Welcome to Happiness (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A picture like “Welcome to Happiness,” written and directed by Oliver Thompson, will likely fail to hold up under scrutiny, at least under the standards of what makes a film palatable for the mainstream audience. It is weird in just about every definition of the word, from its story, the structure of the plot, the way it is told, how it ends. It is not impressive when it comes to dialogue, how it is shot, or how it looks. And yet I loved how it made me feel.
The plot revolves around a writer named Woody (Kyle Gallner) who is having trouble continuing his current book about a cat that is not at all curious despite the common saying. But the storyteller is most curious. He is given the task to let strangers who have hit rock bottom into his apartment when they knock on the door, to ask them questions, and to eventually lead them to his closet. Inside the closet is a small door that opens—and can only be opened from the other side—when the stranger is finally alone. No matter how hard Woody tries, the door does not open for him. He wishes to know why this is the case. And this increasing curiosity leads him to desperation.
Notice that each room we visit almost always has two things: paintings and books. But they are just not any other painting or book—the type of paintings and books varies depending on the person who owns them. Also, their numbers differ based on their owner’s income. Some of them are placed or hung near the floor, while others cannot be reached so easily without a stool or a ladder. Words and pictures dominate these characters’ lives. The more we get to know them, we can choose to categorize them under either tribe. Some of us may ask ourselves where we fall in the spectrum, words on one extreme and pictures on the other.
The material is interested in how its characters define happiness. Is happiness being with another person? Being with one’s most prized possessions? Being with oneself and his hobbies? Her passions? Is happiness creating something that the world can appreciate? Is happiness to forgive, to move on, to never look back? Or is happiness having the ability to fix or erase the unjust? I admired that the material asks big questions and more questions than any one movie can possibly handle. I think the point is neither to answer nor to probe deeply into them but rather to look inside ourselves and evaluate our priorities, our philosophies.
“Welcome to Happiness” will likely appeal to those with a taste for the bizarre. I can talk about well-written and well-executed scenes like the mysterious opening sequence or when Woody asks an amputee to go inside the closet so she can experience something that will change her life. I can talk about how vibrant colors are utilized as both metaphor or irony. I can talk about solid performances by Gallner as a tortured writer or by Brendan Sexton III as his character recalls his biggest regret. But I choose not to. And choice is, I think, the point of the film.
Dear White People (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
The goal of satire is, as it should be, to get a reaction from the audience. The subject of race continues to define America and so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that a movie like this is not made very often, especially from the perspective of young adults. While writer-director Justin Simien is able to invoke a reaction, both good and bad, “Dear White People” is not too sharp a satire that bites deeply into the flesh of what makes its subject such a hot issue. Its focus and momentum is too consistently distilled by possible romantic connections and it comes across like an expected dance.
We learn from the prologue that Winchester University, an Ivy League school, has come under the scrutiny of national media because of an “African-American”-themed Halloween party hosted by white students—blackface and all. Jumping back six months, we meet a sophomore student, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who hosts a radio program that aims to pinpoint white people’s ignorance of black identity and culture via one-liners; a first-year named Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) who is having trouble sorting out his housing situation; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), the ambitious son of the university’s dean; and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the leader of the house that will eventually host the controversial Halloween party.
At times the film comes across like a two-part pilot of a television show that has the potential to survive early cancellation. It introduces colorful characters with verve, wit, humor, and intelligence. Further, the script allows each performer to make an impact since each character harbors a specific perspective. The problem is that there are too many people worth knowing and the material sometimes attempts to make each one well-rounded and complex.
This is a miscalculation because satire is about extreme characters and there is no need to humanize them as one would, say, in a drama. One might argue the material is less about the characters and more about the audience. After all, the movie itself is serving as as a mirror when it comes to way we treat ourselves, especially as minorities in America, and others who may be “different” to us. What the picture should have done is to consistently expose what is wrong in our current society when the subject of race is brought up without having to create a typical dramatic arc. It would have felt more alive if it had the courage to adopt a more creative template.
I enjoyed Teyonah Parris’ performance as a black person who feels a desperate need to distance herself from her culture. Her character feels ashamed that she comes from the “ghetto” and so she covers it up by embracing all that is typically “white”—rather, what she considers to be white attributes. Her character, Colandrea Conners, preferring to go by “Coco” because she claims it sounds less “ghetto,” is probably the easiest person to dislike, but I wanted to get to know her most. Parris has small but great moments like passing by a black guy in a crowded room but her body language communicates he is not worthy of being around her even for a split-second. It is in those minute moments that I found truth in the film. I wanted to see more of that—no explanation is required because we are all guilty of some form of stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
So why am I giving “Dear White People” a recommendation? I enjoyed about half of what is shown and, more importantly, because it made an effort to be about something. Although it has its missteps and limitations, it is better than most movies that target undergraduates and similar age group, many of which never bother to be about something as long as the audiences laugh a lot and are not forced to think too hard. On that level, I found it refreshing.
Beautiful Boy (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) were about to get a divorce. They lived in the same house, able to carry on a conversation, though nothing deep, eat at the same table, but couldn’t bear to sleep on the same bed. When their eighteen-year-old son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), called from college one night, it was a final contact. The next morning, Kate and Bill found out that their beloved son had killed over a dozen of his fellow students and, eventually, himself. Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku, directed by the latter, “Beautiful Boy” worked both as a life-changing tragedy and as a marriage drama, which was interesting because there was not one image of Sammy using a gun was ever shown. Instead, the picture focused on how the couple reacted to the news which was heartbreaking to the say the least. The bereaved questioned themselves what they did or didn’t do as parents to have raised such a depressed child who eventually gathered so much rage and alienation. Kate hated the fact that Bill was always emotionally unavailable due to the nature of his work, while Bill begrudged Kate for picking at every single flaw whether it was about a household item or person with feelings. But in my opinion, neither of them, as well as the real families of those teens who went on a rampage in their high school and college campuses, was to blame. Sometimes kids just can’t cope and their decision to allow others to feel their pain is beyond explanation. Though their action begs for a sound reason, no amount of psychology is good enough to ameliorate the grief of everyone involved, directly or indirectly, at least for the time being. The first year of university and being hundreds of miles away from home is difficult. I know this from personal experience and I believe that the film, in only two or three scenes, captured the yearning of physical contact while parents and their child conversed via telephone. Like most people, I was able to get through the demanding first year by making new friends, being open to new experiences, embracing changes, but still staying true to who I thought I was. College students break down more often than most people would probably like to think. And it’s not just those who flunk out. Just because a student is still in school, it does not mean that the student is necessarily healthy. A whole lot of students engage in reckless casual sex as a substitute for real connection, some decide to stay in bed all day and neglect hygiene altogether, others take refuge in the party scene and drown their problems with alcohol, a handful try to overcompensate and take on more responsibilities than they can handle. I know because I’ve known and lived with those kinds of behavior. The very few who go on a shooting rampage, in my opinion, is an extreme form of that behavioral (and most likely hormonal) imbalance. That’s what they are to me: behavior. Behavior does not necessarily (nor accurately) define a person. That’s what I believed the film tried to communicate about tragedy by allowing us to watch Bill and Kate to try to make it through one day at a time. It managed to do so in an elegant, contemplative way sans judgment.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
Nightmare on Elm Street, A (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five teenagers (Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Thomas Dekker, Katie Cassidy and Kellan Lutz) with a mysterious past tried the best they could to not fall asleep because a killer named Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) wanted to murder them in their dreams causing the teenagers to die in actuality. Being a big fan of the original, I’m happy with this reimagining (falsely labeled as a remake) of 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” What I liked about it was the fact that it was more story-driven but the jump-out-of-your-seats scares were still there. While the acting from the teenagers was nothing special (and I am a fan of Gallner and Dekker), I did enjoy Haley’s interpretation of the infamous dream killer. The playful personality was still there but I felt like this version of Freddy had more darkness in him. I thought it was creepy how he would let a teenager escape for kicks only to kill the person without remorse once he had this fun. Out of the series, I think this installment had the best visual effects and such were used in an interesting way. (Although I also very much enjoyed Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare.”) For instance, when a character was in a dream and he or she was on the verge of waking up, the images of the dream world and reality would mix. So in a way, the visual effects weren’t just used for kicks. They were used to enhance the experience. However, I did wish that the writers would have had more fun with the characters in terms of finding ways to stay awake. Other than taking stimulating drugs or slapping themselves silly, I wish that a character decided to watch happy movies to get rid of his bad thoughts, hoping that if negative feelings are out of his system, he wouldn’t have nightmares. I’m sure we all know people who take that approach and it would have been nice if that movie acknowledged those people and scared them a bit (or even more). Another issue I had with the film was its use of laughably bad one-liners especially from Freddy. Without the silly lines, I think I would have taken him more seriously. I’m aware that this version wants to pay some sort of homage to its predecessors but the movie could have done it by simply taking all the positive things from them and taking it to the next level. They should have left the bad qualities out the door. Maybe the silly one-liners worked back then because there were a plethora of horror movies coming out at the time but they just don’t work nowadays because we are currently experiencing a drought of exemplary horror pictures. Nevertheless, “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” directed by Samuel Bayer, managed to hit some high points especially with its creative ways of killing. I was very happy with the body bag scene (my favorite scene in the original–every time I think about it, I get goosebumps) but it could have been scarier without the corny lines.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, “Red” was about a man’s (Brian Cox) quest to find justice for the meaningless murder of his dog by three teenagers (Noel Fisher, Kyle Gallner, Shiloh Fernandez), each with varying responsibilities regarding the crime. This little indie gem was a pleasure to watch because it was able to play around with characters who chose to do things that were sometimes morally gray. The question about where to draw the line after seeking justice but not getting it was constantly at the forefront. While I was immediately against the teenager who pulled the trigger and caused the death of the old dog, Cox’ (eventual) thirst for vengeance left me questioning whether he was still capable of logical thinking. I was interested to see what would happen next because the lead character was very multidimensional. He was the kind of character that I could empathize with right away but he was not the kind of character that I necessarily understood right off the bat because of the wall he put around himself. But when he finally opened up about how angry, sad, lonely and tormented he was regarding what happened to his family and the event that changed their lives forever, I felt where he was coming from: why he couldn’t let go of the dog’s death, why he wanted the boys (and their father) to own up to their responsibilities, and why the concept of justice was so important to him. The way he told the story of what really happened to his family left strong images in my head to the point where I felt like I was watching something incredibly horrific. I also liked the fact that there were a lot of unsaid and untackled issues but such things were simply implied. It made me want to read the novel because most adaptations to film do not really get the chance to paint the entire picture. I must commend Brian Cox for his excellent performance. The way he quickly juggled dealing with his character’s physical limitations and inner demons left me nothing short of impressed. “Red” is not your typical revenge film so if you’re expecting a “Kill Bill” sort of movie, this may not be for you. However, if you’re more into character studies, exploring the way the justice system (and humans in general) treats animals, and judging how much particular characters should be punished, this film should be quite enjoyable.
Haunting in Connecticut, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I was surprised by how much this film was grounded in reality even though the trailers sold it off as a typical “based on a true story” demonic possession. Virginia Madsen and Martin Donovan star as the parents who choose to move in a house with a creepy history because their son’s (Kyle Gallner) cancer treatment facility is nearby. It’s not long until spirits start to get themselves known to Gallner’s character in truly horrifying manners. I really admired the first thirty minutes of this horror flick because things that most people would consider as supernatural are things that can happen to cancer patients going through various therapies (i.e. hallucinations). I wish Peter Cornwell, the director, decided to keep straddling the line between science and the supernatural because it’s very reminiscent of “The Exorcist.” To me, the closer a horror film is to reality, its resonance after I leave the theater is amplified many more times as opposed to a horror movie that’s so unbelievable to the point where it loses its power. Unfortunately, this movie is the latter. Another frustration that I had with it was the film’s use of soundtrack to cue that something terrifying is happening on screen. I was really taken out of the moment whenever the soundtrack would be heard; most of the time, I don’t like outside cues to tell me how I should be feeling especially when the obvious is being shown on the screen. Its scares would’ve been more effective if there was less jarring creepy sounds–let the creaks of each footstep or a body hitting furnitures do all the work. After all, this is a horror film about a house with a questionable past (in the least) so the-less-the-better technique could’ve done wonders. As for its acting, I thought everyone did pretty good but I felt like Gallner was holding back. I’ve seen him in several television shows and movies so I know that he could’ve done more. Still, “The Haunting in Connecticut” had three or four solid scares so I’m giving it a mediocre rating. However, it would’ve been so much better if the booming soundtrack during scares was kept at a minimum or was not integrated at all.