Waiting for Forever (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) didn’t have a home. He wandered from place to place, often hitchhiking because he didn’t have a car, because he was set on following Emma Twist (Rachel Bilson), an actress and a childhood friend, like a love-sick puppy. People were often touched of his stories about how much he loved Emma and how he planned on marrying her. The fact was the two haven’t spoken to each other since they were kids. Written by Steve Adams and directed by James Keach, if I could describe “Waiting for Forever” in one word, it would be “misguided.” I wasn’t convinced that it was a love story even though it tried desperately to be one because the sentiments were heavily one-sided. Emma, like myself, was creeped out by Will because his rationalizations involving why they should be together felt completely detached from reality. The screenplay begged us to feel sorry for him instead of identifying with him. His parents died when he was little, his brother (Scott Mechlowicz) looked down on his nomadic lifestyle, and he always wore the same pajamas. I guess he didn’t have any other clothes. His excuse was the pajamas felt comfortable. I found it insulting that the majority of the women melted after hearing Will’s stories. I agreed with the men: Will needed some help, possibly a one-on-one session with a counselor or a psychiatrist. It was difficult to judge him this way because the filmmakers confused child-like and childish. An adult’s child-like quality tends to momentarily sprout from its hiding shell. It happens without a person being aware of it. An adult is childish when he jumps on chairs, tables, and counters just to be “cute.” Will was certainly the latter. Sturridge was partly to blame. He needed to tone down his character’s ticks so we could focus more on his personal struggles instead of how hyper he was or how well he could juggle. The only believable people on screen were Emma’s parents, Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Miranda (Blythe Danner). Richard had terminal illness and Miranda hid her sadness by overcompensating with happiness. There was dramatic weight in the way they interacted with each other. Some words were ugly, some looks were undeserved but I felt like there was history between them. There was a memorable scene in which Miranda finally exploded at the man she no longer thought was the man she married. The way the camera was so close to their aging bodies and the way the purging of emotions was handled, it felt like I was intruding in their very personal moment. I wished the movie had been about them. I liked the last line in the movie because the joke had a punchline. That and the painful experience of constantly wondering why the characters chose to do what they did was finally over.
The Devil Inside (2012)
★ / ★★★★
When Isabella was a child, three members of the church attempted to perform an exorcism on her mother, Maria (Suzan Crowley), which led to a tragedy. Maria telephoned for help and confessed to killing two priests and a nun. Years later, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) now in her mid-twenties, felt that she needed to understand what really happened to her mother. Along with Michael (Ionut Grama), the cameraman, the duo decided to make a documentary of their entire trip to Italy. Their first assignment was to visit Maria who’d been transferred to Centrino Mental Hospital. The biggest problem with “The Devil Inside,” written by William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman, was not its utter unoriginality when it came to presenting the basics of demonic possession and exorcism, but its slothful execution and poor control of the camera. The filmmakers strived to create a realistic mood in the most elementary and lazy manner: by shaking the camera so vigorously and aimlessly, I began to get very angry because the images that were supposed to inspire audience reaction were reluctantly shown. Keep in mind that this is coming from a person who can withstand a decent amount of camera convulsions. Because certain images were so evasive, perhaps the intention was to tease us into looking closer at the screen. It would have worked if the tension was established in varying rates and actually allowed horrific scenes to reach several zeniths punctuated by creative freedom by means of a sense of humor or false alarm. The picture was deathly one-note and I sat in my chair unmoved, possessed by boredom. Furthermore, since the material spent much of its time with distractions, like whether or not Fathers Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth), priests who performed exorcisms without permission from the church, ought to continue to support Isabella’s project. Suddenly, the picture became more about Father Ben’s ego of wanting to capture every moment on film–evidence, he called them–and Father David’s concern for losing his job. Isabella was relegated to a typical one-dimensional character who had nothing to do but scream at the right moments, only there was nothing worth screaming over due to a drought of genuinely scary scenes. The material touched upon the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession, so I was surprised that there weren’t more scenes between mother and daughter. Some psychological disorders like schizophrenia are known to be genetically linked which means it can be passed on from parent to offspring. Why not explore that connection between science and religion? Should we trust our protagonist completely? The picture could have been more interesting if had been a little more ambitious. Personally, I’m not scared of demonic possessions. What I am a little bit more apprehensive about, however, is the possibility that it’s real. As a person of science, I am willing to believe that science doesn’t hold all the answers. If it did, the universe, in my eyes, would be less captivating. “The Devil Inside,” directed by William Brent Bell, could have used a little bit of mystery, an edge that would allow it to stand out from the rest of the exorcism movies. But since it lacked inspiration, it’s just another nondescript writing on the wall created by a madman.
That’s What I Am (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Nichol (Chase Ellison) was paired up by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), with Stanley (Alexander Walters) to work on a final project. Andrew was embarrassed to work with Stanley because the latter was a social outcast. Stanley was known as Big G, G for ginger, due to his red hair, massive ears, and he stood at least a foot taller than everyone else. Andrew, like most middle school students, just wanted to get by and being paired up with a Frankenstein-like geek garnered a lot of negative attention. Mr. Simon wanted to teach Andrew that passively watching another get bullied didn’t free someone from taking responsibility. Written and directed by Michael Pavone, I wanted to like “That’s What I Am” for its intention but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because there were plenty of instances when it lost its vision. Andy’s quest to finally go steady with Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), a girl who had kissed every boy in their grade except for Andy, could have been somewhat cute in another movie but bullying is such a serious issue that the two forces didn’t belong in one project without the other feeling like a strange appendage that was better hacked off. The picture also gave us other scenes with elements of bullying like a boy (Camille E. Bourgeois III) inflicting deep cuts on a girl (Sarah Celano) using a metallic zipper on his jacket because he wanted to give her back her “cooties.” (They bumped into each other earlier that day.) If Pavone’s intention was to provide comic relief from intense moments in a form of puppy love, the work felt leaned toward mere silliness. Instead of continually highlighting the consequences of bullying, more relevant than ever with the rate of youth suicides nowadays, the issue was somewhat marginalized. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the writer-director feeling the need to introduce homophobia in the 1960s. Rumors went around the school that Mr. Simon was a homosexual. Since he wouldn’t deny it because he believed that one’s ability to teach should matter more than one’s private life, a boy’s parents’ threatened to create a controversy. On one hand, homophobia and bullying had prejudice and intolerance in common. It inspired the kids to ask questions about what homosexuality meant and some of them, like Andrew, learned how to be a little kinder. On the other hand, the issue of whether or not Mr. Simon was gay overshadowed the issue of bullying. I wondered why the school officials failed to take action if someone being robbed of their lunch or getting punched in the stomach happened every day. Surely it wasn’t just because it was the 1960s. Being bullied is not a rite of passage as a lot of people, to my surprise, tend to argue. The film was designed for children and I was surprised that it didn’t offer solutions that made sense. Kicking bullies in crotch may keep them at bay for about a day but they’re bound to retaliate with more hatred than ever. “That’s What I Am” was a missed opportunity. I can overlook the weak acting by some of the young supporting actors, but what I cannot overlook is when a serious topic is not given the attention it deserves.
Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.