Reality Bites (1994)
★★ / ★★★★
Four Generation X friends (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Jeneane Garofalo, Steve Zahn) who recently graduated from college quickly found out that the “real world” was not something they could easily overcome just because they had an education. During her spare time, Lelaina, played by Ryder, documented her life while living with friends, she hated her internship at a television station, and she was torn between her slacker but charming best friend, played by Hawke, and a sucessful music video network executive, played by Ben Stiller. Meanwhile, Hawke had to deal with his ailing father, Garofalo was concerned that she had contracted HIV, and Zahn struggled to keep a secret. It sounded like the movie had a lot going for it. However, I believe the movie was stuck in the romantic angle between Ryder, Hawke and Stiller to the point where it had sidelined what the movie should have been about: the dynamics of friendship outside of the collegiate atmosphere and how their friendship was constantly challenged because their expectations did not often match what is. While the romantic angle was interesting enough to keep the picture afloat, it did not take the project to the next level because the angles that the film explored within the courtship was nothing particularly insightful or new. I thought the film was at its best when Ryder was just with her friends doing stupid things like watching television while talking about things that they did in college and when Ryder was forced to crawl back to her parents for financial assistance. I found those scenes more relatable because the lead character was forced to look at the hand she’s been given and she had to reevaluate what was more important to her: her pride or living a life of relative comfort. After all, at this specific time of their lives, life is more about compromises and the pain of asking oneself, “Am I good enough?” than about choosing between two boys (or girls). However, I did not dislike the film because I sympathized with the characters and I rooted for them to succeed even though I did not always agree with their actions. They tried to navigate their lives the best they could despite the many distractions. Sometimes they succeeded but sometimes they failed. In that regard, I thought the movie was honest despite the majority of it ending up somewhat hollow. Written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, “Reality Bites” is a commercial project that thought it was something edgy or original. In its all-too-obvious attempt of digging up something insightful about modern romantic relationships, it achieved, well, hipster status.
Dirty Harry (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
A San Francisco cop with a reputation in the streets as Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) because of his willingness to not play by the rules tried to hunt down a serial killer named Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) who claimed that he would kidnap or kill people if the city failed to give him whatever he desired. Directed by Don Siegel, “Dirty Harry” became an iconic film. Naturally, my expectations were very high. I thought it was a bit dated but it was very efficient with its time, a great homage yet reinvented detective pictures, and the acting was very strong, especially by Eastwood. But what I loved most about the film was its simplicity. It was essentially about a cop who wanted to capture a bad guy. Certain twists such as the cop’s tendency to spy on people he was meant to protect, penchant for grand speeches and glorification of violence when he was fully aware there were other means of extracting information made the story very modern and quite bold. My opinion of the lead character always evolved and that X-factor made me emotionally and intellectually invested in the material despite its typical premise. The moral questions it brought up about power, choosing the lesser evil, ethics and inner demons were insightful and at times revealing, particularly toward the end when Eastwood’s character became almost obsessive in capturing the murderer. Even though I did not agree with much of his methods, I rooted for him to succeed because no one else was willing to take as many risks as he did. He was willing to put his career on the line which meant so much to him despite scenes that depicted him volunteering to give up his badge. The way I saw it was that the badge meant nothing to him but he was very passionate about being a cop and catching (or killing) those who did wrong. I did notice a plethora of political right-wing undercurrents but I don’t believe it hindered the picture in any way. What I thought it could have improved on was allowing the audiences to enter the lead character’s heart and mind more often. We did get to see his humanity toward the end of the movie so I felt like I understood him more. However, during the first half, I thought he was more of a vigilante in which killing was his addiction. At times I’m torn (and still torn) because I loved the way my perception of Harry Callahan changed toward the end. I also would have liked to have seen Harry interact with his new partner (Reni Santoni), a typical good guy, for more contrasting views in the ethical dilemmas involving law enforcement. “Dirty Harry” is a strong film. The action scenes were particularly gripping because there was no soundtrack. Everything was stripped down and, although the movie was released in the early ’70s, it is still refreshing to watch.
True Romance (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, “True Romance” opened with Clarence (Christian Slater) talking about a hypothetical situation in which if he were to make love with another man, it would be with his idol Elvis Presley. From the first scene, we learned that Clarence was a modern guy who was a romantic at heart and in constant search of the one he could fall deeply in love with. When he met Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater and the two discussed the picture they just saw in a diner, the two forged a strong connection which eventually led to Clarence killing Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) and accidentally stealing drugs from the mob. Like most movies written by Tarantino, I loved how this film was character-driven and dialogue-heavy but it still kept a forward momentum. Each scene in which two characters were placed in a room and talked about the most seemingly random topics were most revealing, most amusing and most engaging. We were given the chance to understand their motivations, histories, limitations and how they saw their lives compared to how they hoped to live their lives. Despite the characters acting tough on the outside, each of them had a fascinating story to tell. Aside from the opening scene, some higlights include Christopher Walken’s, as a mob boss, interrogration of Dennis Hopper, as Clarence’s ex-cop father with whom he had not seen for years; Arquette and James Gandolfini’s brutal battle to the death in a motel room; and when Arquette reluctantly admitted to Slater that she was a call girl. While the picture had its share of violence, I admired that it did not glorify it. The focus was consistently on the story, how the couple tried to get away from the police and the mob despite the fact that they probably knew that there would not be a way out of their increasingly desperate situation. Nevertheless, since the two really believed in their love for one another, they decided to move forward and there was certain lyricism and poetry even though chaos was happening all around them. “True Romance” wore its love for the movies on its sleeve by excelling at its genre while at the same time breaking from it. Even small roles had a big contribution to the big picture such as Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and Brad Pitt as a stoner. Watching “True Rlomance” was pure joy because I experienced a spectrum of emotion and it made me want to have a dangerous (but chic) adventure of my own.
The Good Guy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
Going the Distance (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Garrett (Justin Long) lives in New York and works for a record company whose main goal is to find bands that have the potential to be popular even though they’re not necessarily talented. Garrett finds his job unrewarding because he genuinely loves good music despite a band being non-commercial. Erin (Drew Barrymore) is an summer intern for a newspaper in New York who resides in the Bay Area with her sister (Christina Applegate). Being over thirty years old, she’s still in school because she once derailed her career plans for a guy. Garret and Erin meet and they get into an initially undefined long-distance relationship. Written by Geoff LaTulippe and directed by Nanette Burstein, “Going the Distance” is without a doubt a commercial romantic comedy but has an edge because it is actually believable in terms of how it’s like to be in a modern relationship. The script contained extremely funny lines and situations, the supporting characters (Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis as Garrett’s best friends) were used in a smart way but never overshadowed the leads, and we believe that Garrett and Erin had something special so we are invested in the story. The small details were the things I appreciated most. I liked how the camera consistently focused on the man–the thoughts that were running around in his head and the pain that he must be feeling because he is very attached to the girl. It stood out to me because there were studies I’ve read about, compared to a woman, a man feeling more pain than he lets on when a romantic relationship is broken. And even though it wasn’t addressed directly, there was probably an age difference (Garrett’s age was undisclosed). I thought about why the two main characters valued certain things over others, their maturity levels, and the pros and cons of being in long distance relationship. Even though, on the surface, Garrett and Erin had a lot in common, they also had a lot of differences but somehow the director was able to highlight what great chemistry they have without resulting to being sappy and so we want them to be together even though not all of the characters believed they would make it. “Going the Distance” is an unexpectedly fast-paced comedy that manages to capture the diversity and the hustle and bustle of New York City (I actually liked the scenes with purposely bad lighting because it felt that much more realistic). It’s an intelligent film that isn’t afraid for both men and women to directly talk about sex and address what they really need in order to be happy. The movie even had time to refer to the economy’s impact the job market. I strongly believe that couples, not just the girl, will find themselves enjoying this laugh-and-loud romcom.
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four friends (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles) decided to move in together after graduation. The thing was, they still lived very close to campus because they couldn’t quite let go of college and they still weren’t ready to face the “real world” for various reasons. What I appreciated most about this film was its honesty. Although it had many quotable one-liners and very funny dry humor, all of it almost always felt secondary so it didn’t feel gimmicky. It felt modern but realistic. The core of the movie was always at the forefront: the four friends feeling lost and the way they tried to deal with the pressures of essentially getting stuck at a specific point in their lives. I liked the fact that the four characters were smart and had potential to be great yet they found themselves hanging out in the same places and having the same kinds of conversations about literature and pop culture. This was highlighted by a girl always telling them that they talked the same. There was a certain sadness about it all because the characters constantly avoided the main issue of lacking the motivation to pursue their potential. Instead, they distracted themselves by magnifying every small problem to instill some sort of meaning in their lives. Another element I thought was interesting was Eric Stoltz who played a tenth-year student. The four characters recognized that they didn’t want to end up like him yet time and again they made decisions that would most likely lead them in the same path. “Kicking and Screaming,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a story of postcollege angst for astute individuals who are willing to look past the surface and extract meaning from certain glances and dialogues. I read a review stating that this movie was simply a series of random scenes of twenty-two-year-olds being lazy and it didn’t come together in the end. I disagree in some ways. While it did feature random scenes that didn’t add up to anything, I think those scenes reflected the characters’ inner turmoil of not knowing what to do with their lives. After an expensive education, everyone sort of expected them to do something meaningful. Because of the paralyzing fear of living up to people’s expectations, they became stuck; each day blended against the other and the fact that they did the same thing every day didn’t help their situation. As for the way the picture ended, I thought it was borderline great. There was something heartbreaking about that scene in the airport yet something so sweet about the Hamilton’s conversation with the girl who liked to give people money if she believed she wasted their time. “Kicking and Screaming” is not for everyone because it’s heavy on dialogue and Baumbach lets the audiences derive meaning from it instead of spoon-feeding us what to think and feel.
Post Grad (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Kelly Fremon, Alexis Bledel stars as Ryden Malby, a recent college graduate who planned out her entire future well before high school. (Which isn’t really a stretch from her very lovable character Rory Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”) Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned when she found herself being unable to get a job because of the fierce competition in the job market. This movie had the potential to be really good because of its modern way of approaching one of the most common questions of recent college graduates: Will I be able to immediately get a job after college? I thought the first twenty minutes was strong because it dealt with that particular issue head-on. It may not be incredibly realistic but at least it tried to be relevant. However, the deeper we got into the picture, the movie suffered because of bad writing and the material easily succumbed to eyeroll-worthy typicalities. Ryden had to choose between her kind-of boyfriend (Zach Gilford) who was torn between law school and music and the exotic guy next door (Rodrigo Santoro) who seemed to have his life together, deal with her eccentric and sometimes funny family (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett), and question where her future was heading. All those distractions certainly did not distract me from the fact that the writer ran out of creative and meaningful ideas to really tackle the issue of unemployment after college. I liked the movie best when it focused on Bledel’s struggle in trying to define her career and encountering her rival (Catherine Reitman) from time to time. It’s a classic case of having emotional intelligence (Ryden) versus lacking one (her rival); it was so frustrating to me because the elements of making a smart movie were there but the writers didn’t take full advantage of putting them together in an insightful manner. I felt insulted that the film threw clichés right at me. I couldn’t care less about the kinda-sorta boyfriend and the sexy guy next door because if I wanted to watch a movie about that, I’d probably go see a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I couldn’t care less about the family either because their side stories didn’t add up to anything. The performances were mediocre at best but I didn’t mind much because I was more concerned about how it was going to approach the main issue. For a character who was supposed to be prepared to face the world (with enthusiasm to spare), the movie felt unprepared to discuss the real issues. The writer and director should’ve assumed that smart people would see this film. Maybe then they would’ve challenged themselves not only to challenge us but also inspire.