Young Adult (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), divorced and currently single, was finding it a bit difficult to focus on finishing her final novel for a formerly popular young adult fiction series. Every time she sat down to write, she found her mouse scurrying its way to her inbox so she could look at an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who just had a baby and was very happily married with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), a drummer in a local girl band. In Mavis’ mind, the e-mail was some sort of signal that Buddy wanted to rekindle their relationship. So, Mavis packed her bags, dog in tow, left Minneapolis behind, and drove to the sleepy town of Mercury, Minnesota. Written by Diablo Cody, “Young Adult” was another story of an unhappy woman who felt compelled to find love in the most inappropriate circumstances, but what allowed it to feel fresh was Theron’s ability to play with nuance. Mavis was not a likable person. She acted like she was above everyone else because, unlike most of her peers, she made it out of her hometown and succeeded in establishing a life in the city. Most importantly, through her creativity, she was able to make a name for herself by being a ghost writer. Yet there were plenty of moments when it was impossible for us to not feel sorry for her because, despite her ambition and determination, she was deathly short-sighted. A lot of us know people exactly like her: unable to detect if she’s overstepping boundaries, desperate for approval even from those who barely knew her, and living a life like she never had to say sorry. I was supremely embarrassed for Mavis because she had no shame in throwing herself on her former flame. Since she wanted him back so badly, she was more than willing to throw her successes out the window and act like a pimply teen girl with a big crush on a hunky guy. But she was no teen nor was Buddy a stud. Because I felt that Mavis was an exaggerated version of Theron and the actress wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, I was comfortable laughing at her and with her. A plethora of negative adjectives could describe Mavis but being devoid of a sense of humor was not one of them. Her jabs might be pricked with poisonous needles, but I loved that she was direct and didn’t waste any time thinking about how she was going to get what she wanted. The person who consistently attempted to talk some sense into her, serving as the audience’s voice, was Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky guy carrying a bit of extra weight who was jumped by a bunch of jocks in high school because they mistakenly suspected he was gay. The most striking scenes involved simple conversations between Mavis and Matt; Mavis was the seemingly impenetrable wall and Matt was an untiring hammer that drove nails into it. They clicked because both were stubborn in their own way. Directed by Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” was entertaining because the screenplay was sharp and full of irony. Although there was vitriol in the dialogue, it did not overshadow real human emotions like desire, fear, and shame.
O’ Horten (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Odd Horten (Baard Owe) reached the magic number 67, the point in which was to retire from his job as a locomotive engineer that lasted for over forty years. He wasn’t quite happy about the transition because his career was all he had. His friends (Henny Moan) were on the road which meant he wouldn’t see them as often. It seemed like he didn’t have a family other than his mother (Anette Sager) who was in a nursing home. It also meant breaking his coveted routine in order to find new and exciting turning points that served as reminders that life was worth living. Written and directed by Bent Hamer, the film’s greatest weapon in its arsenal was finding a great sense of humor in the mundane. Without an exact vision and a controlled direction, “O’ Horten” would have failed to gather enough emotional punch to get its audiences to care for Odd, ironically named because nothing too odd happened in his life up until his retirement. Instead of going for the easy laughs, it wisely chose to restrain. For instance, when Odd was locked out of the building, in order to reach the party his friends and colleagues threw for him, he had to climb the apartment building and sneak into a family’s home. Odd crossed paths with a child (Peder Anders Lohne Hamer) who couldn’t sleep. If the picture had been Americanized, I could imagine the main character being caught by the boy’s parents, suspected of malicious intent, and scrambled his way out of the apartment as he tripped over toys (or, since Odd was an aging man, maybe he would have slipped and hurt his back because older folks getting hurt was supposed to be funny). Instead, he didn’t get caught. There were no surprised parents and toys near the doorway that served as traps. There was only Odd staying with the boy until he went to sleep because the boy asked him to. As Odd sat on the chair, he was left with his thoughts. We didn’t necessarily know what he was thinking. He could be thinking about his retirement and what he planned on doing next. Or maybe thought about why he didn’t have a family of his own. The next scene was equally compelling. When he visited his mother in a nursing home, his mother didn’t utter a single word. But she didn’t have to. The drama was innately there. There was something heartbreaking about a son attempting to communicate with his mother but she didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to say. It reminded me of the times when I used to volunteer at Alzheimer’s care homes. Sometimes an unreciprocated affection is enough for us to become emotionally invested. “O’Horten,” with an inspired photography, had oddities but it didn’t allow the absurdities get in the way of shaping a defined emotional core. I think it’s something special when a film is set in a cold locale yet it’s able to exude immeasurable warmth.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Helena (Gemma Jones) decided to see a fortuneteller (Pauline Collins) after the divorce between her and her husband (Anthony Hopkins) had been finalized. She claimed she needed direction, but we quickly realized that she was clingy, didn’t know how to keep certain opinions to herself, and was hopelessly gullible. Maybe the divorce was a gift or a breath of freedom for her husband. Sally (Naomi Watts), Helena’s daughter, was also having trouble with her marriage. Roy (Josh Brolin), Sally’s husband, was having a difficult time finishing his book and was weighing the possibility of having an affair with a beautiful woman in red (Freida Pinto), his muse, across their apartment building. On the other hand, Sally was considering to have an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) while working in an art gallery. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” written and directed by Woody Allen, was a missed opportunity. The story was interesting, the coincidences didn’t feel heavy-handed and the various ironies between and around the characters were accessible. However, the film felt like a satisfying but incomplete novel. Just when Allen needed to deliver the punches involving the consequences that the characters had to live with due to their unwise actions, the screen abruptly faded to black. It left me wanting more but not in a good way. The picture’s lack of resolution highlighted its flaws, especially its highly uneven tone. Allen spent too much time trying to convince us that what we were seeing was comedic. As a result, he was stuck in highlighting the characters’ quirks instead of exploring other dimensions that would make us want to get to know more. For instance, the relationship between Hopkins’ character and his young girlfriend (Lucy Punch) was mostly played for laughs. The former’s quirk was, despite his age, he was convinced that he was still in his thirties. Like his ex-wife, he was inclined to self-delusion. The latter was a classic golddigger who loved to buy expensive clothing and accessories in exchange for sex. She was a former callgirl but, in reality, she never left her profession. The film only turned darker toward the end when Hopkins’ character, after the woman revealed that she was pregnant, threatened her that the baby better have been his or else. The comedic element was gone and we were left to stare at the character’s desperation, hurt, and anger in his eyes. Unfortunately, that was the last scene between the old man and the golddigger. The same hustle-and-bustle applied to the other characters and were left in the dust wondering what happened next. Not unlike Helena, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” needed a strong direction with clear vision. The important questions it brought up about life were cheapened and it ultimately felt like Philosophy 101.
Scream 2 (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two years had passed since the Woodsboro murders. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was now in college majoring in drama, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) became a best-selling author, and a movie known as “Stab,” inspired by the aforementioned killing spree, had just been released. But when a couple (Jada Pinkett Smith, Omar Epps) was murdered during one of its screenings, Dewey (David Arquette) quickly, despite the limp, ran to Sidney’s protection and movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) was present to explain the rules of horror sequels. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream 2” was able to defy the odds by pointing its fingers on bad scary movie follow-ups without being one itself. The film worked on multiple levels because it had more than one joke that worked. For instance, it acknowledged the idea that horror pictures seemed to be lacking in African-American characters and other minorities. Aside from the doomed couple in the memorable first scene, we knew the joke made a lasting impression when a minority was randomly placed next to one of the main characters and we couldn’t help but chuckle. However, it didn’t feel forced because the story took place in college. While the murder scenes were less creative–but more gory and elaborate as Randy stated–than its predecessor, they retained a level of cheekiness, especially when Sarah Michelle Gellar was given the chance to shine as the “sober sorority sister,” so it was fun to watch. We knew that her decision to go upstairs, as we learned in the first film, was a very bad idea but she did anyway. Downstairs, it seemed like she knew how to defend herself so maybe, despite being blonde and pretty, she would be lucky enough to escape. But it wasn’t just about murders on campus. Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), the man Sidney wrongly accused of killing her mother, had just been released from prison. The fact that he had motive to take bloody revenge and his thirst for fame warranted serious suspicion. It was a reminder that we couldn’t always trust Sidney’s judgment which was a small twist from typical slasher flicks where we take comfort in the virgin making all the right decisions to make it to the very end. The film spent more time on the characters and worked on the undeveloped strands from the first installment. What remained the same was everyone was a suspect. From Sidney’s pre-med boyfriend (Jerry O’Connell) and sassy friend (Elise Neal), Randy’s movie-loving classmates (Timothy Olyphant), to the reporter (Laurie Metcalf) desperate for the latest scoop. “Scream 2” was a vat of self-awareness; I relished every witty line and irony within an irony. Most impressive was sometimes the joke and horror came hand-in-hand.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was left home alone because her father had to travel for business. That probably wasn’t a good idea because one of her friends, Casey (Drew Barrymore), had just been butchered by Ghost Face, a masked figure who had a penchant for calling women and asking about their favorite scary movie. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream” solified its place in the horror genre because it successfully parodied slasher flicks that plagued the 70’s and 80’s without becoming another forgettable bloodbath. Or worse, turning into something it wanted to poke fun of. Half the fun of this film was that the characters had seen a bunch of scary movies. References from Paul Lynch’s “Prom Night” to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” most of the characters knew that running into a dark room and asking, “Who’s there?” meant a gruesome death. And deservingly so. Horror movies, in essence, is survival of the fittest. The colorful characters were aware of the rules (yet ironically breaking them) and by acknowledging such rules, the audiences had a feeling that anything could happen. Everybody was a suspect. There was Casey’s father who had gone missing, an ambitious reporter named Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who was willing to do whatever necessary to deliver the breaking news first, and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) who was never taken seriously as a cop because of his boyish good looks. Sidney’s friends were suspects, too. Sidney’s boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) was very frustrated because she wouldn’t give up her virginity, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and his love for horror pictures was a red flag, Sidney’s sassy friend (Rose McGowan) was perhaps too supportive of her, and Stuart (Matthew Lillard) was just too strange and energetic–perhaps he needed an extracurricular activity which involved running around and cutting people up. Or maybe Sidney was just losing her mind because she had not yet moved on from her mother’s murder which happened to be exactly a year ago. What made the film even better was the finer details. Some of the characters’ names were references to other famous horror movie characters (like Billy’s last name being Loomis, a nod to Dr. Sam Loomis in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”) while others were chuckle-inducing images (like the school janitor’s name being Fred and wearing red and green striped shirt, a wink at Freddy Krueger in Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”). It was clear that the director loved the movies he cited. By highlighting the unspoken rules and exposing their formulaic silliness, Craven reminded us why we enjoyed being scared and then laughing at ourselves (after a couple of days) for being so scared once we got home to the point where we rushed in turning on all of the lights so we could feel safer. “This is not a movie,” Sidney claimed. I wouldn’t be too sure.
Mala educación, La (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with great logic and acumen. In 1930, a little girl was kidnapped and later murdered in cold blood. Five years later, the murderer boarded a train and was later found dead. Since the train was stuck due to weather, the police couldn’t get to the train. It was then up to detective Poirot to figure out who killed the murderer. (I love the irony.) Aboard the train with him and the murderer were twelve other people (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Michael York) who came from different backgrounds and had unique personalities. The question is, which one or which ones of them did it? I had a lot of fun with this movie even though I found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters. The dialogue was electric; I loved the way Finney used different tactics of interrogation that matched a character’s type of personality. For the longest time, I had no idea who to suspect but even after the mystery was revealed, I still found myself shocked with who committed the crime. However, I have to say that this movie is not for everyone. Although it is essentially a mystery picture, it is very heavy on the dialogue (the main reason why I loved it) and the whole movie consisted of characters being stuck on a train. The movie also started off pretty slow because it took about thirty minutes to introduce all of the important characters. But I think with a little bit of patience and really paying attention to what was happening, people would find this movie worth their time. “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, has a wonderful supporting cast that fascinated me from beginning to end. The big names involved in this project really lived up to their reputation because they were able to inject complexity and dimension to their characters even though they didn’t get much screen time as opposed to, say, when they were asked to carry an entire film. This film had nice twists dispersed throughout so it was never boring once the viewer gets accustomed to its style. For a two-hour film and having more than a dozen crucial characters, the pacing was efficient. I wish there are more modern whodunit films are being released in cinemas these days because I’m just a sucker for them (it probably explains why obsession with board games like “Clue”).