Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.
Waiting for Forever (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) didn’t have a home. He wandered from place to place, often hitchhiking because he didn’t have a car, because he was set on following Emma Twist (Rachel Bilson), an actress and a childhood friend, like a love-sick puppy. People were often touched of his stories about how much he loved Emma and how he planned on marrying her. The fact was the two haven’t spoken to each other since they were kids. Written by Steve Adams and directed by James Keach, if I could describe “Waiting for Forever” in one word, it would be “misguided.” I wasn’t convinced that it was a love story even though it tried desperately to be one because the sentiments were heavily one-sided. Emma, like myself, was creeped out by Will because his rationalizations involving why they should be together felt completely detached from reality. The screenplay begged us to feel sorry for him instead of identifying with him. His parents died when he was little, his brother (Scott Mechlowicz) looked down on his nomadic lifestyle, and he always wore the same pajamas. I guess he didn’t have any other clothes. His excuse was the pajamas felt comfortable. I found it insulting that the majority of the women melted after hearing Will’s stories. I agreed with the men: Will needed some help, possibly a one-on-one session with a counselor or a psychiatrist. It was difficult to judge him this way because the filmmakers confused child-like and childish. An adult’s child-like quality tends to momentarily sprout from its hiding shell. It happens without a person being aware of it. An adult is childish when he jumps on chairs, tables, and counters just to be “cute.” Will was certainly the latter. Sturridge was partly to blame. He needed to tone down his character’s ticks so we could focus more on his personal struggles instead of how hyper he was or how well he could juggle. The only believable people on screen were Emma’s parents, Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Miranda (Blythe Danner). Richard had terminal illness and Miranda hid her sadness by overcompensating with happiness. There was dramatic weight in the way they interacted with each other. Some words were ugly, some looks were undeserved but I felt like there was history between them. There was a memorable scene in which Miranda finally exploded at the man she no longer thought was the man she married. The way the camera was so close to their aging bodies and the way the purging of emotions was handled, it felt like I was intruding in their very personal moment. I wished the movie had been about them. I liked the last line in the movie because the joke had a punchline. That and the painful experience of constantly wondering why the characters chose to do what they did was finally over.
★★★ / ★★★★
Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson), a talented painter, fell in love with Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), a homosexual writer, during World War I. Throughout the years, their relationship, as friends and as lovers, was challenged as men dropped in and out of their lives. Based on a novel by Michael Holroyd and directed by Christopher Hampton, “Carrington” was a thoughtful examination of the complexity of sexuality and how our love toward a person can rise above the conventions of sexual orientation. It was easy to label Carrington as a fool. After all, people who cared about her, like her fiancé (Rufus Sewell) in the beginning of the film, had informed her that Lytton was attracted to men. She perfectly knew that Lytton was a homosexual but her feelings for him were simply too strong to resist. We cared about Carrington because she was brave. She perfectly knew that living with Lytton would be different than living with other men but she was at peace with her decision. Thompson did a wonderful job in establishing a character who knew what she wanted but still leaving a bit of room for her to doubt and to feel fear in terms of where her life was going. She communicated plenty with a glance across the dinner table or an awkward silence between two friends. When Carrington and Lytton moved in together, sex was one of the main issues they had to deal with. They circumvented the problem by welcoming each other to see other people. The more comedic scenes involved Lytton urging Carrington to lose her virginity to her fiancé with whom she’s been together for four years. I loved how the film felt controlled. It was mature in its approach about sex but it still retained some level of humor. For instance, there was a scene or two where Carrington just had to lie on the bed, completely detached from the act, while the man was all about his pleasure. That’s usually indicative of a doomed relationship. When Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), a soldier, ended up living with Carrington and Lytton, there was an understated tension among the three. Lytton was attracted to Ralph but Ralph was attracted to women. Carrington was stuck in the middle. It was when Lytton realized that Carrington had something he could never have. As our protagonist saw other men that ranged from the overly sensitive (Samuel West) to the emotionally distant (Jeremy Northam), the more she realized she was destined to be with the writer. One of the most moving scenes in the film was when Carrington, sitting alone in the garden, looked inside their house and saw people she loved having someone next to them. “Carrington” elegantly posed questions about love and its many definitions. The film was unusual but it was beautiful, too.
Amores perros (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Three stories about love collided during a car crash. Octavio (Gael García Bernal) was hopelessly in love with his sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche). He hoped that if he earned enough money by winning in dog fights, she would leave her abusive husband (Marco Pérez) and start a new life with him. Meanwhile, Veleria (Goya Toldeo) was a successful supermodel who had to deal with being confined in a wheelchair as she observed her career slip through her fingers. She began to suffer paranoia when her dog wouldn’t leave from under the house. Finally, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), living as a homeless person whose sole companionship were dogs he found in the streets, was hired to assassinate a businessman. However, he struggled to balance his job and his guilt toward leaving his daughter when she was only an infant. “Amores perros” offered nothing particularly new in terms of going forward and backward in time to tell a story of intertwined lives. But I found it to be an excellent exercise in tone and using the tone to tell a compelling story with well-defined themes. For me, the dogs symbolized purpose. They reflected what the characters desperately wanted but couldn’t quite have. The first story involved Octavio and dogfighting. He constantly felt the need to fight for the love of his life and he was willing to go to desperate measures to have her even if it meant hurting his own flesh and blood. The second story involved a dog hiding under the floorboards. When Valeria moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend, she was happy but she worried about her career, too. She felt like something was missing. Maybe she needed to choose which was more important to her. The third strand involved a homeless man and his homeless dogs. He lived in the streets but he wasn’t ashamed because, like the homeless dogs, he learned how to survive without relying on money. Despite picture’s vastly different storylines, it was focused on the messages it wanted to deliver to its audiences. Those who looked past the images on the screen and really thought about the characters’ constantly changing motivations for two hours and thirty minutes would most likely feel rewarded from the experience. Some of the images were quite intense. The scenes with dogs trying to maul each other to the death were most likely unsimulated. It was painful for me to watch because I don’t like to see animals get hurt especially dogs because I grew up around them. Astutely written by Guillermo Arriaga and elegantly directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Amores perros” rose above being a movie about intertwining lives. It challenged us by equally engaging its viewers intellectually and emotionally without getting stuck in a quicksand of typicalities of the subgenre.
New World, The (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A group of aliens visited Earth to get some plant samples, but they were interrupted by humans whose mission was to record extra-terrestrial life. One alien failed to make it back to the ship. On the night Elliot (Henry Thomas) went to pick up pizza from the delivery man, he heard a noise in the shed. Elliot threw a ball inside. Something threw the ball back to him. Elliot was a lonely kid. He recognized the creature as harmless and they became friends. Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was a prime example of the power movies can have across generations. It appealed to children because the alien was cute and cuddly. The scenes of E.T. exploring the family’s home, held together by a recently divorced matriarch (Dee Wallace), was comic genius. Those of us whose parents allowed us to stay home alone could relate to E.T. as he explored the refrigerator and made a complete mess of the kitchen. Furthermore, no one could resist releasing burst of laughter when Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot’s precocious younger sister, dressed up E.T. as a girl. As for adults, it was a genuinely heartwarming film. The connection between Elliot and E.T. was fully explored so being emotionally invested was effortless. Symbolisms, notably the flower, were present but they were never manipulative nor did they take the focus away from the boy and his pet alien. But what I admired most, and the reason why Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, was in the way Spielberg carefully controlled his scenes. Notice when the family was having dinner and the conversation started in a light-hearted way. The topic was what they should be for Halloween. After several lines of funny dialogue, Elliot started to get annoyed by his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) because he insisted that what Elliot saw in the shed was just a goblin or a coyote. However, Elliot’s frustration was directed to the unsuspecting mother, the easier target, someone physically closest to him on the table. The painful subject of their father being with another woman in Mexico suddenly came up. The progression from funny to annoyance to hurt was masterful. We learned about the subtle intricacies of the characters by simply observing how they reacted to the flow of conversations. A similar technique was used toward the end, involving a freezer, but the emotions were entirely different: From sadness, surprise, to utter joy. I also admired the way the director ended the film as our protagonist looked into the sky full of hope, wonder, and maturity. Right when I yelled, “Cut!” in my head, the picture faded to black. An unparalled story about the universality of friendship, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” doesn’t seem to age. That’s because the lessons it had to impart about empathy, love, friendship, and family define us as a species.
★★ / ★★★★
Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.
Love and Other Drugs (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charming sales representative Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) was fired from his job because his manager caught him having sex with a woman, who happened to be the manager’s girlfriend, at their work place. Belonging in a family with connections, Jamie didn’t stay unemployed for long. Jamie’s brother (Josh Gad) almost immediately snagged him a job as a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer. While Jamie was busy handing out drug samples to various clinics, he met Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a woman inflicted with Parkinson’s disease. At first, it seemed like what Jamie and Maggie had was like any other one-night stand both of them were accustomed to. Eventually, they had to face the fact that maybe their relationship was heading somewhere deeper than they had expected. Based on a book by Jamie Reidy and directed by Edward Zwick, “Love and Other Drugs” was borderline unlikable because I almost found it pretentious yet eager to please. Let’s take the scenes that involved nudity. First and foremost, it felt nothing but a gimmick to attract younger people to go see the movie. The movie showed breasts and buttocks. Everything else was strategically hidden either by another body part or a nicely placed camera angle. It was distracting. Instead of being in the moment, I ended up thinking about its techniques’ false progressiveness. I have no problem with nudity, so if the filmmakers were to have a dozen scenes that ranged from meaningless sex to making love, they should be fearless in going all the way and leaving commercial reservations out the door. Instead, there was an awkward feel to the film. I had a feeling that it wanted to be a mix of an art house drama and a very commercial romantic comedy and it was neither. To a lesser degree, there were some scenes that I thought needed to be reshot because there were times when the acting felt disingenuous, especially by Hathaway. I’m not sure if she felt uncomfortable or she was just trying too hard. Either way, it didn’t feel natural. But the picture had bright spots. I appreciated the smaller and quieter moments like when Maggie asked Jamie to name four positive things about him. He couldn’t do it and there was a sadness that permeated from the screen. Some people just don’t know what they offer the world and that’s unfortunate. Another standout was when the film showed us how Maggie was really like without the drugs that masked her condition. It was a true turning point for the two lovers. “Love and Other Drugs” was like all pills: It had positive qualities but it also had pesky side effects. If it had trimmed its running time by getting rid of most scenes that involved the annoying brother and Jamie sweet-talking his way into women’s panties (we get it–he’s a stud), its heart would have been more defined.
Letters to Juliet (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aspiring writer and current fact checker Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her chef fiancé (Gael García Bernal) went to Italy for their pre-honeymoon. Sophie thought that the two of them would have a great time and set aside their work for a couple of days, but her soon-to-be-husband seemed like he was more excited about the opening of his restaurant than the prospect of marriage and settling down. This led Sophie to go sightseeing on her own and she eventually found a fifty-year-old letter that was unanswered by Juliet, a person who made it her legacy to answer letters written by many people from different cultures who visited Verona’s courtyard. Even though I found the picture to be completely predictable, I ended up really enjoying it mainly because of Seyfried. I find that every time I watch her, I feel a certain warmth and charm that she radiates without even trying. With somewhat of a slow start, the story started to pick up when Sophie finally met the owner (the elegant Vanessa Redgrave) of the one letter she answered along with her disapproving grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan). Since the owner wanted to find her long lost lover named Lorenzo, the three went on a road trip which wasn’t always fun. In fact, it was full of disappointments because with each incorrect Lorenzo they found, I felt the grandmother’s hope to considerably diminish. I thought the best part of the film was the road trip because the three had a commonality. That is, they knew how it was like to lose someone important to them and that was often at the forefront. On top of that, Sophie and the sarcastic and somewhat uptight grandson began to feel a little spark for each other so then they had to deal with that tension even though they initially didn’t want to. However, I wished the last fifteen minutes hadn’t dropped the ball. I thought the reunion could have been handled with more intelligence (maybe even a spice of boldness) and not result to the whole will-she-or-won’t-she formula because we knew what would eventually happen. “Letters to Juliet,” directed by Gary Winick, without a doubt, is syrupy and has a highly idealistic vision of romance. Sometimes it made me roll my eyes because I kept thinking of obvious questions like the grandmother not changing her place of residence for the last fifty years or why did all of the women in the film believed in “true love.” However, most of the time, I was just happy watching it because the storytelling felt effortless and it made me wish for a moment that true love really existed.
Waking the Dead (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1972, Fielding (Billy Crudup), an ambitious aspiring politician from a working class background, met Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl who loved to spend her time working for the church and helping others in need. But in 1974, Sarah died in a car bombing while helping some Chilean activists enter the United States. Fast forward ten years when Fielding was running for office, Fielding became plagued with visions of Sarah. He began to question his sanity because he thought he saw her walking in the streets and even calling his house phone. I was torn whether or not to recommend this film. There was no doubt that I highly enjoyed it because the chemistry between Crudup and Connelly was one of the strongest I’ve experienced in a long time. When they had conversations, even though they didn’t always agree with each other’s approach to politics (politician versus activist, mainstream versus counterculture), it was apparent that they loved each other because they exuded a certain warmth and sometimes fiery passion in their eyes. When they made love, it was sexy and when they were away from one another, I looked forward to seeing them eventually taking up the same space. They were both smart, caring, had something to prove and I found bits of myself in both of them. Unfortunately, I had a problem with the way the story was put together. It wasn’t told in a linear order so it was up to us to put together the pieces, which I found to be a positive quality because it managed to challenged me. One of my favorite aspects of the picture was its uncertainty whether Sarah was alive all along or whether she was really dead and Fielding was experiencing some sort of guilt. In the end, there was no clear answer. Personally, I thought it was the latter because it was more grounded in reality but at the same time there’s enough mysticism to it to provide another dimension to the material. However, if it was the latter, I didn’t understand why Fielding felt so much guilt involving the death of his lover. Was it because he moved onto another girl (who he didn’t even love but it was more for a political strategy) years after Sarah’s death? If so, I didn’t think he should have felt guilty at all because everyone deserves to move on from a painful period of his or her life. I think the film could have done a better job showing and explaining to us why Fielding was so guilt-ridden. Since that crucial part was missing, it was very problematic because it was what drove the scenes in the 1980s forward. Based on a novel by Scott Spencer, “Waking the Dead,” directed by Keith Gordon, benefited from the strong and believable acting between the two leads. If it had clearer connection between past and present, I think it would have been unstoppable.