★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Kogonada has the patience of master Japanese filmmakers. In between moments of action or importance are seemingly throwaway moments: pedestrians crossing the street, the sky’s blinding blue-brightness, plants being watered, children at play. This storytelling technique is most appropriate in the impressive debut feature “Columbus,” a portrait of two individuals—one a local in Columbus, Indiana, and the other a visitor—who must or feel the need to put their lives on pause because of family. These asides, moments of randomness and freedom, are almost acts of exhalation when the film’s protagonists are tired of holding their breaths.
The local is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the visitor is Jin (John Cho), the former caring for her mother who is a recovering drug addict and the latter the son of a professor who has fallen into a coma prior to his lecture. The picture, for the most part, is a collection of Casey and Jin’s interactions—how strangers become friends and then later perhaps something more special.
Fresh is the fact that the relationship is not of a romantic nature despite’s the leads’ wonderful chemistry. It is an exploration of two spirits so different but finding commonalities anyway. There is something beguiling in its simplicity. What they share is beautiful, thoughtful, and often poignant. Surprising moments of honesty—sometimes painful honesty—are in store for those willing to look deep into the characters.
Its pacing is controlled, slow, and mesmerizing. During the aforementioned “throwaway moments,” more than a handful of times I found myself thinking back to a scene that had just unfolded. I pondered over the incredibly realistic dialogue; questioned why or how words are expressed a certain way and what these reveal about the subjects; wondered about body language and how reading it accurately may help to extricate big truths from small lies. Facial expressions do not tell all or may deceive. Casey and Jin are the farthest from archetypes so it is most refreshing when they reveal their thoughts about architecture, responsibilities, their pasts, where they hope to be or become one day.
Stunning shots are peppered throughout, whether it be of local buildings or an interior of a humble home. With the former, notice how angles are more dominant, impersonal, we observe structures from a distance. On the other hand, inside houses, colors and patterns are in command. Posh dwellings are bright, filled with hard, shiny surfaces and collectible decorations. Working class homes, by comparison, are quite somber but these are filled by familiar elements like a soft couch, photographs with cheap frames, a cramped kitchen/dining room where family members actually eat and laugh together. Although images may be worlds apart, Kogonada shifts between them with ease. He has a knack for making the images speak for themselves.
Notice the film’s willingness to be silent. There is no score. We hear cars swooshing by. Birds chirping. Footsteps and shuffling during house tours. Whispers in the library. The trickling of the water fountain nearby. By having no score, there is one less barrier between the subjects and the audience. And so when they reveal themselves, it feels like a friend is exposing his or her soul.
I Love You Both (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Sibling comedy “I Love You Both” is a great annoyance in the beginning because it does not seem to know what it is about. Instead of honing in on what it wishes to say about the special relationship between twins, the screenplay by Doug Archibald and Kristin Archibald, also the central protagonists in the story, gets mired in introducing colorful but stereotypical characters who serve merely as punchlines rather than believable people who have roles in shaping the inner circle of Donny and Krystal.
Until about halfway though, I thought it was about twenty-somethings who feel unhappy about where they are in life and so they attempt to fill the void by getting into a relationship—the twist being that the twins happen to fall for the same nice guy named Andy (Lucas Neff). This bizarre situation, however absurd in reality, is ripe with potentially funny, amusing, cliché moments. Certainly mainstream comedies would have milked it until the last fifteen minutes in which characters must then reconcile so audiences walk away feeling good about themselves. I enjoyed that the material is unafraid to meander, to touch upon unexpected rhythms, to allow a bit of soul-searching for its characters because Donny and Krystal are fully aware that certain lines should not be crossed.
Most effective moments involve one of the twins choosing to make a sacrifice, appropriate because the heart of the film is the love between siblings. One is more fragile than the other—and perhaps with good reason. Although the performers usually come up short in delivering subtleties required for dramatic, deeply personal moments, the camera dares to remain still and capture the hurt one feels for having to walk away from a situation even though he or she feels that exploring it might be a good avenue to experience. I admired that certain strands are left somewhat unresolved which is a lot like life.
Unfortunately, such highs are often followed by forceful attempts at humor—which usually involves co-workers who talk incessantly without much of value to say or do. These should have been left in the editing room because such scenes establish too much of a pattern. Comedies do not necessarily have to be funny every other scene so long as laughs, when front and center, are big and memorable. It gives the impression that the material is reluctant to allow the audience to absorb the various impacts or implications of certain characters’ decisions.
Directed by Doug Archibald, “I Love You Both” is a passable for a first-time filmmaker, but it is not a work for everyone. For instance, the characters are dominated by sadness and self-pity, even though they have no reason to be miserable most of the time, and so casual viewers may (understandably) ask, “What’s the point? Who cares about these people? What have they got to whine about?” Now that Archibald has got this story out of his system, I can’t help but wonder what else he’s got.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Seven years after the disappearance of her husband, the very pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) had yet to fill out and turn in the requisite paperwork that would officially declare Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) dead in absentia. When Callie (Katie Parker), Tricia’s younger sister, arrived at Tricia’s doorstep, strange things began to occur in the house and around the neighborhood. At night, Tricia was terrorized by what could be Daniel’s angry ghost but she was convinced there had to be a logical explanation. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Absentia” was an independent horror film done exactly right, from its increasingly unsettling rising action to an ending that was a perfect fit to its storyline. Before the nicely timed scares were thrown on our laps, we were first given a chance to get to know Tricia as a both a woman in a state of extended grief and someone who deserved to move on with her life. When Callie asked her big sister how she knew it was time for Daniel to be declared legally dead, it was a special and sensitive scene. I was touched by the possibilities that ran in Tricia’s mind, one of which involved Daniel being a NSA agent who had no choice but to drop his life because his identity had somehow been compromised. I appreciated that the writer-director showed love for his characters prior to thrusting them in situations that led to dead-ends with more questions and no easy answers. By doing so, we grew to care for the fates of the sisters. They weren’t just bodies that we anticipated to get sliced and diced when they entered a pitch-black room. We actually wanted to see them unearth the mystery, perhaps struggle a little bit, and walk away once the malevolence had been dispelled. I so relished the build-up of bizarre details, like the sudden appearance of reported missing items and residents from the neighborhood who’d been gone for years, that I found myself shoving food down my throat in order to alleviate the tension. Though the film relied on more than a handful jump scares, none of them felt cheap because there was a variation in the scares. For instance, a certain positioning of a camera led us to believe that once a character turned around after looking around suspiciously, something shocking would be right in front of them. The director was aware of the conventions and it was fun waiting to see if he would fall to the trappings of the genre early on in the picture. If he ever did somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t know. I found myself so enthralled with what was happening, the technical details became less noticeable–as they should be unless done in such a way as to drive a point across. Furthermore, the film utilized flashbacks rather well. When we plunged into them, the scene unfolded quickly, but never manically edited, like looking inside a vivid nightmare that we desperately try to wake up from. “Absentia” was astutely written and directed with a keen eye: actively choosing atmosphere over splatter-fest, imagination over absolute.
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.
Craving, The (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.
★ / ★★★★
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.
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.
★★ / ★★★★
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.