Four Friends (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Danilo (Craig Wasson), David (Michael Huddleston), Tom (Jim Metzler), and Georgia (Jodi Thelen) were best friends. All three guys wanted to win the girl’s affections but she had big dreams of making it as a star. We saw the story through Danilo’s eyes, a first-generation American from Yugoslavia, as the four graduated high school and things began to change drastically in the 1960s. Written by Steve Tesich and directed by Arthur Penn, “Four Friends” could have a great story about friendship and dreams, at times the two being mutually exclusive, but I wasn’t convinced it highlighted the parallels between the changing friendship and the changing politics with enough clarity. The weakness was we didn’t really know who David, Tom, and Georgia were. We knew David was afraid of becoming just like his mortician father, Tom was charming and athletic, and Georgia had a flair for the dramatic but such were surface characteristics. We learned most about Danilo and his feelings of wanting to become more than his working-class parents. The Yugoslavian father (Miklos Simon) was very old-fashioned and having such a strong paternal figure shaped Danilo’s many decisions between settling down and yearning to be free. It was interesting that he went off to college believing that he had dreams to pursue but he later realized that perhaps the main reason he went away was to avoid being with Georgia and the supposed friendly competition among his mates. Since the title suggested it was about a friendship of four, I was curious to know how the other three felt about Danilo when he went away. There were suggestions that he rarely visited. Danilo’s mother and his friends took great pleasure in watching Danilo on television when he appeared on academic game shows. Although shot in a somewhat distant manner, I noticed the way their eyes fixated on the screen. It was as if the screen reflected their own ambitions, once within the realm of possibility but they knew such dreams were now out of reach. Furthermore, in the amusing wedding scene, which was really sad in its core, Danilo wasn’t even aware which one of his friends were getting married. The scene was played for laughs, especially with Danilo’s very embarrassed roommate (Reed Birney), but it underlined how out-of-touch our protagonist was with people who he considered his best friends. It would have been interesting to know how the other three assessed the situation. But what I liked about “Four Friends” was, even though we didn’t know each of them fully, the dynamics of friendship among the four were always changing. I believed their evolution from idealistic teenagers who wanted to accomplish everything to more secure adults. If it had spent more time exploring the other three friends’ lives and if the political backdrop had been more pronounced, it would have had a much needed surge of energy.
Summer Storm (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tobi (Robert Stadlober) and Achim (Kostja Ullmann) had always been close. For Achim, being physical with his best friend was exactly what it was: arms around Tobi meant nothing more than symbol of their comfortable camaraderie. But for Tobi, it was different. He was gay and reluctant to come out of the closet. He kept his sexuality from Achim because he believed that disclosing it would bring their friendship to an end. But when their team, outwardly heterosexual and proud, attended a rowing camp, they met The Queerstrokes (Hanno Koffler, Marlon Kittel, Ludwig Blochberger, Michael Wiesner, Benjamin Vilzmann), a crew team made up of homosexual members. As tension increased between the two groups, Tobi’s true feelings for Achim became more apparent. Based on the screenplay by Thomas Bahmann and Marco Kreuzpaintner, “Sommersturm” was one of the few gay-themed movies that treated sexuality with respect. While there were several lines which expressed homophobia, the story wasn’t really about straight people learning to accept gay people. It was about a gay teen learning to accept himself. What I found interesting was the film didn’t actually show many scenes in which Tobi and Achim shared meaningful moments that reflected true friendship. They were shown as being rowdy and silly but there was not one conversation designed convinced us that no matter what happened, Tobi and Achim were going to remain friends. It was an astute decision by the writers because it allowed us to be as uncertain as Tobi. Although Tobi wanted so badly to hold Achim, kiss him, and make love to him, there was a part of me that understood why maybe it wasn’t the smartest decision to go through with it. The scenes with The Queerstrokes were well done. Each member had a personality. Some were more masculine than others and that caused tension within the group. The best scene was when one of the masculines called out the most feminine for acting like a girl, that his limp wrist was embarrassing to be around with. It was an important and honest scene because it showed that even though we may identify ourselves as being a part of the same community, we are still not above having ugly prejudices toward each other. I admired the way sex was never used as a source of comedy. In here, sex was used a tool for self-discovery. It treated sex and, more importantly, the people who engaged in the act with dignity. The scene of Tobi experiencing his first homosexual encounter was shot beautifully. There was elegance in the way it was filmed: the camera moved with purpose, like an excellent kiss: at first tender and slow then a sudden feverish possession, its lens capturing the sun’s glorious summer rays, creating a fantasy as the music and the characters reached an ecstasy. “Summer Storm,” directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, was a wonderful and a personal favorite LGBT coming-of-age film because it was in touch with its rawest, most painful emotions about unrequited love from others and from self. Its ultimate message was if you can’t accept who you are, how can you be strong enough to find love, the kind that is passionate, lasting and true, in others?
The Art of Getting By (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
George (Freddie Highmore), a senior in high school, was in danger of not graduating. Ever since he read a depressing quote about mortality that pushed him to stop caring about doing well in school and forging meaningful friendships, he began to lead his life like a leaf on a stream. But when a popular girl, Sally (Emma Roberts), with whom he had a crush on for years, started to notice and spend time with him, he considered that maybe fatalism was not right for him. “The Art of Getting By,” written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, adopted a passive approach in telling George’s story. While interesting when done right, it failed to work in this instance. There was no sense of urgency nor was there any drastic changes in tone. This technique didn’t make much sense because George was eventually supposed to wake up from his apathy. Even I would have preferred it more if it had taken a more heavy-handed approach. But the lack of logic was not only present behind the camera. George was a young adult who was drowning only he didn’t know it or wouldn’t accept it. Why didn’t his mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards), despite the fact that they had their own pecuniary matters to deal with, choose to be more vocal or proactive about their son’s future? They claimed they wanted to see change in him. But when they saw him laying on his bed instead of attending school, they meekly closed the door because he demanded to be left alone. While he was exemplary when it came to looking sad, what would make sense was for either of the parents to drag him out of bed. A good parent, a parent who genuinely cared, would have. Later, we were asked to sympathize for the parents. How could we when it was so obvious that they chose to neglect their child? As for George and Sally, their relationship was supposed to be romantic down to the final second of the film. But notice that when two bonded while skipping class and stalking men in the streets, the soundtrack took over. Remove the soundtrack and it wouldn’t be easy to see that their interactions were, at best, superficial. Nevertheless, there was one scene between them that I liked. On New Year’s Eve, they went clubbing and drinking with their friends from school. While on the dance floor, Sally allowed another guy to cut between them which caused George to retreat. If she was supposed to be likable or even remotely smart, why did let that happen? Girls, if they have an iota of self-awareness, know when guys are into them. She only later appeared to him after he vomited profusely and claimed that she had been looking for him for two hours inside. I didn’t believe her for a second. Later, George called Sally a “hussy.” I laughed because it was true. I wish there were more scenes between George, his teachers (Alicia Silverstone, Jarlath Conroy), and the principal (Blair Underwood). Out of anybody in the movie, they were the ones who actively took a role in letting George know that his life was about to be in the gutter. They weren’t afraid to perform some tough love either. “The Art of Getting By” was misguided even though its intentions were good. By focusing on trivial things like George attempting to win over a girl who was prone to vacillate, it felt superficial. People like the protagonist are, unfortunately, found in many high schools. If they are to be inspired, they need better material than this.
The Hangover Part II (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Two years after a bachelor’s party turned into horrendous but hilarious mess in Las Vegas, Phil, (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha) headed to Thailand to see Stu (Ed Helms) get married to Lauren (Jamie Chung), despite the father of the bride’s disapproval of the groom. Two nights before the big day, the four friends, along with Lauren’s sixteen-year-old brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), each quaffed a bottle of harmless beer at the beach. The next day, Phil and Alan woke up alongside Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), an international criminal, with Doug and Teddy missing. Like last time, the party had no choice but to retrace their steps, find the persons of interest, and get back to the wedding in time. The cardinal sin that “The Hangover Part II,” written by Craig Mazin, Scott Armstrong, and Todd Phillips, committed was underestimating their audiences’ capacity to appreciate a sequel that, in the least, tried to be original. I had no qualms about the characters making an utter fool of themselves by getting into the most ridiculous situations involving Russians and their pet monkey, prostitutes with something unexpected in their panties, and Paul Giamatti being devilishly magnetic as a crime boss, but giving us a facsimile of its predecessor was not only lazy on the filmmakers’ part, it was also quite pessimistic and insulting. Given that the first film was such a success nationally and internationally, one would expect that the writers would at least try to come up with something different so that, after watching the final product, we would be begging to see more. The characters weren’t allowed to move past their adventures in Vegas and I wondered, with great frustration, why not. Alan kept bringing up what had happened in Vegas two years ago in almost every other scene. It was counterproductive because instead of drawing us into this specific new adventure and slowly revealing why frolicking all over Thailand was special in its own right, referencing to its counterpart forced us to compare analogous scenes–this one overwhelmingly inferior. The jokes ranged from bad to completely absent. I didn’t see what was so funny about smoking monkeys and ten-year-old kids engaging in underaged drinking. Nor did I recognize why the characters eventually broke out in song instead of just engaging in silence. At times, scenes with a poverty of words can work given the right timing and direction. These guys embodied hedonism which, in reality, almost always comes with a price. Instead of being boisterous jerks all the time, stereotypically American in that they had no regard or respect toward other cultures, why not allow them to sit and consider the fact that perhaps their heedlessness led them exactly where they should be and deservingly so? “The Hangover Part II,” clumsily directed by Todd Phillips, was a comedy that was diffident in terms of dealing with real emotions. Sure, it was about having fun and getting into trouble afterwards. But the filmmakers had forgotten that their project was about friendship, too. From what I saw, these guys were not worthy of each other’s friendships. Then why should they be worthy of our time?
One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★
On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.
In a Better World (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
On their last night of summer, hormonal adolescents, ranging from fourteen to twenty-one, attended their friends’ sleepovers and parties. There was Rob (Marlon Morton), a lonely guy who encountered a girl in the supermarket but failed to find the courage to speak to her. He spent the rest of the night hoping that their paths would cross. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) was a new girl in town. She didn’t have many friends, so when she was invited by Janelle (Shayla Curran) to attend a sleepover, she happily accepted, unaware that Janelle was her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Scott (Brett Jacobsen) was having second thoughts about finishing college. His sister, Jen (Mary Wardell), told him that twins Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey) had a crush on him in high school. Hoping that his fantasy of being intimate with twins would finally come true, he drove up to the girls’ freshman orientation. Lastly, while at a party with upperclassmen, Maggie tried to get to know the pool boy she had been eyeing all summer. “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, it wanted to deliver a realistic portrayal of teens: their attitudes about friendship, blooming sexualities, and coming to terms with missed opportunities. On the other hand, none of the parents ever showed up on screen. The most common excuse was the adults were out of town. Did all of the parents plan to leave their kids at home at the same time? I understood that it was a conceit that we just had to accept. I wouldn’t have had an issue with it if the teens eventually managed to express their thoughts and emotions to one another with a certain level of clarity. Instead, they lumbered from one place to another without much purpose. It was somewhat frustrating to watch them because there was a lack of fluidity between their respective struggles. For instance, how was Claudia’s loneliness related to Rob’s? There was no bridge. The parents, during wisely chosen scenes, could have acted as the conduit to their children’s confusion, frustration, and apathy as well as the past and present. After all, the parents used to be young and careless, too. Some things never change. Some things inevitably do. Furthermore, the teens could have used more diversity and executed in a direct manner. Rob’s storyline was most interesting because an African-American girl, his sister’s friend, had a crush on him but he didn’t seem to notice. Rob’s best friend, a guy, had feelings for him, too. I didn’t like how both were handled. Although set in suburban Detroit, the world the teens inhabited didn’t really feel like it was set in a modern age. The potential interracial couple’s scenes felt too syrupy to the point where they actually ended up watching shooting stars. The relationship between Rob and his best friend, as friends, didn’t ring true because of the way the director softened the latter’s homosexuality. I felt like the kid was shoved back into the closet every time he felt like he could finally tell Rob about who he really was. I was saddened, sometimes angered, due the way the script and the camera shied away from certain necessary realities. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” would possibly have been a great movie if it was released in the early 1980s. But as a movie of today, it feels like a masturbartory fantasy of the past.