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.
Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.
Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.
Tiny Furniture (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aura (Lena Dunham) had recently graduated from college. And like most college grads, she found herself moving back home due to financial limitations. However, her mom, Nadine (Grace Dunham), and sister, Siri (Laurie Simmons), didn’t seem at all zealous of Aura’s recent decision. Nadine was busy with her work as a successful photographer and high school student Siri was on the process of choosing which university to attend in the fall. Aura was stuck. Everyone knew it including herself. “Tiny Furniture,” written and directed by Lena Dunham, was a vibrant and realistic portrait of post-college life. Aura may have come from a rich family, given that a massive studio was essentially their home, but it found a way to be relatable by highlighting our protagonist’s frustration whenever someone tried to reach out and implied the question of what was next for her. The fact is, she didn’t know. Her degree in Film Theory seemed rather worthless. And that scared her. Though she responded with superficial calm and ease with friendliness to spare, sentiments of being a failure brewed inside her. The film astutely used comedy as a distraction for Aura. By attending a friend’s party, she met Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a semi-YouTube sensation whose videos were supposed to be witty but ultimately inaccessible because the subjects he tackled were too Nietzsche-ian, esoteric. Our main character was desperate to reconnect with someone romantically because she had recently gone through a break-up. By sleeping with him and hopefully snagging a new boyfriend, perhaps she thought it was proof that she wasn’t defective, that she was good enough. Aura also reconnected with a British “best friend,” Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a party-loving girl whom Aura hadn’t spoken to in years. I loved watching Charlotte because she was the total opposite of Aura. She led an uncontrolled, candid, hedonistic existence–qualities that Aura was both cautious of and attracted to at the same time. And then there was Aura’s unrewarding day job as a hostess in a restaurant. It was boring given that all she had to do was answer calls and transcribe reservations on a notebook, so she had plenty of time to awkwardly flirt with a chef, Keith (David Call), who happened to have a girlfriend. Unlike Jed the artist, Keith the cook seemed to reciprocate her feelings. Was it a good idea to mix business with pleasure? “No” is almost always the answer, but maybe it was exactly what Aura needed. Like all successful comedies, the film had a solid footing on its more dramatic strands. For instance, the jealousy between the sisters was apparent. Siri had recently received a prestigious award for one of her angst-ridden poems. There were a handful of scenes when they held screaming matches and rolled eyes at each other. Still, what resonated with me most was the bathroom scene in which Aura, while shaving her legs, asked her sibling personal questions about her sex life. Maybe the reason why it did was it made me jealous of what they had. I certainly can’t talk about stuff like that with my brother. Even though there was jealousy between them, it was apparent that there was love, too. “Tiny Furniture” was appropriately titled because Aura was exactly that at this point in her life. Furnitures are normally used for practicality like sitting on or putting books in. But the tiny furnitures that Aura’s mother photographed could handle very little pressure, if any, only to be admired by their aesthetics.
Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007 (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
2007 was one of my favorite years for movies released in the year 2000s because independent movies demanded to be noticed. My top ten favorite movies from that year largely consisted of indie films. Mario Diaz’ documentary discussed the hard work in getting independent movies financed, the long and arduous process of making such films, and hopefully getting them picked up by studios for wider distribution. It also highlighted the role of the renowned Gotham Awards in putting the spotlight on indie pictures so they could have a chance to be seen by audiences all over the world. Some successful passion projects included (but not limited to) Sean Penn’s free-spirited “Into the Wild,” the Coen Brothers’ ruthless “No Country for Old Men,” Tamara Jenkins’ vitriolic and wildly amusing “The Savages,” Todd Haynes’ philosophical “I’m Not There,” and Jason Reitman’s verbal exercise that was “Juno.” On the other side of the spectrum, although it did win key Gotham Awards, movies like Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” didn’t quite captivate audiences in a worldwide scale. It was great to hear from the aforementioned filmmakers about what their movie meant to them. It was a nice reminder, especially for people like myself who watch hundreds of movies each year, that every film should be approached with an open mind. And if it somehow underwhelms us, it’s important to treat it with respect and explain why, in our opinion, it just didn’t work for us. Because all movies, whether they be good or bad in our eyes, have a story to them. The directors, the crew, the actors, and the producers take the time and the money to create something that would hopefully pass as a work of art. I think my love for independent feature films stemmed from the similar themes they so often tackled: identity, one’s place in the world, one’s relationship with others, and the way an individual received, processed, evaluated information, and how one’s thought differed from one’s actions. Independent movies appeal to me because I was going through those very same themes back in the tenth grade when I was just beginning to see movies as more than a source of entertainment. I was drawn to their daring subject matter, complex characterizations, and shocking honesty. I think that parallel will always be a part of the way I see motion pictures. That’s why I always lend a critical eye to the characters and the way they attempt to deal with and adapt to their specific circumstances. The documentary also shed light to the fact that women filmmakers weren’t as high profile and prolific as their male counterparts. It’s unfortunate because I strongly believe that women, in some ways, view things differently than men and it will benefit the world if women’s visions are shared just as equally as men’s. “Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007” needed an extra thirty to forty minutes for more in-depth exploration, but it managed to tackle many interesting ideas with the time that it had.
The Cottage (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.
Middle of Nowhere (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Middle of Nowhere” was an indie drama about two teenagers who wanted to escape their lives. Dorian (Anton Yelchin) was sick of his wealthy family and their expectations of his eventual responsibility of running the family business. A problem child, he was sent to his uncle to learn discipline. Grace (Eva Amurri) wanted to go to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor but was unable to get financial aid because her mother (Susan Sarandon) took out unpaid loans under Grace’ name. The mother claimed that the answer to all of their problems was for Grace’ younger sister (Willa Holland) to enter the modeling industry. Dorian and Grace worked at a waterpark and eventually became partners in selling cannabis. I enjoyed the film mostly because of the performances. Sarandon was great as the mother who didn’t quite know how to be a responsible parent. I understood the many predicaments she was in, especially her financial instability, but I didn’t pity her because she was supposed to be the leading figure in the family. Unlike her eldest daughter, she wasn’t focused in accomplishing something she was responsible for. Yelchin and Amurri were equally interesting as teenagers whose lives were in a standstill. I admired that the script infused sexual tension between them but they never got together in a sexual way. That was important because their relationship was about business first, friendship second, and everything else was tertiary. Instead, a potential beau (Justin Chatwin) for Grace entereed the picture. They seemed like a perfect fit because he was worldly, smart and had substance. But was he too good to be true? As usual, I enjoyed Yelchin’s cooky side. A less charming actor would have looked like a complete fool while dancing in a laundomat. Amurri successfully made me want to root for her character. Although she was tough and sometimes cold, I understood that she had to be because she learned at an early age that nobody would ever just hand her what she wanted. I saw some similarities between the two of us but she definitely had a more unpleasant background. Unfortunately, the film hit a few bumps on the road. Half-way through, I began to feel as though the melodrama had completely taken over. I kept waiting for the tone to change up, surprise, and offer some laughter, especially during the scenes of Grace and Dorian’s odd occupation, but it remained painfully one-note. Written by Michelle Morgan and directed by John Stockwell, “Middle of Nowhere” had a good amount of intelligence and heart but I wished it was more playful with its tone because with such a somber material, the line between self-reflection and narcissism was often crossed.
★★ / ★★★★
It’s been said that our dreams often consisted of people we know or have encountered at some point in our lives. But not Smith (Thomas Dekker). He had a recurring dream of a brunette and a red-headed girl (Nicole LaLiberte) pointing at a door with a red dumpster on the other side. But before Smith could look inside, he woke up. With the help of Smith’s partner in crime, Stella (Haley Bennett), Smith managed to find some answers to his burning questions. Written and directed by Gregg Araki, “Kaboom” was weird and proud. It was, one could argue, mainly a satire of college students who lacked direction. Everyone had sexual intercourse with one another without regard for disease or pregnancy. When someone managed to ask another how many partners he had been with, it was too late. Penetration had already occurred. It reminded me of a dorm I once knew. Smith considered his sexual orientation to be undeclared but he had a massive crush on his blonde-haired surfer/meathead roommate named Thor (Chriz Zylka). Much of the humor of the film was Smith looking for ways to convince himself that Thor was gay. I especially loved the shot of Thor’s flip-flops neatly organized, by color, in his closet. As a person who loves to be organized, I thought it was a beautiful sight. I also chuckled once or twice when Thor’s best friend, Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), came for a visit and the two wrestled in their underwear. The loser was supposed to be “the gay one.” Whenever the satire and irony were at the forefront, I overlooked the lack of dimension in the script. The film also worked as a B-grade supernatural thriller but to an extent. Stella became sexually involved with Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), the brunette in Smith’s dreams, who happened to be a witch. She wasn’t all talk; she had real powers and wasn’t afraid to use them. But when the lesbian couple broke up, the storyline involving Smith’s dream and its connection to a possible underground cult was thrown in the back seat. The scenes involving voodoo and possession became more engrossing than the masked strangers who kidnapped and killed students on campus. While the dialogue consisted of funny one-liners uttered by sarcastic characters, as it went on, I began to feel like Araki had injected too much in his ambitious project. A nuclear war came into play but it failed to make much sense. The many revelations toward the end felt forced and laughable in a negative way. I felt a sinking sensation that the picture was digging its own grave. I admired that “Kaboom” wasn’t afraid to be different. But being different was not enough. The screenplay wasn’t ready.
★★ / ★★★★
The first shot of the movie, at least from our perspective, showed a group of people looking at a painting. After a split-second, it was revealed that the individuals were simply waiting for the elevator in which the painting happened to be next to. I wish the entirety of “(Untitled),” written and directed by Jonathan Parker, was more like the opening shot because it took advantage of our expectations and what we were seeing. The film happened to hit good and sour notes. On one hand, I thought it was really funny. I laughed out loud at the scenes when the main character, Adrian (Adam Goldberg), would play avant-garde music with his band and the audiences in the picture were simply shocked with what they heard. Or worse, that they actually paid to listen to it. The music Adrian and company played was like a group of toddlers randomly banging kitchen utensils. It was painful to the ears and most people would just wish for it to stop. Another reason why I thought it was funny was because the lead character took himself so seriously. He had real insight about his place in the art world and I thought his ideas were revolutionary. On the other hand, the romantic angle between Adrian and the posh art gallery dealer (Marley Shelton) felt forced. Their interactions felt too convenient; it felt like an awkward tool that served to keep the plot running along. I thought it was odd that the characters talked about hating commercial work but at the same time the movie they were in, whenever it focused on the romance, felt exactly like a quirky romantic comedy. Instead, I wish the movie had spent more time exploring the sibling rivalry between Adrian and Josh (Eion Bailey). Not just because both men liked the same woman but also because of their style of art. It would have been more fascinating because Josh was everything Adrian was not. I was interested in their history such as the environment from where they grew up in and the various inspirations they embraced that shaped their respective artistic endeavors. As a satire, “(Untitled)” marginally succeeds. Unlike Duncan Ward’s insular “Boogie Woogie” that tackled essentially the same issues, “(Untitled)” was equally about the images and sounds we saw or heard and the people that produced them. Even though everyone was flawed, I understood where they came from and I felt the passion toward their work. There was a wonderful scene near the end when Adrian attended a concert and later he was inspired to actually make progress concerning his own project. The inspiring moments were small but they resonated. I enjoyed at film in a number of ways and I hope others will take a chance to see it.
★★★ / ★★★★
The original plan was for Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer, to take Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), his boss’ daughter, from Mexico to the United States via a ferry because the land between the two countries were infested with giant octopus-like aliens. But after Kaulder and Sam had a night out of drinking and celebration, Kaulder ended up taking another woman to his motel room. The next morning, when Kaulder wasn’t looking, the woman stole some money including Sam’s passport, a requirement in order for her to get aboard the boat. “Monsters” was an effective science fiction film despite its small budget because it had a solid hold on its tone. The first forty minutes focused on the flirtation and possible romantic connection between the two protagonists. Even though Sam claimed she was engaged, it was apparent that she enjoyed Kaulder’s advances. When he suggested that he stayed on her bed because it was big enough for the two of them, she hesitated for a moment before sending him off his way. The rest of the picture’s running time was dedicated to their nail-biting journey across the infected land. Initially, they were protected by men with guns but we knew that they were simply there as bait. When they heard a strange noise from a distance, it was only a matter of time until the aliens came out from the shadows that hid them so well. I believe the film was highly influenced by Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Kaulder and Sam were always stuck in some sort of a vehicle as they were forced to observe the carnage. A small sound could potentially capture the aliens’ attention and so I caught myself holding my breath for them and hoped that they wouldn’t err. Furthermore, there was a scene set in a gas station that was very reminiscent of the children’s encounter with velociraptors in Spielberg’s sci-fi classic. We even had a chance to learn about how the aliens reproduced. It was horrifying. I felt like a child again; the feeling was similar to when I found out that if a worm was cut in half, the halves could survive and regenerate. (The concept still feels alien to me.) The extraterrestrials did get close to the characters but the filmmakers made a smart decision to not allow the creatures to catch up on them to the point where a human and alien would make contact. For a human to escape a giant alien equipped with sensitive feelers and great force would have been too unbelievable. It was all about the escape and the moments in which the characters believed that it might have been over for them. I understand some people’s disappointment about the film’s lack of CGI, gore, and explosions. That’s exactly why I enjoyed it. It was proof that those elements weren’t necessary to make an effective science fiction film as long as it has a wild imagination combined with a human story.
Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.
Somers Town (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two lonely teenagers met in London and we have the pleasure to observe them for a couple of days. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and his father (Ireneusz Czop) were Polish immigrants. Marek mostly kept to himself as he slowly nourished his interest in photography. His father worked during the day and drank with his friends at night. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) turned sixteen and his first big decision was to move to London for reasons unknown. He was mugged on his first night in the big city but this did not change his romantic view of it. Marek and Tomo met at a local café where Marek told Tomo about his crush on a waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski). Then the two devised ways to get her attention, but one day she left unexpectedly for Paris. Shot in grainy black-and-white, “Somers Town” reminded me of those great movies in the 1960s during the French New Wave era. Its plot was relatively thin but the emotions were so complex that it was hard to say goodbye to the two characters after just 70 minutes of them getting to know each other. Despite Marek and Tomo coming from economically poor backgrounds, I loved that Paul Fraser, the writer, did not harden their hearts and their yearning for attention did not predictably lead to violence. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Tomo and Marek made mistakes as most people their age do but they were sensitive and had a clear view of what was right and wrong. Highlighting their positive qualities was a smart move because the picture’s running time was relatively short. By doing so, I immediately related to the characters and I had a chance to explore the dynamics of their friendship. There were more than a handful of very funny scenes but my favorite was when the duo stole a bag of laundry because Tomo did not have any clothes. The bag mostly contained women’s clothing and I couldn’t help but laugh when Marek told Tomo to look at the brighter side: the clothes may not have been for men but at least they were clean unlike the same clothes that Tomo had been wearing since he arrived in London. In return, Tomo made the clothes work but it was still painfully obvious that he wore a dress. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh or even crack a smile if they watched that particular scene. For a low budget film, I was very impressed with the originality, creativity and imagination that “Somers Town” possessed. It was apparent that Shane Meadows directed his film with passion and zeal because I had fun with it throughout. When the movie finally shifted from black-and-white to color, it felt like my eyes opened for the first time. I guess it was also how Marek and Tomo felt when they finally entered a culture so different from theirs. Suddenly, their futures looked bright.
Don’t Look Up (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I can withstand a lot of bad movies but the really memorable ones are the movies that make me angry during and after I watch them. “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Fruit Chan, is a prime example. Marcus (Reshad Strik) was an aspiring filmmaker with psychic abilities. When he visited places with bad histories, which often involved a grizzly murder, he would receive visions and he would incorporate what he saw onto his script. While shooting a movie in Transylvania, his crew discovered an old footage of a prior film shot in their set. Soon “accidents” started to happen which led to a series of deaths until the film crew finally called it quits and left Marcus to deal with his demons. Everything about this picture was exaggerated. The acting was shockingly bad, the gore was gratuitous and unconvincing and the CGI was completely unnecessary. It was so bad, the movie tried to scare us with CGI flies. The last time I checked, CGI flies are not scary. It might have worked in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” because that particular film had a nice balance of cheekiness and horror but “Don’t Look Up” desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Its desperate attempt to be liked left a bitter taste in my mouth. I did not appreciate its references to movies like the Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu;” instead of paying homage, I felt like the movie was parasite and was an extremely unsatisfactory leftover. The horror did not work because it acted like it was above trying to tell a story that was interesting, involving and, most importantly, a story that made sense. I didn’t understand the connection between Marcus and his ill ex-girlfriend other than to serve as a stupid twist in the end (something along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” only lightyears less elegant). Eli Roth playing a director in the 1920s left me scratching my head. And there was no explanation why the girl was murdered back in the day and what the apparitions wanted to accomplish. A “seed” was involved which I thought was metaphorical at first but it turned out to be literal. It was just a mess and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to burn the DVD so the next person interested in watching it can use his or her precious time doing something else (perhaps read a book or volunteer at a homeless shelter). “Don’t Look Up” is a smogasboard of everything bad about modern independent horror movies that heavily rely on special and visual effects. I just don’t believe anyone in the world can actually enjoy it. I am at a loss with why it was released in the first place but I suppose connections can go pretty far. If I can prevent at least one person from watching this, I consider it a triumph.