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.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.
★★ / ★★★★
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) visited Los Angeles to live in his brother’s home right when he just checked out of a mental hospital due to a nervous breakdown. Coincidentally, he started to have feelings for his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig) as the two of them took care of the family dog that was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. “Greenberg,” like its main character, tried too hard to stay away from the commercial offerings of pop culture. Sometimes it worked but there were times when it became borderline pretentious. During the picture’s mission to avoid attaching to the norm, I felt as though it built a wall around itself and I found it challenging to access its emotional core. Stiller did a good job playing an against type and I wish he had more characters like Roger in his repertoire. I enjoyed discovering the way he hid behind his sarcastic remarks in order to not deal with his insecurities, the way he constantly ran away from his past but at the same time unable to move on from certain broken relationships, and the way he dealt with aging and not having a career that he found meaningful or rewarding. It was easy to feel sorry for him but I was glad that the film made Roger somewhat difficult to like because there were times when he hurt those who genuinely cared for him for no good reason. Gerwig also did a wonderful job trying to find love in all the wrong places. What I enjoyed about her character most was the manner in which she told her quirky stories that led nowhere. This often bothered the lead character because he wanted to see purpose in everything. Some reviews from audiences claimed that they did not understand why this was supposed to be a comedy when there was nothing funny about it. I believe the film had a dry sense of humor which is sometimes inaccessible. I enjoyed its subtlety because it required understanding the characters a little bit in order to see the reason why something was funny when a character was placed in a specific situation. However, even I have to admit that I questioned where the movie was going or what it was trying to achieve. It had some brilliant moments that came few and far between. My favorite scene was when Roger talked about how different twentysomethings are nowadays compared to twentysomethings back in the late seventies or early eighties. The script was compelling because I felt a mix of bitterness, regret, anger and sadness in Stiller’s delivery, which I was not aware that he could pull off because I was used to seeing him in more obvious comedies. It would have also been nice if the film did not leave us hanging even if I understood why it ended the way it did. Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg” is a movie that is unpredictably bittersweet, sometimes challenging but often a frustrating to sit through. If it did not have so many walls and did not try so hard, I think it would have been much stronger and more memorable.
★★★ / ★★★★
When Magdalena (Emily Rios) found out she was pregnant without actually having sex with her boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) before her quinceañera, she ran away from her family (Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesus Castanos-Chima) because they believed she would not own up to her actions. Magdalena stayed with her kind uncle (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who happened to be gay and experimenting with the gay couple (Jason L. Wood, David W. Ross) next door. This independent film was no “Juno.” Quirkiness and snarky dialogue were absent but it was refreshing because the story was told without glossy pretension. It was not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations and let them deal with their problems without plot conveniences and typical Hollywood offerings about what one should do when one found out she was pregnant. I thought it was also refreshing that the character did not deem her life to be over when she found out she was pregnant at fourteen years old. It was nice to hear that she had plans for her future and I liked the way she stood up for herself when others criticized and laughed at her. I rooted for her because even though she was young, she was brave and she was not afraid to ask for help when she needed a bit of support. As for the subplot involving the homosexual cousin, I enjoyed it for the most part because Garcia could have played his character in an obvious way but he managed to avoid the usual traps about sexual experimentation. His character was a good foil for Magdalena. Even though the two were very different, they found commonality in being (essentially) exiled because their Latino culture have certain beliefs that directly challenged their modern lives. I thought the film was at its best when the two interacted because they found purpose and strength from each other. However, I have to admit that Garcia’s storyline sometimes outshined Rios’. The more the picture spent time on the gay cousin, focus and intensity was taken away from our lead protagonist. Lastly, I loved that the script sounded natural (so natural that sometimes I thought the characters were adlibbing). Having grown up in a very diverse neighborhood, the way the teens spoke and the topics they talked about were to true life. Ultimately, “Quinceañera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, told a story beyond a fourteen-year-old finding out she was pregnant. It was also about her support systems (and lack thereof), her responsibilities as a young woman, materialism, and traditions of a culture in an increasingly modern society. The film was astute in tackling the issues and it was even sharper in conveying the emotions that the characters would not necessarily outwardly express.
Film Geek (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by James Westby, Melik Malkasian stars as a video store clerk who lived and breathed films to the point where it was all he could talk about with other people, which he thought was not a problem up until he met a girl (Tyler Gannon) who was somewhat of a rebel and who happened to be in an on-and-off relationship with another guy. I enjoyed this little independent movie because I could relate with the guy: he ran a website (that no one visited) and he loved everything cinema. His ability to spew out random movies, directors, actors, composers impressed me despite the fact that he did so in such a robotic tone. (Maybe that part was supposed to be funny but I found it irksome.) Even though Westby made the lead character somewhat more of a caricature than a real person, I thought it worked because his extremes were supposed to annoy others to the point where they would tell him that he was a weirdo or a freak, which in turn made him feel isolated and he would retreat to watching movies as an escape. It then became an unhealthy cycle and it made him even more socially inept so he didn’t exactly have any friends. I didn’t care much about the romance between Malkasian and Gannon because I thought Gannon’s character was a bit of a snob, but I thought their interactions were funny in an awkward or forced kind of way. I also enjoyed the scenes in the video store such as when the lead character would try to explain the difference between a full screen and a wide screen. (Not to mention the fun of eavesdropping on people’s opinions of certain movies and the frustration of DVDs placed under wrong genres.) I found that scene to be particularly enjoyable because I’ve been in that situation where I would try my absolute hardest to explain the difference between the two but to no avail. However, I thought the picture could have been much better if it had been longer. The important life-changing events that transpired toward the end of it felt kind of rushed. I wish the movie would have milked the scenes when certain people that were mean to the lead character before had sudden change of hearts. That is, to expose the hypocrisy and insecurity of others who treated him like he was unimportant nobody. An extra fifteen minutes or so could have added a much needed dimension to the movie. Nevertheless, I had fun watching “Film Geek” because it didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t. Watching the lead character working in the video store made me feel nostalgic because I recently found out that the video stores I used to go to when I was in high school when I started to really get into films have gone out of business.
Peter and Vandy (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Jay DiPietro, “Peter and Vandy” (Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, respectively) told the story of a couple who initially got along great during the beginning of their relationship but as time went on, the little things that bothered them about each other erupted into big fights and it got to the point where they could no longer stand each other. Told in a non-linear manner, since we started in the middle, we immediately get to see the turning point of their relationship and determine what exactly went wrong as the story inched toward how they met and how they broke up. The more I watch Jason Ritter’s films, the more I am convinced that he knows how to pick independent projects with potential–projects with a certain quiet power that movse and makes me think beyond what was presented on screen. I liked the fact that DiPietro had characters who were charming and likeable but flawed. Therefore, it makes it difficult to pick sides regarding who was in the right or wrong. The scene that stood out to me most was the peanut butter and jelly scene. It was emotionally devastating because everyone knows that what they were fighting about was not about how to properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was about how suffocated the characters were of each other. It was about the fragility of the front they put up just so that they wouldn’t have to argue especially when they took up the same space 24/7. It was also about how two people are just not right for each other and no amount of effort could change that fact. Although that scene was very confrontational, oddly enough, I found it to be amusing as well. I was impressed with how something so serious could have elements of silliness. Like the highly successful “(500) Days of Summer,” this film relied on two things: the non-linear structure that aims to reveal its many layers and the strong acting. The two leads know how to use their eyes to convey a specific emotion which differs from the words coming out of their mouths. In other words, the movie treated its audiences with respect because it didn’t settle on the obvious. Although definitely not one of the most romantic movies, I think “Peter and Vandy” is a good movie to watch during Valentine’s Day or whatever-month anniversaries because it was painfully honest in its portrayal of modern relationships. Instead of showing us just the good, it shows us the bad as well which sometimes makes our relationships stronger once we overcome the hurdles. With a running time of only eighty minutes, “Peter and Vandy” was effecient with its time and I actually wanted it to last longer because I wanted to know more about the characters.
★★★ / ★★★★
Alexa (Emmy Rossum) is a good girl who gets perfect grades and is passionate about acting but her high school peers consider her as a total loser. Ben (Ashley Springer), Alexa’s best friend, has not yet come out of the closet despite his accepting psychiatrist parents (Ana Gasteyer, Wayne Pyle). And Johnny (Zach Gilford) is a popular rich kid who puts on a tough persona but he’s really a sensitive soul. Written by David Brind and directed by Adam Salky, I thought “Dare” was going to be another typical indie film about high school teenagers “finding themselves” but it surprised me because my loyalty toward certain characters had a 180-degree turn halfway through the picture. I had this idea that Alexa and Ben were the so-called good guys and Johnny had no redeeming quality about him. After all, he projected this image that he didn’t care about anything or anyone. It turned out that, due to the varying turn of events sparked by a successful stage actor (Alan Cumming), the two best friends were the parasites and the rich kid was arguably the victim. The film was divided into three chapters that focused on each of the main character so the audiences got a chance to observe the characters’ lives from differing perspectives. While I thought Rossum was the best actor of the three, I was glad that her chapter was first because it wasn’t as well-written as the other two. It wasn’t that her chapter lacked dimension but it wasn’t as dark (though it did try) as the other two. From there, the film gathered momentum as we got to observe Ben’s desperation get the best of him (or the worst of him) and onto the climax of the film when Johnny had a session with his psychiatrist (Sandra Bernhard). I thought that scene was particularly special because it wasn’t just a patient talking to his psychiatrist and the psychiatrist going “uh-huh… uh-huh.” There was a real sense of tension there because they were not afraid to disagree and argue with each other. But at the same time one could get this feeling that Bernhard’s character really did care for Johnny and that tension came from her genuine concern about her patient’s self-denial. Johnny’s loneliness was the most powerful and convincing part of this film; I was fascinated because he was frequently torn by two extreme forces–Ben and Alexa–who he considered his friends. “Dare” is far from a perfect film because there were still elements of typical high school drama that lingered. I wanted to see more focus found in the second half instead of characters trying to figure out where they belonged in the social hierarchy. It was edgy in its own way and it delivered in the most unsuspecting ways.