Young Adult (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), divorced and currently single, was finding it a bit difficult to focus on finishing her final novel for a formerly popular young adult fiction series. Every time she sat down to write, she found her mouse scurrying its way to her inbox so she could look at an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who just had a baby and was very happily married with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), a drummer in a local girl band. In Mavis’ mind, the e-mail was some sort of signal that Buddy wanted to rekindle their relationship. So, Mavis packed her bags, dog in tow, left Minneapolis behind, and drove to the sleepy town of Mercury, Minnesota. Written by Diablo Cody, “Young Adult” was another story of an unhappy woman who felt compelled to find love in the most inappropriate circumstances, but what allowed it to feel fresh was Theron’s ability to play with nuance. Mavis was not a likable person. She acted like she was above everyone else because, unlike most of her peers, she made it out of her hometown and succeeded in establishing a life in the city. Most importantly, through her creativity, she was able to make a name for herself by being a ghost writer. Yet there were plenty of moments when it was impossible for us to not feel sorry for her because, despite her ambition and determination, she was deathly short-sighted. A lot of us know people exactly like her: unable to detect if she’s overstepping boundaries, desperate for approval even from those who barely knew her, and living a life like she never had to say sorry. I was supremely embarrassed for Mavis because she had no shame in throwing herself on her former flame. Since she wanted him back so badly, she was more than willing to throw her successes out the window and act like a pimply teen girl with a big crush on a hunky guy. But she was no teen nor was Buddy a stud. Because I felt that Mavis was an exaggerated version of Theron and the actress wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, I was comfortable laughing at her and with her. A plethora of negative adjectives could describe Mavis but being devoid of a sense of humor was not one of them. Her jabs might be pricked with poisonous needles, but I loved that she was direct and didn’t waste any time thinking about how she was going to get what she wanted. The person who consistently attempted to talk some sense into her, serving as the audience’s voice, was Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky guy carrying a bit of extra weight who was jumped by a bunch of jocks in high school because they mistakenly suspected he was gay. The most striking scenes involved simple conversations between Mavis and Matt; Mavis was the seemingly impenetrable wall and Matt was an untiring hammer that drove nails into it. They clicked because both were stubborn in their own way. Directed by Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” was entertaining because the screenplay was sharp and full of irony. Although there was vitriol in the dialogue, it did not overshadow real human emotions like desire, fear, and shame.
Ojos de Julia, Los (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During a neighborhood blackout, Sara (Belén Rueda) stood in the living room talking to someone but we couldn’t see who was there in the shadows. When lightning came, the corner that she seemed to be transfixed on revealed no person despite flashes of a polaroid camera directed toward her earlier on. As the camera focused on her face, we saw that she was blind. Attempting to escape her invisible tormentor, she ended up the basement. She climbed a stool, put a rope around her neck, and a second person knocked the stool from under her. Julia (also played by Rueda), Sara’s twin sister, felt a choking sensation while at her job in the observatory. She just knew something was wrong. Written by Guillem Morales and Oriol Paulo, “Los ojos de Julia” took inspiration from Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark” and made it much more sinister. It was suspenseful because from the moment Julia suspected foul play, she felt compelled to gather clues that would prove her sister was murdered. It didn’t help that she shared her sister’s medical condition: extreme stressed diminished her eye sight. Ironically, the more knowledge she attained, the less she saw clearly, thus the less reliable her testimony. The best scenes were of Julia’s interactions with people who knew her deceased sister. For instance, when she visited a home for the blind, they smelled her presence… and of a man’s. But she came alone. She aggressively looked behind her and there was, in fact, a man watching her every move. Similar scenes worked in two ways. First, it served as a foreshadowing of what was eventually going to happen to the lead character. It should come to no surprise that she was going to lose her sight completely. If she was to survive, she needed to learn how to depend on her other senses and instinct. Secondly, it worked for the chase sequence that came right after the realization that she was being followed. We saw most of the action through Julia’s eyes. The majority of her peripheral vision was already gone so being forced into her perspective was awkward and claustrophobic. There was an effortless horror in it. What if the killer decided to attack from the side? She had no chance. Much to the dismay of her husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), it seemed as though there was nothing he could do to stop Julia’s obsession. In here, the romance wasn’t utilized as currency to simply buy minutes until the next scary moment. What they had was tender and believable. I felt as respected as an audience because we really got to experience their history and what they meant to one another without necessarily using words. Their relationship held weight and it was, in a way, the picture’s emotional core though we weren’t always aware of it. The villain was truly monstrous. A hotel janitor (Joan Dalmau) described his motivation so perfectly, I almost began to feel bad for the silent stalker. Although we saw glimpses of him early on in the film, it wasn’t until much later that we observed his face dominating every inch of the camera. When he screamed at Julia without restraint, watching him through her eyes, it felt like such an invasion of my personal space, I wanted to push his face away for being so close. “Julia’s Eyes,” directed by Guillem Morales, skillfully placed us into Julia’s nightmarish experience without it being contrived. Other movies of its kind pale in comparison even under bright lights.
My Winnipeg (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
In Guy Maddin’s surrealistic and challenging documentary, he recounted his life back when he was still living in snowy Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mostly shot in black-and-white, Maddin covered a plethora of topics in which obsession was something they had in common. First, his relationship with his mother (Ann Savage, Maddin’s real-life parent), both a frightening and a fascinating figure. “Maternal” was not a word anybody would label her: One of the most memorable scenes was, through reenactment, when Maddin’s sister, Janet (Amy Stewart), came home, in shock, because she ran over a deer. A typical parent would be relieved that nothing worse had happened. But Mother, through her strange insight, confronted her daughter and made her feel guilty about having sex with a man on the back of her truck. The reenactment was haunting and I could only imagine the anger, humiliation, and sadness the real Janet felt back when it happened. Maddin was also fixated on the buildings he came to love as a child. He went into great details about how he was born in the locker room of a hockey rink. He divulged information about how he loved looking at the hockey players’ naked bodies, not simply in a sexual way but also relishing the fact that he was in the same room as the people he considered his heroes. Watching the film was like looking in a machine designed to sort through someone’s memories. Though kaleidoscopic as a whole, the pith of the matter was always personal and deep. Various techniques were used with confidence and reckless abandon. Some scenes were in color, others were animated, while some had a complete lack of narration. Whatever technique was used, it felt personal even though not everything made sense right away because it jumped from one topic to another. Maddin claimed he wanted to escape Winnipeg since it was essentially rotting from the inside. Strangely enough, by revealing to us what he disliked about his hometown, like the city officials’ decision to destroy certain buildings that he’d grown attached to, he showed us why he loved it; that no matter how far he was or how strongly he tried to forget, Winnipeg would always be a part of him. “My Winnipeg” was an intense variegation of memories packed with psychosexual undertones. The meaning behind the messages that Maddin wanted to send to the world may not always be apparent because of its heavy experimental style but it was, in the least, worth delving into. Its sheer bravado to push the envelope of alternative filmmaking makes it a diamond in the rough.
All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.
★★★ / ★★★★
When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.
Amours imaginaires, Les (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) were best friends. They relished vintage fashion, enjoyed watching classic films, and quoting respectable poems. But those weren’t all they had in common. When they met Nicolas (Neils Schneider), a curly-haired blonde with a bone structure of a Greek god, the foundation of Francis and Marie’s friendship was tested. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Les amours imaginaires” told its story through the senses. Slow-motion shots were prevalent for a reason. Francis and Marie’s rivalry was mostly shown in an insidious manner. It was only natural that two friends would hide their jealousy from one another to avoid hurting each other and themselves. The slow movement of the camera magnified the little things like a fake smile or a judging look. It also highlighted the pain when reality did not meet one’s expectations. For example, when Francis and Marie greeted Nicolas at a party, Francis noticed that Nicolas hugged Marie for much longer. Francis tried to play it off as if it was nothing but we knew better. The slow motion revealed to us the many questions in his head. Did the Adonis adore Marie more than him? Dolan’s use of bold colors was quite Almodóvar-esque. A scene shot in which red reigned supreme suggested fiery passion, perhaps even obsession. Green signified jealousy as Francis shared a bed with another man knowing that Nicolas and Marie were probably having a good time together. Lastly, I felt the need to point out the lack of a gratuitous sex scene. I admired that the material remained true to itself. The relationship between the trio wasn’t about sex. It was about the longing for someone who may or may not be willing to reciprocate. The fact that the writer-director chose to explore the funny, awkward, painful space between the three characters instead of allowing them to get together sexually proved to me that he was confident with his project. However, what I found less effective were the scenes that involved broken-hearted romantics who pondered over men and women who hurt them. I felt like I was in group therapy where no one made sense. Instead of relating to them, I ended up somewhat disliking them. Most recalled waiting for someone they were interested in and the person being late for over thirty minutes. It was suggested that they felt used waiting when the relationship ultimately didn’t go anywhere. If I was supposed to meet someone for the first time and he or she was thirty minutes late, that person could forget about it. I was there on time so I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. Either those scenes should have been excised or someone should have criticized their way of thinking. Despite its weak miniature intermissions, “Heartbeats” pulsated with creativity. I was addicted to its beauty.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) lived by herself and she spent most of her days watching television. When a caller informed her that she had been selected to appear on television, she became obsessed with the idea of losing weight and wearing her beautiful red dress for the occasion. Her first attempt at dieting didn’t work so she saw a doctor. The so-called doctor prescribed colorful “diet pills” which, unbeknownst to Sarah, were amphetamines. Her addiction reflected that of her son’s (Jared Leto), his best friend (Marlon Wayans), and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film’s approach was to showcase drug addiction as a slow descent to hell. Heavy-handed with its themes, it showed its characters in utter physical and mental pain with little hope of rehabilitation and a better life. On one hand, some of the scenes were well-made. Sara’s hallucinations of the refrigerator attempting to get close to her signified Sara’s subconscious need to eat. It was terrifying, especially when the fridge would appear out of nowhere, but at the same time I found it darkly comedic. I relished the scenes between Burstyn and Leto particularly the one when the son finally found the time to visit her lonely mother. Combined with Aronofsky’s sublime direction, Burstyn’s performance was electric when she expressed to her son what being on television really meant to her. Even I can admit I was on the verge of tears because I really cared for the character she created. Lastly, there was a shot the defined Leto and Connelly’s relationship. When they were laying next to each other on the bed, presumably after sex, there was a split-screen and the camera was fixated on their respective faces. It was meaningful to me because the message I extracted from it was despite the fact that they took up the same space, were looking at each other, and the words they uttered were directed at one another, it wasn’t a meaningful relationship because there was a disconnect between them. As long as they were under the influence of drugs, there would always be that disconnect because the need for the drugs would always be more powerful than their need for each other. That one scene was probably one of the most powerful in the film even though it didn’t show any drugs, just two people talking. I wish the rest of the picture was more like that. In other words, what the film desperately needed was subtlety. Most of the time, I felt like Aronofsky was hitting me over the head with a mallet every time he wanted to get a point across. It wasn’t necessary with people, like me, who can think for themselves and are aware of the pros and cons of drugs. His technique here would most likely appeal more to high school students. Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, “Requiem for a Dream” was nonetheless a powerful head trip. It was a classic case of unhappy individuals attempting to find happiness elsewhere other than within.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A French thrift store owner (Thierry Guetta), fascinated with filming everything mundane and interesting, began to document street art and the artist themselves (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, and some unnamed others). Guetta was passionate and obsessive; the normally elusive artists decided to work with him because they recognized a familiar fire within him. But this wasn’t Guetta’s film because the Frenchman did not know how to condense thousands of hours into a concise nintey-minute feature. When Guetta showed Banksy his final product, Banksy was incredibly underwhelmed because the movie merely consisted of incomprehensible images devoid of meaning and purpose. The film should have been about the art and why the artists felt the need to make them despite the fact that street art was illegal many cities. Banksy took the footages and tried his best to make what Guetta should have made in the first place. Guetta became the subject of the documentary because he eventually decided to showcase his own street art in Los Angeles. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was a fascinating film because it was essentially a collage of many thoughts and motivations by artists in an underground movement. It gave us interesting images such as a robot made up of television sets, a live elephant covered in pink paint, and even a terrorist figure set up in Disneyland. It was funny, sometimes thoughtful when the artist was given the chance to explain his work, and it offered some insight about the art world involving hardcore collectors and casual onlookers. Can street art and pop culture occupy the same sphere? Was the Frenchman really an artist if he had an entire crew dedicated to doing the Photoshop, painting, and cutting paper for him? He assisted by splattering paint on some of the canvas, but that does that equate to stamping his signature and passing it as his own work? Was he a bona fide genius or was he simply standing on the shoulders of far more talented individuals who deserved the accolades? I had myriads of questions about Guetta’s creative process. There were times when I was doubtful whether he really knew what he was doing, but then there were times when I was caught by surprise that I actually believed that he was a real artist when he attempted to explain the meaning behind some of his projects. Maybe his thoughts and actions just needed a bit more focus. Narrated by Rhys Ifans, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a magnifying glass of a man so inspired by street art to the point where he attempted to become what he admired. I wish it had been a microscope because he was a curious specimen. I was glad it challenged us to think for ourselves.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
Roommate, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Sara (Minka Kelly), a freshman in college, moved into her dorm but her roommate hadn’t move in yet so she decided to go to a frat party with the fun-loving Tracy (Alyson Michalka). When she got back, Rebecca (Leighton Meester) was waiting for her in the dark. A couple of days later, Rebecca began to get clingy. She went through her unsuspecting roommate’s possessions when she was alone in the room, waited for hours on end until Sara got back, and even answered Sara’s private calls. When Sara wanted to hang out with other people, Rebecca would mope about. She just wanted to be Sara’s only friend. Directed by Christian E. Christiansen, what “The Roommate” needed was inspiration and a spark of originality. It was stuck in tried-and-true formula of roommate from hell pictures and I was far from impressed. I was surprised that it didn’t take advantage of social networking websites, like Facebook and Twitter or even a blog, when Rebecca wanted to know more about Sara. I found it unbelievable that every time the psycho roommate wanted to know more about her prey, she would just ask in person. Sara, supposedly an aspiring designer, someone who could think outside the box, almost made it too easy for someone to be obsessed with her. It wasn’t creepy and so the momentum failed to build in a steady manner. The picture had many distractions but the one that tested my patience was Sara’s relationship with a frat boy by day/drummer by night boyfriend named Stephen (Cam Gigandet). There were too many make-out sessions and moments when they would look into each other’s eyes and smiled. It felt like some moldy, cheesy, unfunny romantic comedy. I expected them to be partners in researching what was wrong with Rebecca when Sara began to suspect that perhaps there was something seriously wrong with her roommate. Only toward the end did I feel like Sara was truly in danger and that, too, was disappointing because of the way the final confrontation was shot. Not only was it dark, the camera shook relentlessly and it was difficult to see who was throwing a punch. It didn’t help that Kelly and Meester looked very similar. Naturally, the two girls tried to fight over a gun. I didn’t care who would grab it first; I was too pre-occupied with disbelief that Sonny Mallhi, the writer, couldn’t come up with a better weapon for the two women to fight over. I got the impression that the filmmakers didn’t even attempt to give us something new and that upset me because I felt insulted. “The Roommate” was unabashedly lackadaisical and it was a rather empty experience.