Enough Said (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a masseuse, and Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet, meet at a party. The two get on so well that Marianne hires Eva to be her masseuse. But at that same party, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini). They, too, get along very well that they agree to go on a date. Eva and Marianne become friends while Eva and Albert become lovers. Eventually, Eva learns that Marianne and Albert are formerly married.
“Enough Said,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, could have taken a television sitcom route: harmless, constantly going for easy laughs, sentimental turn of events, easily solvable problems. Instead, the picture accomplishes a small feat. It does so by taking a sitcom-like premise and telling a story that is human. It has funny and sad moments. We are frustrated with the characters at times. We come to recognize the good and the bad in all of them.
We get details of the blossoming relationships. First, the connection between Eva and Marianne is allowed to go beyond girlfriends who gossip. We get a sense that Eva is envious about certain aspects of Marianne’s life: the gorgeous house, the unconventional but very cool career, recognition for the work she produces. Meanwhile, Eva has a more simple life… but perhaps a more harmonious one. While the inner workings of the poetess’ mind does not get ample screen time, the difference in their moods and perspectives are significant enough so that we are able to make knowledgeable conclusions.
Second, and perhaps more obvious, is Eva’s relationship with Albert. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini share great chemistry, she with her infectious laugh and he with his outpouring of compliments but meaning every single one. Since each performer is charming in his or her own way—sometimes on the same level, other times on competing wavelengths—it is easy to root for Albert and Eva being and remaining together. We know that the elephant in the room will have to be recognized eventually. I wished the screenplay has done it sooner.
Not only is putting the revelation near the end of the picture predictable, it circumvents a further opportunity to dig deeper into the characters. The fallout of the discovery is less powerful than it should have been. Furthermore, though the last twenty minutes remain well-acted, I could not help but feel slightly disappointed because the material went exactly to places I had expected it would go. It should have gone with a path that is less traveled because the material is more than good enough to take on a risk so it can be memorable.
There is a subplot about mother-daughter relationships. While tolerable, it feels too much like a distraction. It would have been funnier if it were shown that the teenagers—hormonal as they are—were more secure with themselves than their parents.
Violet & Daisy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are a pair of teenage assassins and best friends who live together. They are supposed to have time off but after seeing a magazine advert which features their idol’s new fashion line, they accept a job offer to earn enough money to purchase a dress. However, their latest hit is unlike anyone they have encountered prior: he wants to get killed and, preferably, as soon as possible.
Written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, “Violet & Daisy” attempts to create a contrast by embracing the messy and the saccharine, in terms of the violence inflicted by the girls and their innocence, respectively, but it does not work because the characters are vapid. There is more emphasis on the supposedly cool thing put on the screen rather than a true careful attention to detail—a slow burn study of two girls who, while on the job, experience a fissure in what appears to be a close friendship.
The razzmatazz of the visuals distracts more than entertains. While some work beautifully, like Violet standing on a pile of corpses on the bathtub while taking a shower, scenes involving shootouts are boring, predictable, and pointless. The point-and-shoot approach gets tired real quick when guns are the only weapons used to kill. This might not have been a problem if the material suggested that violence was not meant to be fun or enjoyable. Clearly, with so much effort and energy put into how a person should be shot, what we are supposed to take pleasure in is seeing bullets immobilizing a target.
The acting is clunky and forced. While Ronan and Bledel acting like really young girls made me somewhat uncomfortable—and perhaps that is the point—the one-note acting from the latter is most frustrating. Bledel’s delivery often falls flat especially when her character is supposed to exude a certain level of menace. When those moments come around, as hard as I tried to get into it, I kept noticing a performer who has memorized her lines well. What is missing is the necessary emotion—a precise thunder of angst—to allow the scene to blossom and make it believable.
James Gandolfini, playing their curious target, stands head and shoulders above the leads. He is the only one who seems to have a complete idea about the type of character he is playing. He can have his eyes closed and still deliver intensity. I sensed more danger with his character than I did the two assassins. Halfway through, I wondered if the picture might have been stronger if it had been told through his point of view. There seems to be a lot going through his head even when he is just sitting on a chair and reading the newspaper.
On top of performances that leave a whole lot to be desired, the screenplay does not provide the lead characters with appropriate depth. “Violet & Daisy” is supposed to be thriller with some dramatic elements. An ounce of complexity, in the least, is to be expected. As a result, for the most part it looks and feels like a knockoff of Tarantino-like picture that leads with quirky dialogue combined with a healthy dose of violence minus all the fun and ingenuity.
Not Fade Away (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Douglas (John Magaro) has always been interested in music, particularly playing drums, so he hopes to join a band, and make it big one day. When he and his friends are caught in the middle of the British Invasion, they start their own. Scheduled to play for a party, when the lead singer, Eugene (Jack Huston), swallows a joint accidentally and had to go home, Douglas steps up to the mic and reveals a soulful voice that no one expected. Soon, time, egos, and personal troubles get in the way of their goals and the big picture.
Written and directed by David Chase, “Not Fade Away” is one of the most self-indulgent would-be rock musical-drama I have had the displeasure of watching for some time. It is shameless in using the great music of the ’60s as a crutch without injecting much thought or craft in its story and characterizations.
There is not one person worth rooting for. While Douglas is a nice guy, he blends into the background until he is required to perform on stage. Only then he becomes mildly interesting to observe and listen to because Magaro does have a captivating singing voice and body language that fit within that era. Unfortunately, the script fails to establish a believable defined arc for the protagonist. For the majority of the time, he whines about girls and it is most irritating. When he does get closer to a former high school classmate named Grace (Bella Heathcote), their relationship starts off toxic and does not change until the inevitable final arc.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the screenplay jumps in time occasionally without much warning. One moment we are watching events taking place over Thanksgiving holidays and the next it is Christmas break. Coupled with people on screen who seem to have a heavy cloud that follows them, lines delivered consistently flat mired in faux-angst, it is simply not fun to watch. As the supposedly conflicted characters go through the motions, I realized that I am trying to endure the experience. When I watch movies or listen to music of the 60s, I feel envy that I was not alive during that tumultuous period. This film succeeds in pulling off the unimaginable: making the ’60s boring.
Watching Douglas’ consistently unpleasant family feels like being in a chokehold. The mother (Molly Price) is pessimistic and constantly sneering, the father (James Gandolfini) is the stereotypical disapproving figure who hates that his son is turning into a “hippie,” and the sister, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), might as well not have been there because she does nothing except look dazed. Evelyn narrates the picture in the beginning and the end but why? She is given not one interesting to say about her brother, his band, her household, or the changes that are happening not only in New Jersey but also in the whole country due to the Vietnam War and the invasion of rock ‘n’ roll.
When the narrative structure gets too messy or unfocused, the picture cuts into images of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones on television. While the songs featured are toe-tapping, as a film, an individual piece of work, it just sits there. For a decade that contains treasure troves of inspiration, this one does not exude a drop.
True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.
In the Loop (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“In the Loop,” directed by Armando Iannucci, was a political satire about the United States president and the United Kingdom prime minister agreeing on starting war and the varying reactions of people who work for their respective governments. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to understand this movie coming into it because I’m (admittedly) not very knowledgeable about politics. I mean, I have my opinions but I’m not aware of how specific things work and the specific roles of the people in charge. So I was surprised when I found myself laughing out loud at the American and British jokes that this film had to offer. The characters were fast-taking, poison-spitting loons who run around trying to achieve something but ended up being (at least in my opinion) not doing anything at all. For me, everyone stood out–from Tom Hollander as the minister of international development who kept saying the wrong things to the media, Peter Capaldi as the very intense and downright scary communications director, Chris Addison as the meek political damage control person, Mimi Kennedy as a pro-war, type A lady who nobody wants to mess with, to James Gandolfini as an anti-war general who commands attention when he enters the room. I loved the exaggeration of this picture because then it allowed those who aren’t as into politics to be in on the jokes. Another element that really helped was the way the writers wrapped the political commentaries in pop culture candy. References were made right after another and I absorbed every minute of it. (I found really refreshing because I haven’t experienced so much pop culture references in under an hour since the “Gilmore Girls” era.) However, about three-quarter into the picture, I wondered whether there really was a story. I somewhat got tired of the bantering, people running around and acting crazy. Yes, it was very fast-paced but I found myself needing a breather from everything that was going on. The next thing I knew, the movie was over without a defined falling action. Perhaps I was too caught up on the screaming and yelling. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s more of a personal taste but I mention it here because it really threw me off. I’m giving this film a recommendation because it was funnier than I expected it would be. Although I must warn those looking for a core story not to expect much because “In the Loop” is pretty much one funny scene after another that has a bucketload of razor-sharp wit and a healthy dose of cheekiness.
Taking of Pelham 123, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.
Man Who Wasn’t There, The (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.