Vernon, Florida (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vernon, Florida” showcased a group of people with different eccentricities. Among them were a couple who claimed that their jar of sand was growing because of radiation, a man with a pet turtle (who didn’t think it was a turtle but a gopher), a cop with nothing much to do, a sermon involving the several meanings of the word “therefore,” and most interesting of them all, a man with a passion for hunting turkeys. Directed by Errol Morris, half the fun of the picture was in allowing the subjects to speak to us as if we were right there in front of them. Their accents were sometimes difficult to decipher but it didn’t matter because the nature of the one-way conversation was so fascinating. I knew I was interested in what they had to say when they mumbled or stumbled over their words and I leaned closer to the screen to grasp at the evanescent words. Unfortunately, more time were given to some people than others. I wanted to know more about the gentleman who grew worms. I don’t particularly like worms but I was interested in his occupation and his point of view about why raising worms was important. He was only given two or three scenes. However, I was happy that the picture always returned to the obsessive turkey hunter. The description he gave about where and how he would hunt was so vivid, it almost left like we were following him in the hunt. I was surprised that each pair of turkey feet he had on his walls, initially very creepy, had a special story. I didn’t know whether to laugh or worry when he began to have a fierce look in his eyes as he described every delicious detail about the joy of shooting a turkey. As the film went on, the more I realized its wicked sense of humor. Most of the people being interviewed were the elderly and it was difficult to tell whether they still knew what was going on. Did they really believe in what they said, especially the couple who thought that the sand they obtained from New Mexico was indeed growing? Nevertheless, Morris didn’t make fun of the individuals being interviewed. There was one scene I was particularly impressed with which involved a man mentioning another who didn’t believe in a higher power. Just when I thought he was about to make a remark against those who didn’t believe, he highlighted a commonality between a believer and a non-believer. Even though he was a devout Christian, he knew it wasn’t his place to judge. I wish we had a chance to spend more time with him. “Vernon, Florida” was a piece of evidence that there are interesting things embedded in the mundane. Its slice-of-life style was endearing, amusing, and it was loyal in celebrating of our differences.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
The Switch (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.
My Life as a Dog (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since their father was overseas, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) and his older brother (Manfred Serner) were separated to live with their relatives for the summer so that their sick mother (Anki Lidén) could rest. Ingemar’s dog, who he claimed to love as much as his mother, was sent to the kennel during his time away from home. It was easy to like Ingemar because he was unlike most children. Whenever things turned for the worse, Ingemar would often compare himself to others who were worse off than him. For instance, he often mentioned Laika, the dog who was sent to outer space and never had the chance to return. “Mitt liv som hund,” or “My Life as a Dog,” had some formulaic coming-of-age elements but the execution was pulled off in an imaginative and often touching way. We followed the story through Ingemar’s eyes and we felt the abandonment he felt when he was passed from one home after another. Even though he was a kid, he was perceptive enough to realize that he was essentially like his dog and what the dog must have felt when Ingemar had no choice but to leave it at the kennel. I found myself on the verge of tears at times because he knew that he was slowly losing his mother so he tried so hard to hold onto something easier but something that he loved just as equally (or so he claimed): his pet. I found the flashback scenes very touching because we had tiny peeks to a time when Ingemar was at his happiest. His brother certainly didn’t make things easier because he also had his own way in dealing with negative emotions. I liked the way Lasse Hallström, the director, highlighted the kindness of eccentric people in a tight-knit community to distract the kid from breaking down. Ingemar made a special relationship with a girl named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who dressed and acted like a boy. She liked him but he didn’t like her back so there certainly was tension there. They were able to work through their many frustrations by boxing it out in the ring. One of my favorite scenes was when another girl took Ingemar to her room and Saga came busting in like her usual tomboy self and fought for what she felt like belonged to her. I loved the way that particular scene was framed and I felt a certain energy to it that reminded me of those classic romantic love triangle pictures in the golden days of Hollywood. Instead of using the quirkiness just for the sake of being funny or underlining the weirdness of small communities, Hallström successfully focused on the heart of the film. “Mitt liv som hund” was based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel and it felt every bit as personal. Every crucial element in the story felt connected and it had a silent power that I will remember for a long time.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.