You, the Living (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.
The Messenger (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.
La Mission (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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, “Heathers” was an addictively delicious dark comedy starring Winona Ryder as Veronica, one of the four most popular girls in school (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker–all named Heather), who suddenly began to question her friends’ actions toward the less popular and less accepted. She eventually met the appropriately named J.D. (Christian Slater), a charming rebel who I thought represented Veronica’s id. During their time together, they came up with ways to murder those who made everyone’s life in high school a living hell. What they did not expect was, due to the poignant suicide notes they wrote, the dead teenagers became more popular than ever. My favorite element that defined the film was the laugh-out-loud one-liners. I just couldn’t help but laugh after hearing them because, despite the lines spelling out some gruesome imagery, they sounded natural (especially if they’re being spewed out by mean girls) and we remember them over time because we don’t hear anyone normally talking like the way they did. I admired the writer and director’s audacity to show the stupidities of all students (including our protagonist) and how unprepared/insensitive the faculties were when a student committed suicide. I thought “Heathers” was honest despite its histrionics. In high school, when someone from our school died, we held discussions in classrooms after morning announcements and sometimes acknowledged “the situation” during assemblies. But in the end, only a handful of people genuinely cared while others just couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so they (or we) would be dismissed. Talks of how “sad” the majority of students were about “what happened” was just something we felt we had to do either to pass the time or we felt as if it was the appropriate social response. However, my main problem with “Heathers” was it eventually began to lose focus of the big picture. Doherty’s boldness to eventually capture the newly available throne (even the “Heathers” clique had a hierarchy) was a little too late for me. I would have liked to have seen more scenes of her demonstrating how toxic and vile she could be especially to those who she considered her “friends.” Nevertheless, the movie managed to regain its focus toward the end when our protagonist finally decided to face (but not necessarily correct) her mistakes. I concur when others claim that “Heathers” is one of the best dark comedies about high school. Teen movies that aimed to copy its success could only admire from afar the essence of its vitriolic dialogues and metaphorical imageries.
The Greatest (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.