10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.
From Paris with Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A CIA agent (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who wanted to leave the safe but boring life of working for a U.S. Ambassador was given a promotion to work in a more exciting but dangerous field with a more experienced partner (John Travolta). The assignment was to track down leads that could help the government prevent a bombing mission. I enjoyed this movie even though there wasn’t much story because of the chemistry between Meyers and Travolta. In fact, Travolta and Meyers were very good. Unfortunately, the material that they had to work with was not as good as them. I must say the odd coupling worked because they had completely different personalities (novice vs. expert, cerebral vs. impulsive, both are smart in their own way) which reminded me of one of my favorite films “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” only with more action, less comedy and quirkiness. And the fact that it was essentially a spy picture definitely helped me get into it that much more. I agree with a lot of critiques about the film such as not truly having a clear purpose from the very beginning. I found myself a bit confused regarding what the real assignment was and why the two leads were running around all over Paris shooting all sorts of people. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but stay with them because there were nice twists and amusing jokes sprinkled here and there. It was almost cartoonish so it was unpredictable at times. I wished that the film had been a little longer to work on the character development that it seriously lacked. The bantering scenes and eventual agreement between the characters were nice but it felt too shallow and rushed. It made me feel like it sacrificed a lot of depth for the sake of kinetics and running time. However, there were a lot of memorable scenes such as the Chinese restaurant, a revelation involving a double agent and the intense freeway scene involving a bazooka. “From Paris with Love,” directed by Pierre Morel who also directed the superior action-thriller “Taken,” was a slick movie with energy to spare even though it was hollow in its core. But I’m giving this a recommendation because I really had fun watching it; it was obviously tended for people who enjoy action movies that are adrenaline-fueled and not just relying on the story for everything to make sense. I can say that the more one thinks about why things were happening the way they were (in which I found myself doing), the more one will end up getting confused. I say just sit back and enjoy the escapism.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” is a top-notch thriller about a husband (Ray Milland) who plots to kill his own wife (Grace Kelly) so that he could inherit all of her money. The wife is having an affair with a writer (Robert Cummings) and the two are so close to telling the husband about their relationship, totally unaware of the fact that the husband has his own suspicions. I love how meticulous this film was when it comes to its pacing and detail so that everything made sense in the end. I noticed that the movie was divided into three parts: the first thiry minutes was how the husband essentially forced another man (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife, the next thirty-five minutes was the actual murder and the first couple of twists in the story, and the last thiry-five minutes was how the good guys tried to capture the villian of the story. The question is, considering this is a Hitchcock film, will they succeed? Most of the picture was shot indoors, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s other film called “Rope,” but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, I think it worked in its favor because the audiences really got the chance to not only get very familiar with the scene of the crime but also play detective when one very curious and astute inspector (John Williams) suspected foul play. I also enjoyed the fact that Milland’s character was very smart so catching him was no easy feat. With most thrillers nowadays, they succumb to big chase scenes with violence (which can be pretty entertaining) but this one relied more on the subtleties of the characters’ actions and the dialogue between them. There were times when even I was lost because I kept trying to keep up with what a particular character wants to prove or suggest to another. Eventually, however, everything comes to light and there was a nice twist in the end that even I didn’t see coming. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s pictures and I have to say that this one is one of the most fun to watch because I really do love movies with a lot of talking. It also helped that the film had a certain sureness about itself so I was absolutely fascinated with how it would all turn out. If you love Hitchcock’s films and have not seen this one, do yourself a favor and watch it now.
Whip It (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I liked Drew Barrymore’s directoral debut “Whip It” starring Ellen Page but I think it held back when it came to really delivering something different. I loved that the film was about a teeanger who was constantly forced by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in pageants only to realize later that she was more interested in roller derby. I thought it was refreshing because there are way too many teen movies out there that focus on (and even glamorize) girly girls and how life is so very hard for them. Give me a break. Seeing tough, rebellious girls on screen, I can identify with them a lot more so I was interested with what was going on in their livies. I thought the first part of this movie was stronger because it was all about pulling away from something the lead character did not believe in and finding something she thought was not only fun but also cathartic. I felt for her wish concerning getting out of the small town she lived in and leading her life however she wanted to. And it helped that Page just had that natural I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude going on. I loved watching the roller derby competition as they busted out interesting tactics to gain points. (I got giddy whenever they pulled out that whip strategy.) But the second half was problematic because it succumbed to the typicality of other teen film fares. For instance, Page’s deteriorating relationship with her best friend, the parents finding out about their daughter’s secret “extracurricular activities,” and finding out about the true colors of a boy the lead character fell for. I’ve seen it all before and I didn’t want to see it in this movie because all I wanted was to have fun. I enjoyed the supporting characters such as Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore. Barrymore had small scenes here and there; she stole the spotlight every single time and I almost wished that she had a bigger role. With a running time of two hours, it felt that long at times because the forced dramatic arcs became the forefront somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I’ll give “Whip It” a light recommendation because I thought it was enjoyable to watch despite its big flaws. Perhaps with more experience directing, Barrymore can one day create a picture that’s more focused and not resting on recycled material while still telling a story about characters that have some sort of a charming edginess going on.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.