How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
The Grinch (Jim Carrey) was born in Whoville, a place where everyone loved Christmas, but he ran away to live at Mt. Crumpet because he was bullied as a child for looking different. He grew up to hate Christmas and was absolutely willing to do anything to ruin Whoville’s good cheer. When a little girl (Taylor Momsen), doubtful of what Christmas was supposed to be about, suggested that the residents gave Grinch a chance to be a part of them, it just might be the perfect opportunity for him to ruin Christmas once and for all. Based on Dr. Seuss’ book and directed by Ron Howard, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was harmless, silly, and colorful which almost made it a perfect movie to watch around Christmastime. I just wished its heart was the priority instead of the comedy. Admittedly, despite the many slapstick scenes that made no sense whatsoever yet without a doubt would appeal to younger children, I did laugh at Carrey’s manic energy and deranged facial expressions. I smiled at the small chaos he created like giving little girls a saw and encouraged them to run around with it. I especially loved it when the filmmakers were brave enough to allow the mean, green Grinch to look into camera and comment on things like kids being desensitized by movies and television nowadays and the dangers of stress-eating. The latter was especially hilarious because most of us are guilty of it during the holidays. The Grinch mentioned the innate commercialism of the holiday as well. Some may perceive it as distracting but since he was a cynic, I thought it was appropriate for his character. While it was amusing because of Carrey essentially carrying the picture, I yearned for more moving moments. A bit of silence would have gone a long way. Naturally, the Grinch was a lonely creature. Although the material provided background information about why he decided to live by himself, it felt too superficial. I kept waiting for the film to explore the Grinch’s feelings of abandonment at the gut level. Furthermore, didn’t his parents look for him after he ran off into the snowy mountains? How did he meet his adorable dog? There were some unanswered questions that should have been answered or at least acknowledged. After all, without really understanding the misunderstood creature, how could we buy into his eventual change of heart? We wouldn’t just love him because he decided to return the toys he stole in the first place. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” didn’t quite steal my heart but it managed to entertain. Hats off to Carrey for shining through the green costume and make-up.
In a Better World (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.
The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
On their last night of summer, hormonal adolescents, ranging from fourteen to twenty-one, attended their friends’ sleepovers and parties. There was Rob (Marlon Morton), a lonely guy who encountered a girl in the supermarket but failed to find the courage to speak to her. He spent the rest of the night hoping that their paths would cross. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) was a new girl in town. She didn’t have many friends, so when she was invited by Janelle (Shayla Curran) to attend a sleepover, she happily accepted, unaware that Janelle was her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Scott (Brett Jacobsen) was having second thoughts about finishing college. His sister, Jen (Mary Wardell), told him that twins Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey) had a crush on him in high school. Hoping that his fantasy of being intimate with twins would finally come true, he drove up to the girls’ freshman orientation. Lastly, while at a party with upperclassmen, Maggie tried to get to know the pool boy she had been eyeing all summer. “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, it wanted to deliver a realistic portrayal of teens: their attitudes about friendship, blooming sexualities, and coming to terms with missed opportunities. On the other hand, none of the parents ever showed up on screen. The most common excuse was the adults were out of town. Did all of the parents plan to leave their kids at home at the same time? I understood that it was a conceit that we just had to accept. I wouldn’t have had an issue with it if the teens eventually managed to express their thoughts and emotions to one another with a certain level of clarity. Instead, they lumbered from one place to another without much purpose. It was somewhat frustrating to watch them because there was a lack of fluidity between their respective struggles. For instance, how was Claudia’s loneliness related to Rob’s? There was no bridge. The parents, during wisely chosen scenes, could have acted as the conduit to their children’s confusion, frustration, and apathy as well as the past and present. After all, the parents used to be young and careless, too. Some things never change. Some things inevitably do. Furthermore, the teens could have used more diversity and executed in a direct manner. Rob’s storyline was most interesting because an African-American girl, his sister’s friend, had a crush on him but he didn’t seem to notice. Rob’s best friend, a guy, had feelings for him, too. I didn’t like how both were handled. Although set in suburban Detroit, the world the teens inhabited didn’t really feel like it was set in a modern age. The potential interracial couple’s scenes felt too syrupy to the point where they actually ended up watching shooting stars. The relationship between Rob and his best friend, as friends, didn’t ring true because of the way the director softened the latter’s homosexuality. I felt like the kid was shoved back into the closet every time he felt like he could finally tell Rob about who he really was. I was saddened, sometimes angered, due the way the script and the camera shied away from certain necessary realities. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” would possibly have been a great movie if it was released in the early 1980s. But as a movie of today, it feels like a masturbartory fantasy of the past.
Totally F***ed Up (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” focused on six homosexual teenagers and how they responded to the every day challenges of being young in Los Angeles. Andy (James Duval) was a lonely virgin but, unlike most of his friends, he treasured that aspect of himself. When he met the charismatic Ian (Alan Boyce), Andy seemed to fall in love for the first time. Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) were in a relationship and they wanted to have a baby despite the fact that they would not be able to support it. In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, they gathered their gay friends’ sperm to perform “artificial insemination.” Tommy (Roko Belic) abhorred gay stereotypes. He was proud with being a masculine homosexual but his parents weren’t aware of his sexuality. Lastly, Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) were also in a relationship. One had to deal with gay bashing while the other wrestled with guilt because he had sexual intercourse with another man. Despite the film having a number of great ideas, I was not convinced that Araki had successfully explored what made each character tick. In order for an ensemble to be effective, each subject has to be fully or close to fully realized. We knew that the group of friends in question liked to nap all day, party all night, and try all sorts of drugs in order to remind themselves they were still alive. But what else was there to them? The reason why they were friends in the first place wasn’t clear to me. Surely their friendship was based on something deeper than carnal and chemical pleasures. I didn’t feel like they could depend on each other because they were too preoccupied looking out for themselves. I hope the writer-director didn’t mean to imply that LGBT friendships were shallow and unrewarding. There were far too many scenes of teenagers “doing bad things” so their redeeming factors were overshadowed by their habits. I also wanted to know more about the protagonists’ life at home and their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents or siblings. I was most interested in the characters when they started to talk about their home lives and why they felt like they needed to move away and seek solace with other strangers. They looked at the camera and talked about the hateful heteronormative society but they failed to offer any deep or unique insight about what LGBT teens at that specific time period had to go through. In the end, their struggles felt far away instead of prevalent regardless of one’s sexuality. “Totally F***ed Up” wanted to go in so many different directions that it ended up not going anywhere. Although it managed to capture the loneliness of youth in some parts, the scenes designed for mere shock value turned this film into a run-of-the-mill, independently-made urban teen drama.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite his doctor’s recommendation against traveling, Frank (Robert De Niro) decided to go on a road trip across America when his thirtysomething children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) made last-minute cancellations to come visit over the holidays. Frank wanted to reconnect with his kids due to the recent death of his wife. Also, he felt lonely being by himself at home. “Everybody’s Fine” had an interesting premise but it ultimately left me wanting more. Since Frank’s children had vastly different personalities and temperaments, I thought that each visit would reflect a change of tone. Unfortunately, it remained mind-numbingly one-note. It was depressing because the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with their father which were reflected in their phone conversations when Frank was on the train, the bus, and the plane. Although he was somewhat welcomed with smiles and hugs, the emotions felt fake because we knew what they really thought about the surprise visit. It was like watching a guide called “How Not to Treat Your Parents When They Get Old and You Have Your Own Life.” It would have been refreshing if two of them didn’t want him over but at least one genuinely did without question. One visit could have been strange, the other really funny, and the last quite cantankerous. Big shifts in tone could have signified that the material wasn’t afraid to take risks. So what if everything doesn’t quite fit together? Just keep the audiences interested. There were some mildly comedic scenes like when Frank was portrayed as being out of touch with recent technology and his unawareness that the heavy bag he’d been carrying had a handle and wheels which could have made his life easier. There were also some touching scenes such as when we finally realized that there were some truth in Frank’s high expectations of his children and why they felt distant toward him for years. Nevertheless, I still disagreed with the way they treated their father as if he was a child. Protecting someone doesn’t always equal keeping them in the dark especially when the person had a right to know what was happening. The writing could have used some work. The scene I found most awkward and uncomfortable to sit through was the fantasy scene involving Frank sharing a meal with his children, played by actual kids, and secrets were revealed. Some of the divulged information could be surmised from Frank’s visit but some were simply out of nowhere. That scene felt cheesy, forced, and it diminished the little dramatic pull it had going for it. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, “Everybody’s Fine” had a great cast, with some effective acting from De Niro, but it made far too many missteps because of a weak script. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected during the more serious revelations.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene established Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) to be an observer. While she ate lunch inside a classroom because she didn’t have any friends, she noted that everything had order and everyone belonged in a circle. Except for her. Esther had her own way of dealing with loneliness such as befriending a baby duck. At home, we found out she had a twin brother (Christian Byers) and their lives were always under a microscope as their parents (Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra) observed them from behind the lens. “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger,” written and directed by Cathy Randall, was a different coming-of-age story because it was about children who acted out since they received too much attention. Esther meeting Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a girl from a public school, was a catalyst for Esther’s evolution. As a whole, I enjoyed this movie because it had a bona fide sense of humor and the character, despite turning somewhat into a mean girl, was easy to root for because, essentially, she was an ugly duckling. However, this film was its own worst enemy. In its attempt to impress its audiences, it felt the need to deliver too much of everything. It got to the point where the quirkiness became a distraction and it did not lead to any place where the lead character could discover something new about herself. Instead of the superfluous awkwardness, I wanted to know about the dynamic and the fragility of Esther and Sunni’s friendship, Esther in a public school versus Esther in a private school, and the family seeing a shrink in their attempt to mend what they thought was broken about them. I also thought there was something poignant between Esther and Sunni’s mom (Toni Collette). She was the “cool mom” who rode a motorcycle, let them stay up late, used her body as an instrument and laughed at Esther’s jokes–the complete opposite of Esther’s biological mother. I felt sadness in Esther’s eyes as she questioned herself why she wasn’t lucky enough to get Sunni’s mom. Lastly, the ending did not quite work for me because I felt that it was done mainly to shock us. I didn’t think it was necessary at all; it almost felt exploitative. However, I was glad that Esther did not revert to being a loser during the final scenes. Her evolution, with all the good and the bad, remained intact and I appreciated that honesty. In a span of an hour and forty-five minutes, we watched her grow up even just a little bit. Sometimes small steps are worth it.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.