Tag: independent movies

Supporting Characters

Supporting Characters (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and Darryl (Tarik Lowe) are hired to edit and make sense of an otherwise terrible light romantic comedy film involving a dog. As they get deeper into the editing process, troubles start to sprout, beginning with Nick being very enamored with the movie’s lead actress, Jamie (Arielle Kebbel), even though he is supposedly in a committed relationship. Darryl’s romantic relationship also sails toward the rocks.

“Supporting Characters,” written by Daniel Schechter and Tarik Lowe, is a movie with plot and events but without raw emotions, deep insights, and intrigue so watching it is a most hollow experience; I could not wait for it to be over. One gets the impression that the writers forget to ask why the two friends’ stories are worth telling. What makes them special other than the fact that they have a pretty cool job?

The supporting characters are not that interesting either. Melonie Diaz plays Darry’s girlfriend and the character is moody and unlikable. The problem is that the screenplay fails to ask why she has these traits or the events that lead up to her being this way. We get the impression that she is unhappy with the relationship but the material does not work at it so that we know the specific details of why it just isn’t working for her.

Sophia Takal plays Nick’s girlfriend and although she is probably the most interesting character of the bunch, Amy does not get enough screen time to warrant the revelations during the final act. Just about everything about the romantic relationship involving the two editors comes off contrived, false, very movie-like despite a small budget.

The movie is about neuroses—which is not interesting when there is no relatable personality behind them. We watch Nick, Darryl, Amy, and Liana try to navigate what it is they want—rather, what we think they think they want because the screenplay has a lot of gaps in terms of characterization—but to what end? Halfway through, we realize that there is no point in telling this story. It is ninety-minutes of deadly dull people who whine a lot but their problems have no heft or substance. I hated spending time with these people.

In terms of Darryl and Nick’s friendship, I did not believe them. There are more than half a dozen scenes between the two of them ending up in a room after an argument or misunderstanding with their girlfriends and every single one of them is empty. The actors share no brotherly chemistry, an element that forces us to believe that despite what happens in their lives, they share the same spirit and thus they will always be drawn to one another. In fact, just about halfway through, I wondered why they were even friends.

Directed by Daniel Schechter, “Supporting Characters” is as cheap emotionally as hard as it tries to look like a cheap television sitcom doomed for cancellation because everyone can see through its glaring pretensions. It is exactly the kind of independent movie I detest—a lot of thought put into how things ought to look but the filmmakers forget that they must have a worthy story to tell.

Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to make a documentary about cults. Blindfolded and put into a van toward an undisclosed location, we can tell almost immediately that it isn’t their first time. They are much too calm for a pair being stripped down of their defenses. In the basement of an unknown location, Peter and Lorna, along with two new recruits, meet Maggie (Brit Marling), the leader of the group. Surprising in that she is young and beautiful, equally surprising is her claim that she is a time traveler from year 2054.

Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” is like sitting across a ticking clock in a room of absolute silence, each click feeling like a portentous communiqué, a countdown to an interaction with a mysterious, possibly sinister, force. The film flourishes in small but calculated scenes that take place in a basement, claustrophobic but bathed in yellow glow served to alleviate suspicion.

Rituals that the cult members go through are bizarre both in terms of concept as well as placidity of those wishing to belong. The brainwashing process is uncomfortable, creepy, and intense. The scene involving an apple forced me to hold my breath in anticipation while my mouth dropped open in disbelief and disgust.

If I were Lorna or Peter, after having witnessed and experienced the physical, emotional and psychological manipulations, I would have relinquished all connection to the group and never looked back. And just when I asked myself what Peter and Lorna hope to get from the experience, the writers are quick to acknowledge why the duo feels, as a team, that they must continue the research.

Marling is quite menacing in portraying the cult leader. When Maggie’s claim of having come from the future is threatened, she lashes out in a subdued manner, a technique much more effective than screaming and yelling. We almost get the feeling that if she lost control of herself, therefore the situation, the chinks in her bewitching facade would become all too visible. That is, if she is, in fact, lying about hopping across time.

Its most engaging aspect is the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth. An array of evidence that support and undermine her claim is presented to us. The fact that there is no answer considered as absolute is its ultimate spell. The way we interpret the events that unfold may say a lot about us and our capacity to think critically, not only in taking into consideration the secrets and implications underneath the topsoil but how conflicting information mirror one another.

What the picture lacks, however, is a strong emotional connection between Peter and Lorna. I never really believed that they are a couple that can face the world together. So when their relationship is threatened by the ramifications of being neck-deep into the cult, it feels too much like a ploy rather than a natural hurdle that they have to overcome. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Zal Batmanglij, the director, has a specific vision and the talent to pull off a feat: to get his audience to question and consider multiple perspectives.

Now let’s return to the ticking clock I mentioned earlier. Imagine if someone had told you, while sitting in a bare room with nothing but four walls, a chair, a table and light, that the clock would set off its alarm in exactly thirty minutes. The problem is, you are never allowed to see the face of the clock nor are you allowed to touch it in any way. And this clock does not produce ticking sounds. So you decide to wait. And wait. How do you know you’re being duped?

On the Ice

On the Ice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

When I think of Alaska, I default in imagining a picture-perfect tundra with a wind chill ferocious enough to force our muscles to work at a maximum capacity in order to generate as much heat as possible to prevent our bodies from turning into meat-flavored popsicles, with moderately-sized igloos and portly eskimos swathed in fur on the foreground. “On the Ice,” written and directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, dispelled my romantic perception of Alaska by drenching its story in Alaska as is, specifically, in a small town that could pass as any other town taken from the heart of America, the only difference being that the land was covered in snow for the most of the year and the sun would not sleep for months at a time. Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) noticed his best friend, Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan), being involved in a physical altercation with James (John Miller) from several feet away. When Qalli tried to stop them, he ended up with Aivaaq’s knife in his hand and accidentally stabbed James in the neck as they fell on the ice. When Aivaaq regained consciousness, who, apparently, had been smoking meth prior to the fight, he became convinced that he was responsible for killing James. Qalli said nothing to correct his friend’s assumption. After panicked deliberation, the duo chose to hide the corpse and the blood-soaked snow. MacLean constructed an increasingly tense thriller by continuing to observe and not judge as the aftermath of the murder, masked as an accident, began arousing suspicions of foul play. I enjoyed watching the inexperience of Qalli and Aivaaq, from the way they cleaned up the crime scene in a hurried and messy manner to the way made up nervous stories that did not quite match whatever evidence was found on the field during the town’s search of the corpse. Still, even though what they did was wrong, I found it strange that I did not want them to get caught. It probably had something to do with the fact that they were so young and had so much potential to be defined simply as a killer or an accessory. Aivaaq recently learned that his girlfriend was with child. Meanwhile, Qalli was leaving for college in four months. Both had something big to lose. But someone had to take responsibility. If James was a member of my family, I would want an answer, even if it was painful, as to what really happened during that seal hunting trip. In the very least, the family of the murdered young man deserved closure. Patkotak impressed me in his believable portrayal of the very conflicted Qalli. He was consistently solid in juggling sadness, guilt, and fear hidden underneath stoicism. The easier path would have been to overact in order to ensure that each of these emotions were being communicated in some way. And yet he downplayed them all–very smart because it was almost like he dared us to look closer into his character. I wanted to know if he felt genuinely sorry for what had happened and understand the mechanisms of how he intended of getting away with accidentally killing somebody. It was a breakthrough performance for a young actor in a feature film and I would love to see his next foray. Under MacLean’s careful writing and direction, we could feel his love for his Alaskan environment and subjects in every square-inch of “On the Ice.” It offered no easy solution which made the experience all the more gripping.

Cold Weather

Cold Weather (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Doug (Cris Lankenau) recently moved in with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), after his passion for forensic science ran out of steam while attending university. While trying to figure out what he should do next, Doug took a job in an ice factory and met Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a nice guy who DJed on the side. When Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), Doug’s ex-girlfriend, didn’t show up to a date she set up with Carlos, the part-time DJ suspected foul play. When he knocked on her motel room to check if she was okay, the lights were on but nobody answered. Aware of Doug’s background in forensic science, Carlos asked for his friend’s skills as a detective. Based on the screenplay and directed by Aaron Katz, “Cold Weather” plastered a smile on my face from beginning to end because I felt its creative freedom pulsating through the screen. While the dialogue wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, I was caught by its rhythm because the characters talked like people I would encounter in the streets. I wanted to get to know them better because they exhibited a certain warmth and positive energy. I loved that the writer-director added scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the mystery. For instance, it showed Doug, Gail, Carlos, and Rachel playing board games. For them, it was a fun Friday night party. I understood because my friends and I were the same way. In a way, the writer-director managed to communicate how personal this movie was to him by placing importance on small, random scenes related to the type of company that one kept. The first forty minutes observed the relationship between Doug and his sister. We found out that although they were very close, like most siblings, they kept secrets from each other. For example, when Gail confessed to her brother that she thought his job in the ice factory was “strange,” there was disappointment in her voice. However, it was easy to tell that the disappointment she expressed came from a loving place. What she really meant was she expected her brother to find a job in a lab, something better than grunt work, because she knew that her brother was capable of something more. As for the mystery involving Rachel’s disappearance, the tension was sometimes unbearable. I was impressed with the way Katz was able to do so much with so little. I held my breath when Doug and Carlos entered Rachel’s hotel room. I expected to see a typical crime scene. Perhaps even blood and other signs of struggle. But the room was relatively clean. Real detective work was required in which the duo had to dig through trash and lie in order to extract information from the motel attendant without coming off as suspicious. But most of the time they did and there was humor to be found in possibly grim situations. I got the impression that “Cold Weather” was proud of what it was. It certainly ought to be for it successfully balanced multiple genres that felt effortless and without compromise.

True Adolescents

True Adolescents (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Amy (Laura Kai Chen) broke up with Sam (Mark Duplass), none of his friends would allow him to temporarily stay at their place. Not having much of a choice, the thirty-four-year-old musician, whose band was on a verge of booking a record deal, called Aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo) for free lodging. Coincidentally, it was the weekend that Oliver (Bret Loehr), Sam’s cousin, was supposed to go camping with his father. However, a last-minute cancellation forced Sam, out of guilt, to accompany Oliver and his best friend, Jake (Carr Thompson), during the trip. “True Adolescents,” written and directed by Craig Johnson, may not have the most creative plot but it nonetheless piqued my curiosity because it was so proud and so open in allowing its characters to behave like any teenager or teenager-at-heart we could randomly pluck off the streets. And because the characters were not given a typical arc in which they were required to learn something from their experiences, I enjoyed watching and listening to them without the need to be on my toes as to when they had reached a turning point. Its naturalistic performances made me feel warm. Particularly impressive was Leo as the caring aunt because although she wasn’t in front of the camera for very long, I felt like I already knew her. This was probably because the spirit that Leo embodied reminded me of my favorite aunt. Whenever I need something, all I’m required to do is ask and problem solved. Leo’s radiant smile, especially when it was directed to Sam, was infectious. During the pauses in their conversations, I wondered what she really thought about her nephew’s unstable life and career choice. Duplass, too, was very easy on the eyes in his own way. Approachable more than typically handsome, his sometimes scathing sarcasm paved the way on how he essentially viewed himself. Like the hormonal teens he had to take care of, he wrestled with a lot of conflicting thoughts about his place in the world and how people valued (or not value) him. Sam, Oliver, and Jake were full of insecurities and the script had a way of letting us feel their anger, frustration, and disappointment when things didn’t go their way. Out of the three, I was able to relate with Jake most. He reminded me of how I was during the first year or two of high school: when confronted with conflict, I chose to walk away, turned inwards, and asked what was about it about me that other people felt like they could get away with treating me like their own emotional punching bag. It was not a good feeling and each time Jake walked off, I knew exactly how he felt: the rage he bottled up inside his scraggy frame and the thirst to unleash it somehow. Jake became my emotional compass. Although there were a lot of uncertainties and vague resolutions, I knew that he would turn out okay just like I did. If there was one thing that “True Adolescents” needed more of, it would be scenes similar to Sam giving Oliver a lecture on what constituted good music. I may not always be on the same wavelength as Sam but we can agree that Sonic Youth is a damn good American alternative rock band.

Jesus Henry Christ

Jesus Henry Christ (2012)
★ / ★★★★

By the time Patricia reached the age of ten, she had to take care of what remained in her family of seven: herself and her father. Her mother died in an fiery accident, her twin brothers died out of stupidity, one brother died from a disease, and another brother left for Canada because he did not want to be drafted to Vietnam. It was the late 90s when toughened Patricia (Toni Collette) had her first child named Henry (Jason Spevack), conceived via a cell culture dish but gifted with a photographic memory so clear, the best universities would be lucky to nurture his capabilities. Out of all the questions in the universe, his efforts focused on finding the identity of his father. Based on the screenplay and directed by Dennis Lee, “Jesus Henry Christ” was an especially exasperating experience to sit through because its potential was wasted so systemically through one cute, precious, and quirky scene after another. Instead of focusing on the human factor while improbable coincidences occurred for the sake of plot convenience, a way of giving it a semblance of realism, it was more focused on style than substance. What I wanted was simple: to feel the bond between a mother and son, one symbolized experience and the other raw potential, respectively. As more characters were introduced by the script, naturally, more conflict ensued. Dr. O’Hara (Michael Sheen) was a renowned author who published a book, more or less, about her daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), called “Born Gay or Made That Way?”. Because of his work, Audrey had to endure tremendous amount of bullying at school, her peers calling her “lesbo,” especially from an obnoxious classmate in Physics class. Dr. O’Hara was a person of interest because he could very well be Henry’s biological father. It also meant that Henry could have a half-sister. While the two families eventually met, it was strange that the material never became all that interesting. More people spoke but their words held little weight. More people took up space in each scene but there was no comedy or drama. Everything was just passive as if each character was simply sleepwalking through this amazing thing that was unfolding right before their eyes. My biggest frustration, character-wise, was that Patricia and Dr. O’Hara were supposed to be smart adults. Why not just sit down and ask each other the difficult but necessary questions in order them–and us–to be able to move on? How did they really feel, as parents and as single adults, about being thrusted into such an awkward situation? These questions, among others, needed to be addressed because although its narrative was so twee to the point of distraction, their world was rooted in reality. Since those questions were essentially overlooked, why make the movie in the first place? If its point was to be cute, I could very much have just gone to the park and played with cute dogs. At least I would’ve gotten fresh air. As for Henry, because the character was established so poorly, whenever he stood next to Audrey with her bright red hair, big dark eyes, and undisturbed solemnity, he disappeared. His genius meant nothing because he had no presence. “Jesus Henry Christ” made me want to shout profanities at it because about halfway through I began to feel like my time was being stolen and trampled on.

The Craving

The Craving (2008)
★ / ★★★★

Five friends (Grayson Berry, Jesse C. Boyd, Anselm Clinard, Wallis Herst, Lesley Paterson) were on their way to an art event, but they got lost after the driver decided to take a shortcut. Desperate for directions, they headed to a remote house but the owner fired his shotgun and caused the car to turn over. With one of them wounded and the shooter dead, a hungry creature in the desert saw the unsuspecting twenty-somethings as food. “The Craving,” written by Curtis Krick and directed by Sean Dillon, started off in a typical manner but I was fairly entertained. Even I have to admit that there’s something comfortable and exciting when it comes to the tried-and-true formula of people on a road trip needing gas. Naturally, the characters seemed like they hadn’t seen a single slasher film. We relish that we’re smarter than them. For instance, we knew that not all of them were going to make it in the end. My main problem with the film was its inefficient use of its time. There were far too many sex scenes and only one was effective. Since the shooter’s body was in the shack, the protagonists decided to sleep outside. There were three tents and two of which contained a couple having sex. When one of the girls heard a howl, which somewhat resembled a coyote, there was a certain cheekiness about the manner in which the scene unfolded. Something as animalistic as sex evolved into something bloody and grizzly–a good way for the first character to be killed off. But once the remaining four found refuge inside the shack, the picture became less exciting. There was one interesting detail involving the scent that the creature emitted which caused the characters to throw logic out the window and became easier targets. However, the creature’s way of luring its targets were not explored. Like George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” although with considerably less tension, the protagonists were stuck in one place. Most of the horror happened at night. Unfortunately, the cameras weren’t powerful enough to deliver sharp images. It was very difficult to see what was happening even if the camera was still. When it moved, images were barely recognizable. I was aware of the budget constraints, but a limited budget does not free the filmmakers from their responsibilities. The director should have communicated with the writer that the images were difficult to see if shot at night. Hence, perhaps the writer should have altered the script to take place in daylight. When the elements align perfectly and form a synergy, it’s a possible to create a solid horror film set in the day. Maybe if we could have seen more of the creature, the film would have been scarier. “The Craving” wasn’t egregious but the filmmakers certainly could have done more to make the movie more bearable. Instead of seeing the technical aspects that didn’t quite work as a challenge and rising above it, it seemed like the filmmakers were out of their depths.


Ink (2009)
★ / ★★★★

John (Christopher Soren Kelly) was ordered to have no contact with his daughter, Emma (Quinn Hunchar), after an ugly custody battle with his wife’s parents. Come nightfall, Emma’s consciousness was abducted by a deformed creature named Ink. Ink’s plan was to use Emma as a sacrifice and earn his status as an Incubus, a powerful being who had the ability to give people nightmares. Several Storytellers (Jessica Duffy, Jennifer Batter, Eme Ikwuakor, Shelby Malone), whose jobs involved giving humans positive dreams, and a blind Pathfinder (Jeremy Make) tried to locate Ink and return the girl’s consciousness to the land of the living. Written and directed by Jamin Winans, “Ink” snagged my attention with ease because it had ambition. Its first half-hour was effective because of the way it introduced key players such as the Incubi and Storytellers. The contrast between good and bad dreams was simple but I appreciated that it paid close attention to details. The content of dreams tend to vary with age. For instance, an elderly lady dreamed of winning Bingo multiple times while a young boy saw himself as being a rock star playing his guitar in front of rabid fans. But the film became less compelling as it focused on John’s failure of being a father. When he learned that his daughter fell into a coma, his initial reaction was not to see her immediately. He claimed to love his daughter, but he couldn’t get past the fact that he lost the custody battle which happened years prior. The grandfather actually begged him to see Emma but John was more worried about his next big meeting. The writing lacked complexity so John’s reaction didn’t feel emotionally honest. His character arc seemed infantile at best. I place particular emphasis on the human aspect of the film because the father-daughter relationship, or lack thereof, was the emotional core of the picture. It should have been well-defined because it was supposed to be the element that held together subplots like the war between Incubi and Storytellers. As for the scenes involving martial arts, there were far too many of them. There was no variation in the location of physical confrontations. The actors moved but they seemed stuck in one place. I understand that there were budget constraints, but there are certain ways to make it look like battle scenes naturally progressed from Point A to Point B. Instead of another martial arts scene, I yearned for a quiet moment that explained a Pathfinder’s purpose. He just looked foolish with, literally, tape over his eyes. He was supposed to be a key figure in rescuing the little girl, but I couldn’t take him all that seriously. If he didn’t have tape over his eyes, I imagined he would’ve winked at the camera for some kind of approval. “Ink” did not work as a movie, but it could have worked as a short-lived television show. Its screenplay did not match the level of its ambition.

Don’t Go in the Woods

Don’t Go in the Woods (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Nick (Matt Sbeglia) decided to go to the woods with his bandmates (Jorge Jorgensen, Soomin Lee, Casey Smith, Nick Thorp) so they could write some songs in peace and quiet. Being isolated from girls and weed, he figured they wouldn’t have as much of an urge to mess around and accomplish nothing. Five songs was what they needed for an EP, but a deranged madman with a sledgehammer roamed the woods and threatened to take them out one by one. “Don’t Go in the Woods,” based on the screenplay by Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra, was a depressingly spineless horror-musical, another excuse to create a pile of dead teenagers. If one could point at a similarity between horror movies and musicals, it would be their energy. Traditionally, they have a sense of fun–the suspense sandwiched between images meant to incite terror and the joie de vivre expressed by characters through shaking their bodies and exercising their vocal cords in musicals. In here, the characters mostly huddled among the campfire, gave each other flirtatious looks when the girls inevitably arrived–after all, what kind of a horror movie would it be if screaming women, sadly only seen as here targets to be sliced and diced into submission–and sung songs that felt so interminable, I actually wanted the serial killer to jump out from the bushes to give the unsuspecting twenty-somethings one good scare. I caught one or two of them looking bored which I laughed at because I felt exactly the same way. Even though I came to enjoy one or two songs, especially the first song performed around the campfire, there were long stretches when I craved to laugh at something else because I grew tired at noting the script’s frustrating lack of logic. For example, I didn’t understand why the band knowingly gave Carson (Bo Boddie), the person who was supposed to get them a record deal, the wrong direction to the rendezvous point. Was a little thing called professionalism worth anything to these greasy-haired indie rockers? Furthermore, naturally, the cell phone situation had to be dealt with. At one point, one of the girls suggested that they called for help because some of their friends started to go missing. Some agreed that this was the right thing to do; I caught myself nodding in approval. But day turned to night and no one bothered to make one call to the police or to the people back home. Why? Because the material conveniently relied on clichés ingrained in the genre and mistaken them for camp. I sensed a growing cynicism as the film went on. Why couldn’t the writers have bothered to make interesting characters? More importantly, why weren’t they shown to wield weapons when their lives were threatened? If I were stuck in the woods and being hunted by a psychopath, you can bet that I’d have some of weapon with me at all times, whether I was hiding in an unsuspecting thicket or up in a tree either until helped arrived or the killer assumed everyone was dead. A little bit pragmatism could’ve gone a long way and the filmmakers didn’t even try. Directed by Vincent D’Onofrio, “Don’t Go in the Woods” was heavy on the songs but the songs didn’t stand out. The supposed scares didn’t stand out either. In the least, its overall lack of creativity was exasperating.


Happythankyoumoreplease (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sam Wexler (Josh Radnor), on his way to an opportunity that could get his novel published, met a boy (Michael Algieri) who was accidentally left by his foster parents on the subway. Feeling responsible because he was the only witness, Sam planned to take Rasheen to the police station, but the boy said he didn’t want to go back. Sam sensed that there was something wrong, perhaps an abusive household, so he unwisely took Rasheen to his apartment and allowed him to stay there indefinitely. Despite his friends’ concerns, Sam failed to contact the proper authorities. Written and directed by Josh Radnor, “Happythankyoumoreplease” was an interesting look at late twenty-something New Yorkers as they tried to figure out what they wanted in life. The conflict was between romantic love and career, but the factors that lie in between were far more fascinating. Although I’ve seen its specific type of comedy-drama, there was something endearing about it because there were small details in all characters that felt honest. For example, Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) wanted to move to Los Angeles to expand his career while Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) hoped to stay in New York because it was her home. I liked the way Radnor allowed the characters to discuss why they felt like moving or staying was the better option. Although they were young, Mary Catherine and Charlie were adults. Real problems almost always don’t have easy solutions because solutions sometimes depend on perspective. There was also Annie (Malin Akerman), inflicted with an autoimmune disorder, and her bad taste in men. She just couldn’t seem to find someone who was ready to settle down. Like most of us, she clings to her expectations about her ideal partner: funny, kind, and good-looking. In reality, with a little bit of luck, one can find someone who embodies two out of the three qualities. Annie met Sam #2 (Tony Hale), the plain-looking guy in the office who kept trying to make conversation with her. Initially, she just brushed him off because he didn’t have the three aforementioned qualities. Through their interactions, she learned a thing or two about herself. More importantly, it did so without the material hammering us over the head. The one thing I loved about the movie was in the way it portrayed friendship. Notice that despite the ups and downs in the characters’ lives, friendship was the one constant element. I thought the underlying message was if you have friends–real friends, like the ones you can hang out with any day of the week and talk about absolutely anything–everything should be okay. I liked that message because even though it may not be true all the time, it had truth in it . “Happythankyoumoreplease” made me feel happy, grateful, and yearning for more. It didn’t offer anything new but it served as a nice reminder of the sunnier things life can offer if we welcome it with a smile and open arms.

She’s Gotta Have It

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) had three boyfriends: mild-mannered Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), funny-man Mars (Spike Lee), and narcissistic Greer (John Canada Terrell). What was refreshing about “She’s Gotta Have It,” written, edited, and directed by Spike Lee, was its attitude toward real relationships and how real people would react given a set of real circumstances. The picture didn’t pretend about knowing all the answers either. Sometimes its characters made decisions that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to us, thereby highlighting its themes of individuality and independence. Most of us are familiar with situations like a friend going back to her ex-boyfriend even though, from our perspective, the transgression seems unforgivable. Since each of the men knew that Nola kept her options open, there was no syrupy drama regarding the rules of dating, usually noxious to the comedy genre involving finding and losing romance. Nola wasn’t perfect but she wasn’t stupid either. Upon first glance, one would wonder why she would be attracted to someone like Mars. Apart from his scrawny physical appearance, he wasn’t financially successful like Greer nor was he as sensitive to a woman’s physical and emotional needs like Jamie. But upon closer examination, when the camera focused on Nola and Mars spending time together, having a good time in bed, and talking about silly things, it was easy to see that Mars had something to offer. Unlike Greer or Jamie, Mars was a natural pill of happiness. We’ve all been around someone, whether that someone is a friend or something more, who seems to just lift up our spirits so effortlessly. The unexplainable click is the magic that allows a relationship to go beyond looks and measures of success. I admired the film because it took the time in carefully getting to know each of the main player yet it kept enough surprises along the way that reminded us that although a person’s flaws might irritate us to the bone, flaws also keep us interested. Spice is interesting; perfection is boring. But what made me love the film was its honest attitude about sex. Here was a movie about adults dealing with adult problems. Instead traversing a puerile avenue in terms of being physically intimate with another person–a fart joke here, a penis joke there–the images utilized made a case that sex was an expression of, not necessarily love, but ownership of a moment in time when a man and woman were in charge of what made them feel good. Yes, the sex scenes were shot in slow motion and there was nudity, but they were never gratuitous. If anything, the techniques employed were loyal to the film’s encompassing themes about self-empowerment. One character that did not get enough screen time, however, was Opal (Raye Dowell), a lesbian who was attracted to Nola. Nola asked Opal what it felt like to be with another woman. Opal confided just enough in order to keep the mystery, hoping that she would successfully bed her curious friend. “She’s Gotta Have It” was smart and fiercely eloquent. Don’t be fooled by its black-and-white cinematography. Its scope, concepts, and execution were as pavonine as a sixty-four pack of Crayola crayons.


Ceremony (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Michael Angarano) was a twenty-three-year-old children’s book writer who decided to drag Marshall (Reece Thompson), his best friend, to the seaside so that they could spend some time together since they hadn’t seen each other in about a year. But Sam had ulterior motives: the real reason why he dragged Marshall along was to sneak into Zoe’s (Uma Thurman) wedding, his pen pal, and confess his love for her. When Sam met the husband-to-be, Whit (Lee Pace), a conceited documentary filmmaker, Whit invited Sam and his friend to stay and celebrate over the weekend. I appreciated “Ceremony,” written and directed by Max Winkler, for trying to be different but I’m afraid it was just unfunny and dull. Most of the characters were unlikable, which was fine, but they had to be interesting if we were asked to invest our precious time to dig beyond the surface. I didn’t understand why Sam and Marshall were friends. Sam was controlling, cruel, and acted like he was better than his friend just because he was published. Marshall was weak, unnecessarily fixated on the fact that he was pistol-whipped months prior, and so quirky that it was distracting. Perhaps the only time I thought they were remotely interesting and amusing was when they acknowledged the growing homoeroticism between them. But my main problem was I found no reason for the story to be told. The plot element that drove the story forward was Sam’s infatuation with an older woman. If Zoe had taken Sam aside and seriously talked to him about overstepping his boundaries, the picture would have been over at its thirty-minute mark. Eventually, we reached the key conversation but the scenes prior felt contrived. Sam and Marshall’s attempt to hook up with random women at the party was cliché and, in my opinion, the approach was disrespectful and mean-spirited. They thought that it would be easy to lure an older woman to bed because older women are desperate for attention especially from younger men. I’m sure the mindset is not at all atypical especially with words like “MILF” being tossed around with utter disregard in our culture, but it could have been more sensitive. Just because Sam and Marshall looked young, they didn’t have to behave like they had low IQs. Sometimes a bit of insight could go a long way. There was one scene I thought was honest. That is, when Zoe finally told Sam the reason why Whit invited the author and his friend to stay. It was the kind of honesty that was difficult to swallow but at the same time it was exactly what Sam needed so that, potentially, he would realize that unreciprocated love wasn’t the end of the world. “Ceremony” brashly tackled big emotions but the small details involving human behavior to make drama work were absent. With slight alterations in the screenplay, it would have worked as a comedy of manners.

A Bag of Hammers

A Bag of Hammers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) made a living by pretending to be valet parking attendants at a cemetery. As soon as the unsuspecting grieving people handed the car keys to one of them, Ben and Alan picked up their “Free Valet Parking” sign, loaded it in the car, and drove the vehicle to a car shop owned by Marty (Todd Louiso). Marty would then pay the duo thousands of dollars, all part of a day’s work. When Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), moved in next to the crooks’ house, it became increasingly obvious that Kelsey was being neglected. “A Bag of Hammers,” written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano, was a comedy-drama with some good ideas but since its characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the revelatory scenes that were supposedly charged with intense emotions didn’t feel entirely convincing nor earned. The script did a good job establishing that Alan and Ben were goofballs. The early scenes which involved the two of them pulling scams were mildly amusing. The actors benefited greatly from their charming looks. If Ben and Alan were played by buff guys with tattoos, there would be nothing funny about their actions. But what was the true nature of Ben and Alan’s relationship? The two lived together. They didn’t date anyone. Ben had an ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) but hell freezing over had a better chance than the two of them getting back together. Understanding their relationship, in which one could either translate as a romance or a bromance, was of particular importance because of the happenings in the latter half. We learned that Ben and Alan had difficult upbringings, but I wasn’t convinced that their partnership, as vague as it was, was strong enough to be able to relate to the kid being abused by his mother. Alan and Ben’s struggles were different–though it isn’t to suggest any less serious–and potentially moving, but since the script did not allow us to get to know them openly and in consistently meaningful ways, a strong emotional bridge wasn’t established as they tried to convince Kelsey that they could relate to what he was going through. Luckily for the film, Preston did a wonderful job portraying a woman who was drowning–drowning in poverty, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Each time her face, so tired and forlorn, was front and center, especially during her job interviews, every part of her screamed desperation, from her nervous yet glowering eyes to her very tense shoulders. It was scary and sad when she entered the house in a rage and Kelsey just sat in the kitchen, living off another Monster Energy drink for dinner. The moments when I felt something real–something visceral–most often involved the scenes of mother and son. Another interesting but underdeveloped character was Mel (Rebecca Hall), a waitress at a diner and Alan’s sister. Although she was the voice of reason with an air of seriousness about her, I liked it when she smiled. You could tell she was smart, so why not give her funnier and wittier things to say? Directed by Brian Crano, for all of the weaknesses of “A Bag of Hammers,” it managed to hit some emotional truths. It felt right that our sympathies were almost never toward Ben and Alan but always for the boy trapped by the cards he’d been given.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.