Du levande (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, “Du levande” or “You, the Living” painted an inspired picture of how the tragic moments in our lives were almost always counter-balanced with small and often unexpected comedic events. What I loved about this film was it felt as though anything could happen. Characters even broke out in song. Despite the ordinariness of the individuals at first glance, highlighted by the nondescript rooms and the dominance of the color gray in every frame, there was magic in each of their circumstances. Some scenes were solely played for laughs such as the Arabian barber and the businessman who was far from being in a great mood. Some were incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. For instance, the couple who were having sex but only one was really into it. Others were downright pointless like a man cleaning glass windows. However, quite a handful were fascinating. I loved the couple in which the woman complained about everything wrong in her life while the man tried to endure her interminable tirades. At first glance, I thought she was just a spoiled woman who desperately needed a hobby (and perhaps a better sex life). But as the film went on, I actually grew to like her. It turned out that she was aware of her actions, that she may at times come off as selfish, and she knew that she was loved by those around her. The one that moved me most was the psychiatrist who spoke directly to the camera (and to us) and confessed that after twenty-seven years of practice, turning a mean person into a happy one was an impossible task. The only way to really “cure” them or to mask their unhappiness was to give them drugs. In the doctors own words, “the stronger, the better.” I thought it was an honest moment and ultimately a stronger message that lingers in the mind than the popular belief that all people in the medical field find it so rewarding to help people. Finally, there was Anna (Jessika Lundberg), a regular fan girl, who fell in love with Micke (Eric Bäckman), a boy who played in a band. Personally, the highest point of the film was when she recalled a dream she had about their wedding day. Throughout the scene of Anna looking beautiful in her wedding dress and Micke looking handsome in his rock star ensemble, I had a silly smile on my face. On top of that, there was a neat imagery in which their apartment moved like a train and, from their window, we could see strangers clamoring to offer their congratulations and best wishes. I wished the scene did not have to come to an end. It made me want to believe in romance all over again. “Du levande” was successful at embodying an unconventional stream of consciousness with images that crackle and pop with originality and earnestness. It may have been on another language but the emotions it conveyed overcame such boundaries.
Please Give (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A married couple (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt) living in New York City bought the apartment next door in hopes of expanding their home. All they had to do was to await the death of their elderly neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) so they could move in and make the necessary changes. But the old woman, helped by her two granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet), did not seem to show any sign of passing away any time soon. “Please Give,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, was an effective comedy, which at times made me feel uneasy, because it showcased unlikable people doing and saying things that were, in the least, inappropriate. In others words, it captured real life. Even though it made me feel uncomfortable, I constantly laughed because I could imagine myself making the same decisions as the characters did here. Many scenes were familiar. For instance, while at a restaurant or a diner, we could hear banal conversations of others from a few tables away. There were also scenes where the characters expressed, without holding back, their anger toward their grandparents without regard for people, mostly strangers, who just happened to be there. I liked its honesty despite how painful certain truths were. I also enjoyed how I wasn’t quite sure whether the director was being emotionally sincere or poking fun at the characters as it moved from one scene to another. When Keener decided to volunteer for mentally challenged kids, on one hand, I was touched because I was reminded of the time when I used to volunteer at an Alzheimer’s facility. On some level, I felt like she was serious about wanting to commit and make a difference on those children’s lives. On the other hand, I thought it was very amusing because Keener’s character was such an insecure person but was not even aware of it. She felt like helping the world (she found giving money to homeless people rewarding) but she had important unresolved issues such as her guilt regarding her job and her increasingly difficult relationship with her pimply-faced teenage daughter (Sarah Steele). When the material became emotionally complex, I thought it was at its best. “Please Give” focused on people’s insecurities and their inability to deal with the way they saw themselves compared to how they thought the world perceived them. Best of all, in order to remain honest with the material, the ending gave a sufficient sense of closure to its characters without being melodramatic or heavy-handed. It felt just right because, while not every problem was solved, I felt like the characters would continue to be a work in progress.
Messenger, The (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.
Mission, La (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Bratt, “La mission” told the story of the way a hypermasculine ex-convict (Benjamin Bratt) dealt with reality when he found out that his son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) was gay and had been going out with another guy (Max Rosenak). I liked that the movie managed to capture how painful it was to reluctantly come out of the closet but the movie took it one step further and begged the question of whether love really was unconditional. I easily identified with the intense scene when the son was trapped in a corner and he had no choice but to admit to his father about his lifestyle, all the while completely aware that his father would not take the news lightly. Something similar happened to me not that long ago and watching that scene made me tear up and I found myself feeling the need to pause the movie and walk around the house a bit. I thought the picture had an elegance in the way it handled the scenes where the father took his son back into their home but the father did whatever it took to avoid dealing with the situation. Since he had a violent past and a history with alcoholism, which still haunted him, I rarely agreed with his style of parenting. However, it was almost always clear to me that he cared about his son. He just did not know any other way to deal with his problems. Bratt’s acting was key because he then had to maneuver between holding onto his past and trying to deal with his son’s sexuality. I thought he did an excellent job because I managed to empathize with him despite his many unquestionably bad decisions. Instead of watching the movie through the eyes of the person coming out of the closet, we had a chance to see it through the person dealing with the news. I thought it was a refreshing perspective but it was sometimes difficult to sit through because I experienced his hatred as if that hatred was directed to me. I also liked the romance that developed between the father and the neighbor (Erika Alexander) who worked at a women’s shelter. I liked that she, too, was tough when she needed to, but she had control over her toughness which was completely unlike the man who was interested in her. But just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, the movie surprised me once again and reminded me that there wasn’t such a thing as someone changing over night. It requires effort and sometimes slipping back into one’s habits when things looked very dim. “La mission” had many elements going for it but the most that stood out to me was its honesty. It was honest with its characters and their complex psychologies, the neighborhood in San Francisco where the story took place and, most importantly, it was honest with its audiences. Despite its difficult and sometimes painful subject matter, it treated us with intelligence.
Greatest, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.
10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Barry Levinson, “Diner” was about a group of friends verging on adulthood who constantly tried to find a distinction between marriage and being in love with a woman. I adored this film greatly because I felt like the guys were the kind of people I could talk to. Even though they were silly and talked about the most unimportant things, they were very entertaining and each had a distinct personality. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) was about to get married, Boogie (Mickey Rourke–who I did not recognize at all) was a womanizer, Modell (Paul Reiser) got on everyone’s nerves, Tim (Kevin Bacon) had issues with his brother, and Shrevie (Daniel Stern) was addicted to music. But my favorite was Billy (Tim Daly), Eddie’s best man, because he was the most mysterious of the group. His interactions with Eddie had a certain feeling of sensitivity to it; the look he portrayed in his eyes made me think that he harbored a secret and I desperately wanted to know what it was. While they all had separate personalities, I liked that Levinson surprised us somewhere in the middle. The picture seemed to have flipped itself inside out and showcased something unexpected about them. For instance, Tim turned out to be someone who was genuinely intelligent despite his sometimes unwise decisions. The biggest strength and weakness of this film was its many colorful characters. Since there were so many of them, I was never bored because it jumped from one perspective to another with relative ease. But at the same time, I wished it had less characters so it could have had the chance to dig deeper within the characters’ psychologies. Nevertheless, “Diner” was very funny because the guys had chemistry. Their interactions made me think of nights when my friends and I would hang out at Denny’s, talk about the most random things, tease each other, and eat until it was either difficult for us to breathe or our mouths were simply exhausted from talking. So I felt like the movie really captured how it was like to be considered as an adult (over eighteen) but not quite reach the maturity level of a real adult. “Diner” is a deftly crafted picture with intelligence despite the dirty jokes, characters who are easy to identify with and a script that flows and sounds natural. I always feel the need to say that a movie may not be for everyone only because the movie is heavy on dialogue. But I think this film is an exception because it knows how to have fun but remain honest so the audiences can feel like they’re part of the inner circle instead of simply eavesdropping from another table.
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four friends (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles) decided to move in together after graduation. The thing was, they still lived very close to campus because they couldn’t quite let go of college and they still weren’t ready to face the “real world” for various reasons. What I appreciated most about this film was its honesty. Although it had many quotable one-liners and very funny dry humor, all of it almost always felt secondary so it didn’t feel gimmicky. It felt modern but realistic. The core of the movie was always at the forefront: the four friends feeling lost and the way they tried to deal with the pressures of essentially getting stuck at a specific point in their lives. I liked the fact that the four characters were smart and had potential to be great yet they found themselves hanging out in the same places and having the same kinds of conversations about literature and pop culture. This was highlighted by a girl always telling them that they talked the same. There was a certain sadness about it all because the characters constantly avoided the main issue of lacking the motivation to pursue their potential. Instead, they distracted themselves by magnifying every small problem to instill some sort of meaning in their lives. Another element I thought was interesting was Eric Stoltz who played a tenth-year student. The four characters recognized that they didn’t want to end up like him yet time and again they made decisions that would most likely lead them in the same path. “Kicking and Screaming,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a story of postcollege angst for astute individuals who are willing to look past the surface and extract meaning from certain glances and dialogues. I read a review stating that this movie was simply a series of random scenes of twenty-two-year-olds being lazy and it didn’t come together in the end. I disagree in some ways. While it did feature random scenes that didn’t add up to anything, I think those scenes reflected the characters’ inner turmoil of not knowing what to do with their lives. After an expensive education, everyone sort of expected them to do something meaningful. Because of the paralyzing fear of living up to people’s expectations, they became stuck; each day blended against the other and the fact that they did the same thing every day didn’t help their situation. As for the way the picture ended, I thought it was borderline great. There was something heartbreaking about that scene in the airport yet something so sweet about the Hamilton’s conversation with the girl who liked to give people money if she believed she wasted their time. “Kicking and Screaming” is not for everyone because it’s heavy on dialogue and Baumbach lets the audiences derive meaning from it instead of spoon-feeding us what to think and feel.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.
Paper Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This mockumentary chronicles Charlyne Yi’s quest to find love. Just when Yi was convinced that she would never feel the passion of romance because there was something innately wrong with her, she met Michael Cera and sparks immediately flew. But it wasn’t all fun and games because the presence of the cameraman and director (Nicholas Jasenovec) eventually put a strain on their relationship. I don’t understand why I lot of people hated this movie. I thought it was funny, honest and cute even though the scenes that involved the paper dolls were a little corny. What I love most about this picture was not the relationship between Cera and Yi. It was the many different types of people she interviewed from all kinds of race, gender, sexuality, age and the stories and point of views they had to offer. There was something genuinely honest about this film and that’s why it won me over even though it did have its flaws. Unlike most romantic comedies out there, this movie didn’t have dramatic arcs. It simply constituted a series of scenes that eventually forced Yi to look inside herself and realize that her not finding or not feeling romantic love has got nothing to do with emotional or chemical defectiveness. There’s a good message embedded in this film for those on the same page as Yi. That is, if you actively look for love every minute of the day, it’s never going to come. But if you just open yourself up to the value of experience, sooner or later, without even realizing it, it just might happen. As a person who doesn’t really care about being in relationships or finding “the one,” I can honestly say that I thought this movie was not going to be entertaining. I was so wrong; I actually saw Yi from under a different light. She’s not just an annoying girl who thinks she’s a comedienne who happens to make YouTube videos. There was a simplicity about her reflected in her reckless abandon. The awkwardness between her and Cera, especially the scene in the diner, was very amusing and relatable. Admittedly, I thought the last fifteen minutes of the movie could have been a lot stronger but the rest of it was strong and it made me feel warm. It’s been a while since I smiled so much while watching a movie.