★★ / ★★★★
In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) couldn’t move on from his divorce so his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and her future husband (Matt Walsh) decided to drag him to a party where he could mingle and hopefully meet some single women. After a series of forced and awkward conversations, John met Molly (Marisa Tomei) and the two seemed like a good fit. Although she was very attractive, unlike most women at the party, she wasn’t difficult to approach and didn’t make John feel bad about himself whether it be his physical appearance–he described himself as “like Shrek”–or his job. She overlooked his many imperfections because she loved John’s honesty. However, their relationship came to screeching halt when John met Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s son, who was unnecessarily sarcastic and had a little bit of insanity in the eyes. Having an unhealthy close relationship with his mom, Cyrus’ plan was to drive John out of Molly’s life. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, “Cyrus” would easily have been a disappointment in the wrong hands. What I loved most about it was it allowed the characters to act like people one could potentially meet at just about anywhere. They were conflicted in what they could offer to someone else, sometimes self-pitying, capable of making royal mistakes, and at times readily able to forgive or overlook certain actions. Even though the material was essentially a comedy, it tried to deal with serious issues in a respectful manner. For instance, we didn’t know who Cyrus really was for the majority of the picture. Despite his selfish actions, I might have disliked his actions but didn’t loathe him. It made me wonder whether his fear of being replaced was driven by another factor like a psychological trauma or a chemical imbalance. I saw John, Molly, and Cyrus’ relationship as three people in a canoe attempting to make it from one island to another, like a relationship in a state of critical transition. John and Molly were content in sitting in the canoe in silence. They had excellent chemistry, almost as if the current wanted them to reach the second island. But Cyrus, despite being twenty-one years of age, was essentially a kid. He talked as if he was years beyond his age but he hadn’t reached a certain level of maturity just yet. He craved attention and so he rocked the canoe with all his might, sometimes even found it gratifying to see the friction between his mother and her new beau. Is the canoe going to tip over? “Cyrus” was an interesting exercise of the dynamics of complicated relationships and the happiness that each character desperately wanted to grasp. It’s refreshing to watch understated comedies where its sense of humor was in the characters’ situations instead of the joke being pointed at themselves.
Cedar Rapids (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) was an honest insurance salesman. He was comfortable living in a small town and changing people’s lives for the better. He was described as the guy who could have gone places but actually didn’t go anywhere. When one of his colleagues passed away due to autoerotic asphyxiation, he was asked by his boss (Stephen Root) to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and win an award for their region. Tim was warned not to interact with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) but, as luck would have it, they ended up sharing a hotel room. Written by Phil Johnston and directed by Miguel Arteta, “Cedar Rapids” was surprisingly human. I expected the film to rely solely on awkward situations and slapstick comedy to generate most of its laughs. Helms had a knack for the former, while Reilly built his career on the latter. The two actors fed off one another. When the camera was transfixed on them, my body automatically prepared itself to laugh because my brain knew that Helms and Reilly understood both the value of a punchline and, more importantly, precision of delivery. But the movie wasn’t just about the laughs. It was also about Tim venturing out into the world and realizing how fun, dangerous, and rewarding it could be to make friends who were entirely different from himself. There was one very amusing scene when Tim was shocked to find an African-American man, Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), in his room. Furthermore, I was particularly interested in Tim’s relationship with Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman with kids. She saw the convention as a means of escape from the routine and, although much of it was unsaid, I believed she saw something in Tim that she craved, perhaps a quality that her husband lacked, but could never have because she already had a life. The way Heche delivered certain looks inspired me to dig beyond what her character was willing to outwardly share. There was a certain sadness between the two scavenger hunt partners and the film’s final moments worked because I believed their relationship, not necessarily romantic, would continue. Back home, Tim was involved with his former grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver). The writing could easily have been lazy, relying on jokes that involved the word “cougar,” but I loved that the material didn’t look down on Tim and Macy’s relationship. Sure, she was over fifteen years older than him but a handful of scenes suggested that they shared something meaningful. “Cedar Rapids” took ordinary people and allowed them to work, play, and form friendships in an honest, emotionally resonant manner. More mainstream comedies can only aspire to be as such.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
★★ / ★★★★
Clocking in under 80 minutes, “9” tells the story of ragdoll-like creatures in a postapocalyptic world who struggle to survive against the machines. When one of the creatures named 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) woke up, he started to ask questions like what had happened in the world, why they had to live in fear, and what they could do so that they would have a better existence. 1 (Christopher Plummer), the leader of the creatures, did not like 9’s questions and they often clashed on how to approach various situations. Other voices included Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly and Fred Tatasciore. Written and directed by Shane Acker, I did like the imagination and the high level of animation in “9” but I felt like the story could have used a lot of work. Only toward the end did it somewhat come together which was not a good thing because I was confused for more than half the picture. It brought up more questions than answers. For instance, it tried to tackle the war between humans and machines, the concept of having a soul, and immortality. Such complex and controversial subjects were merely glossed over when it should really have been discussed and explored. For a movie that was only 80 minutes long, that certainly did not help when it came to having more depth in the story. I admired the action sequences. They were undeniably exciting because I did care for the creatures. Even though they did not look remotely human, I quickly cared about them due to their ability to think like we do and feel like we do, especially 9 because he was capable of moral evaluation. With that said, I don’t think this film was made for children because it was violent, dark and sometimes the characters met a brutal death. I hate to say this because I know this film took a lot of effort to make but I believe that if the filmmakers spent more time adding scenes that could enhance the issues it tried to deal with, “9” would have been a superior animated feature. I do give it credit, however, for not trying to be another cute Pixar movie designed for children. I could easily tell that it was trying to be something more but unfortunately the missing pieces were just too jarring for me to ignore.
The Promotion (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This indie comedy had the power to be something more but it held back so it didn’t quite have that extra punch. I understand why people think that this is a slow-moving movie because it takes its time developing the two main characters (played by Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) via showing us how they deal with certain situations–basically what makes them a qualified person vs. deserving for the promotion they are applying for. The interesting thing is that they don’t quite compete in front of each other. For the sake of appearances, Scott and Reilly smile and converse with each other but when they’re alone with their thoughts, they start feeling the pressure and they think of ways to sabotage one another, which interestingly enough, often backfires. They then have to clean up the mess they’ve created but half of the time they dig themselves into a deeper hole. I think that rings true to most individuals so I was instantly hooked. Even though these characters are miserable, it’s amusing to us because we feel like if we were them, we could’ve handled the situation better. I think what most moviegoers will have trouble getting is the deadpan, dry comedy of each character and situation. It’s a different kind of comedy and sometimes I don’t get it either. Even though Scott and Reilly find ways to torture each other, they are not bad people. They do the things they do because they simply want to lead a better life for their families. The one quote that sums up the film is “We’re all just out here trying to get some food… Sometimes, we bump into each other.” That’s integral to the story because it’s a connection that we have with the characters. The film begs the question between who is more qualified for the promotion and who really deserves and/or need the promotion. I love that the answer lies in the gray area so it really depends on the justifications of the person who is watching the film. Aside from Scott and Reilly, this picture has a nice supporting role played by Jenna Fischer, not to mention small but really funny appearances by Jason Bateman and Masi Oka. This may seem silly on the outside but the implications it has about the nature of competition, I think, reflects American thinking. Most people will not describe this film as subtle, but it will reward those who try to see below the surface.