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.
No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), Iranian musicians recently released from jail, shared a similar passion in music. They wanted put their passion into action so they formed an indie rock band and, with Nader’s (Hamed Behdad) help, obtained visas and passports so they could play internationally. But since their government had a strict policy toward pop music, the three had to go through an underground culture in which getting caught by the authorities meant spending a long time in jail. “I can’t live without music” is a common phrase among teens and young adults and this film gave that saying a certain importance. It showed what great lengths Negar and Ashkan were willing to go through to live a less tethered existence and be immersed in something they simply loved doing. By observing the duo and the various underground bands they encountered, we could appreciate the freedoms most of us take for granted. Placing the cameras in the narrow alleys and not bothering to sharpen blurred images, the picture had an authentic feel. The roughness worked to its advantage because there were times when it felt like a bootleg copy, the same bootlegs that drove forward the underground movement. Although I have a penchant for indie rock, I was glad that it wasn’t the only type of music featured in the film. In order to make sure its message was universal, it showcased other genres like jazz, hard rock, pop, hip-hop, rap, and even world music. As each genre took center stage, the images shown and the style in which they were presented adapted a different energy not dissimilar to watching a music video. Like the film’s subject matter, it felt progressive because the boundary between music and film was challenged. The genres were different from one another but the messages within the songs shared certain themes: The oppression the young adults felt from their government, their love for their friends and families, and the anger that resulted from the marginalization of women and the poor. While the danger of getting caught was always prevalent, it still had a great sense of humor. For instance, Negar and Ashkan visited a farm where a group rehearsed their aggressive hard rock. One of the workers claimed that ever since they started rehearsing there, the cows stopped eating, giving milk, and bothering to get up and move around. I thought it was very amusing because when I hear aggressive hard rock, metal, or screamo, it’s like listening to hyperactive children banging on pots and pans as they screamed to the top of their lungs. “Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh” or “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” directed by Bahman Ghobadi, felt small but revolutionary. But all revolutions start out small.
Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Nowhere Boy,” directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, chronicled John Lennon’s difficult childhood. John (Aaron Johnson) was raised by his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle (David Threlfall). Even though he was never close to his aunt because she had a very cold personality, he had a good relationship with his uncle because they shared the same interests. But when his uncle died, John was forced to live with a woman who expected him to abide by her rules without question. After seeing his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) at his uncle’s burial, John began to question where her mother lived, which happened to be within walking distance, and the two got to know each other to make up for the years she’d been absent from his life. This caused great tension between John’s biological mother and the mother who raised him. The film had an interesting second half but a heavy, repetitive first half. The first forty minutes felt like pulling teeth because it shifted from the feelings of frustration and resentment John felt while staying in his aunt’s house to the joy and freedom he felt while spending time with her mother and making music. He saw his aunt as a thorn on his side because she wanted him to stay and school and do well. They barely said a word to each other unless they had no choice but to confront a serious issue. On the other hand, he saw his mother as a gift because she couldn’t care less about his education as long as she spent time with her son. She nurtured his passion for music. The difference between the two households felt so obvious. I had some serious doubts about how much of it was based on actuality. The picture only started to take off when John finally met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and both began to hone their talents while being in a band called The Quarrymen. Even though their friendship wasn’t as deeply explored as much as I expected, their relationship didn’t feel strained. When the focus was on them, the tone felt more dynamic because the actors fed off each other’s energy. The scenes I found most effective were when the band played their rock ‘n’ roll and their audiences couldn’t help but get on their feet and when John and Paul were just in a room together. But since the film was more about John’s troubled childhood, it had to switch back to the tired family drama. In the end, some big questions I had, such as John’s relationship with his biological father when he was a child, were left unanswered. Why did the five-year-old John choose to stay with his father over his mother? Was John’s biological mother’s illness some sort of a mood disorder and was she a danger to herself? As for John’s aunt and uncle, why did they seem to distant from one another? Those were important questions that should have been answered because John’s relationship with his family fueled his angst and it was what made him an artist with a distinct voice and perspective.
Pirate Radio (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
British rock and pop music had very little exposure on the airwaves despite their undeniable popularily so the colorful crew members (Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Nick Frost, Tom Brooke, Tom Wisdom, Rhys Darby, Katherine Parkinson) on a ship decided to broadcast songs every hour of every day. Back in the mainland, England’s minister (Kenneth Branagh), along with his minions, tried to come up with ways to make such broadcasts illegal. Watching this movie was strange because I thought the plot was somewhat weak and unfocused. However, I couldn’t help but love it because the characters were interesting even though some of them were more like caricatures, the humor had a healthy dose of rudeness and crudeness but was never truly offensive, it consistently inspired me to guess what random event would transpire next and, best of all, it showcased my favorite type of music. Essentially, the picture made me want to live in 1960s England so I could be around wicked fashion, freewheeling individuals willing to experiment, and great music that fully defined a generation. Since I felt like the movie was a tribute to people who grew up in the 60s and younger generations who wished they lived in the 60s, I hoped that, despite the movie simply wanting to have fun, the film focused more on Tom Sturridge’s character. He was a rebel (he got kicked out of school for drugs) yet we could not help but love him (he’s still a virgin but lacking experience with girls since he attended an all-boys school) because he was more sensitive and reserved than he let on. I wanted more scenes of him interacting with his neglectful mother (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson) and his supposed to love interest (Talulah Riley). Furthermore, I wanted to see more of his struggles concerning a lack of a father figure. The elements that could contribute to being alienated–and therefore turning to rock and roll–were present but the movie failed to look beneath the surface and offer insight that could surprise or even us. I believe that if “Pirate Radio,” written and directed by Richard Curtis, had a more defined emotional core, it would have been stronger because the risks it had taken would have had stronger payoffs. A movie about sex, drugs and music will fail to grow beyond the obvious if it does not have the heart and the energy to construct three-dimensional characters and storylines. It is particularly difficult for ensemble films but Curtis managed to be successful in “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Nevertheless, I’m giving “Pirate Radio” a recommendation because I appreciated its gesture to fans of British pop and rock and roll. The film was a nice escape because nowadays I can’t even turn on the radio without wanting to bash my head against the wall.
Crazy Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb and directed by Scott Cooper, “Crazy Heart” told the story of a 57-year-old musician named Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) who traveled from one small town to another to perform songs that people loved back when he was in his prime. Completely trapped in the habit of smoking and alcohol, he slowly began to change his ways after meeting a charming music writer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son. Bad Blake also had to deal with stepping out of the shadow cast by an artist he used to mentor (Colin Farrell), reconnecting with his 28-year-old son and writing new songs so he could stop living from paycheck to paycheck. The thing I liked most about this movie was its simplicity even though it was a double-edged sword. Between scenes with other actors, we got to see Bridges perform with his guitar and bare his soul. While the songs were definitely easy to listen to (and I’m not much of a country fan), I felt that it was meaningful to Bridges’ character because he had a look in his eye that he actually lived through the events that he was singing about. So I thought Bridges did a great job serving as an intermediate between the songs and the character’s life experiences. However, I wished that the film had spent less time building on the romance between Bridges and Gyllenhaal because I felt as though the whole thing became redundant (and sometimes forced). I understood that Gyllenhaal’s character was the key to Bad Blake’s redemption into getting his life back on track but some of the courtship rituals, though it tried to be not as typical as Hollywood movies, still felt typical in an independent movie sort of way. Instead, I felt like the movie would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Bridges and Farrell because they shared a common history. It would have been nice if Farrell’s character had talked about how his mentor was like before becoming a faded musician. When those two interacted with each other, I felt real tension between them; I felt a strange mix of anger, jealousy and respect between the two which culminated when they shared the stage in front of 12,000 people. As I mentioned before, “Crazy Heart” is a simple film so it’s understandable why most people won’t initially recognize why it’s essentially a good film. Yes, it was sometimes predictable because we’ve all seen movies about washed-up musicians before. However, at least for me, with a movie like this, it’s all about the acting and I believe it ultimately all came together because I made a connection with the lead protagonist.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Twentysomething Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) creepily dated an Asian high school girl (Ellen Wong) after he was dumped by a girl around his age who made it big as a rock star. Having a fiery passion with music, he and his kooky bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Mark Webber) decided to participate in various battle of the bands until Scott literally met the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) named Ramona. Based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, there is no doubt that the adaptation to screen of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is visually creative, hyperkinetic, funny, and charming on the surface. However, I found the picture to be hollow at its core because I did not buy the romance between Scott and Ramona. This was a key problem because we were supposed to believe that Scott was willing to fight for her by defeating her seven evil ex-es (Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Keita Saitou, Shota Saito, Jason Schwartzman) as if he was in a video game. I’m not talking about how they necessarily looked: Scott with his bad haircut and puppy dog eyes and Ramona with her hair color changes every week-and-a-half. After all, we’ve all seen couples where we thought, “What the hell do they see in each other?” I’m talking about how Ramona seemed stand off-ish and almost elitist with her fickle personality of going from one person to another. And it wasn’t like she was warm with his friends either. In a nutshell, whenever the picture had scenes of them together, I could not help but get bored or roll my eyes because the emotion I was supposed to feel did not complement the images I saw on screen. A lot of people might have been easily distracted by the nostalgic images of old school video games (I miss them, too) but I was not one of them. When Ramona and Scott were in the same frame, I wanted to know more about the hilarious gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) who brought home a lot of guys and slept on the same bed as Scott, Scott’s bitter redhead ex-girlfriend (Pill), and the wannabe bass player of the band (Simmons–who was greatly underused; I hated that he was simply there to look cute when I knew he was capable of so much more). As for the battle scenes, I generally enjoyed most of them but was repelled when audio waves were used as weapons. The line between campiness and cheesiness was crossed; there were so many in-your-face images as it is and raping my ears with extremely loud dissonance and feedback was totally unnecessary. I understand that the material was based on the graphic novel and it wanted to remain true to its source (which I appreciated) but I could not help but wish that the duels strictly remained physical or even verbal à la Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (Ramona vs. Roxy Richter was exciting). I say “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” directed by Edgar Wright, is a classic case of style over substance. It was supposed to be a satire for followers of hipster music and video game addicts but unfortunately I think the ones who will end up loving this film are exactly the people it points its fingers on.