Albert Nobbs (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) was the apotheosis of fastidiousness. As a a butler in one of the most prestigious hotels in Dublin, Morrison’s Hotel, it was almost a requirement more than a desired quality in order to impress the wealthiest upper-class considering each had their own special need. On another level, Albert’s keen attention to detail was dependent on survival. Albert was a woman and for many years she kept the fact hidden from everyone. When a charming painter, Hubert (Janet McTeer), was hired by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the hotel’s mistress, and was assigned to room with Albert, the butler’s secret was exposed. Still, the two found a commonality because, as it turned out, Hubert was also a woman posing as a man. Based on a short story by George Moore and directed by Rodrigo García, there is no doubt in my mind that the filmmakers of “Albert Nobbs” wanted us to experience the story of Albert, seek understanding from the restrictive circumstances of the ninetieth century, relate it to our time, and recognize that people still do hide their sexualities and lead a life of unhappiness out of shame, fear of judgment, and rejection of friends and families. In a way, it wanted to inspire the viewers to be a little more sensitive and understanding. While its intentions and messages were venerable, I felt that, as a film, there was something missing in the way the plot unfolded. Some scenes felt rather awkward. For instance, Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), one of the posh guests in the hotel, woke up with a naked man in his room as if to suggest that they had a romantic or sexual relationship. And yet it was never expanded upon in order to highlight certain trends, in this case male-male companionship, in terms of having to hide one’s sexuality from society. It was a lost opportunity because of their sex and socioeconomic status, very different and an excellent complement to Albert’s situation. That scene that seemed to suggest more could have been taken out completely and it would not have had any sort of impact on the work, except perhaps that the audience wouldn’t expect a different perspective from the screenplay by Glenn Close, John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop. As a whole, Close delivered a good performance but I was not always completely captivated by her as a man. There were times when I thought the actress was trying to deliver a performance and trying to emote subtleties required to make us believe that Albert really was a man. The inconsistent greatness in Close’s acting, which caused distraction, almost worked against itself. However, her high notes were memorable. For example, I admired the part when Mrs. Baker and Albert were speaking and the conversation was suddenly interrupted by one of the staff. In a split second, I thought there was a mistake in the editing because Albert seemed to have disappeared from screen. As I looked closer, it turned out that Albert just moved a couple of steps back, out of respect, and seemed to blend into the wallpaper. Although understated because it happened so quickly, there was something in me that couldn’t help but respond to it. It made me consider that Close perfectly embodied her character’s ability to hide and blend in from fear of suspicion that there was something different about her. It highlighted the sadness of Albert’s life: while most of us strive to stand out from the pandemonium of life, people like her strive to camouflage into the most nondescript corner.
★★★ / ★★★★
A tire suddenly came to life in the desert. Like a toddler’s uncertainty in taking its first steps, we observed Robert the tire rolling around and falling over. It learned that it liked to put its weight on things like plastic water bottles and small animals. When Robert couldn’t physically destroy something, it used its psychic powers in order to force its target to explode. Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, I had fun with “Rubber” because it took a ridiculous idea and kept its head high like it wasn’t anybody’s business. The bad acting, thin dialogue, and lack of sensical narrative worked because our expectations were turned inside out before we even had time to form them. I was consistently interested in the murderous tire and what it was going to do next. There was a subplot involving Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) and an accountant (Jack Plotnick) wanting to kill the audiences, literally the people with binoculars watching the tire murder people from a distance. Sometimes it worked. I saw the subplot as the director’s frustration of Hollywood unabashedly rehashing the same old formula in terms of which movies would receive the green light and the audiences’ willingness in swallowing it all up. I saw the turkey, poisoned food given to the onlookers, as a symbol of most of the garbage in the film business. The garbage is killing our culture. I share that frustration. In every ten movies I watch, only one (or two if I’m lucky) is truly original and refreshing. Another scene I enjoyed was when the lieutenant tried to convince his men that they should stop doing their jobs (they were at a crime scene) because it was all a movie. Just so his colleagues would believe him, he ordered one of them to shoot him. If he didn’t die, it was proof that everything was fake. Lastly, I was amused when Lieutenant Chad, whose goal was to destroy Robert, looked into the camera during the opening scene and explained to us the lack of reason for the things we were about to see. It prepared us for what was coming. However, there were times when the picture didn’t quite work. We were not made aware of Lieutenant Chad and the accountant’s endgame. Were they aware of the tire’s true potential? We they fully invested in supposedly saving mankind from tired ideas? Was the universe that the characters inhabited a part of some sick joke? We never found out. I had some questions for Robert as well. The tire was interested in a woman (Roxane Mesquida) but was it aware of its own lack of body structures like limbs, torso, and a head? There was one shot in which the tire saw its own reflection and, despite being an inanimate object, it seemed a bit sad. I imagined it thinking, “Why do I look like this?” That moment made me realize that, despite its wild premise, I was enjoying the picture for what it was. “Rubber” was absurd, some would say unnecessary, but the director used such qualities to make a statement and create something quite original. If anything, it had to be given credit for its sheer audacity.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn-based high school student with ambition and drive, occasionally snuck out with Laura (Pernell Walker), her best friend, to spend time in lesbian-themed clubs to make hooking up with other girls much easier. However, Alike’s devoutly religious parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) weren’t aware of their daughter’s attraction toward other women, so Alike had to lie and change clothes before going to the club and stepping inside the house. Word travelled fast and soon enough, the parents began to suspect that perhaps there was a pinch of truth in hearsay. Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Pariah” was painfully honest in its approach of what it was like to lead a second life outside of the home without relying on easy emotions, like pity, to make Alike’s situation more digestible for the audience. The picture was proactive in showing us that while Alike was capable of making mistakes like any other person, gay or straight, who was growing up, her strength was dependent upon the fact that she knew who she was and that there was nothing wrong with her being attracted to women. Because Alike had such a strong sense of self, the material had a chance to hone in on those who wrestled with gnawing suspicions and Alike’s eventual admission. But this wasn’t to suggest that the picture utilized the coming out scene as its center. I liked the way the parents were not showcased as ignoramuses when it came to their child’s life. By avoiding that tired cliché, it was already one step ahead of its peers. Audrey was the kind of parent who took the word of the Bible as an absolute. We may not agree with her position and some of us may detest her for it, but people like her do exist. I’ve had gay and lesbian friends in high school who were kicked out of their homes because their parents wouldn’t accept them from the way they interpreted certain passages in that book. Some of my friends were even forced to attend certain institutions to “cure” their homosexuality to no avail. Arthur, on the other hand, was a parent so in denial, he’d rather dance around the issue than just ask if his daughter was gay. He was a part of the police force and for someone who valued pithiness and truth, it was ironic that something as trivial as sexuality was the kind of thing that he couldn’t face head-on. The film astutely showed that such a type of an approach could potentially be as damaging as directly saying that one’s sexual identity was not unacceptable in a particular household. Under Rees’ direction, the theme of disconnect involving the relationship among mother, father, and daughter was highlighted in subtle but powerful ways. I guess having been able to identify with Alike’s experiences, there were times when a parent’s look communicated a thousand words. I hate to admit it but those small yet precious moments could potentially go undetected under the observation of those outside the LGBT community. For me, those moments were what made the film felt so real and why I had such a gut reaction to it. It’s difficult to make LGBT movies because most of them tend to use melodrama as an excuse to avoid more complex emotional and psychological explorations. “Pariah” is a shining exception. While it had lessons to impart about self-esteem and self-acceptance, telling a story through a specific perspective was its most remarkable achievement.
Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.
The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.