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.
The Flower of My Secret (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
This film did not look or feel like it was completely directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It was a little too straightforward in its storytelling so it made me feel uncomfortable. “La flor de mi secreto” or “The Flower of My Secret” told the story of a writer (Marisa Paredes) who published her novels under a pseudonym because she valued her privacy. Only her best friend (Carme Elias) and a few others who were really close to her knew the truth about her career. Sick of writing romance novels especially since her marriage was on the rocks (her husband played brilliantly with cold disregard by Imanol Arias), she decided to write for a newspaper and was assigned to write critiques of her own novels. There were some excellent scenes in this movie such as the lead character’s interactions with her frustrated sister (Rossy de Palma) and stressed out mother (Chus Lampreave), when the lead character received a lecture from her publishers about why they couldn’t and wouldn’t publish her new novel that was dark and edgy (the description of the events in novel was very amusing because it sounded like something Almodóvar would make into a movie), and the scene with her husband in which it showcased how lonely the lead character truly was in terms of not having someone that she could be fully be open to whenever she felt like lowest in her life. However, there were many scenes shot outdoors, especially in the beginning, that were supposed to be funny but fell completely flat. Those scenes looked too commercial and they didn’t have Almodóvar’s signature use of extreme colors, they lacked tension, and given that they were taken out from the movie, the end product would have been the same. Such scenes felt like fillers and they quickly wore out their welcome. I understood that perhaps Almodóvar was trying to do something different with his style but I felt like he didn’t have complete control of the material when he was experimenting. The best scenes in the film had focus on the relationship between the main character and the women in her life and how they helped each other move past seemingly insurmountable emotional challenges. I think more scenes with the eccentric family would have benefited the movie greatly because de Palma was simply electric. She wasn’t in the movie much but every time she was on screen, I was drawn to her and I noticed the subtleties in her body movements. And in a way, the family reminded me of my own relatives because even though we get under each others’ skins, there’s a lot of undeniable love between the awkward silences. I liked “The Flower of My Secret” because it did have fantastic moments. However, I’m not sure how forgiving most people can be if they are not familiar with Almodóvar’s colorful and bold repertoire.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.