The Eclipse (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
A widower (Ciarán Hinds) with two kids started seeing ghosts of his father who was still alive. Coincidentally, two authors (Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn) arrived in the widower’s town to promote their novels, in which one of the authors had characters that had to deal with their own ghosts. This was a strange film because although it had elements of classic jump-out-of-your-seat horror, it also tried to be a story of a man who was still grieving over his wife but at the same time wanting to move on even though he had no idea how to start. I didn’t think it managed to do either effectively because the tone was too melodramatic and the characters became stuck with their own demons instead of eventually rising above them. I rooted for the characters because I believed they deserved to be happy, but the material desperately wanted to do something very different to the point where I wasn’t sure if it knew exactly where to go. As the picture went on, I became frustrated with it. Written and directed by Connor McPherson, there were some interesting motifs in the movie such as the director’s use of framing his characters in mirrors. I constantly wondered what he was trying to tell his audiences. Did he mean that the characters were fragile? Were the audiences only seeing the surface of the characters despite the characters addressing their histories? Were the characters harboring some sort of dark secret in which all of them were connected to? I was very curious with the director’s technique but in the end I found no answer that satisfied my curiosity. Instead of slowly opening up, I found the movie becoming more reserved and I felt less connected with what was going on. Instead of spending too much time with the attraction between Hinds and Hjejle, I thought the film would have been more effective if it focused on the relationships between the widower and his children, the widower and his wife, and the widower and his father, while using the authors and the characters in their respective novels as some sort of foil for the lead character. A more confident and clear balance between horror and drama was much needed. The horror elements could have been used as a metaphor with what the widower was going through. The ingredients of making a great film were there (it certainly looked poetic) but I think the execution was not as effective as it should have been. It needed more tension and a sense of urgency if it was going to retain the viewers’ attention.
Ley del deseo, La (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” stars Taraji P. Henson as a nightclub singer who had to take care of her nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar) and niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) when Madea (Perry) brought them to her doorstep after catching them trying to steal home appliances. Henson did not take kindly to the idea because she was so used to only thinking about herself and the current man (Brian J. White) in her life. But when a kind-hearted man (Adam Rodriguez) from Colombia arrived in her life, all her resentment and defenses slowly faded away. Upon watching the first half of this film, I was so convinced I was going to give it a recommendation because not only was it hilarious because of Madea, it had a real dramatic gravity because of the kids who were dealing with serious issues of abandonment. I didn’t mind the melodrama and the clichés because the story kept moving forward. However, the second half had a very noticable change of momentum to the point where I felt like I was attending church (I haven’t been to church in years but it’s fresh in my mind how tedious and hypocritical it is) because of all the sermons and singing. I mean, I understand that music and religion were important to the characters but I constantly took into consideration the possibility that Perry was taking the easy way out both as a writer and director. There were more subtle ways for his characters to realize the errors of their ways; in reality, it’s mostly about the little things we notice, such as the silences while we’re doing something important, that eventually force us to wake up. It’s not necessarily about the big musical numbers and dropping in at the perfect moments of a sermon. So I found that a bit disturbing because of its very contrived nature. I do have to credit Wilson as the sister who was so used to having to put up an angry front because she essentially had to be a mother. The way she delivered her lines broke my heart because I’ve known people like her growing up. And, to be honest, many people like her character end up in terrible situations. Unlike this picture, Wilson knows how to be subtle yet still go for the jugular when necessary. I’m interested with what project she’s going to tackle next. “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is not a bad film. It just needed to take more risks and not get too caught up on the message it wanted to get across to the point where it becomes heavy-handed. Still, it’s worth watching because of Madea’s incredibly hilarious grab bag of biblical stories alone.
Abrazos rotos, Los (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Los abrazos rotos” or “Broken Embraces,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, was about a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who began to tell a story about a love affair he had in the 1990s with a beautiful actress (Penélope Cruz) to the son (Tamar Novas) of his agent/manager (Blanca Portillo). The affair was riddled with sneaking around, feigning emotions, and spying because the actress had a boyfriend (José Luis Gómez) who eventually became aware of the situation with the help of his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) who had a penchant for the videocamera. When I dive into an Almodóvar picture, I expect melodrama, complex storytelling, interesting use of camera angles, vibrant colors, and passionate characters. On that level, I strongly believe that the film delivered. However, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. I think this is the kind of film that requires multiple viewing on my part because there were times in the picture where I found myself confused with what was happening (notably the middle portion). Although it eventually started coming together toward the end because certain characters stopped holding onto their secrets, it didn’t change the fact that I had to take myself out of the experience for several seconds to figure out where everybody else stood. That lack of flow was the main reason why I didn’t quite love “Broken Embraces.” I admired that this film strived not to fit into one genre. Sometimes it was comedic, sometimes gloomy but there were times when it was thrilling; the director’s use of shadows and the way he used the build-up of tension were very noir-like (particularly the stairs scene–a definite stand-out) and almost Hitchcockian. “Broken Embraces” was teeming with ideas. If the director made a film from each genre he tackled, I’d be interested in watching them as well. I was fascinated with how the characters became so engulfed in their passions to the point where they weren’t even aware that they were ultimately hurting themselves. I couldn’t help but get into the lives of the characters because each of them had passion in their eyes and the way they expressed themselves via body movements. Each of them had a purpose and none of them was a simply caricature. I could feel Almodóvar’s passion for filmmaking in every frame. I just wished that he made sure that the audiences could follow his vision without a significant amount of mental acrobatics because there was already a lot going on.
★ / ★★★★
Five groups of people were the focus of “Gomorra” (or “Gomorrah”), directed by Matteo Garrone, and, unfortunately, none of them worked. I expected a lot from this movie because I assumed that since it was over two hours long, it would really have a chance to explore the psychologies and motivations of the characters. Not to mention it received glowing reviews from critics and audiences alike. I should have known to lower my expectations because I just don’t have good experiences with movies that show people being involved or growing up in a life of crime (like the overrated “City of God”–a decent movie but overrated nonetheless). With such movies, I feel like internal exploration is often sacrificed for grittiness, griminess and melodrama when instead all of those elements should be working together to make a trascendent, if not moving, picture. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the names of the characters in this movie because I was just so uninterested with was happening on screen. In my opinion, the characters got what they deserved in the end (whatever they may be) because throughout the movie’s running time, they often thrusted themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations. I read one critic mention that these people do not have a choice in being involved with the life of crime. I completely disagree. We have a choice to not dump toxic waste in illegal areas which pose a threat to the health of others; we have a choice to not put a gun on someone else’s ahead and pressing the trigger; we have a choice to not be chained to the bad reputations of our neighborhoods and strive for something more in life. I know this because I know how it’s like to grow up in a poor neighborhood. Another element that really bothered me was that the disparate stories never really aligned. More than halfway through, I constantly wondered where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. I feel like the picture had some sort of a thesis deep inside its walls but it was never really tackled head-on until those notes appeared prior to the credits. This was definitely a different movie-going experience and I would have liked it a lot more if it had flowed better. I’m not saying that it should have conformed to the Hollywood standards. In fact, I would have disliked it just as much if it did. But a chaotic storytelling that confuses its audiences and not letting them in is not a trait of a good film. There were some glimmer of potential here and there (and that’s pushing it) but those weren’t enough to draw me in and keep me interested. To be honest, I felt like watching it was a waste of my two hours.
Seven Pounds (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love Will Smith and Rosario Dawson but this film, directed by Gabriele Muccino, did not live up to its potential. The number seven was supposed to be special and I didn’t get to fully understand why it was important. The seven strangers that Smith was supposed to help weren’t fully explored. In some instances, we only get to meet a stranger once but never see him or her again. Instead, the picture chooses to focus on the romance between Smith and Dawson. Since it had a two-hour running time, I found no reason for the picture to not be able to do both. I think the director needed more time helming this project because some scenes either felt incomplete or too convoluted. The melodrama needed to be toned down as well. I’m usually a sucker for films that have a lot of melodrama but in here, I found the symbolism to be too heavy-handed. Instead of being organic and leaving the audiences to decide whether or not they should feel for a particular character, the movie makes that choice for the audiences by showing one sad scene after another. In the end, I was just frustrated with it all and I wanted it to end. If it weren’t for Smith and Dawson, I think I would’ve been harsher with “Seven Pounds.” I did enjoy them interact because they do have chemistry. I’ve always admired Dawson’s ability to balance beauty with an edgy attitude and this one is no exception. My favorite scene was when the two leads were in a field and Dawson claims she wants to run but she cannot because of her weak heart. She expressed that longing so effectively to the point where I teared up a bit. As for Smith, I’m glad that he doesn’t just appear in one action movie after another. This is a nice reminder that he can do dramatic roles and convince us that his character is suffering yet selfless even though the picture itself is barely above mediocre. If one is a fan of these two actors, I still say go see it. However, if one is looking for a film that is insightful and character-driven, go see something else because this one feels recycled.
Speedway Junky (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll come right out and admit that this movie is far from perfect. In fact, I think its very flawed regarding its direction, editing, how the story unfolded, and syrupy melodrama. Still, I couldn’t help but get very into it because of the dynamics of the characters played by Jesse Bradford, Jordan Brower, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Daryl Hannah. I keep forgetting that Bradford can be a good actor because the first film I saw him in was the barely mediocre “Swimfan.” Watching this film reminded me of how great he can be like he was in “Heights” and “Happy Endings.” I really cared for him here as a would-be male hustler with dreams of one day becoming a racecar driver. His character reeks with naiveté but that’s one of the best things about the film because something comedic always happens to him. I’ve never seen Thomas in an edgier role because I’m so used to seeing him in harmless films and television shows like “Tom and Huck” and “8 Simple Rules,” respectively. It was nice to see that he’s capable of playing a not-so-friendly and a little dangerous character. Another person that surprised me was Hannah. I have to admit that the only movie that I can remember seeing her in was “Kill Bill” (which I’ve seen about ten times), despite her long repertoire, so it was kind of weird seeing her here as a broken down, somewhat helpless ex-prostitute (in addition to not having an eyepatch over one of her eyes). She shines in her scenes because she provided warmth and compassion (her mother-nurturing side) in contrast to the streets of Las Vegas (her ex-prostitute side). My eyes were glued to the screen when she was telling Bradford one of her stories with a customer. But most of all, it was Brower who really got to me. I’m surprised he doesn’t appear in more movies because I see a lot of potential in him. His struggle about finally finding someone he can love but that of which he cannot have is so sad but it’s easy to relate to. Out of the four characters, I wanted to know about him the most. “Speedway Junky” is written and directed Nickolas Perry, but I think it would’ve been much stronger if Gus Van Sant had taken over (he was the executive producer). I saw a lot of similarities with “My Own Private Idaho” not just in relation to the characters but the themes that it tried to tackle. Again, this movie is very flawed but I saw greatness in it–which could’ve been highlighted by a more capable director.