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.