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.
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.
The Soloist (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I did not expect to dislike this movie as much as I did. “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was about a writer and a talented musician who happened to be a homeless man with schizophrenia and how they taught each other lessons in order to be more secure with themselves and eventually integrate with their families. Unfortunately, most of the elements that made up the film did not work for me. For instance, I think the movie went on for too long neglecting the fact that schizophrenia is a very serious mental disorder and that “friendship” does not necessarily cure it. It tackled the issue of diagnosis and medication in only two scenes, which I found to be absurd given the subject matter of the integration of a person with a fractured mind in society. I also found the pacing of the picture to be quite boring (for the lack of a better word). I wanted to know more about why Downey was so into helping Foxx. It certainly was not because he was a very giving person; in fact, he was sort of a reclusive, self-contained individual who neglected his family. If Joe Wright, the director, had found a way to balance scenes between Downey and his family (Catherine Keener as his ex-wife and a son who we never saw on screen) and Downey and Foxx, I think the audiences would have had a better understanding about his motivations. I also would have liked to see more of the history behind Foxx’ character. There were a few flashback scenes which I found to be very touching, especially his relationship with his mother, one of key figures in his life that pushed him to pursue his musical talent. All in all, I think the film’s fatal flaw is that it tried too hard to reach the most mainstream audiences via sentimentality and not enough common sense. We saw a lot of images of homelessness but it ultimately amounted to nothing–just images of misery and sadness. Also, I really hated it when Foxx’ character would play the cello and we would get random images of colors and buildings of Los Angeles on screen. It would have been so much better if we actually saw him play a piece and observe the passion in his eyes. Lastly, “The Soloist” lasted longer than it should have because of a dozen or so unnecessary dialogue that had nothing to do with the big picture.
Step Up (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something about dance movies that initially repel me from watching them, but when I actually give them a chance I can’t help but get engaged. “Step Up,” directed by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”), tells the story of Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) who gets community service for vandalizing the props of a school for the arts (along with two of his friends–Damaine Radcliff and De’Shawn Washington). Initially assigned to mop the floors, take out the garbage and fix knickknacks, he decides to help out a girl (Jenna Dewan) named Nora for her Senior project after her partner gets a sprained ankle. What initially starts out to be a typical dance movie becomes a story about lower class people striving to be something so much more. I noticed it change gears somewhere in the middle and I liked it that much more. I like the fact that instead of the students from the school making fun of others outside of their bubble, it’s the people from the outside who have prejudice toward the students. Typically, it’s shown as the other way around so I found that to be refreshing. I thought it was also a good move by the movie to recognize that most of the students in the art school are not rich, like most college students, in fact, they’re on financial aid or scholarships and they have to work their butt off to earn their place. I couldn’t be any more wrong when I thought that this was just going to be another one of those movies that glorify dancing and being “gangster” and nothing else. It’s actually pretty thoughtful and it presented characters going through pivotal moments in their lives. I also enjoyed watching the supporting characters such as Mario as an aspiring musician/DJ, Drew Sidora as Dewan’s energetic friend and Rachel Griffiths as the art school’s director. Overall, I liked “Step Up” because it surpassed my expectations and it made me want to, strangely enough, dance.
★ / ★★★★
“Flakes,” directed by Michael Lehmann, looked good from the trailer because it focused on why these group of characters are different (and proud of it). But the actual film was very disappointing because it ultimately succumbed in typicality; it focused on the romantic relationship between the two leads instead of the actual concept: having a food establishment that serves nothing but cereal. The bistro was lead by Aaron Stanford whose goal is to be a musician but doesn’t quite get there because of his own fears of spreading his wings. On the outside, he says that he wants to be something more but on the inside he’s content on where he is. His girlfriend is played by Zooey Deschanel, someone as quirky and different as Stanford, who’s a painter and wants to help her boyfriend out by taking over the cereal restaurant for a couple of days. Another part of the problem was when a competitor opens in front of them that also features cereal. From then on, a rivalry insues between the two restaurants and the couple. This indie comedy would have been so much more interesting if it did not focus on the relationship between the two leads. Seeing them act like children by trying to make each other miserable, claiming that what they do is “just a job and nothing personal” was too immature and insulting. A smart person (and filmmaker) should realize that sometimes job and relationships DO affect each other in more ways than not. The premise (and therefore the execution) would have been that much more interesting if it straddled that line instead of simply taking sides. Also, in my opinion, Christopher Lloyd was wasted here as the original cereal bistro owner. All he did was pretty much look unkept and mumble nothingness. In the end, I couldn’t get over its “Look! I’m being so indie and different!” feel to the point where it felt almost commercial–the antithesis on what it’s trying to be. Not even the always lovable Deschanel could save this train wreck.