Bad Teacher (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) was a gold-digger who taught middle school Language Arts. When she was dumped by her most recent rich boyfriend because she had been spending too much money, she started a quest to find another man who would be able to provide for her lavish desires. Her short-term goal: to get breast implants. She was convinced a new pair would help her seduce Scott (Justin Timberlake), the substitute teacher who happened to be romantically interested with Amy (Lucy Punch), the teacher across Elizabeth’s classroom. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, “Bad Teacher” was great fun because it was able to take stereotypes, bad habits, and unethical practices into more digestible small scenes with comedic punchlines. Once the joke was delivered, it was immediately onto the next scene to set up the next hilarious bit. It was fast-paced and smart. In its own way, it worked as a critique of an increasingly ineffective educational system and the educators who just couldn’t be bothered. I think it had a point: Elizabeth had needs. Her needs were not always be reasonable but they were needs nonetheless. Its inherent argument was, why should teachers be more motivated to go beyond expectations if they weren’t getting paid enough? Some could argue that teachers love their job and they’re very passionate. That very may well be, but in a practical sense, teachers are not rewarded, pocket-wise, as much as they should be, especially when teaching is, supposedly, considered one of the most important jobs in any nation. The material was elevated by the actors’ charm, particularly by the effervescent Diaz. Even though Elizabeth did drugs at the school parking lot, often went to class with a mean hangover, and only showed movies–some of which had no educational value–in her classroom instead of actively teaching, I ended up rooting for her and loving her for who she was. She knew she was bad and did it with a smile. I liked her frankness. For instance, when Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher, asked her out on a date, instead of playing games and stringing him along, she had the courage to just shut him down right away because he wasn’t rich enough. However, I did find some glaring plot holes in Elizabeth’s situation. For example, she had her eyes set on the vulnerable and sensitive Scott because of his last name. What bothered me was she didn’t make sure that he was 1) who he really claimed to be and 2) he was the only beneficiary of the family fortune. She put her faith in the fact that Scott wore a very expensive wristwatch. Later, it was proven to us that she was very resourceful. If I was in her shoes, I would plan to have all of my facts straight before I put in the effort to seduce someone. “Bad Teacher,” directed by Jake Kasdan, was often compared to Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” which I don’t think is fair. Although both are comedies about people doing bad (but hilarious) things, “Bad Teacher” is a more commercial breed. It needn’t be as edgy as the latter in order to be considered successful because it found a solid footing in terms of how it wished to deliver its jokes. And with so many trite comedies where “mean” characters eventually change for the better, I was more than happy Elizabeth didn’t lose her thorns.
The Joneses (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Joneses (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard) moved into a wealthy neighborhood and quickly integrated in their community. But the Joneses, unlike their name, was no ordinary family. To be honest, I instantly felt like there was something very wrong about them from the first scene when we spent a bit of time with the family in their fancy car. The Joneses seemed like they had it all: the big house, the expensive cars, the hi-tech gadgets, and the designer clothes. Everyone was in awe of them and everyone wanted to have what the Joneses had. I enjoyed how this film was able to construct an argument regarding how materialism was able to drive the American culture forward but at the same time it served as a catalyst toward bankruptcy. I also liked that it touched upon the difference between selling “stuff” and selling an attitude. There’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s difficult to discern between the two. The fashion industry mastered the difference between the two and that’s why it’s a successful business. Furthermore, writer-director Derrick Borte looked beyond the satire and actually worked on the film’s heart by allowing the head of the household to develop a conscience. There was no doubt that he saw the errors of his ways but it was nice to see his struggle between what made him happy and the right thing to do. Duchovny did a great job in allowing me to understand his character but at the same time not pitying him. “The Joneses” succeeded in getting their audiences to become active participants in its little experiment. Since it had laser-focus in exploring our consumer culture, I thought about myself and my role in advertising certain products. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I recommend this movie. That self-awareness worked in the picture’s advantage. I had fun watching it because I was able to relate it in real life. We all know some jealous neighbors or relatives or even friends who can’t help but give us angry looks (but with a smile) when we have something new. And the next time we see the sour apples, they ended up buying that new thing they saw that we had last week. However, I wish the film could have been a little darker to go along with its edge. Toward the end, it became too sweet. I understood why Borte thought it was necessary to lighten things up because some of the miserable characters needed some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but the way he executed the ending touched upon the typical romantic comedy territory. Some of the film’s power was lost and instead of ending with a roar, it ended with a squeal. Neverthless, “The Joneses” is worth seeing because it was rich in creativity and irony.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Being Julia (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Julia Lambert (played brilliantly by Annette Bening) was a great theater actress. She was so great, she could not stop acting even though she was not on strage. Most people around her saw her life as nothing but glamorous and fans craved to be around her either for the fame, money, or to advance their careers. This made her bitter and depressed; not even her husband (Jeremy Irons) was sensitive enough to realize that she was overworked and on the verge of breakdown. So when she met a significantly younger American admirer (Shaun Evans) who seemed to genuinely care for her, she decided to take a risk and allowed herself to fall in love with him. I thought the movie took its time to build the rage inside of Julia and it only really started to pay off toward its halfway point. Furthermore, the appearance of Julia’s dead mentor (Michael Gambon) was a big distraction for me, especially when the film did not establish their relationship prior. Although I have to say that the second half was very engaging because we eventually saw who the characters really were and their true intentions. Despite Julia’s sometimes tiresome histrionics, I came to understand why she was angry. Everyone believed that she was on the top of her game but at the end of the day she was the one looking at herself in the mirror and noticing her age show and health deteriorate. She did not know how to deal with the fear of becoming considered as past her prime and lacking a genuine support system did not help her increasingly desperate situation. The only true person in her life was her son (Tom Sturridge–quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) but he was always away. I was in love with the scene when he knocked on her mother’s door, found her crying, and made the decision to share something really personal with her–something that even I am not sure I can share with my parents no matter how close we are. The implications in that scene were rewarding because they were open to interpretation. That scene was special because the look and feel of that scene was a nice contrast to the scenes involving the lies and deceit of showbiz. The last few scenes impressed me because it truly encapsulated Julia’s perspective–the theater was when she felt home and and the real world was just an acting class. It was so bittersweet and I finally saw how strong she was even though she could turn on and off her tears at the drop of a hat. “Being Julia,” based on the novel “Theatre” by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by István Szabó, sometimes felt elegantly cold but it was eventually able to open up and show its warmth. It had strong performances especially by Bening and Sturridge and I wished that the two had more scenes that explored the crucial mother-son relationship.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This is an eye-opening documentary about the United States’ journey to a financial disaster and I believe it should be seen by everyone. Prior to this film, I had no idea that (when this film was made), we were about $8.7 trillion in federal debt (the film also estimated it to increase to $10 trillion by 2009). I also had no idea how to answer some of the basic economic questions that the film asked the audiences (via asking random people in the streets). I mean, I knew that the economy was “bad” because that’s all I hear whenever I turn on the news, but “bad” doesn’t even begin to cover how much trouble we are in. Economics might not be my forte when it comes to academics but I strongly believe that, despite one’s focus of education, it’s everyone’s responsibility to understand how the system works. And this movie convinced me that I need to be more proactive in really ascertaining why taxes are increasing, where the taxpayers’ money are going, excessive proposed programs that might get us into deeper debt and more. The movie, directed by Patrick Creadon, presented the deficits into four parts (budget, savings, leadership, trade), focused on why they are a problem, and towards the end suggested of ways how we could help prevent further increases in our debts. I also enjoyed the fact that this documentary considered what happened in the past (Rome, The Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the Clinton and Bush administrations) and how some of the very same problems are repeating in the present. But that’s not all–most importantly, it considered the future and made educated guesses on how the economy would be like by the time college students such as myself are retired (and who might be the financial world leaders). It’s a scary reality (the current) and even a scarier eventuality; but the point of this movie was not to scare people into inaction. Its sole purpose was to bring people into awareness and educate people like me who are not as in touch with our country’s pecuniary situations. To do that, “I.O.U.S.A.” presented a series of animations, interviews with high-level officials, metaphors, and cold hard facts so that we could digest a plethora of information and eventually form our own opinions in the matter. I only wished the documentary had run longer and given more time to explain why its proposed solutions would work. Other than that, watching this film was a very informative and worthwhile experience.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve always wondered about this classic western about three men (Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) who decided to hunt down two other men who cut up a woman’s face (Anna Levine) for the price of $1000, but I was always reluctant to see it because the western genre is my least favorite. I’m glad to have finally given it the chance it more than deserved because it absolutely blew me away. Every scene felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle in order to understand why certain things were happening and why certain things must happen. I truly identified with Eastwood as a man who used to be a drunk and a killer because every fiber of his being was fighting his inner demons regarding the people he killed for no good reason. In every frame, I felt the fierce passion in his eyes, the wounded soul in his voice and the subtleties of his body movements; it made me believe that he really was a changed man. But eventually, it was nice to see why he did not want to be that kind of person anymore, not just because he now had a family, saw the error of his ways, and wanted to set a good example, but because that person really was engulfed in such darkness whose sole motivation was to kill. All of the supporting actors were exemplary such as the villanous authority of the town played by Gene Hackman, the leader of the prostitutes played by Frances Fisher, and the kid who was so enthusiastic about killling even though he had myopia (Woolvett). Although this was a western film, I was surprised because it was very anti-violence. Even though there were shooting involved, a requisite in most western pictures, the thesis of having no honor in killing was always at the forefront. I never thought I would ever be interested in watching more western films, but after seeing “Unforgiven,” perhaps I just might. This film will definitely set the standard of my eventual foray into westerns. I can honestly say that this deserved its Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars because despite the film looking a bit dated, the emotions are still raw and quite timeless. Complexity within its deceitful simplicity is this film’s forté and it succeeds in every single way. That’s a rarity.