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.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) lived in Hailsham, an English boarding school led by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), all their lives. The three children shared a strong bond. Kathy and Ruth’s beds were next to each other so they learned to become friends over the years. Smart and artistic Kathy began to have feelings for Tommy who was kind-hearted but often rejected by his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, was one of Tommy’s passive tormentors but she wanted to make Kathy jealous so she began to spend more time with the social outcast. Miss Lucy’s (Sally Hawkins) arrival in Hailsham made an important impact in the trio’s lives because she revealed their true purpose. Many reviews kept their readers blind about the dark secret involving the children. I don’t think it’s necessary because the children being clones and future organ donors was just the template of this morally and emotionally complex story which was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The core of the story was how Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively, in later years) dealt with the revelation that they weren’t going to live long lives or realize any of their long-term dreams. It made me question how I would start living if I’ve been told that I could be notified at any time that someone needed my organs and I could possibly die for someone I haven’t met. None of the three tried to run away after their discovery. I was curious why they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was a selfish thing to do. Having made aware that they were clones, they were always on the lookout for Possibles, their look-alikes, the models in which they shared 100% of their DNA. The material made powerful implications that genes had more impact than the environment from which one was raised. For instance, Kathy’s belief that she was modeled from a prostitute or a pornographic actress because she had strong urges to have sex even as a child. She tried to stop those urges which made her shut down other important aspects of herself like acting on her attraction toward Tommy. Another moving element in the picture was Tommy’s misplaced expectations about a possible deferral from organ donations given that a couple was able to prove their love for one another. His willingness to look into the impossible reminded me of David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s highly underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Both characters wanted to be with someone they loved so desperately. They wanted to live a meaningful life so badly, they were willing to turn to the fantastic. “Never Let Me Go,” adroitly directed by Mark Romanek, was a poignant film that wasn’t solely about the ethics of organ donations and the cruel destiny laid out for the characters. Personally, I thought it was more about the powerless making small but critical decisions with the cards that they were given. The odds were against them, comparable to why we often find ourselves rooting for the underdogs in competitions.
★★★ / ★★★★
Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson), a talented painter, fell in love with Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), a homosexual writer, during World War I. Throughout the years, their relationship, as friends and as lovers, was challenged as men dropped in and out of their lives. Based on a novel by Michael Holroyd and directed by Christopher Hampton, “Carrington” was a thoughtful examination of the complexity of sexuality and how our love toward a person can rise above the conventions of sexual orientation. It was easy to label Carrington as a fool. After all, people who cared about her, like her fiancé (Rufus Sewell) in the beginning of the film, had informed her that Lytton was attracted to men. She perfectly knew that Lytton was a homosexual but her feelings for him were simply too strong to resist. We cared about Carrington because she was brave. She perfectly knew that living with Lytton would be different than living with other men but she was at peace with her decision. Thompson did a wonderful job in establishing a character who knew what she wanted but still leaving a bit of room for her to doubt and to feel fear in terms of where her life was going. She communicated plenty with a glance across the dinner table or an awkward silence between two friends. When Carrington and Lytton moved in together, sex was one of the main issues they had to deal with. They circumvented the problem by welcoming each other to see other people. The more comedic scenes involved Lytton urging Carrington to lose her virginity to her fiancé with whom she’s been together for four years. I loved how the film felt controlled. It was mature in its approach about sex but it still retained some level of humor. For instance, there was a scene or two where Carrington just had to lie on the bed, completely detached from the act, while the man was all about his pleasure. That’s usually indicative of a doomed relationship. When Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), a soldier, ended up living with Carrington and Lytton, there was an understated tension among the three. Lytton was attracted to Ralph but Ralph was attracted to women. Carrington was stuck in the middle. It was when Lytton realized that Carrington had something he could never have. As our protagonist saw other men that ranged from the overly sensitive (Samuel West) to the emotionally distant (Jeremy Northam), the more she realized she was destined to be with the writer. One of the most moving scenes in the film was when Carrington, sitting alone in the garden, looked inside their house and saw people she loved having someone next to them. “Carrington” elegantly posed questions about love and its many definitions. The film was unusual but it was beautiful, too.
Totally F***ed Up (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” focused on six homosexual teenagers and how they responded to the every day challenges of being young in Los Angeles. Andy (James Duval) was a lonely virgin but, unlike most of his friends, he treasured that aspect of himself. When he met the charismatic Ian (Alan Boyce), Andy seemed to fall in love for the first time. Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) were in a relationship and they wanted to have a baby despite the fact that they would not be able to support it. In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, they gathered their gay friends’ sperm to perform “artificial insemination.” Tommy (Roko Belic) abhorred gay stereotypes. He was proud with being a masculine homosexual but his parents weren’t aware of his sexuality. Lastly, Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) were also in a relationship. One had to deal with gay bashing while the other wrestled with guilt because he had sexual intercourse with another man. Despite the film having a number of great ideas, I was not convinced that Araki had successfully explored what made each character tick. In order for an ensemble to be effective, each subject has to be fully or close to fully realized. We knew that the group of friends in question liked to nap all day, party all night, and try all sorts of drugs in order to remind themselves they were still alive. But what else was there to them? The reason why they were friends in the first place wasn’t clear to me. Surely their friendship was based on something deeper than carnal and chemical pleasures. I didn’t feel like they could depend on each other because they were too preoccupied looking out for themselves. I hope the writer-director didn’t mean to imply that LGBT friendships were shallow and unrewarding. There were far too many scenes of teenagers “doing bad things” so their redeeming factors were overshadowed by their habits. I also wanted to know more about the protagonists’ life at home and their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents or siblings. I was most interested in the characters when they started to talk about their home lives and why they felt like they needed to move away and seek solace with other strangers. They looked at the camera and talked about the hateful heteronormative society but they failed to offer any deep or unique insight about what LGBT teens at that specific time period had to go through. In the end, their struggles felt far away instead of prevalent regardless of one’s sexuality. “Totally F***ed Up” wanted to go in so many different directions that it ended up not going anywhere. Although it managed to capture the loneliness of youth in some parts, the scenes designed for mere shock value turned this film into a run-of-the-mill, independently-made urban teen drama.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) woke up, his stomach grumbled with great hunger. He knew the perfect cure: delicious, gooey honey. But when he got to the kitchen, all the honey jars were empty. He thought he’d ask his friends if they had some to spare. In the forest, he stumbled upon Eeyore (Bud Luckey) who claimed that his tail was missing. Concerned about their friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), Owl (Craig Ferguson), Piglet (Travis Oates), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Tom Kenny), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) held a contest: whoever could find an object that would best replace Eeyore’s tail would win a jar of honey. “Winnie the Pooh,” based on the works by A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, brought out the inner child in me. Granted, it isn’t particularly difficult because I’m easily amused by corny childish jokes and puns but the film was on a constant creative overdrive. Coming into it, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the television show nor have I sat through prior Pooh features. (I’ve read a picture book or two.) It really surprised me because the dialogue and the images rapidly reached an effortless comedic synergy. An image could be as simple as Pooh staring at a pinecone and weighing the reasons how or how it couldn’t work as Eeyore’s tail and I would catch myself smiling at how adorable it was. I loved the film because the characters reminded me of my friends and I. Each had a distinct personality and I was glad all of them were given a chance to shine. My favorite scene was when Owl suggested that whoever acquired the best tail replacement ought to receive some sort of remuneration for his or her trouble. Meanwhile, Pooh leaned into Piglet and whispered, “What are we supposed to renumber?” It caught me off-guard with how ingenious it was. There I was watching, essentially, a children’s movie but I lost track of that fact. That moment nudged me, without feeling distracted or detached, of its nature. Most kids (and, I reckon, most adults) won’t know the meaning of “remuneration.” They defined it but it didn’t feel like being in a classroom and learning words because the joke’s punchline came before the definition. The picture also had a great lesson about friendship. Eventually, the animals ended up in a big hole with no means of escape. Piglet was the only one who could rescue them. That scene could easily have been annoying or unnecessary. After all, Owl had the ability to fly. The writers ignored Owl’s innate ability because there was a lesson about patience. In meaningful friendships, when a friend messes up or does things that make no sense, it’s important that we don’t make them feel less than. I think it’s a great message for kids (for everyone, really) not to say things like, “You’re so dumb!” or “You’re so stupid!” As someone who’s worked with children, such put-downs, harmless as they may seem at the time, do germinate anger and self-loathing. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, “Winnie the Pooh” was a delightful animated film. It’s one of those movies I can show my future kids and I wouldn’t mind watching it with them.
The Romantics (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Seven friends gathered at a beach house for a celebration. Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel) were about to get married. But Laura (Katie Holmes), Lila’s bridesmaid and good friend, was still in love with Tom. Tom also had lingering feelings for Laura but he was reluctant to sacrifice a life of stability. The remaining four friends (Malin Akerman, Jeremy Strong, Adam Brody, Rebecca Lawrence) knew that there was an awkward tension among Lila, Tom, and Laura but no one dared to bring up the most obvious questions. They would rather drown themselves in alcohol and numb themselves with drugs. “The Romantics,” directed and based on a novel by Galt Niederhoffer, somewhat managed to capture the confusion of almost thirtysomethings: how each of them defined happiness, the sacrifices necessary so they wouldn’t be alone down the road, and the so-called friendships they desperately clung onto. They were a very unlikable bunch because they were all about their self-interests. Rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, we all know people like them. We might even be one of them. My main concern and disappointment with the film was its execution in terms of its attempt to explore the characters. The group of friends was far from being romantics. The night before Lila and Tom’s wedding, we learned that they earned the label in college because the seven of them slept with each other to the point were it was “almost incestuous.” While the speeches over dinner the night before the big wedding was fun to listen to because it revealed the truth about how the five friends viewed the upcoming marriage, the events that came after, such as Tom going missing and Laura feeling the need to look for him, felt convenient and predictable. Genuinely getting to know the other friends, which was key because they were important people in Lila and Tom’s lives, was thrown out the window. Instead, we saw them getting naked, cheating on each other, and doing drugs. It wasn’t even done in a darkly comic, sexy, or fun way. We were just there to watch as detached audiences and I was left wondering why the writer-director felt the need to show us such scenes. Was she attempting to highlight the emptiness in these characters’ lives? If so, I didn’t feel a defined point of view, a driving force, or a specific lens designed to convince me that the filmmaker had control over her material. The best scene was the collision between Lila, the immovable object, and Laura, the unstoppable force, near the end. I considered Lila an immovable object because even though she perfectly knew her husband didn’t love her as much as he should, she still foolishly wanted to get married. Laura was an unstoppable force because she was too driven by her emotions and she was willing to fight for what she felt even if it meant throwing friendship in the fire. I wish more scenes as powerful as Lila and Lauren’s confrontation. The rest were just padding for an accident that never occurred.
Cars 2 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was tracking a group of vehicular criminals, seemingly led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), conspiring to persuade the public that Allinol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, was bad. When his identity was compromised, he had no choice but to send the inexperienced but charming Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) out in the field. Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was invited to participate in the first World Grand Prix and he decided to take Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his best friend, with him. While in Japan, Mater was mistaken as an American spy by Holley. Based on the screenplay by Ben Queen, “Cars 2” was an improvement from John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s “Cars” in terms of pacing. Still, it left much to be desired. From the first scene, I felt myself detached. Watching a car fling itself from one side of the ship to another like Spider-man had a certain bubbly creative energy, but it didn’t draw me into getting to know that character. The animation, as usual, was well-done. Vibrant colors were abound and it made my eyes want to linger on certain images even if the images were moving so quickly. The vroom-vroom sounds in the foreground and the background chatter and screams of fans complemented each other so they created an exciting mood prior to the race. The colors and sounds matched the country the cars were in. For example, while in Japan, indoor neon lights were prevalent, but while in Italy, outdoor natural light took center stage. I wish the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen was taken on a new level. They essentially learned the same lesson in the first film which made the entire oeuvre a bit déjà vu, stale, lacking genuine tension. When the duo got into a disagreement in Japan, it was too early in the picture and it didn’t help that they spent most of the time apart before and after that point. The decision of making Mater the center of the story was not entirely a good one. He was amusing to watch because he was a clown, a stereotypical hillbilly American who hadn’t experienced city life. I loved the scene where he thought that the wasabi was free ice cream. The server put a little dot on his plate. Mater, unimpressed, insisted that the server added more because it was free anyway. Things didn’t go well for the tow truck when he put a plateful of wasabi in his mouth. But the same type of joke was recycled over and over: Mater put himself in an awkward situation and he made a complete fool of himself. I wanted different types and more sources of comedy. What about Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with the vain Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), both on and off the race track? It would have been great if Sally (Bonnie Hunt) was forced to choose between the two celebrities. After all, there was a theme about home life versus life in the fast lane. “Cars 2,” directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, was an unnecessary sequel to a barely mediocre first outing. In the middle of all the car crashes and gasoline versus alternative fuel debates, I started to wonder about the money it took to create the sequel and how that money could’ve been used to make an entirely new Pixar movie with a genuinely moving story and lovable characters.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), Professor of Literature, was invited by the Nazis to write a paper for them about the ethics and humanity of euthanasia not because he had the proper medical background but because they were impressed with his novel which was based on fiction. Because he wanted to advance his career, he accepted an invitation to become an honorary member of the Nazi party despite the fact that he didn’t believe in their ideals. This caused great tension between the professor and his Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs) who became increasingly desperate to leave the country. Mortensen did a wonderful job portraying a complete coward of a man. He was a classic case of a weak boy so seduced by power, he was willing to change everything he stood for just so he could have a taste of it. I detested his choices. He abandoned his wife (Anastasia Hille) and children for one of his students (Jodie Whittaker), irresponsibly left his mother–who everyone thought was suffering from tuberculosis at the time because Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t yet understood–to live by herself, and lacked a sense of loyalty toward his closest friend. I didn’t necessarily detest the man but I wanted to shake some sense into him. However, I wish C.P. Taylor and John Wrathall, the writers, made a clearer case as to why this man’s story had to be told. Vicente Amorim, the director, wasn’t given much to work with; he certainly tried to paint a portrait of a very confused and misguided man, but his attempt didn’t quite capture the reason what made this man’s story so special. Yes, in crucial times of war, people were often driven to do things they wouldn’t normally do, but I couldn’t help but feel like that should only be the surface. There was a redemption arc toward the end but it felt forced and borderline preachy. As Halder became a bigger part of the Nazi party, he began to have auditory and visual hallucinations about people singing to him. It was a symbol of his guilt, maybe byproducts of the warring levels of his psyche. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the hallucinations didn’t arrive at the most inopportune times. They broke the tension instead of helping to increase its momentum. “Good” did not need to have a character we could necessarily root for because I knew the filmmakers wanted to create a cautionary tale. A character could be morally compromised yet we could still learn from his or her mistakes. But it needed to have a defined core as to what made Halder’s story unique. Good acting and direction is for naught if basic building blocks are missing. Taylor and Wrathall’s work may have worked as a play but its full power failed to translate on screen.