his former lover’s sister (Sissy Spacek) were tender, sometimes strained, but consistently interesting. Their first scene together was surprising because even though it was the first one they shared, I already felt like there was a history between them. The actors managed to express a handful of emotions without necessarily talking about them. On the other hand, Murray’s blank expressions and deadpan delivery of his lines made up the bulk of the humor. Frank wasn’t happy because not enough people were dying in town so he was so desperate in keeping Felix as his client despite his customer’s many strange requests. Was he only motivated by the vast amount of money he would eventually earn? Another key figure was Frank’s assistant named Buddy. He was like a son that Felix never had. They were strangers to each other and they never did get close as one would consider them friends, but there was something beautiful and touching about the way Felix learned to open up to someone else other than his mule. Maybe our protagonist saw a bit of himself, back when he still had his youth, on the honorable and well-meaning assistant. But the most powerful aspect of the film was the hermit’s speech during his funeral party. In ten minutes, he started from being the joke of the town to someone who everyone should be able to sympathize with. “Get Low,” directed by Aaron Schneider, tackled serious issues like death, aging, and guilt with glee and eccentricity yet it successfully maintained a certain level of respect so the issues and the characters were never the punchline. The funny moments were in the way the characters responded to the ridiculous beauty that life sometimes offers.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, “Northfork” told the story of a community in Montana forced to be uprooted from their homes because the area that they lived in would soon be underwater. Six men (James Woods, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Jon Gries, Rick Overton) were assigned to persuade the residents to move out of their homes by any means necessary. On the other side of the spectrum, a dying child (Duel Farnes) was dropped off to an orpanage by his parents to be in the hands of a priest (Nick Nolte). In the child’s mind, the child tried to persuade ghosts (Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards) that he was an angel and therefore they should take him with them when they leave Northfork. I love the fact that the film and was not really about anything; there was a plot but there was no story yet it was such a pleasure to watch. The way it played with the atmospheric images of the landscape to match the very eccentric characters somehow moved me. Even though there were times when the scenes with the six men did not completely work for me because some of the humor were not easily accessible, I couldn’t help but appreciate those scenes because of the creative visual puns. For me, the stronger scenes were the ones focused on the dying child. I was on the verge of tears when I thought about how his parents just left him to die because it was more convenient for them and how desperate he was leave the world of the living. There was a nice contrast between how alive he was in his mind and how weak he was in the “real” world which made the experience all the more touching. My favorite aspect of the film was the fact that it was very open to interpretation. I saw it as a story of loss and renewal. The residents may be losing the comfortable world they lived in but outside their comfort zones is a possibility of a better life. The boy may be losing his life but the result might offer a world where he need not be abandoned. “Northfork,” directed by Michael Polish, is a challenging picture. Less thoughtful audiences may be quick to judge and claim that nothing happened and therefore it wasn’t a worthwhile experience. Others may argue that it borderlines insularity. I may agree to an extent but I thought it worked because it captured the mindsets of residents living in a small town. I admired the ambitious philosophical questions it raised. I just wished it had more scenes when the camera would pull into a wide shot and showcase the breathtaking landscapes that were about to be erased.
Entre tinieblas (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.
Mala educación, La (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.
Post Grad (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Kelly Fremon, Alexis Bledel stars as Ryden Malby, a recent college graduate who planned out her entire future well before high school. (Which isn’t really a stretch from her very lovable character Rory Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”) Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned when she found herself being unable to get a job because of the fierce competition in the job market. This movie had the potential to be really good because of its modern way of approaching one of the most common questions of recent college graduates: Will I be able to immediately get a job after college? I thought the first twenty minutes was strong because it dealt with that particular issue head-on. It may not be incredibly realistic but at least it tried to be relevant. However, the deeper we got into the picture, the movie suffered because of bad writing and the material easily succumbed to eyeroll-worthy typicalities. Ryden had to choose between her kind-of boyfriend (Zach Gilford) who was torn between law school and music and the exotic guy next door (Rodrigo Santoro) who seemed to have his life together, deal with her eccentric and sometimes funny family (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett), and question where her future was heading. All those distractions certainly did not distract me from the fact that the writer ran out of creative and meaningful ideas to really tackle the issue of unemployment after college. I liked the movie best when it focused on Bledel’s struggle in trying to define her career and encountering her rival (Catherine Reitman) from time to time. It’s a classic case of having emotional intelligence (Ryden) versus lacking one (her rival); it was so frustrating to me because the elements of making a smart movie were there but the writers didn’t take full advantage of putting them together in an insightful manner. I felt insulted that the film threw clichés right at me. I couldn’t care less about the kinda-sorta boyfriend and the sexy guy next door because if I wanted to watch a movie about that, I’d probably go see a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I couldn’t care less about the family either because their side stories didn’t add up to anything. The performances were mediocre at best but I didn’t mind much because I was more concerned about how it was going to approach the main issue. For a character who was supposed to be prepared to face the world (with enthusiasm to spare), the movie felt unprepared to discuss the real issues. The writer and director should’ve assumed that smart people would see this film. Maybe then they would’ve challenged themselves not only to challenge us but also inspire.
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” or “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” showcases how fearless Pedro Almodóvar can be as a writer and director. After Pepa (Carmen Maura) was left by her lover (Fernando Guillén), she decided to kill herself by eating gazpacho mixed with heavy doses of sleeping pills. However, her suicide attempt was interrupted when her friend (María Barranco) knocked on her door for help after realizing that she was involved in terrorists who wanted to hijack a plane. And while Pepa was gone and her friend was left to guard the apartment, a couple (Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma) knocked on the door to decide if they wanted to rent Pepa’s place. Everything about this movie was so absurd but it was so much fun to watch because it was incredibly unpredictable. And what’s better was the fact that it was easy to tell that the actors were having so much fun in their roles. As much as the movie was comedic on the outside, it really was about the connections between the quirky and eccentric characters unique to Almodóvar’s world. Having seen Almodóvar’s recent works from the 1990s to the 2000s, it was easy for me to recognize certain motifs such as the use of color, strange coincidences and strong women willing to fight for what they believed in. In relation to the last bit, I was in love with that scene when one of the characters discussed the relationship between understanding bikes and understanding the psychology of men. I thought that scene summed up the picture with such elegance because the story was essentially about four women obsessing over men and the outer and inner conflicts they had to go through to be loved in return. My main problem with this film, however, like in a lot of Almodóvar’s movies, was its pacing slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s only a matter of taste that one can get used to over time as one watches more movies from the director. It’s not at all difficult to be enveloped into the story because the lead character was always doing something purposeful and she was willing to engage in conversations that were witty and sometimes confrontational. A lot of people may think “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was over-the-top but that’s what makes a great farce. It’s like watching a telenovela with characters that range from harmless but annoying to dangerously psychotic. It was definitely campy but it had a creative postmodern romance that I rarely see (and would like to see more) in cinema these days.
Ugly Truth, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
It’s weird because as I was watching this movie, I found myself laughing because the characters, especially Katherine Heigl’s, were eccentric in their own ways. But after a few hours after I saw it, I felt as though the characters were more like caricatures and now I’m unsure whether to give it a recommendation. Heigl stars as a television producer of a news show who had to endure of the presence of Gerard Butler because they were on the verge of being cancelled due to their falling ratings. People liked to hear Butler’s blunt opinions so Heigl’s superiors decided he could help the news show from being cancelled and save their careers. The two leads could not be any more different. Heigl doesn’t like to let her hair down, has a checklist on what she looks for a guy, and lives with her cat. Butler thinks women are deluded because they don’t see men for what they really are: pigs who only care about looks, sex, and what feels good. Predictably enough, they fall for each other because Americans have this (ridiculous) view of opposites always ending up together. Tension between them rise when Eric Winter enters the picture as Heigl’s hunky doctor of a neighbor. I think the film was at its best when Heigl and Butler were constantly butting heads and eventually teaming up so that Heigl will have a chance on going out with her neighbor. It touched upon certain real relationship issues such as who’s really in charge of their own orgasms, whether fake orgasms is better than no orgasms (though I think the film gave bad advice on this one), the sacrifices one is willing to make in order to reach a common ground, and how power and manipulation affects relationships. But who wants to think about those things when two girls are wrestling in jello on screen? Ultimately, I think this picture is its own worst enemy. At times, I found a number of contradictions from its initial arguments and it eventually became another forgettable chick flick. And toward the end, I felt as though it lost a lot of its steam and was no longer interested on how it would turn out. Nevertheless, if one is interested in watching something funny, this one is a pretty good choice. It will not enlighten but it will most likely entertain.